Country Profile


Situation Report

Religious conflict in Iraq has come to play a dominant role, from a backdrop to the history of the modern state, through the events following the 2003 invasion, to the rise of ISIS. Ranj Alaaldin looks at the significance of religion and the effect of regional geopolitics in the current conflict.

In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham took control of large swathes of territory in northern Iraq. It seized Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, as well as other towns and cities in the predominantly Sunni Arab north. ISIS emerged in Iraq against the backdrop of disastrous post-conflict reconstruction after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and more than a decade of civil war and sectarian warfare in the post-2003 Iraq. ISIS is a re-branded version of Iraq's post-2003 Sunni insurgency, comprised of a range of disparate actors including al-Qaeda in Iraq, remnants of the former Baath regime, local Sunni tribes and local as well as international jihadis. Insurgent violence thrives on weak institutions, failed or weak states, sectarian division and regional volatility. In Iraq, it has thrived on and exploited with maximum impact the country's sectarian divisions. The organisation has manipulated agitations within the Sunni Arab community toward their loss of power and marginalisation, whether perceived or actual. Conversely, the jihadi organisation thrives on fears among Iraq's Shia community that they might go back to dictatorial rule and become an oppressed majority, as the majority of Iraq's Shia community was under the Baath regime, although some were co-opted.

The toppling of the Baath regime in 2003 and failed reconstruction policies allowed for previously suppressed sectarian sentiments to emerge and play a dominant role, both within the Iraqi state and the Iraqi society. Religion and sectarianism have since constituted powerful mobilising forces, politically and violently. The matter is a contentious and complex one because of recent Iraqi history, geopolitics and the nation-building process that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the Baath regime. Collectively, these factors have allowed for an environment conducive to the aims and objectives of radical and Islamist groups, with devastating consequences that are likely to define the Iraqi state and society for decades to come.

Historical Context

The rise of sectarianism in Iraq, post-2003, produced one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the modern Iraqi state. The sectarian civil war between Iraq's Sunni and Shia communities took place against the backdrop of post-conflict reconstruction and after 30 years of brutal dictatorship. Iraq inherited many problems from the Baath regime. Sectarianism, however, has had the single most influential impact on the post-2003 state and society, manifesting itself in violent conflict, institutional suspicion and divisive ethno-sectarian political alliances. The issue of identity politics and sectarianism in Iraq is complex and has historically been in a state of flux, vis-à-vis its significance within Iraqi society. It has often been influenced and shaped by events both within and beyond Iraq, as well as a range of social, political and economic factors.

The contest for power in Iraq, on the basis of sectarian identity, has been a recurring theme throughout the modern state's history. It was after the 1958 revolution and the end of the monarchy that Iraq started to become increasingly dominated by identity politics, most notably with the advent of an explicitly sectarian government in 1963 as well as the emergence of Shia political movements like the Islamic Dawa Party, formed, in part, as a response to the rise of communism after 1958 but also, more generally, to contest power in the modern Iraqi state. The party overlapped significantly with the Shia religious establishment (marjaiyya), which played an active role in the development and promotion of the party.

Power struggles along sectarian lines have been a recurring theme throughout modern Iraq's history.

Iraqi society also became increasingly configured according to identity politics because of political turmoil and instability in the country. This included power-struggles within the upper echelons of the Iraqi state, most notably between Arab and Iraqi nationalists, the former advocating pan-regional Arab nationalism and the latter preferring an Iraq-first identity for the Iraqi state and its people. For more on this, see Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq. Third. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). This clash also reflected itself within the armed forces, senior members of which often led the country's numerous coup d'états.

The Baath Party emerged in 1968 against this backdrop. When the Baath Party came to power in 1968 a republic of fear and intimidation followed. Kanan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (California: University of California Press, 1988). There were frequent public executions. Political factions, trade unions and other political or popular entities could not exist, unless controlled by the Baath Party. Formed by an Alawite, a Christian and a Sunni Arab, the Baath ideology was rooted in pan-Arab socialism in its formative stages, until it was overrun by a radical and chauvinistic elite. By 1970, the Iraqi state, under the Baath regime, had settled into totalitarianism, with dissent outlawed and viciously suppressed.

