العنوان هنا
Situation Assessment 31 January, 2011

The Role of Regional Interference in Fomenting Sectarian Divisions in Iraq


Fadel Al Ruby’i

Fadel Al Rubay’i engaged with the Iraqi leftist movement and worked with Iraqi Communists. In the 1970s he became a novelist with an interest in literature politics and culture. He published a number of short stories and articles in Iraqi newspapers and in 1973 worked for the daily Tareeq Al Shaab (The People’s Way) published by the Iraqi Communist Party. Al Rubay’i left Iraq in 1979 with the collapse of the alliance between the Communist Party and the Baath Party. He lived in Prague Czechoslovakia for a few months before moving to Aden then-capital of South Yemen where he worked in Al Thawri (The Revolutionary) newspaper published by the Socialist Party of Yemen. In 1980 he settled in Damascus where he became a correspondent for and later director of the Al Mawqif Al Arabi magazine. He also edited the Lebanese Al Hurriya (Freedom) magazine. During the 1980s he established a cultural gathering with a number of Iraqi intellectuals. In the aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 Al Rubay’i earned the respect of many in Iraq for his support of the resistance movement on Arab media. He appeared regularly on Al Jazeera and expressed strong opinions and relentless support for the struggle against occupation in Iraq earning him much respect and support. In the period between 2003 and 2008 Al Rubay’i wrote five books in which he analyzes the sociology and political history of Iraqi society under occupation.


Today, years after the occupation began, there is a quasi- consensus that the linkage between the two issues is supported by a range of facts. Chiefly, the dismantling of the Iraqi state, its fragmentation and the disintegration of its institutions, coupled with the disappearance of the traditional pillars of societal control, led to a widespread collapse of the security situation on all levels and increases in the weight of the regional actors and in their influence over events. A focus on this aspect of the issue may provide us with new means to better understand and assess the emergence of the regional factor as a powerful actor in Iraq's domestic politics.

Unlike other regional powers, Iran has possessed decisive influence over Iraqi affairs during various phases of the modern history of its neighbor. This was due to a complex host of historical reasons, including many related to the successive Turkish and Iranian occupations of the country. Perhaps the era of the British occupation, beginning in 1917, provides us with the ideal setting to examine and analyze the nature of the Iranian role in Iraq.

Following the exit of its traditional rival, the Ottoman Empire, from the world stage, Iran attempted, through its political allies, especially the Mujathids,(1) to crystallize a political/religious movement calling for the annexation of Iraq by Iran.(2)

During the discussions, conducted by British Commissioner Sir Arnold Wilson, with the leaders of this movement towards the end of 1918, the dimensions as well as the limits of the Iranian role were on display.

The Shi`a groups were divided into three main camps: the first called openly for outright Iranian annexation; the second camp preferred that Iraq remain under British rule;(3) the third demanded the end of the occupation, and the appointment of an Arab king.

At a later date, a historic convention of these groups was held at the behest of Sir Arnold under the patronage of the supreme Shi`a Mujtahid, Kadhim Yazdi, who was known for his pro-British leanings.

The conference resulted in an affirmation of these early divisions, but the balance was altered by the premature death of Yazdi in late 1919 and the ascension of Ayatollah Shirazi, who personally headed an uncompromising Arabist movement publicly demanding Iraq's right to independence and the appointment of an Arab king. These demands would become the slogans of the revolutionaries of 1920. Hence, Iran's regional role was both more continual and visible in Iraq than anywhere else.

Furthermore, it is evident that the historical pillars of this Iranian role are twofold: firstly, the presence of a massive religious institution capable of directly influencing and mobilizing the Shi`a masses across social classes, and, secondly, the disintegration of the machine of the "old state," which was typically Sunni and pro-Ottoman, and its dismantlement by the foreign occupier.

This process took place twice - first in 1917 when the British sacked the government's Sunni administrators, and again in 2003 when the Americans ruthlessly enforced the de-Ba`thification laws that led to the dismissal of thousands of Sunni civil and military officials. It could be argued, from a historical perspective, that the absence of an institutionalized and/or symbolic Sunni religious center similar to that of the Shi`a may have weakened the Sunnis' potential for populist mobilization, a necessary condition for their existence as an active political power.

