Who are Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and What did we Do to them?

By Juan Cole

The two great branches of Islam coexist in Iraq across linguistic and ethnic groups. There are Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Kurds and (a tiny minority of) Shiite Kurds. Arabs are a linguistic group, speaking a Semitic language. Kurds speak and Indo-European language related to English.

Sunnism and Shiism as we know them have evolved over nearly a millennium and a half. But the difference between them begins after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 AD (CE) in in western Arabia. Muhammad, the son of Abdallah, had derived from the noble Quraysh clan. Those who became the Shiites insisted he should be succeeded by Ali, his cousin and son-in-law (and the next best thing to a living son). This dynastic principle was rejected by the group that became the Sunnis. They turned for leadership to prominent notables of the Quraysh, whom they saw as caliphs or vicars of the Prophet. The first three caliphs were his in-laws, but Sunni principles said that they needn’t have been– any prominent, pious male of the Quraysh would have done.

There is a vague analogy to the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, on the difference between seeing Peter as the foundation of the Church and of seeing Paul as that.

Iraq was part of the medieval caliphates– the Orthodox Caliphs, then the Umayyad Arab kingdom, and then the Abbasids. In 1258 the invading Mongols (themselves Buddhists and animists) sacked Baghdad and executed the last caliph. It is said that they were warned that it was very bad luck to shed the blood of a caliph, so they rolled him up in a Persian rug and beat him to death with hammers.

Parts of what is now Iraq were ruled by the Mongol Il Khanid state (which gradually became Muslim), and then by fragmented small principalities until the rise of the two great Middle Eastern empires of the early modern period, the Safavid and the Ottoman. The Safavids, based in Iran, were Shiites and ruled Baghdad 1508-1534. Then the Ottomans, Sunnis based in what is now Turkey, took Iraq in 1534 and ruled it, with the exception of a couple of decades of Iranian reassertion, until World War I.

The elite of Iraq was Sunni since the medieval period, though there were always significant Shiite movements. In the course of the late 18th and the nineteenth centuries, under Ottoman rule, the tribes of the south of Iraq gradually converted to Shiite Islam. This may have been a form of protest against Ottoman oppression. It was in part influence from wealthy Shiite states in India after the fall of the Mughal Empire in the 1700s and before the imposition of British direct rule over all of North India from 1856. The Indian Shiite potentates or Nawabs gave money for the building of water canals out to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq, which suffered from lack of water. Once the canals were built, tribes irrigated off them and settled near the holy cities, the residents of which proselytized them into Shiism.

The elites of Mosul and Baghdad, however, tied to patronage from the Ottoman Sultan, resisted this conversion movement and remained Sunnis, recognizing the four Orthodox Caliphs. From about 1880, Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II started claiming to be a caliph, on the medieval model. This claim wasn’t universally accepted but it was popular among Muslims in colonized British India in particular. The British, French and Russians defeated the Ottomans in World War I, after which the empire collapsed. In 1924 the new secular Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Attaturk abolished the caliphate. Sunnis became like Protestants, organized by country and lacking a central node of authority. Some fundamentalist Sunnis refused to accept this situation and dreamed of reconstituting the caliphate as a center of authority that could unite 1.5 billion Muslims and deliver them from their divided estate and consequent weakness in the face of the West.

When the British took Iraq during World War I, after the Ottomans unwisely allied with Germany and Austria, they mainly turned to the Sunni elites as partners in building a new “Mandate” or colony recognized by the League of Nations. When the Iraqis revolted in 1920 against the prospect of British colonialism, desiring independent statehood instead, the British brought in Faisal as king. He was the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, and a Sunni, who had allied with the British (think Lawrence of Arabia) to revolt against the Ottomans during the war.

Faisal lacked roots in Iraq, and turned, in order to rule the country, to the Sunni mercantile and bureaucratic elites of Baghdad and Mosul. He also picked up the remnants of the Ottoman-trained officer corps to constitute his new military, almost all of them Sunnis (the Sunni Ottomans were skittish about 12er Shiite officers).

