Understanding Iraq's Ethnic and Religious Divisions

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Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was ruled by a mostly secular Sunni Arab elite, which viciously suppressed the Shiite Arab majority and the Kurdish minority. But the toppling of Saddam's regime has altered the power balance between those groups, who are waging an increasingly bitter power struggle.

Shiites and Sunnis: Origins of Differences

The divide between Sunni and Shiite Arabs is currently Iraq's most volatile. The distinction between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam dates back to a 7th Century split over who would inherit the leadership of Muslims after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. The Shiites believe that the Prophet had passed the mantle of leadership to his own descendants, first to his cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali, who in turn passed it to his own son (and the Prophet's beloved grandson) Imam Hussein. They rejected the three Caliphs chosen by consultation among the Prophet's followers after his death — those recognized by the Sunnis, who constitute about three quarters of the world's Muslims today — and instead followed a series of 12 imams who were direct descendants of Muhammad. The schism originated as a violent power struggle, with both Ali and Hussein murdered by rivals. The latter, killed at the battle of Karbala in Iraq, came to symbolize the cult of martyrdom in the Shiite tradition, with followers still today flagellating themselves during the annual Ashura festival for their failure to rally to Hussein and prevent his death.

The two traditions have different approaches to religious law and practice, and different notions of religious hierarchy, but both observe the same fundamental tenets of Islam. Although Shiism is the overwhelmingly dominant form of Islam among the Persians of Iran, in most of the Arab world Shiites are an impoverished and disenfranchised underclass. And the more extremist Sunni "Salafist" tradition that predominates in Saudi Arabia, as well as among the jihadists of al-Qaeda, denigrates Shiites as apostates. Within both Shiism and the Sunni tradition, however, there are a variety of different approaches to theological, legal and political questions, and they have coexisted for centuries. Members of both sects rub shoulders during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

The contemporary conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq is based not only on a schism that happened almost 14 centuries ago, but on the politics of the Saddam Hussein era. The Sunni Arabs, some 15-20% of the population, provided the bulk of the governing class under Saddam, while the Shiites, who comprise upward of 60% of the population, were denied political rights and their religious freedoms were curtailed. The contemporary politics of the divide also has a regional dimension: The main Shiite religious political parties that have dominated both of Iraq's democratic elections have close ties to Iran, a fact that has irked not only Iraq's Sunnis but also the U.S.-allied regimes of the Arab world, who fear the consequences throughout the region of expanded Iranian influence.

Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen

Almost 80% of Iraqis are Arab, while some 15-20% are Kurds — a distinct ethnic group with its own language, history and culture, concentrated in northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, northern Iran and southern Georgia. Kurds have struggled for their rights as a cultural minority in all of those societies, often suffering vicious repression, but have enjoyed de facto independence in northern Iraq under U.S. protection since the 1991 Gulf War. Although they participate in Iraqi national politics and one of their key leaders, Jalal Talabani, is currently Iraq's president, the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds have signaled their desire for formal independence from Iraq. The Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslim, although there is a Shiite minority, but Kurdish identity politics are dominated by secular nationalism, although an Islamist party made a surprisingly strong showing in January's election.

The new Iraqi constitution recognizes the Kurds' de facto autonomy in northern Iraq, allowing them to keep the revenues from any new oil fields and to maintain their own armed forces. But the status of the oil rich northern city of Kirkuk remains a flashoint, because it is claimed not only by Kurds and Arabs, but also by the Turkmen minority — less than 5 percent of the population, but which carries the backing of Turkey, which is vehemently opposed to an independent Kurdish entity.