It Is the Partition of Iraq that Would Be Truly "Artificial"

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Mr. Visser, D. Phil., is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website www.historiae.org. His latest books are Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (2005), and, edited with Gareth Stansfield, An Iraq of Its Regions: Cornerstones of a Federal Democracy? (2007).

A steady stream of US commentators keep expressing support for the idea of some kind of ethnic partition, be it “soft” or “hard,” of Iraq. Despite the repeated warnings against division by military advisors and experts in humanitarian aid, the partition theme simply refuses to fade away from the American debate. One possible explanation for the strong attraction of the partitionist propaganda is its claim to resurrect what are taken to be “the long lines of history”; according to the partitionist canon, the Iraqis cannot live together because they have never done so in the past – at least not of their “free will.” Iraq is seen as “artificial,” a tripartite division is what is “natural.”

No appeal to history could have been more ironic. Had these proponents of partition bothered to check the facts they would have found that the long-term trends in Iraqi history point in exactly the opposite direction of what they advocate. Those who take the trouble to examine the weak links in the partitionist argument (Iraq’s monarchical era from 1921 to 1958, and pretty much everything prior to 1914) will find that not only does the country have a long history of coexistence, it also has considerable pre-modern roots as a proto-region – centralized under Baghdad, and associated with the name “Iraq.”

There are at least three critical mistakes in the standard partitionist account of Iraqi history. The first has to do with sect and territory. Partitionists commonly assume that Iraq was created from three Ottoman provinces which each had their ethnic and sectarian characteristics – Basra (Shiite); Baghdad (Sunni); Mosul (Kurdish). This is blatantly untrue. Basra was dominated demographically by Shiites, but the line of division between Basra and Baghdad was quite close to the Gulf, so there were in fact more Shiites in Baghdad, where all the Shiite holy cities were located as well. If anything, the Shiites were slightly better integrated in the politics of Baghdad than in Basra; in neither area was there a “Shiite state” or any call for one. Mosul, for its part, was essentially divided among Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and other smaller groups. Among historians, this account is uncontroversial.  It is amply and unequivocally documented in a variety of British and Ottoman sources from the time of World War I. Only sheer intellectual laziness can account for the widespread notion of a pre-Ottoman Iraq divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The second error in partitionist versions of Iraqi history is the claim that the situation in 1914 - at which point the area was subdivided into three provinces - represented the eternal configuration of pre-modern Iraq. But that subdivision dated back only thirty years! Before 1884, there had been long intervals of administrative unity between the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, sometimes including Mosul as well. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, under local rulers like Sulayman the Great (a pasha of Baghdad), the administrative map of Iraq approximated the modern-day situation. And even when there was formal separation between two or three entities, Baghdad repeatedly functioned as a supervisory “regional” capital for the entire area; appeals courts, military affairs and customs administration were among the areas of government where Baghdad had wider responsibilities and prerogatives beyond its own provincial borders.

The third and perhaps most serious error in the partitionist take on Iraqi history is the idea that the name of the country was somehow “invented” in 1920, or “borrowed” from some far-distant past. This is another contention found exclusively among armchair historians who have never seen actual documents from the period they talk about. The reason why no serious area specialist subscribes to this view is that it is impossible to maintain once one looks into written materials from before 1914. The word “Iraq” is simply all over the place. It can be found in the writings of British consuls like J.G. Lorimer; in the works of Persian diplomats such as Muhammad Hasan Khan Badi; and in the journal articles of many local intellectuals, including for example Anistas Mari al-Karmili. How can partitionists explain that already in 1923 – a mere two years after Iraq had supposedly been “invented” – a Shiite activist from Hilla, Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir, would write passionately about the strength of “Iraqi” nationalism among the people of Mosul? Was that the result of indoctrination by the British (whom Basir hated), or by King Faysal (who hardly had made any impact on the institutions of state yet) or perhaps the Baath party (which did not exist)? For the duration of the monarchy, sectarian relations in Iraq would remain overwhelmingly peaceable, if not entirely frictionless; only the gradual advance of Kurdish nationalism shows any convincing correlation with the plans being proposed by US partitionists today.

When confronted with these facts, partitionists tend to react in one of two ways. Most ignore the information altogether, preferring to cling to the idea of an “artificial” Iraq simply because that provides them with peace of mind. In predictable fashion, despite the overwhelming evidence, they go on ranting: “Iraq was cobbled together .…” The more sophisticated partitionist response is to accept the facts but to dismiss history as irrelevant in view of the horrific scale of the sectarian killings being perpetrated in today’s Iraq. The problem with that sort of approach is that, once the historical perspective is abandoned, the specter of myopia emerges. It becomes impossible to distinguish between long-term trends and more ephemeral (albeit horribly violent) eruptions. Those who choose to reduce Iraqi politics to the hysteria unleashed by the Samarra bombings in February 2006 risk making assumptions and policy decisions with wide-ranging implications based on a bout of temporary xenophobia instead of the true basic drivers of Iraqi politics. After all, when the false historical argument in favor of partition is subtracted, there really is not much left. Very few Iraqis south of Kurdistan are asking for sectarian division, none of the regional powers want it (except possibly Iran and Kuwait), and the wider Arab and Islamic worlds generally are against it (apart from al-Qaida, which would finally obtain its long-coveted manifest evidence of a Western conspiracy against the Muslim world).