In its formative period in power between 1968 and the early 1970s, the Baath regime ensured the upper echelons of both party and regime was dominated, firstly, by Arab Sunnis and, secondly, members of the Tikriti clan from which President Hasan al-Bakr, as well as Saddam Hussein, vice-president at the time, were drawn. Shia members of the ruling elite existed but their presence was largely symbolic in comparison to the dominance of Sunni Arabs.

The Baath party's foremost emphasis was on survival, prompting it to organise power around a trusted network and clique. However, the Baath regime exacerbated sectarianism in Iraq because, whilst it targeted all dissent in the country and can be characterised as a secular party, it collectively suppressed the Shia community, exacerbating sectarian polarisation within the Iraqi society in the process but also between the Shia community and the Iraqi state. Although some Shia Iraqis were co-opted, the Dawa Party's strength and that of other opposition groups lay in their Shia identity and links to the clerical establishment. The Baath regime brutally suppressed both. This included the regular targeting of Shia religious shrines and centres of learning. Hundreds of thousands of Shia Iraqis were also deported on the pretext that they were Iranians. The aim, however, was to weaken the Shia community and its Shia movements. In other words, even if the party itself was not necessarily sectarian in its outlook, its policies were deeply sectarian.

Regional events further reinforced sectarian animosity in the country and the strengthening of sub-national identities in the process. The Iranian revolution in 1979 was supported by significant segments of Iraq's Shia community. Groups like the Dawa Party mobilised the Shia community and attempted to emulate the revolution and overthrow the Baath regime. Protests erupted against the regime but were brutally crushed. The regime targeted Dawa Party sympathisers and other Iraqi Shia regardless of their affiliation to the party. Thousands of Iraqi Shia were indiscriminately arrested, tortured and killed.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 was supported by significant segments of Iraq's Shia community.

Another Shia rebellion was launched in 1991, following the first Gulf War and Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Hoping to capitalise on a weakened army, as well as an apparent endorsement from then-President of the United States, George H W Bush, Iraq's Shia community launched an uprising in the mainly Shia provinces of the south, but no US support materialised and the Baath regime's crackdown on the population saw hundreds of thousands killed, and Shia shrines, centres of learning and communities destroyed.

In public, the Baath regime downplayed religion and sectarian differences, and espoused secular Arab nationalism. However, during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980-1988, Saddam Hussein instrumentalised religion to play on the differences between Arabs and Persians. He stressed the Islamic identity of Arabs and claimed to be a descendant of Imam Ali and the Prophet Muhammad, in the effort to win the hearts and minds of Iraq's Shia community as the regime went to war with the Shia clerical rulers of Iran. At the same time, the regime was also confronted by Iraq's Shia opposition groups, including the Islamic Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its armed wing at the time, the Badr Brigade. These groups overlapped considerably with the Shia community.

In private the regime made subtle references to the divisions within the Iraqi society and explicitly told its officials to refrain from describing the population on the basis of sectarian identity. However, publicly, the regime discriminated Iraqis on the basis of the regions or provinces they were from. An Iraqi's province of origin could potentially suggest his or her religious or sectarian identity, as would their surname. From the regime's perspective, it made sense to avoid publicly discriminating on the basis of sect, for anything else would have undermined its rule, its legitimacy and claims that it represented all Iraqis. It is for this reason that analysts and scholars seldom find any references to sectarian or sub-national identities in Baath regime discourse.

Iraqi society tilted further toward sub-national identities, as well as religion, in the 1990s when sanctions were imposed following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Coming at a time in which Iraq's resources were depleted and its economy devastated following its defeat in Kuwait, which itself followed a costly eight-year war of attrition with Iran, the sanctions left the Baath regime severely weakened. The regime increasingly turned to religion, as it had done in the past, to maintain its control over a disenfranchised and impoverished population. Launched in 1993, the regime's Faith Campaign dramatically expanded religious studies throughout the education system, integrating Islamic law within the Iraqi society. It reinforced Islam in schools, universities, the media and the legal system. A new generation of military personnel, Baathists and Iraqis grew up in an environment that was steeped in Islamic ideology. A predominantly working-class, poorly educated and illiterate population started to drop secularist ideals, and turn to religion for respite.

The New Iraq

The Baathists increasingly turned to religion to maintain control over the population.