This dimension is clearly evident in the concomitance of three factors that greatly contributed to the rise of Shi`a groups during the British and American occupations, in 1917 and 2003 respectively: first, the presence of the Marja`yia as a religious institution capable of directing Shi`a public opinion; second, the rise of Shi'a political parties in a supportive environment indirectly nurtured by the Marja`yia; third, the growth of Iran's regional influence.

For instance, the Islamic Da`wa party was formed in 1958 in an environment that was intimately linked to the Marja`yia in as far as the party's founding committee included Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the party's founder and philosopher, and Muhammad Mahdi al-Hakeem, the son of the supreme Shi`a Mujtahid Muhsin al-Hakeem.(4)

Furthermore, the birth and ascent of the party were dependent on strong links with Tehran. The same circumstances applied to the birth of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, founded by the Hakeem family at Iranian military camps along the border between Iran and Iraq.

Today, with the US occupation of Iraq, the rise of "regional influence" is understood by many among Iraq's political elite and even ordinary citizens as a euphemism for the rise of Iran, above all contenders, as a decisive actor in domestic affairs.

In Iraq's current condition, the very term "regional factor," as employed in the mainstream political literature, is usually a reference to Iranian influence. In other political writings, Iran is alluded to, without being named, as "the regional factor," an interesting phenomenon that reveals a complex dimension of the duality between the sectarian question and the influence of regional powers.

Nevertheless, the inconsistency of regional influences and their changing sources and forms mean that the regional role should not be limited to a single actor to the exclusion of others. Past experiences of civil strife and local conflict in various countries, including Iraq, show that the regional factor can turn into a domestic one, becoming one of the ingredients of civil conflict.

As other experiences have shown, the extension of internal strife coupled with the increasing need of domestic elements for sources of support and patronage, in addition to the insecurities of neighboring countries regarding their interests in the conflict area, are among the main factors leading to an increase in regional interference and its influence in domestic politics, whether from ambitious states or fearful neighbors who harbor deep anxieties regarding the sectarian question and the repercussions of its eruption.

In the current Iraqi situation, the regional factor presents itself through unprecedented interference from neighboring states - both directly and indirectly - on the military, political, and cultural levels, as well as a qualitative leap in the efficacy and influence of such interference over domestic disputes.

Due to the fact that the regional factor does not appear as a consistent whole emanating from a single source, and is, conversely, the result of various and contradictory sources that sometimes clash over visions and interests, it has become necessary to define the "regional factor" in order to accurately delineate its responsibility in fomenting internal strife in its complex ethnic and sectarian form.

The relative variation between different external actors, in terms of the efficiency of their role and strength, can determine the amount of the external influence that they eventually wield. The Iranian role, for example, cannot be compared to the Turkish role, which is itself completely different from that of some Arab states, or the unseen, but continually expanding, part played Israel.

It should be noted, in this regard, that the Turkish role is designed in a careful manner that transcends sectarian divisions.(5) For instance, when sectarian clashes broke out less than a year after the US invasion between Shi`a, Turkmen and Sunnis over a religious burial site in Kirkuk, Turkey did not give the impression that its regional role was linked to the sectarian dimension of the conflict.

To the contrary, the Turkish role centered on three axes. First, Ankara recast Turkish-Kurdish relations based on political interest, which was apparent in Turkey's success in building balanced relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly with its two political centers, Arbil and Suleymaniya.

Turkey's second strategy has been to sponsor political negotiations among the warring factions, the efficacy of which was proven by two simultaneous events: the meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement, following the latter's recent return from Tehran, and the announcement of secret negotiations between US officials and resistance factions in Ankara with Turkish-Qatari sponsorship.

Lastly, Turkey has encouraged Iraq to join new economic partnerships, an effort that has been translated into numerous agreements, including an accord to build a strategic land route connecting Basra to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, through the Syrian cities of Tartous and Lattaqiya, for the transport of oil products originating in the Gulf.

