This post is part of a “Blog Symposium” being led by Dave Schuler, of The Glittering Eye blog. Also taking part are Michael Cook, the Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University; James Hamilton, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego; Rasheed Abou Al-Samh, a Saudi-American journalist based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, who also blogs at Rasheed’s World; and Shivaji Sondhi, a professor of physics at Princeton University. We’re offering our own views on the situation in Iraq and inviting comment, criticism, correction.

This post is the first of several that seek to identify the ‘players’ involved in Iraq and finding a solution—or perhaps only avoiding a disaster—for Iraq’s problems.

You Can’t Tell the Players without a Score Card
Actually, you can’t tell the game…

The conflict in Iraq is multi-faceted. It clearly has more players than the US and the myriad Iraqi factions. It’s also multi-dimensional, taking in not only religious differences among the players, but also their economic, political, and social aspirations.

This means that there are no simple solutions, no ‘magic bullet’ to solve the problems because the problems themselves are dynamic and constantly shifting.

In order to give an idea of the multi-dimensionality of the problems in Iraq, I’d like to give a breakdown of the interested parties or, as modern diplomatic cant has it, the ‘stakeholders’. I don’t intend to give deep analysis to each of the players, noting their playing records, their batting averages, their values in a future trade. Rather, this is meant to be a simple roster. Some of the players are more important than others; some are able to bat above their averages in certain circumstances; some are major threats to any opposing team.


When seeking to simplify the picture of Iraq and its populations, like Gaul it is conveniently divided into three parts: Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi’is. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it really doesn’t go very far.

Kurds, for instance, come in both Sunni and Shi’a varieties. While the Kurdish Shi’a are a minority within the Kurdish population, they can be seen as part of the Sunni/Shi’a balancing act. Their familial relationships cross national borders, from Syria and Iran to Turkey and Armenia. Each brings a different perspective to the mix, flavored not only by their individual histories, but the histories of Kurds in those countries and in their expatriate communities in Europe and the US.

The Arab Shi’a are themselves divided, ranging from the quietist Shi’ism of Al-Sistani—who prefers no role for religious leadership in politics, based on his Akhbari interpretation of Islam, to the Khomeinist politicization endorsed by Al-Sadr from his ‘Usuli background. Ethnically, Iraqi Shi’i are both Arab and Persian, with a huge portion being a mixture of both. These perceived identities are important as they help define which way individuals and their assorted groupings will move when faced with different pressures.

The Sunni Arabs are more homogeneous in both their ethnicity and religion, but not monolithically so. Many of the families and tribes are transnational. Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, for instance, Vice President of Iraq during the transitional Iraqi Interim Government (2004-2005) is a member of the Beni Shamar, the tribe of the Al-Rashid, rulers of the Najd before the Al-Saud conquered them. Members of the Aneizi /’Unayza tribal confederation range from northern Syria to Yemen, with strong presence in Jordan and Iraq. This explains, in part, why Arabs from different countries take personally what happens in Iraq.
Iraq has other ethnicities and religious identities, though they are very much minorities. They are not able to exert their political preferences through violence, having to rely more on diplomacy and alliances with more powerful groups who may protect their interests. Among these are the Turcoman and Circassian groups, a small and dwindling Jewish population, and assorted Christian groupings found rarely outside the region.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis have many irons in this fire. There are, of course, the Salafists who see everything through religion-tinted glasses and see an existential battle looming between the Sunni and Shi’i.

Then there are the Saudi Shi’i, themselves coming in different sectarian and political flavors. The Ismailis in the far southwest of the country don’t share much with the Akhbari and ‘Usuli Shi’i of the Eastern Province, other than having been on the short end of the development stick. The Shi’i are intermarried up and down the Gulf coasts. They do not share a single opinion about what is the correct path, or even what is best for them in their own circumstances.

There are Saudi Sunnis who are less apocalyptic in their view of Iraq, of course. Many of them see the issue as one of politics cloaked in religious guise and are able to focus on the political. Here too, though, there are differences, including within the Al-Saud family. Some see the issue purely in terms of geopolitics. They see an aggressive and expansionist Iran (which has historical claims to the entirety of Bahrain and various islands and gas fields claimed by the other Gulf States) threatening to coerce control of the Gulf and its oil production in ways unfavorable to the Arabs. (Also not to be discounted is the historical enmity between Arabs and Persians, or between Arabs and Turks, for that matter.)

Saudi Arabia is threatened by Iran in many ways, from Iranian calls for the overthrow of the Al-Saud as heretical to a fear of direct military or terrorist attacks on oil production facilities. Militarily, the Saudis are unable to go to war against the far larger Iranian army, though they do have sufficient skills and forces to afford certain protections. The government also fears the development of a ‘fifth column’ within Eastern Province Shi’i, as they experienced back in 1979.