From 2003, the so-called new Iraq allowed these previously suppressed sub-national identities to assert themselves. The events that followed the toppling of the Baath regime demonstrated the extent to which Iraqi society and politics had become configured according to ethno-sectarian identities over the previous three decades. The end of the Baath regime and the assertion of sub-national identities also raised the question of what it meant to be an Iraqi, particularly as two competing visions emerged within the Sunni and Shia communities. Both were based on narratives of victimhood, with the latter emphasising Shia oppression and marginalisation under the Baath regime and the former stressing Sunni Arab marginalisation and disempowerment in the post-2003 Iraq.

Sub-national and religious sentiments were, therefore, reinforced by fears within both communities, which, in the absence of reconciliation, were allowed to rise exponentially and were vulnerable to exploitation. The reinforcement of communal identities in Iraq allowed for two competing discourses to define popular perceptions within the Arab Sunni and Shia communities, presenting two competing visions of the Iraqi identity.

Iraq's Shia community coalesced around the clerical establishment, their Imams and the Ahl al-Bayt (literally, People of the House), whilst Sunni Iraqis have done so by way of reference to the Prophet's Companions. These narratives have also found their way into social media, where competing symbolism and discourses dominate Facebook and Twitter exchanges. In other words, religion and sub-national identities have been both embraced and instrumentalised as a means of mobilising the community and contesting power in the new Iraq. These today form the constitutive elements of the Arab Sunni and Arab Shia identities in Iraq.

Religious identities were instrumentalised as a means of mobilising communities.

The new Iraq is dominated by two over-arching sentiments: one based on the righting of past wrongs for the Shia community and the other, embraced by the Arab Sunni community, based on perceived injustice since 2003. For Iraq's Shia community, the new Iraq was seen as the deliverance of the Shia community, the end of decades of brutal dictatorship under Saddam Hussein and, for some, centuries of Shia oppression and marginalisation. Domestically, a quote from one Iraqi Shia after the overthrow of the Baath regime in 2003 was telling of the new climate; "We are the first Arab state to be controlled by the Shia since the Fatimids ran Egypt 800 years ago." Cockburn, Patrick. 2013. "The War against the Shia Catches All in Its Crossfire." The Independent, 13 January 2014. Shiism is a religion of resistance and struggle, one of the main reasons why the Baath regime banned Shia religious processions out of fear that these processions would challenge the authorities, which they often did. After 2003, both the changed atmosphere and the powerful mobilising capacity of Shiism, one that was brutally suppressed by the Baath regime, was demonstrated when millions poured onto the streets of the predominantly Shia south in mid-2003 after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Nir Rosen, 'Anatomy of a Civil War', The Boston Review, 8 November 2006. The occasion was the celebration of a Shia religious event, that had been banned under former Iraqi regimes, but the event was also a powerful assertion of the Shia identity.

Fears within the Shia community that Iraq could return to Baathist rule were attributable not just to the uncertainties that followed the invasion and the transitional process, but also because of a determined effort by insurgents in the country to reverse the new political order. The deadliest of the sectarian attacks by Sunni militants on Iraq's Shia community came in March 2004, when a Shia religious procession during Ashura was targeted in an operation that killed and injured hundreds of civilians in Karbala and Baghdad. Iraq Shias massacred on holy day, BBC News, 2 March 2004.

Iraq's Sunni insurgency was able to mobilise the country's Arab Sunni community using the Arab Sunni identity, which gained increased political relevance after 2003 as, previously, the Sunni identity was closely tied the Iraqi state. To mobilise their local communities, militant groups took Wahhabi, anti-Shia theology and transformed it into a militant ideology that mandates the killing of Shias. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late head and founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, for example, utilised anti-Shia rhetoric in 2004, straight after the fall of the Baath regime, calling on all able-bodied males to fight the Shia. Similarly, the leader of ISIS (a successor organisation to AQI) and self-declared Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, called on his followers to wage war on the Shia in his inaugural speech after the declaration of a 'caliphate'. Such sectarianism is now central to ISIS' identity and survival. This militant ideology, driven by anti-Shia rhetoric, is what unifies the collection of disparate forces that comprise ISIS, which, as the former Sunni insurgency, was additionally unified by a common goal of, firstly, forcing the Americans to withdraw from Iraq and, secondly, reversing Iraq's post-2003 political order. This aim chimes with the remnants of the Baath party (whose members play a significant role in ISIS' senior leadership), whose ideology shifted, as Iraqi scholar Ali Allawi notes, partly to accommodate the increased religiosity of its mainly Sunni base and partly because its own membership had become more pious. Ali Allawi, The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p.241.