Despite the fact that Ankara had numerous reasons to exploit the issue of the Turkmen in Kirkuk, which could have permitted a powerful entry into the internal contradictions of Iraq, facts and data show that Turkey remained wary of playing the Iraqi Turkmen card. The trans-ethnic and trans-sectarian policies adopted by Turkey in recent years have provided suitable evidence to support a view of its regional role as a positive factor in the sectarian equation, while the actions of Arab countries are perceived as hectic and muddled.(6)

Arab countries are sometimes accused of abandoning Iraq, and abstaining from intervention, while at other times they (especially Saudi Arabia) are criticized for allegedly contributing to acts of violence and supporting terrorist groups.

In spite of all that, a stereotypical image has emerged in the political literature over the last seven years regarding regional politics and their link to the sectarian question.

This perception limits the entire matter to a single dimension, the Shi`a-Sunni conflict, and to one actor: Iran. It has become commonplace to hear open accusations against Tehran of raising the sectarian question, and using its influence to broaden sectarian divisions. Interestingly, the mainstream view of the sectarian question in much of the political literature conflates two contradicting views of Iranian policy. The first views Iran solely as a sectarian state aiming to use sectarian Shi`a expansionism to impose its hegemony over Iraq.

The other view perceives Iran as a nationalistic state whose strategy is dominated by historic Persian ambitions that extend beyond Iraq. These contradictory perspectives, the national and the sectarian, serve to complicate the description of Iran's role, and create an atmosphere of confusion in analyzing the reasons behind Iran's rising influence. More dangerously, Iran becomes, according to both perspectives, the source of the conflict, as well as its ultimate beneficiary.

The question at hand is: did the explosion of the sectarian question, following the occupation, increase Iran's chances of playing an influential role in domestic Iraqi affairs? Or did it find in the US occupation a tool for playing a larger regional role, permitting Tehran to enhance its influence in Iraq and the region?

Redefining the regional factor, and its effects on the sectarian question, requires an affinity with the complexities of the Iraqi situation and the morphology of local interests and power centers. A deeper understanding of the limits of the regional role, and the conditions of its rise, must note three main domestic factors:

The collapse of the state, its fragmentation, and the efficiency of the regional factor

The regional factor and the sectarian question are closely linked to the post-occupation fragmentation of the Iraqi state. A report by the International Crisis Group, based on months of fieldwork and entitled "How the US can salvage Iraq,"(7) warned that the collapse of the central state would open the door to regional interference, and that future events in the country would be negotiated in a domestic scene that was intimately tied to the increasingly influential regional environment.

The collapse of the state and society in Iraq reached its apogee during the 2005-2006 period when widespread sectarian violence exploded after the bombing of the shrines in Samarra.(8)

These events indicated that most acts of violence were conducted by new armed groups that either had replaced the state in many respects, forcefully imposed their hegemony over the vital space of the collapsing state, or seeped into the security forces through the policy of "the integration of militias" by the Interior Ministry.

Over a short period of time, these forces became an active element in the exacerbation of the sectarian question. It also became clear that the acts of violence committed by these groups possessed a unique characteristic: they created new contradictions that had the ability to spread beyond Muslim social circles to communities of Sabians/Mandeans in the province of Maysan in the south, and the Chaldean and Assyrian towns and churches in the north.

These communities were exposed, in an unprecedented manner, to horrific acts of displacement, killings, and kidnappings on non-sectarian grounds. Furthermore, acts of violence struck most of the capital, some neighboring regions, such as Diyala, located east of Baghdad, which contains a large Shi`a population, and a string of mostly Sunni villages and townships west of Baghdad.

As Robert Dreyfus noted in his excellent piece, "Our Monsters in Iraq,"(9) the death squads spawned by the American invasion and occupation ravaged thousands of innocents from both sects. However, the most dangerous fallout of the collapse of the state and the dismantling of its major institutions, especially the military, lies in the complex nature of the conflict, which is ethno-sectarian, as well as political-sectarian. This trend was revealed most clearly in the Kurdish-Turkmen-Arab competition over Kirkuk.