Perhaps the greatest irony of the partitionist propaganda is the idea that what we are seeing today is somehow “natural” and an echo of past experiences in Iraqi politics. Any serious empirical historical investigation will show that it is the concept of three ethnic statelets – not the idea of a unified Iraq state with its capital in Baghdad – that lacks historical resonance. In a context when so many critical questions are being asked about the “short-lived” unitary state in Iraq, it is absolutely mind-boggling that no one has thought of shifting the burden of proof to the partitionists. Two out of three of their proposed statelets have never existed, and their targeted audiences have never asked for them. Why then should anyone expect such a thoroughly artificial system to become more successful, resistant against external and internal challenges, and politically stable than the existing one?

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Reidar Visser - 9/25/2007

Separatism is primarily a phenomenon found in the Kurdish areas, which is also acknowledged in the original text. People killing each other does not automatically mean that creating new borders is the best political solution – some of the most ardent Iraqi nationalists are in fact found in the Turkmen and Chaldean Christian communities. Friedmann’s point posit an essentialist, stereotypic and very 1920s view of ethno-religious groups (“Shiites are such and such”, “Jews are such and such” etc.) which is so full of methodological pitfalls that it is rather hard to engage with in this kind of format. Suffice to say here that Iraq had several Shiite premiers during the monarchy without any eruption of sectarian disturbances of the kind postulated by the “Sunnis won’t accept Shiite leaders” theory.

Reidar Visser - 9/25/2007

Separatism is primarily a phenomenon found in the Kurdish areas, which is also acknowledged in the original text. People killing each other does not automatically mean that creating new borders is the best political solution – some of the most ardent Iraqi nationalists are in fact found in the Turkmen and Chaldean Christian communities. Friedmann’s point posit an essentialist, stereotypic and very 1920s view of ethno-religious groups (“Shiites are such and such”, “Jews are such and such” etc.) which is so full of methodological pitfalls that it is rather hard to engage with in this kind of format. Suffice to say here that Iraq had several Shiite premiers during the monarchy without any eruption of sectarian disturbances of the kind postulated by the “Sunnis won’t accept Shiite leaders” theory.

Elliott Aron Green - 9/15/2007

Dr Visser asks rhetorically: Who says there needs to be sectarian domination?

I don't say it, nor does N Friedman say it. However, there seem to be quite a few well armed folk in Iraq who do insist on domination by their sect or faction. As to the Kurds, the reports that I get from Iraqi Kurdistan point to a fervent desire for independence. I have read that the Iraqi national flag does not fly in Iraqi Kurdistan, rather the Kurdish national flag flies there.

Further, I have read that there have been many attacks on the Assyrian & Chaldean Christians in Iraq, as well as on Turkomans, attacks usually or always perpetrated by Sunni Arabs, although the Turkomans may be Sunnis for all that I know.

What does Dr Visser propose to do about people who don't want to be part of a united Iraq, especially if it means being dominated by another sect or nationality? Are such people, who resist or might oppose in some way a united Iraq, supposed to be suppressed by armed force? It's not up to me or N Friedman or Fahrettin or even you to decide what happens in Iraq. If too many strongly armed troops oppose a unified Iraq, then only massive force can bring such a unified state about by suppressing the dissident forces. Is Visser ready to use military force on a massive scale?

On the other hand, is it rational to expect the Shi`ites who have been suppressed so long and have suffered so much in the past four years to want to accept the Sunni Arabs as equal in decision-making power even though the latter are a minority in the population. And could Visser please respond to Friedman's points?

N. Friedman - 9/10/2007


A nice argument.

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/10/2007

Ok, divide up Iraq. Iran gets Basra and the oil, Baghdat becomes independant, Mosul is divided up among Turks (the West calls them Turkomans so that people do not realize they are normal Turks British greed for oil left on the wrong side of the border) Kurds and Arabs. Arabs join Baghdat, Turks join Turkey. Kurds spend the next 200 years fighting Arabs Turks Persians each other and anybody else they'll find in the neighborhood.

1000 billion US Dollars to give Iraqs' oil to the Persians. Many are Allah's ways, and they are all just.

N. Friedman - 9/10/2007

Mr. Visser,

My gut reaction is that the real issue that makes unity difficult, if not impossible, is that it would mean Shi'a rule over a large number of Sunnis.

I recall listening to a professor from Birzeit University state - and I am paraphrasing but this is pretty close to the original - that Shi'a cannot rule Arabs, by which he seemed to be saying that Shi'a rule over Sunnis is against the natural order of things. That coincides with my understanding of the extreme prejudices that drive the entire region - most especially between the two sects - and which make resolving disputes nearly impossible when there is any divide that remotely involves religion.

I might note: in Islam, the divide between Shi'a and Sunni originates in what, to outsiders, appears to be a political question but, in the Islamic conception of religion, is really a, if not the, fundamental religious question, namely, who leads the umma in a rightly guided manner. That original issue has not entirely faded with time notwithstanding the other seemingly more religious questions that divide the two sects.