The sectarian warfare and governance and stabilisation crises that followed the invasion created immense space in which these groups could further their goals. But they were, from the outset, armed with important strategic advantages. Baath loyalists and militias were funded by the Iraqi state in its pre-2003 form and then, later in the post-2003 Iraq, by wealthy Baathist merchants and foreign donors from the Arab world. Militants were organised, had access to arms and had the benefit of extensive support and intelligence networks. This violent mobilisation was helped by the exploitation of apprehensions within the Sunni community about what the new Iraq might entail for them. Both militants and Iraq's Sunni political elite, for political expediency, propagated the narrative of Arab Sunni marginalisation and the perception that the fall of the Baath regime constituted the fall of the Sunni community. There was also an over-arching and generalised emphasis on the link between Iraq's new Shia ruling parties and Iran, which deliberately played on the history of divisions between the Iraqi state and Iran but, more importantly, Iraqi sensitivities and apprehension toward Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs that Saddam Hussein and those before him played on throughout their rule. It is precisely these fears that militants in Iraq have thrived on and that ISIS depends on today to swell its ranks and entrench itself within the Sunni Arab community.

Repeated terrorist attacks by insurgents on Iraq's Shia community eventually provoked the reaction they were looking for and, after the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites, Iraq's Shia community mobilised in response. Sunni and Shia groups confronted each other in a bloody conflict that claimed thousands of lives and eventually demarcated neighbourhoods in Baghdad along sectarian lines. Sunni militants were eventually defeated by Shia militias who were backed by the state. In some cases, members of Iraq's security forces doubled as Shia militias and undertook targeted attacks on Sunni groups.

The civil war in 2006 forced Iraq's Sunni insurgency into retreat. It was unable to engage state-backed Shia militias in hand-to-hand combat and was forced to go underground. It turned increasingly to amorphous tactics and terrorist atrocities on the state and civilian targets alike. The defeat, crucially, was a central reason why Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders turned to the US with the aim of striking a deal that would give them a stronger stake in the country as well as more control over their local communities and neighbourhoods which, at the time, were being increasingly dominated by al-Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadis.

'Sahwa' tribal groups retook control of their neighbourhoods and sidelined Islamist factions.

That decision paved the way for the US-sponsored Awakening movement, also known as the Sahwa. Tribal groups retook control of their neighbourhoods and sidelined the Islamic State of Iraq and other Islamist groups, although they were not eliminated. Following the creation of the Awakening, Iraq's Sunni community contested elections in large numbers for the first time in the 2009 provincial elections. After the 2010 parliamentary elections they were given influential posts in Iraq's government, alongside the country's main ethno-sectarian groups, the Kurds and the Shia.

Although Iraq was stabilised after 2010, with terrorist attacks a less regular occurrence, Iraq's Sunni insurgent groups and other militants were not eliminated. A largely moribund insurgency was given a new lease of life by, firstly, controversial Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki's attempt to arrest and imprison prominent Sunni politicians and, secondly, the conflict in Syria. Together, they revitalised Iraq's Sunni insurgency, whilst conflict in Syria gave ISIS (as ISI became) the space and resources from which it was able to seize Mosul in June 2014. It was further aided by the dysfunctional and corrupt nature of Iraq's armed forces.

Reconstruction Failures

Iraq was not pre-configured in a way that political instability and violence was inevitable. The historical backdrop against which the new Iraq emerged and the legacy of the Baath Party made reconstruction a difficult task but not an impossible one. The reinforcement of ethno-sectarian identities and the mobilisation of Iraq's communities on the basis of sub-national identities have to also be appreciated against the backdrop of poorly implemented reconstruction policies. Poor governance and mismanaged policies exacerbated sectarian divisions in Iraq. This included the infamous de-Baathification process and the demobilisation of the Iraqi military, which stripped thousands of soldiers and officers of their status and income. The reconstitution of the Iraqi army was also mishandled, with soldiers not offered sufficient incentives and benefits to demobilise in an organised and regulated manner, factors which helped intensify the insurgency. Brendan O'Leary, How to Get Out of Iraq with Integrity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), p.7.