Although the Shiites were a majority in Iraq, Sunnis predominated in positions of power and wealth throughout the twentieth century. When the Baath Party, a secular, socialist and nationalist movement, came to power in 1968, it was dominated by Sunnis from the area north of Baghdad. The Baathists created a one-party state and repressed religious Shiites (and also religious Sunnis who mixed in politics). The high generals, bureaucrats, entrepreneurs and politicians were Sunni. There were Shiites in the Baath Party, but they had less status than the Sunnis. After the Gulf War of 1990-91 when the US and allies pushed Iraq back out of Kuwait, the Shiites of south Iraq rose up. The US had urged them to do so, but stood by while the Baath massacred the Shiites. The Shiite religious parties interpreted this spring 1991 repression as sectarian genocide. Belonging to the main Shiite religious party, the Da’wa (Call or Mission) Party, was made a capital crime by the Baath already in 1980 and members were often killed and put in mass graves.

In the 1990s when Iraq was under severe US and UN sanctions, some lived on smuggling oil and other goods out to Jordan. The Jordanian form of modern Sunni fundamentalism, or Salafism, made inroads into Iraq along truck stop towns like Fallujah and Ramadi. The Baath Party, although hostile, winked at this development because sanctions made it weak. At the same time, Baath leader Izzat Duri developed ties of patronage with the Naqshbandi Sufi order in Mosul. Sufism or Muslim mysticism is the opposite of fundamentalism, valuing rituals and saints and mystical experiences of God. Both Salafism and Sufism had a revival in the 1990s.

The US overthrew Saddam Hussein of the Baath Party in 2003 in alliance with Shiite groups primarily. Those Shiite groups wanted revenge on the disproportionately Sunni Baath Party. They carried out a program of “de-Baathification,” in which they fired tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs from their government jobs as bureaucrats and even teachers. They hired Shiite clients instead. The Neocons hated the state-owned industries, and closed them down as inefficient without putting anything in their place. The Bush administration backed Shiite supremacism and debaathification to the hilt. Its proponents likened it to de-Nazification after WW II in Germany, but actually former Nazis below the top level in Germany typically kept their jobs.

In the new Iraq, Sunni high status was turned upside down. The Sunnis had been the top graduates of the officer training academies, the equivalent of West Point. They disproportionately dominated the officer corps. They were at the top of the Baath Party. They were the rich entrepreneurs to whom lucrative government contracts were given. Now they were made unemployed, or given menial jobs, while the goodies went to the members of Shiite religious parties. Massive unemployment swept the Sunni cities in 2003-2004.

In 2005 the US was maneuvered by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his allies, all Shiites, into having parliamentary elections. Because of the US military attack on Sunni Fallujah, the Sunnis of Mosul, Ramadi and elsewhere boycotted that election. Sistani had insisted that the parliament also function as a constituent assembly to draft the constitution. There were almost no Sunnis in the first 2005 parliament, so the constitution was crafted by the Shiites and the Kurds. They Sunnis rejected it in their provinces by a solid majority (by 2/3s in two provinces).

Sunnis all along were nervous about the Shiite-Kurdish government erected under the Americans and some turned to guerrilla warfare. When guerrillas blew up the Golden Dome shrine in Samarra in February 2006, a site sacred to Shiites, it kicked off a civil war. In summer of 2006 3000 people were being killed a month. Shiite militias ethnically cleansed Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad. When Gen. Petraeus conducted his troop escalation (‘surge’), he disarmed the Sunni militias first, inadvertently leaving Sunnis in the capital vulnerable to threats and night raids. The Sunnis ran away to Syria and Jordan or to Mosul. After a while there were few mixed neighborhoods and it was harder for Shiites and Sunnis to get at one another, so the violence subsided.