Thus, the causes of sectarian conflict are no longer purely local, with the interjection of the regional factor as a major variable. The regional factor channels the vital interests of states and peoples, not merely cultural beliefs, and any attempt to depict it as a mere sectarian manifestation willfully obfuscates the role of political interests, in addition to the multiple dimensions of the conflict.

he Nature of the Conflict and the Role of the Regional Factor 

Episodes of sectarian violence during the 2005-2006 period seem to have established that the rival powers are incapable of deciding the conflict through the use of local sectarian tools as these might cause further destabilization to the regional balance of power.

More importantly, such tactics could lead to the involvement of regional powers in direct confrontations. With the passage of time, it became clear that the essence of the ongoing conflict was not sectarian, and it did not transform into a conventional sectarian war.

There were no violent clashes between the traditional sectarian groupings; to the contrary, the conflict revealed itself as a political struggle between new emerging powers over the sources of influence, power, and wealth. In many instances of forced displacement, such as those practiced by Shi`a and Sunni militias in eastern and western Baghdad, local citizens volunteered help and lodging to hundreds of Shi`a and Sunni families.

It could be argued that the accident on the Imams Bridge, linking Sunni A`dhamiya to Shi`a Kadhimiya, in which dozens of pilgrims drowned to death during the 2005 `Ashura celebrations, illustrates that the conflict was predominantly political rather than sectarian. This was the moral of a heroic tale that spread among Iraqis, telling of a young man from A`dhamiya who lost his life trying to rescue Shi`a victims following the collapse of the bridge.

The so-called "sectarian conflict," and its bouts of violence, was exposed as a struggle between local political interests that were unsuccessfully attempting to turn their disagreements into a full-fledged sectarian confrontation. This paralleled a change in the behavior and role of regional actors, but that change remained limited and narrow. Therefore, a new conceptualization of the regional factor and the sectarian question was formulated, seeing in the Iranian influence a vehicle for sectarian, as well as political, interests.

The Political Dimension of the Sectarian Question

The map of local conflict between 2006 and 2010 was marked by the appearance of three major actors:

e forces of sectarian mobilization

This camp includes numerous competing Sunni and Shi`a groups. For example, while the Supreme Council and Da`wa shared dogmatic and political commonalities, as well as interests, they remained bitter competitors. Juan Cole was correct in asserting, in his study of the complex and turbulent relationship between Da`wa and the Hakeem family(10), that the Da`wa cut its ties to the Supreme Council upon its founding in 1982 in order to preserve its independence.

Furthermore, the Sadrist Movement, despite its intimate links to Da`wa, found itself in the midst of a bloody conflict with the Da`wa when Nuri al-Maliki assumed the premiership (this dispute erupted violently in Basra, where battles broke out between the Sadrists and government forces in the summer of 2006).

Likewise, the rivalry between the (Sunni) Islamic Party and the National Accord Front on the one hand, and the Committee of Muslim Scholars on the other, was marked by violence and cruelty in many cases, such as when the committee was accused of supporting terrorists groups, and the Sunni endowment immediately moved to occupy its headquarters in the Umm al-Qura Mosque. Furthermore, the battles fought between al-Qa`ida and the "Awakening" forces, in parallel with clashes between the Awakening and the Islamic Party in Anbar, reveal the complex nature of the conflict.

The Forces of Sectarian Restraint

These forces rose simultaneously with the weakening of the centers of sectarian restraint in society, meaning liberal, nationalistic and secular circles capable of facing up to the sectarian culture. The weakness of these forces was visible shortly after the occupation in two emblematic examples: the surprising announcement by the liberal National Congress, led by Ahmad Chalabi, of its reconstitution as a political movement named "the Shi`a House," to ensure influential participation in the 2005 elections, and the participation of the Iraqi Communist Party in the Iraqi Provisional Governing Council(11) as a Shi`a representative (the 14th Shi`a seat was allocated to the party).