De-Baathification affected not just the Iraqi army but also other sections of Iraqi society, including schools and hospitals, where teachers and doctors were discharged for being members of the Baath Party. Under the former regime, party membership was generally a prerequisite for employment. In other words, the post-conflict reconstruction was both mishandled, and too radical in its aim of re-building the Iraqi state and the speed at which it wanted to do so. The dismantling of the Iraqi state's infrastructure came before the country was stabilised and before reconciliation, which was particularly important because of the history of violent sectarianism and sectarian mobilisation that pre-dated the toppling of the Baath regime. Lack of security and stabilisation allowed for an environment that local and regional militant groups exploited. It also allowed for the de-legitimisation of the new Iraq in the perceptions of Iraq's Sunni community, a process that was helped by the unpopularity of the war in the Arab world and the broader toxic circumstances against which the 2003 invasion unfolded. The absence of effective institution building, undermined by poor governance, incompetent officials, a resilient insurgency and the proliferation of autonomous Shia militia groups engaged in tit-for-tat sectarian conflict, took Iraq to the brink.

A powerful religious overlap was created within Iraq's politics.

Post-conflict failures, wedded with Iraq's history of sectarian conflict, and exacerbated by the unfolding conflict in Syria, have created a powerful religious overlap within the country's politics, largely rendering religion and politics inseparable.

Prior to the invasion, identity politics helped mobilise communities in the effort to undermine Baathist rule and remedy political and social grievances. More recently, in the absence of successful nation-building, strong institutions and reconciliation, it has mobilised communities, for the purposes of competing for a stake in the future of the country. In the absence of sufficiently organised post-conflict reconstruction, reconciliation and the absence of a respected and organised Iraqi army, these have translated into violent competition. Iraq's Arab Sunni militant groups were also able to mobilise effectively and marginalise more moderate Sunni actors because these moderate actors found themselves without a movement that could rally Iraq's Sunni population on the basis of the Sunni identity. Further, unlike the Shia community, the Arab Sunni community lacked a centralised system of religious authority and jurisprudence. Iraq's moderate Arab Sunnis were, therefore, unable to contest politics in the new Iraq in the same organised fashion as the Shia, with their more centralised religious authorities, and the Kurds, who have historically organised and mobilised on the basis of Kurdish nationalism and who had at least a decades' worth of nation-building experience when the Baath regime was toppled in 2003. For more on the Kurds, see Liam Anderson, Gareth Stansfield, The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division. 1st ed. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds. Third Edition. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004). Crucially, Arab Sunnis were unable to match the organisational capacity and resources possessed by extreme elements within their community.

Key Groups: Iraq's Shia Community

Iraq's Shia community and political elite are divided along social, political, tribal and ideological lines. Groups like the Islamic Dawa Party and ISCI, for example, have historically differed over issues like federalism, power-sharing; the role of Islam in politics and the legitimacy of the wilayat-e-faqih doctrine (the rule of the jurist) that underpins Iran's system of Islamist governance. Divisions over these issues manifested themselves in the 1980s when the Dawa Party left the umbrella of opposition groups formed in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, as part of the effort to overthrow the Baath regime. Divisions and tensions continued even in the run-up to the 2003 invasion. After the toppling of the Baath regime, tensions among Shia groups intensified, particularly over how the country should be governed and what identity Iraq should adopt. The Sadrist Movement, led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, violently contested the occupation and fought rival Shia groups like the Badr Brigade. The Sadrists, unlike other Shia movements, violently rejected the occupation, regarded it as illegitimate and felt it emboldened their rivals and, therefore, came at the Sadrists' expense. For more on the Sadrists, see Nicholas Krohley, The Death of the Mehdi Army: The Rise, Fall, and Revival of Iraq's Most Powerful Militia (London: Hurst & Co, 2015).

Iraq's traditionally divided Shia community was mobilised and unified by external threats.

