Shia history in Iraq;
Let us not repeat our past mistakes


The history of the Shi’ites in Iraq dates back to over 1300 years when the fourth successor to the prophet of Islam, Imam Ali moved there, making the city of Kufa his capital from which 50 of today’s nations were governed. Since Imam Ali was considered by Shi’ites to be the first rightful successor to the prophet, many of his followers also moved with him, making Kufa the hometown of over 2 million Shi’ites. Imam Ali who was later assassinated in Kufa was buried in the near-by city of Najaf. His shrine is now one of Shia Islam’s most sacred places.

 Iraq later became the resting place for 4 other top Shia leaders of Imam Ali’s descent whose shrines are scattered all over Iraq. To this end, Iraq has a significance that outweighs all other countries in the Shia school of thought, which is why from the very beginnings it had a population dominated by Shi’ites, while also accommodating followers of other denominations.

 Mongol rule began with a brutal conquest in the 13th century, but gave way to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The Ottoman Turks treated Iraq as a Sunni entity despite the fact that it was a predominantly Shi’ite nation, Their ill treatment of the majority made the Ottoman reign not a very pleasant one due to the dissatisfaction of the Shi’ites. Iraq’s majority Shi’ites view this segment in their history as a bitter one because they were treated as second class citizens deprived of their right to practice their faith freely.

Successive governments ruled Iraq since then, but the formula has stayed the same; minority Sunnis ruling the Majority Shi’ites in a state of utter despotism. This consistent trend paved the way for the rise of Saddam Hussein Al Tikriti.


 The uneasy situation continued until the British forces came to Iraq who were received as liberators from the oppressive Ottoman rule. After initially welcoming British forces to Baghdad, Iraqis soon realized they had traded one occupier for another. Resistance to the British rule began in the 1920’s and the people of Iraq began to demand independence from Britain. After World War I, Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to carve up Ottoman territory and grant independence to Iraq which was made up of three regions; the north, the center, and the south. The British, however, were faced by the key problem of defining the exact shape of the new Iraqi nation, which included 20 percent Kurds in the north and 65 percent Shiite Muslims in the south. Both were ruled by a minority Sunni upper class in the central part of the country who were also living among Shia neighbors.

The anti-British revolt in 1920 was put down and a puppet monarch, King Faisal I was installed. Thus the fatal mistake of allowing the minority to rule a dissatisfied majority was committed. King Faisal who was nothing more than a polished Sunni Arab officer was treated suspiciously by Kurds and Shiites alike. This situation was the perfect recipe for civil unrest, and by the time a revolution toppled the monarchy in 1958, it paved the way for at least nine Shiite revolts and several pogroms. The Shi’ites clearly had had enough of Sunni rule and wanted to have a say in their own government.

The suffering of the Shi’ites had only begun. A Sunni government meant that Sunnis who saw themselves isolated and deprived of the support of the majority had to shield themselves behind gun turrets, their vast intelligence network and torture apparatus. This was the only means of preserving their grip on power, thus creating an atmosphere of mutual hatred intensified by the military approach of the government where there are no channels of communication between state and people.

Successive governments ruled Iraq since then, but the formula has stayed the same; minority Sunnis ruling the Majority Shi’ites in a state of utter despotism. This consistent trend paved the way for the rise of Saddam Hussein Al Tikriti.

The Ba’ath party only exacerbated the situation. Shi’ites were starting to consider their old times of oppression incomparable to their present state where they had become “afraid not to be afraid” of Saddam’s sheer love for bloodshed. Suddenly the Ottomans, the Mongols and the other oppressive rulers were being seen as angels of mercy in contrast with Saddam’s reign of terror. There was almost no hope in sight to end their thousand year suffering.

Saddam’s sectarian bias was apparent not only in the “ethnic cleansing” of the Shi’ites, but also in his support for groups that saw Shi’ites (and generally anyone not following their extremist beliefs) as infidels who had to be exterminated. These groups included Wahhabis (the radical Sunni sect to whom Osama Bin Laden is a subscriber). Wahhabis had received the green light to operate within Iraq and even in such Shi’ite strongholds such as Karbala and Najaf by means of setting up offices and publishing books. All of this was being done at a time when a simple newsletter published by Shi’ites was a crime punishable by death. Saddam’s support for Wahhabis also helped the emergence of people such as Sheikh Ahamd Al Kubaisy who was also funded by elements in the Gulf region. Sheikh Al Kubaisy openly attacked Iraqi opposition groups and was a known supporter for Saddam’s regime. Ironically, however, Sheikh Al Kubaisy has now emerged as an opposition figure in order to take advantage of the situation, possibly relying on the historical trend of handing the government over to the minority Sunnis despite his radical views and Wahhabi tendencies.

This time around, however, we must not repeat the old mistake commited by the British. Doing so will without a doubt create a very difficult situation for the coalition forces and place them at opposite ends with the Majority Shi’ites. Avoiding that mistake can only be achieved by changing the formula. The majority Shi’ite must be given their full rights beginning with the right of recognition as a majority with its respective power of representation at any future government.

If there are certain neighboring countries rejecting such a proposal and calling for yet another Sunni takeover in Iraq, it must be understood that such demands are certainly not taking the interest of the United States into consideration. Such calls will only lead to placing the coalition forces at a confrontational position with the majority Shi’ites, thus transforming them into invaders rather than liberators. This can almost certainly cause not only Iraq but also the entire region to be destabilized.

We must understand that there is an historic golden chance to establish a base for cooperation between the East and the West by creating a modern Iraqi government which acts as a model state which bridges the gap between civilizations and serves the interest of all parties under a just democratic system. A system where the majority get their lawful rights while minorities are guaranteed proper representation as well, because this is the only way we will have fulfilled our promise of bringing peace and justice to the people of Iraq.

Sayed Mahdi Almodarresi


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