[Next up: The Gulf States, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey]

December:15:2006 - 14:35 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink
10 Responses to “Directions on Iraq: a Blogging Colloquium”
  1. 1
    The Glittering Eye Pinged With:
    December:15:2006 - 19:07 

    [...] In his contribution to the colloquium John Burgess provides an introduction to some of the many interest groups in the Middle East. In the first part he introduces the major sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The opening contributions in the colloquium are from James Hamilton, Michael Cook and Shivaji Sondhi, and Rasheed Abou Al-Samh. [...]

  2. 2
    mark safranski Said:
    December:15:2006 - 22:35 


    Are there any Sevener Shia in Iraq ? Or just KSA?

  3. 3
    John Said:
    December:15:2006 - 23:15 

    I’m sure there are, though I can’t give you an exact location. If I recall correctly, there are enclaves both in the desert area between Syria and Iraq, as well as in the mountains in the east. Most Iraqi Shi’a are Twelvers, though.

    The majority of Saudi Shi’a are Twelvers, with the Sevener Ismailis mostly restricted to the southwest of the country.

  4. 4
    lirun Said:
    December:16:2006 - 04:03 

    has there been any talk of cantons as an option for resolution?

  5. 5
    John Said:
    December:16:2006 - 08:50 

    I’ve not heard of cantons being suggested. I’m not sure it would particularly work, unless there were many different ones and residents self-selected for however they defined themselves.

  6. 6
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    December:22:2006 - 06:52 


    When you list the Salafists, whom are you referring to?
    The followers of al Qaeda or the teachers from Egypt?
    Why do you not list the official Wahhabists the royal
    family supports? There has been a recent tendency to
    conflate these two because of the role of Egyptian
    Salafists in the Saudi educational system, these guys
    having fled from persecution in Egypt, and, of course,
    the term “Wahhabism” is disliked by the Saudis. But
    these are distinct categories.

  7. 7
    John Said:
    December:22:2006 - 10:33 

    The terms are confusing. I use ‘Wahhabist’ to refer to those who follow a more-or-less undiluted interpretation as what Abdul Wahhab was preaching. There’s not a whole lot of that around, though, as there has been lots of admixture from both Egyptian and Syrian salafists. Just how to define that is a good question.

    I don’t think ‘Wahhabi’ is a very useful term anymore. ‘Salafist’ is hardly better. Both need a lot of description to determine just what’s being discussed. Too often, both terms are simply used as terms of approbation, not to usefully discuss much.

  8. 8
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    December:22:2006 - 16:51 

    Well, actually the term “Wahhabist” is not usually used with approbation. It is used as a term of denigration by those who perceive Saudi funding or support for non-local radical Islamists in their countries, e.g. Russian descriptions of non-Chechen Muslims supporting the Chechen revolt. The term was also widely used to describe the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, including those led by Osama bin Laden who was selected by Turki bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Sa’ud to go there. Because the official Saudis hate the term and prefer the Arab equivalent of “Unitarian,” it has become less and less used, although it remains applicable to the hard core official Saudi mullahs.

    “Salafism” is used by those who admire its followers. I think this is one reason we see this term increasingly replacing “Wahhabis.” But in the context of Saudi Arabia this is very misleading.

  9. 9
    Barkley Rosser Said:
    December:22:2006 - 17:57 

    Let us be precise. The principal point advocated by Mohammed ibn Wahhad was that a Muslim nation should adopt as its law code the strictest of the four main versions of the Sunni Shari’as, the Hanbali. Within Saudi Arabia it is also identified with supporting rule by the Sa’ud family, who have since about 1740 accepted this doctrine.

    Salafism is not clearly identified with advocacy of any particular Shari’a code, although Salafist clearly think that at least some Sunni Shari’a code should be adopted and strictly adhered to. It is true in the KSA, however, that things have gotten clouded given the long residency there and penentration of the education system of the Salafist refugees from Egypt (and to a lesser degree from Syria).

  10. 10
    John Said:
    December:23:2006 - 11:26 

    Agreed. ‘Salafists’ (which means “predecessors” or “early generations”) can come from any of the four schools or madhabs. They are usually noted as coming from the Hanbali school, though the term itself implies a period prior to the formation of any of the schools.

    As the term ‘Wahhabi’ has come to imply a negative form of fundamentalism, used by opposition figures to describe any sort of fundamentalism they dislike, so has ‘salafist’ become a term of denegration.

    The fundamentalist Saudis prefer to use the term ‘Muwahhidun’ (those who believe in the unity of God, or as you put it, ‘Unitarian’) to describe themselves.

    As words are used—and abused—their meanings and connotations change. We should try to be clear about just what we’re talking about if context doesn’t make it clear.

    In the KSA, many—if not all—Saudis would consider themselves fundamentalist. They might not even object to the term ‘salfist’ or ‘wahhabi’, but what they mean by it is not necessarily what it meant by some of the hardline preachers, official or not.

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