In the one-chamber Iraqi parliament, Sunnis would always be a minority. When they stopped boycotting they typically got 56 seats. The Shiites and Kurds typically allied against them so that they lost all important votes. In 2010, they united behind the Iraqiya Party of ex-Baathist Ayad Allawi, which became of the largest single party in parliament, with 91 seats. But Allawi could not find Shiite or Kurdish allies to bring his total up to 51% and so could only have headed a minority government open to being toppled at any time by a vote of no confidence. In contrast Nouri al-Maliki of the Da’wa Party put together, with Iran’s help, a Shiite majority and allied with the Kurds for a super-majority. President Jalal Talabani therefore appointed al-Maliki to a second term.

Secular groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Army of Muhammad, and Sufi ones like the Men of the Naqshbandiya, formed cells to fight the American occupation. Another of the Sunni insurgent groups was al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He was killed in 2006, but it made no difference to the movement, which continued to blow things up. When US military officers in the field in 2005 tried to reach out to disaffected Sunni tribes, Condi Rice is said to have stopped them, lest Washington offend its Shiite allies in Baghdad. Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia later started styling itself the Islamic State of Iraq. It engaged in extensive terrorist operations in a bid to stop the new Shiite-dominated government from establishing itself. When the revolution in Syria turned violent in late 2011, its fighters went there and the organization became the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Iraq and the Levant). It is said to have received money from rich private businessmen in Kuwait who support the fundamentalist Salafi form of Sunni Islam, and which typically hates Shiites. ISIS became the best fighters and they captured Syrian Baath military bases and took towns like Raqqa and Aleppo neighborhoods.

From 2011 when there was a ‘Sunni Arab Spring’ in Iraq, with urban youth demonstrations and demands for an end to discrimination, the al-Maliki government heavy-handedly repressed it. If it instead had accommodated those moderate young people in their demands, it might have avoided losing the Sunni areas to religious extremists.

In the 2014 elections, the Sunnis did poorly and it was clear that they would continue to be marginalized in parliament by Shiites and Kurds. The Shiite-dominated government provided them with few services or jobs. Although Iraq is an oil state, you can’t tell it. I was in Baghdad last year this time and it was dowdy and nothing like Abu Dhabi or Dubai. In Mosul, residents complained of electricity outages and lack of services or jobs. Shiite troops often put up Shiite insignia to humiliate Sunnis. They frisked Sunnis at checkpoints. Sunnis felt as though they were frozen out of meaningful power and treated as though under Shiite occupation. This situation derived in part from the invidious Bush policies of backing the Shiites against the Sunnis.

ISIS, having gained fighting experience and a taste of urban administration in Syria, expanded its cells back in Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in western and northern Iraq. Last January it took over Fallujah and parts of Ramadi west of Baghdad. Last week it took over Mosul and most other towns in Ninevah Province. This was not primarily a military conquest but a coordinated urban uprising against Iraqi security forces, in coordination with other Sunni groups, including secular ex-Baathists. ISIS also tried to advance into Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces, though it seems to have been checked there by the Iraqi army and Sunni tribal and urban allies. At the moment, ISIS is a force in al-Anbar and Ninevah Provinces, which are mostly Sunni Arab. But they are demographically vastly outnumbered by the Kurds and Shiites, who could well riposte militarily.

Sunni Iraqis had been in the 20th century cosmopolitan and often modernists. Many were liberals yearning for democracy. From 1968 they turned to more of a Soviet model, a strongly secular one. They have turned in desperation to rural fundamentalists who want a medieval caliphate only because of the vast reversal in their fortunes resulting from the Bush invasion and occupation, and the unfair policies of the Shiite government, which has turned them from an elite into an underclass. They are capable, trained, educated people. They aren’t going to put up with that, and if turning to al-Qaeda is the only way to avoid that fate, they are often willing now to do it.