The hegemony of pro-Iranian forces over the institutions and instruments of the state, and their rush to monopolize wealth and influence, shook the balance of societal power, leading to a pattern of inequality in the influence of domestic actors and their ability to control the flow of events.

The rise of Shi`a powers of sectarian mobilization, including major parties, such as the Supreme Council, the Islamic Da`wa and the Sadrist Movement, and small groups, such as the Fadhila Party and the Islamic Action Movement, was concomitant with the ascension of Sunni forces and political parties, such as the Islamic Party, the Accord Front, the Committee of Muslim Scholars, and other small groups.

Combined, these movements rose in tandem with the weakening, and even disappearance, of the influence of nationalistic, liberal, and secular forces.

However, the rise of these sectarian powers, some of which were historical movements that reconstituted themselves and regained their importance, did not lead to the establishment of a socio-political balance between the two main sects.

This imbalance is often explained through the regional factor: Sunnis bitterly complain of Iranian influence, singling it out as the major cause for the dominance of Shi`a parties over public life and state institutions in Iraq. Moreover, Iran is often depicted as the sole reason for the political marginalization of the Sunnis.

Nevertheless, Iraqis generally view sectarian groups as political entities competing for power, not as representatives of the two sects; they perceive the employment of political/religious discourse as part of a struggle occurring within the realm of politics, not that of sectarian identities.

This evolution in the perception of the conflict infused it with a strong political character, turning sectarian groups into organizations that manage a political conflict with sectarian tools, as opposed to social forces directing a sectarian dispute with political instruments.

The inability of the forces of sectarian mobilization to achieve true representation of either sect, which would have permitted them to speak on behalf of their respective sects and represent their interests, ultimately weakened their ability to manage the sectarian conflict, and relegated their clashes to the level of political infighting. As events have shown, the problem of sectarian representation was too complex to be easily resolved. Most emerging parties were incapable of representing their sects, and it was obvious that broad gulfs separated these religious parties from their respective sects. Neither Shi`a nor Sunni parties were capable of achieving this representation in the sectarian sense of casting themselves to the Sunni or Shi'a communities as true representatives of their respective wills and sectarian identities.

This has led to an unusual situation in which the mutual enmity among these parties, at different times and junctures, fostered the conditions of real sectarian conflict, but this discord could not evolve into a clash between major sectarian groups, remaining exclusively in the arena of political competition. Among the main reasons that structured the sectarian question as a local issue that could be mobilized by regional factors was the weakening of the forces of sectarian restraint in tandem with the rise of sectarian powers.

The National/Ethnic Factor in the Sectarian Question

The political struggle, which was led by various forces under sectarian labels, took on a national/ethnic dimension with the explosion of the Kirkuk dispute. It quickly became obvious that this dispute threatened to turn local conflicts into regional ones. Iran, for instance, would not allow the dispute between the central government and Iraqi Kurdistan over the territories of Diyala and Khanqeen to be resolved in favor of the Kurds, nor even accept Kurdish hegemony over Kirkuk, which is also home to a Shi`a minority.

Similarly, Turkey would not permit the expansion of the Kurdish zone into Turkmen areas. These situations accentuated the ethnic/national dimensions in regional politics and showed their complex nature.

Recommendations and conclusions

Since the sectarian question in Iraq, according to my perspective, is a question of political conflict waged by various forces using sectarian tools and means, and since the regional factor is, essentially, dependent on the direct political and cultural interests of neighboring countries, it can be concluded that resolving the conflict, and preventing it from becoming a perpetual dispute, will not be possible without a novel approach to the interests of local and regional actors. This requires:

Local-Local Accord

Stability demands the rebuilding of political partnerships in Iraq through the launching of a new political process that gathers all parties, powers, and groups, and encourages them to advance towards a comprehensive, national solution. Dead-ends and the bickering of political forces creates an environment conducive to regional interference. Therefore, moving beyond the regime of sectarian power-sharing will not be possible without an agreement on a new constitutional basis for equality built on the notion of citizenship.

Regional-Local Accord

Experience has shown that lasting and effective constraints on the regional factor, and its effects upon local equations, require the capacity for a local-regional debate that gathers all powers from both sects. A direct dialogue with Iran, initiated by the forces and parties that oppose its influence in Iraq, could open a horizon for a comprehensive national solution.