In other words, Iraq's traditionally divided Shia community was mobilised and unified by external threats: the Sunni insurgency and, today, ISIS, a reincarnated version of the former. Despite its divisions, challenges to the ascent of the Shia community and the post-2003 political order have reaffirmed the political significance of the Shia identity and, therefore, the Shia faith. In this respect, religion and politics have overlapped considerably. This is also a consequence of the influence that Iraq's Shia clerical establishment has over the political climate and the overlap between Iraq's Shia political and ruling elite and the clerical establishment, with most, if not all, of the Shia movements finding their origins in the Iraqi Shia shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Another crucial actor is Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Shia world's leading clergyman who has played a stabilising role since 2003. In 2005, Ayatollah Sistani brought Iraq's rival Shia political groups together to prevent intra-Shia conflict and help to stabilise the country. This unification helped maintain the post-2003 political order in the country, in the face of a resilient and brutal insurgency that aimed to restore the Baathists to power.

When ISIS seized control of much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, Shia militias, which have fought one another and the Iraqi state, unified as part of a concerted effort. They were also given a religious mandate, as Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a edict calling on Iraqis to take up arms. Tens of thousands of Shia volunteers were consequently mobilised to combat ISIS as part of what is known as the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), though Sunni tribal fighters were also integrated into the movement, as Ayatollah Sistani's edict was directed at all Iraqis.

Key Groups: Iraq's Sunni Community

There were no serious Sunni opposition groups during the era of the Baath regime, in the same way there were Kurdish or Shia opposition groups. After 2003, the most organised Sunni groups were the Baath Party and the Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). The former was outlawed, whilst the latter did not have broad-ranging appeal after the invasion. Following the creation of the Awakening in 2007 and the decision by the Sunni community to engage in the political process, tribal groups capitalised on their influence and networks to contest elections in 2009, whilst others offered their support to other groups and members of the Sunni political elite, the fragmentation of which has produced a range of different parties and blocs. This fragmentation, the result of an absence of serious Sunni mobilisation and opposition to the Baath regime, political and ideological differences as well as personality clashes, prevented it from capitalising on its 2010 victory in the parliamentary elections, which was contested by the Iraiyah bloc, led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia and former Baathist who has appeal within Iraq's Sunni community but also some, albeit much smaller, sections of the Shia community. The Sunni political elite is also, consequently, defined by individual Sunni politicians, rather than movements or blocs.

Regional Aspects

Iraq's future will remain tied to how events unfold in the region.

Regionalised proxy war in Syria and rivalry between Iran and the Arab world puts Iraq at the centre of the sectarian conflict currently unfolding in the region. This regional conflict predates the toppling of the Baath regime, but the mobilising capacity of religion and the resources being channeled into the country by regional rivals, together with the number of willing Iraqi proxies for the regional powers, means that Iraq's future and religious conflict will remain tied to how events unfold in the region. Vast and resource-rich networks that have local and regional dimensions serve as incubators of the radicalism and religious violence currently gripping the state.

The manner in which stabilisation and reconstruction developed, alongside Iraq's history of sectarian tensions, gave Iraq's regional neighbours the ability to implement a nefarious agenda in the country and, therefore, have a greater role and say in its future. The space that was exploited by autonomous and rival militant and militia groups allowed for regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage one another via proxy. Shia militias proliferated after 2003 because of the support Iran gave to Shia actors willing to act as its proxies. The rise of sectarianism in the new Iraq has helped Iran's geopolitical interests, as the sectarian climate ensures Iraq's Shia actors, who dominate the Iraqi state, remain dependent on Iran, particularly as no other state has been as proactive and engaging as Iran has been in the effort to protect the Iraqi state from ISIS. It creates a cohesive sphere of influence that allows Tehran to extend its influence into Iraq, as well as the rest of the region, regardless of the fact that the Shia community is a traditionally heterogeneous one and that ethnic as well as social boundaries exist between the Shia communities of the region.

The Arab world, on the other hand, has historically suppressed the rights of Shia communities, although this differs from state to state and to varying extents. They have sought to project an image of religious unity in an effort to both legitimise their rule and contain internal dissent. Undermining this projection, much like the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 2003 invasion of Iraq had an instant impact on the sectarian polarisation of the region. In perception, the empowerment of Iraq's Shia community after 2003 was seen as the empowerment of the Arab world's other marginalised Shia communities. In much the same way as the Iranian revolution had done in 1979 (although for both Shia and Sunni Arabs), the removal of the Baath regime and the fall of Saddam Hussein seemed to promise the deliverance of the Shia as a whole. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf consequently supported militant groups that comprised the Sunni insurgency, which launched devastating attacks throughout Iraq and have contributed to the rise of ISIS.