Related video:

Euronews: “Iraqi government tries to rally support as Sunni militants threaten north of Baghdad”

Related book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

29 Responses

  1. This is unfortunately a whitewash of a community that has had extreme difficulty in managing its rejectionist elements. The Shi’a response to the implosion of the state in 2003 and afterwards was not the result of “Shiite supremacism” as you grotesquely claim; it was in response to persistent sectarian violence over an extended period of time.

    • Unsinn. I can’t see any whitewash. It is just an historical overview of two factions that both have to deal with extremism in a country artificially created by colonial powers.

  2. Thanks for this review. I found the section dealing with the U.S. role particularly relevant. How quickly we forget. Of course, if we depend on U.S. news media, we are never reminded of many aspects of that role . . . if we are ever told at all.

  3. PS: another bit of history, from today’s WaPo:

    “When the party of Maliki’s rival, Ayad Allawi, won slightly more seats in parliament than Maliki’s in the 2010 elections, the U.S. Embassy backed Maliki’s bid for the premiership over Allawi’s because they feared a transition of power could destabilize the country.”

  4. Hello, I am from Saudi Arabia, I would just like to say you’re right on the money. Your analysis of the situation is spot on and you seem to be one of only a few who really understand the multidimensional aspects of this conflict.

  5. “He also picked up the remnants of the Ottoman-trained officer corps to constitute his new military, almost all of the Sunnis”


  6. “They are capable, trained, educated people. They aren’t going to put up with that, and if turning to al-Qaeda is the only way to avoid that fate, they are often willing now to do it.”

    The first point undermines the second. Educated people would not turn to a group that glorifies beheading shia.

    What’s driving this sunni support for groups like ISIS is hate propaganda emanating from arab gulf media/clerics and the wahabi/salafi ideology of sunni supremacy that makes it unfathomable for them to be ruled by shia.

    From the very beginning of the war there has always been bombings of shia markets/shrines/gatherings. I just do not buy the argument that a suicide bomber looking to kill as many shiites as possible is going to be dissuade from acting based on some political wrangling over the number of MP’s.

  7. A quick education on Iraq and its people’s…so now what..any ideas out there..leaving the blame game aside?

  8. Excellent summary of a long and complicated history. (Except for the error of placing Muhammad’s death in Mecca.)

  9. I.

    The modern penalty for attacking neighbours,
    you live by the sword, you die by the sabres,
    the death of more than a thousand cuts:
    sanctions that eviscerated Iraq’s guts.
    Killed countless kids, untold slaughter
    by sanctioning chlorine that purified the water.
    Sanctions killed Iraq’s military as well
    (tanks lacked tracks, some even a shell).

    Only when Iraq was so very weak
    did the US attack and havoc wreak.
    They killed the tanks for the media you see,
    the men within them they killed for free.
    Bremer’s diktats then sowed the seed,
    marginalised Sunnis without any heed.
    Sunni disquiet, the Fallujah bloodbath
    mere mileage markers on histories path.

    Divide and conquer, the USual thought,
    pressure relief through sectarian sport.
    A fundamental divide thoughtlessly ignited,
    occupying generals no doubt delighted.
    Muqtada al-Sadr’s army defeated
    Sunnis who’ve since been badly mistreated.
    The Saddam / Maliki democratic illusion
    behind a lot of the current confusion.

    Fundamental fratricide made to order
    and refugees took it across the border.
    Syria absorbed over a million Sunnis
    at its own cost, no outside monies.
    The refugees bit the hand that fed them
    rebelling to cause the current problem.
    The “arab spring” Nato supported in Libya
    easily transported by sea to Syria.


    Some pundits claim the US is at fault
    for this latest crisis – this ISIS assault.
    Sunnis are now back with a vengeance,
    Maliki part blamed for ISIS transcendence.
    “if you break it, you own it” quipped Colin Powell
    just before Saddam threw in the towel.
    “Fix it or pay” the world now demands
    as usual the US only issues commands.

    The fault really lies with those who gave arms
    to Syrian rebels without any qualms,
    weapons now flowing over the borders
    into Iraq in the hands of marauders.
    Iraqi Sunnis are providing support,
    adding to weapons the jihadis brought.
    Depending: it’s either justice in action
    or widespread terrorism with local traction.