So, I cannot imagine it being at all easy for Sunni Muslims to accept Shi'a rule. The same in reverse, noting that, as Goldhizer explains in considerable detail, Sunni rule over Shi'a led to a belief system invovling the feigning of belief, which became a mandatory doctrine for Shi'a (i.e. the taquiya doctrine) for that very reason.

The point is that the Shi'a mostly came, in a strange way, to accept Sunni dominance - living a double life that feigned adherence - but Sunni's have not acquiesced for long in Shi'a rule and, as is well known, the taquiya doctrine is not mandatory for Sunnis.

Reidar Visser - 9/10/2007

A few comments to the points raised by Elliott Aron Green. First, factual matters: The reference to the shaykh of Kuwait probably has to do with the repeated Ottoman attempts to appoint him as sub-governor of Kuwait and the imaginary “Najd sub-governorate” (rather than the vilayet of Basra). The majority of Nestorians arrived in Mosul as refugees after the First World War. Mosul: the idea of keeping it united with Baghdad was energetically promoted by Arnold Wilson from the autumn of 1918, when he wrote, “The Turkish division of Iraq into separate vilayets was neither dictated by topographical necessity nor based on political or racial divergencies; not did the boundary line follow any natural line of cleavage. The division was made by the Turks…solely for the lack of adequate communication” (telegram dated 15 September 1918). This position was backed up by all of Wilson’s successors in Baghdad in the 1920s (i.e. Percy Cox and Henry Dobbs); the Mosul question arose primarily out of the Turkish demands, which is a different matter altogether.

But the more fundamental question is this: who says there needs to be sectarian domination? Who says acknowledgement of ethnic diversity is antithetical to a common national spirit? True, Faysal recognised at the end of his reign that things were far from perfect in terms of nation-building, but the aspiration to national cohesion was clearly there – both on the part of Faysal, and not least among many of his subjects whose Iraqi nationalist writings antedated the king’s arrival in 1921.

Elliott Aron Green - 9/10/2007

somehow the title that I gave to my previous post was altered back to the title of other posts of mine on hnn

Elliott Aron Green - 9/10/2007

I am willing to accept Dr Visser's view of the political history --under Ottoman rule-- of the vilayets of Mosul, Basra, & Baghdad. Nevertheless, I get the feeling that Visser too is overlooking relevant history. For instance, I have read that the vilayet of Basra was once governed by the Shaykh of Kuwait by assignment of the Ottoman central government.

Further, Visser seems to admit that the vilayet of Mosul had a preponderance of non-Arab population, especially Kurds. Curiously, he mentions the Chaldean Christians, Uniates with the Roman Catholic church, but forgets about the Nestorian Christian Assyrians, from whom the Chaldean uniates emerged.

Another thing he seems to forget is that the vilayet of Mosul was originally designated to be part of the remainder of Turkey after WW One. This was until the British found oil in the region and decided that it should be kept as part of Iraq where they were going to have a certain domination since Iraq was to be a territory mandated to the UK. Further, the post-WW One treaties of Sevres and/or Lausanne are supposed to have envisaged eventual Kurdish independence or autonomy in the vilayet of Mosul --which was never granted. Now, if I am right, then 1/3 of Visser's argument falls away. That's a big piece. By the way, perhaps contradicting some of what I have written or suggested, Ofrah Bengio, the Israeli historian of Iraq,
argues that in 1925, King Faisal I wanted the Mosul vilayet with its Kurdish majority joined to Iraq. This was because the Kurds were overwhelmingly Sunnis and he believed that the Sunni Kurds would help the Sunni Arabs balance out the Shi`ite Arab majority in the kingdom.

Next, on to Basra & Baghdad. Visser seems to admit that both the Basra & Baghdad vilayets had a Shi`ite majority. But he knows that both regions were long dominated by Sunnis, probably going back to the medieval caliphates [except for the Mongol invasions, occasional Persian Shi`ite rule, etc]. The Ottoman empire was Sunni as was the Hashemite royal house which the British enthroned in Baghdad. Then, too, Saddam Hussein's regime was Sunni dominated. And the majority Shi`ites were always subordinate and discriminated against by the Sunni minority in all of those dispensations mentioned. Are the Arab Sunnis today ready to be dominated democratically by the Shi`ite majority?? Are the Shi`ites --the majority-- ready to go back to their traditionally subordinate status vis-a-vis the Sunni minority?? If the Sunnis are ready to concede, then the problem would be eliminated. And Visser would be vindicated. But that's a big if, especially since outside Sunni factors might oppose it.

Lastly, there's another piece of evidence that Visser overlooks. This is a memorandum of King Faisal I written on the eve of the end of the British mandate [1932]. Whereas Visser disregards it, it is cited by Ofrah Bengio [from `Abdul-Razaq al-Husni]. Faisal wrote that his big regret was his failure to make Iraq into a unified nation. He was well aware of the divisions among Sunnis, Shi`ites, Kurds, Jews, Assyrians, Turkomans, etc. How does Faisal's memoir fit into Visser's argument? Or doesn't it fit?