Conflict in Syria

It is questionable that, but for the conflict in Syria, ISIS could function and operate in the way that it does today. Conflict in Syria allowed Sunni Arab actors, like ISIS (under its previous incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq / ISI and the broader Sunni insurgency), to reorganise, reequip, repair, and rebuild itself after being forced into retreat by, firstly, the 2007 surge and injection of additional US military personnel in Iraq and, secondly, significant losses against the Iraqi army and state-backed Shia militias.

ISIS has capitalised on cross-border tribal links and networks.

Conflict in Syria gave them considerable space and resources that were then utilised with great effect in Iraq. When ISIS launched its offensive in Iraq in June 2014, Iraq suffered from a disenfranchised Sunni Arab population; a controversial and alienated prime minister, and incompetent and corrupt armed forces. See Toby Dodge, Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism. (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, Routledge, 2012). These factors allowed for an environment that was conducive to the aims and objectives of a resource-rich, battle-hardened and brutal organisation. Further, ISIS, given that it constitutes a re-branding of the post-2003 Sunni insurgency, had at least a decade's worth of experience in mobilising Iraq's Sunni Arab tribes, militants and population more generally against the Iraqi state. The organisation has also capitalised on the cross-border links and networks that exist between Sunni Arab tribes in western Iraq and eastern Syria. These networks were utilised during the post-2003 insurgency and continue to be harnessed with great effect today, allowing ISIS and Iraq's militants more generally to benefit from a transnational dimension that not only allows them to operate across borders, but actively tear them down.

The conflict in Syria has created a regional disconnect between Sunni and Shia actors to such an extent that even the Syrian state, its Alawite rulers and its Alawite population, traditionally considered heretics by the vast majority of Shias, are now considered to be part of a crucial axis of Shia powers comprised of Iraq, Iran and Hizbullah, among both Iraq's Shia community and members of the international community. Although Shias remain divided on the extent to which Iraq should be beholden to Iran, there is near unanimity on the need to combat ISIS in Syria and the threat it poses to the Shia community as a whole.

Iraqi Shia militias mobilised in Syria to fight alongside the Syrian regime and Hizbullah.

As militant Sunni actors in Iraq and the region developed inter-personal and intra-communal relations, and harnessed these relations with devastating consequences for Iraq, similar dynamics also emerged with respect to Iraq's Shia community. The Iraqi state, under its Shia dominated government has looked at the potential downfall of the Assad regime with unease because of these cross-border relations, fears that were realised in June 2014 when ISIS seized control of large swathes of territory in Iraq's Sunni Arab heartlands. Iraq's Shia militias have consequently mobilised in Syria, just as in Iraq, to fight alongside the Syrian regime and Hizbullah. Owing to a decades' worth of mobilisation and fighting experience in Iraq, they are, today, experienced guerilla fighters playing a crucial role in the effort to defeat ISIS, alongside other duties like defending Shia shrines and places of worship.

Just as it has for fundamentalist Islamist groups like ISIS, conflict in Syria has, consequently, proved to be a unifying thread for Iraq's Shia community; a holy war just as much as it is a battle for survival and for authority.


The root of Iraq's problems is not religion itself but, rather, the fact that religion has been allowed to fill a political and security vacuum. Religion plays a central role in the ongoing conflict in Iraq, but has been instrumentalised in a battle for power and authority, and for the purposes of mobilising communities toward violent and political objectives. Extreme actors or violent groups have sidelined and, in some cases, eliminated moderate actors: violence is the result of opportunistic and reactionary behaviour, a symptom of the environment rather than one being predominantly rooted in ancient hatreds between entire communities. A combination of conflict, both within and beyond Iraq, as well as a weak Iraqi state has allowed sectarian conflict to assume a momentum of its own, to the extent that it predominantly defines Iraqi politics and the contestation of power.

Socialised sectarianism in Iraq remains fluid and ambiguous and constitutes a multi-faceted problem that will require decades of reconciliation, and the establishment of national institutions that can compete with local and communalised forces that have politicised sectarian identity, at the expense of a unified Iraqi identity.

First published on 18 September 2015.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.