    So we are left with the latest emergency
    ISIS are terrorists not an insurgency,
    funded to wreck the Syrian nation
    they’ve managed to damage US reputation.
    Now pouring out of the Sunni enclaves
    blowback coming in hurricane waves.
    Payback in spades used to dig graves
    not of the chiefs, only the braves.

    An exigency made in the USA,
    Bremer’s old acts reversing today?
    Saudi support for Syrian terrorism
    opposed in Iraq with Shia heroism?
    Blame and counter-claim to distraction,
    or just a picture of Ouroboros in action
    – take a snake by the tail, a US farce
    when it turns and bites them on the arse.


    ISIS intend to create a caliphate.
    State sanctioned stonings there await,
    second class females hand and foot,
    illiterate, who’ll stay where they’re put.
    Amputations, flogging in stadiums of sport
    and religious courts for crimes of thought.

    The funding for all of this utter madness,
    the blood and oil and utter badness,
    comes from outright monarchies
    with intelligence arms that rival the nazis.
    Know to the shekel who’s paying what
    to who, why and precisely the spot.

    The General inflammation of Sunnis / ISIS
    in medical terms would be Saudiitis.
    Iran-like sanctions should be prescribed
    for preventing eruptions as above described.
    That must happen to stop a caliphate,
    it’s probably already way too late.

    The US fawns on its oily soulmate
    but draws the line at creating a caliphate.
    Private Saudi funding still takes place,
    the caliphate is coming at headlong pace.
    Costing just a few lousy billion
    they’re creating conditions for making a zillion.

  10. I do not know why the split between Sunnis and Shias is portrayed as analogous to that between Catholics and Protestants. To me at least, it seems to be more akin to the disagreements between Jews and Samaritans, or between Jews and Christians – the origin is taken right to the very early period of the foundation of the religion, and one side or the other, or both, demonize the other. Many a times the demonization is latent, but it is extremely easy for passions to be whipped up, since the basis is basic foundational disagreements that can never be resolved amicably.

      • As a Sunni I would have to say that: Even though the above two points may be the same, yet our (Sunni) belief that their “12 Imams” are not at the level of absolute inerrancy in every matter does lead to many, many ramifications, some of them small, some of them big.

        With regards to the Jewish-Christian comparison, I still think it is appropriate analogy in a general sense, since both Jews and Christians dispute as to who is the “true Israel” and this has historically had many ramifications; in here, we and the Shias dispute as to who belongs to the “true Islam” versus “fake Islam”, and as we can see there is always potential for violence in here as well.

        • Not sure what analogy fits, but the disagreement doesn’t begin nor necessarily revolve around the 12 Imams of Shia theology.

          It starts from successorship to the Prophet by companions (or in-laws/relatives). The rejection (discounting Shia demonization or Sunni glorification) of the first 3 Caliphs alone by Shias gets them accused as heretics by Sunni Islamists at least. The ‘true Islam’ and ‘fake Islam’ arguments and counter-arguments then flow from it (interpretations, sources, justifications, etc).

        • There is an important distinction between popular piety and “theology” (`ilm al kalaam) on these matters. Mahmoud Ayoub’s Redemptive Suffering book shows the power of the former often to the embarrassment to the practitioners of the latter who would emphasize, contrary to your description, that the Imams are only protected from error on very narrow matters. The underlying basis of the Shi`ite world view is a mu`atazali notion that Allah or God (in the Germanic word) must provide a way for humankind to understand correctly the Guidance of the Qur’an and Hadith when there is dispute. Otherwise, if God does not provide such a means for discerning truth among interpretations over important matters and yet punishes us for this it would violate an essential element of Justice, a attribute that is core to God’s Divine nature. But there is a limit on the Imams’ ambit of authority to specific religious matters. Of course believers tend to expand this in their mind to all matters of life and even infuse some of the Ayat Allah with a similar capacity. From the Sunni perspective even the narrow definition risks attributing to a human being the attributes of the Divine (participating in God’s attributes, i.e. shirk). A similar popular piety/theological division exists in Catholicism with the widespread notion that Popes are infallible when in fact the papacy has only claimed to have spoken without error on two matters in history: the virgin birth of the Nazarene prophet and the assumption of his mother Miriam. But the point is that these divisions can be thought of as greater or lesser depending on how much good will there is between members of each group to understand the motivations and even excesses of the other with the goal a common understanding within our shared “race of virtues.”