Regional-Regional Dialogue

An understanding among the neighboring countries, and the launching of a dialogue between Iran and its opponents in Iraq, could prepare the ground for a national dialogue among Iraqi political powers both inside and outside of Iraq. The main concerns of such a dialogue should be the preservation of the Iraqi entity, thwarting the country's dismemberment, and foiling attempts to infringe upon Iraq's role or impede its options.


  • (1) Nawwar, `Abd al-`Azeez Suleiman, Tareekh al-`Iraq al-Hadeeth min Nihayat Hukm Dawud Basha ila Hukm Midhat Basha (the Modern History of Iraq from the End of the Rule of Dawud Pasha to the Rule of Midhat Pasha), Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-`Arabi, 1964, p. 300. Historically, the term Mujtahid was first used to designate a group of Indian Shi`a clergymen residing in Najaf and Karbala during the four centuries of Iranian-Turkish struggle over Iraq. The appellation was also given to a number of Arab clergymen who had a leading role in the 1920 revolt, and whose political presence was notable during the subsequent political debates regarding the choice of an Arab king for Iraq. The latter were known for their strong linkages with Iran, their conservative leanings and their lax position vis-à-vis the British occupation.
  • (2) Ibrahim, Farhad, al-Ta'ifyia al-Siasyia fi al-`Alam al-`Arabi (Political Sectarianism in the Arab World), Cairo: Madbuli Press 1996, p. 84.
  • (3) Ibrahim, Farhad, Ibid
  • (4) Ibid, p. 245
  • (5) Nureddine, Muhammad, Turkyia: al-Sigha Wal Dawr (Turkey: the formula and the role), Beirut, Riad al-Rayyis Press 2008, p. 235. Unlike its neighbors, Greece and Armenia, Iraq is of vital importance for Turkey for a number of reasons. Therefore, the Turkish role in Iraq is designed in a manner that suits Turkey's priorities, which include the preservation of the integrity of Iraqi territories and thwarting the division of the country. But Turkey's chief historical priority has been preventing Iran from expanding at the expense of Turkish interests, and foiling Iran from edifying its influence in the country.
  • (6) Al-Sayyid, Radwan, "Al-Sira` `ala Mustaqbal al-`Iraq: al-Hawza wal-`Asha'ir wal-Ijtima` al-Madani al-Siyasi" (the Struggle over the Future of Iraq: the Hawza, the tribes and the political urban sociology), Al-Mustaqbal al-`Arabi, Beirut: Center for Arab Unity Studies, issue 292, June 2003, p. 149. Al-Sayyid argues that Arab and neighboring countries have no interest in the division of Iraq, but that the Turks and Iranians seem more capable of maneuvering than the Arabs. He also notes that the presence of Iranian supporters inside Iraq may increase Tehran's ability to control the flow of events. He adds that Turkey abstains from playing the Shi`a Turkmen card, which is largely correct.
  • (7) The International Crisis Group, "How the US can salvage Iraq," published in al-Mustaqbal al-`Arabi, Center for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut: February 2005, issue 312. Title translated in Arabic as "What can the US do for Iraq".
  • (8) Samarra stood out in the weeks following the US occupation because its populace abstained from looting public properties. This was credited to the formation of mixed Sunni-Shi'a committees in all neighborhoods to help maintain order.
  • (9) The website of Robert Dreyfus, http://www.robertdreyfuss.com\articles.htm, November 6th, 2010.
  • (10) Juan Cole et. al., Iraq: Invasion-Occupation-Resistance, Center for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut 2003, p. 157.
  • (11) Al-Difa`i, Ahmad al-Hajj Hashim, Mahadir Majlis al-Hukm al-Intiqali (the records of the Transitory Governing Council), Beirut, Dar al-Tali`a, 2005, p. 61. In the debates between the members of the Council regarding the appointment of deputy ministers, it was stressed that the sectarian/ethnic balance was to be taken into consideration.