  11. Juan,
    CPA proponents would probably argue that Sunnis were brought on board for the constitution as there was an effort to include a Sunni party into deliberations towards (I believe) the last two months of drafting. However, the final drafts were taken out of the transitional national assembly’s hands and revised by a smaller “leadership council” whose precise membership remains the subject of debate — so it ended up being extraordinarily unrepresentative of the views of most Iraqis. Zaid al-Ali details the process in his book.

  12. Kurdish is related to Farsi and to a lesser extent Urdu but is a long long distance from English. besides many loan words from Arabic exist in al these languages.

    • Kurdish is no more distant from English than Russian is. Indo-European is a big Eurasian language family.

  13. I’m completely clueless on the Middle East, so sorry if what I’m about to say sounds really dumb.

    1) What is the current strength/status of the surviving Baathists? Can they be easily wiped out by the ISIS, or are they already the pawns of the ISIS?
    2) Does Baathism have any chance of gaining the support of the Iraqi Sunnis? Do the Sunnis in Iraq see them as failures, or do they see them as representing the “good old days”? If there ever was a backlash against the ISIS, will the Sunnis in Iraq likely turn to the Baathists?
    3) In the end, how plausible is it for the US to support a Baathist Sunni state? It seems to me like the most realistic solution is for the Kurds and Shiites to contain the ISIS, hope for the ISIS to be driven out by infighting, and then establishing three states in Iraq. It also seems like the Baathists are the most likely to be able to put up a fight against the ISIS and create a stable, secular government.

  14. I think the Shi`ite Sunni relationship pre US invasion is a little more complicated. My understanding is that CIA estimates Shi`ites as in fact constituting the numeric majority of the Ba`ath party though certainly not of its leadership. To get any significant job (even teacher positions) you had to be a party member. They were no doubt less loyal. Moreover, sectarian divisions were less pronounced as intermarriage was growing in urban areas. The reversal of such trends started in the economic distress and brutality following the Kuwayt war. But still a more complicated picture than the media fostered “divisions in a pressure cooker merely clamped down by Saddam’s oppressive state apparatus” promoted by the media and reflected to a lesser extent in your summary. As for the religious divisions, they are rooted more in tribal or extended family loyalty path dependence than in doctrinal debates. There was no recognition of the 12 imams special status by Sunnis of course (and the imams are only ma3sum – protected from error – on tightly defined religious matters so let’s not exaggerate this) but there is general acceptance of the Ja`afari school (grounded on the pronouncements of the sixth Imam – also recognized by Azhar) as a legitimate fifth madhdhab. The tragedy of what we’re seeing today in the region is that it entails a reversal of the lessening of divisions that had restarted in the wake of the Lebanese civil war and Taif. Conflict and scarcity bring out the worst in us all.

  15. While there are no official statistics, sociologists estimate that nearly a third of Iraqi marriages are unions between members of different sectarian or ethnic communities. In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many Iraqis argued that the prevalence of such unions showed that Iraqis cared more about their Arab or national identity than their sect, which would spare the country a civil war.

    link to washingtonpost.com

    The Iraqi government estimates that more than two million Iraqi families are based upon a Sunni-Shiite mixed marriage. Iraq is estimated to have more than 6.5 million families.

    Read more: link to al-monitor.com

    link to usatoday30.usatoday.com

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