Misunderstanding Iraq’s Tribal Factions

Christopher Hitchens has an interesting piece noting that, despite Iraq having been constantly in the news for over fifteen years now, the media still don’t understand the country’s demographic factions.

Tribal Ignorance – What you think you know about Iraq’s factions is all wrong

When it comes to Iraq, one of the most boring and philistine habits of our media is the insistence on using partitionist and segregationist language that most journalists would (I hope) scorn to employ if they were discussing a society they actually knew. It is the same mistake that disfigured the coverage of the Bosnian war, where every consumer of news was made to understand that there was fighting between Serbs, Croats, and “Muslims.” There are two apples and one orange in that basket, as any fool should be able to see. Serbian and Croatian are national differences, which track very closely with the distinction between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic beliefs. Many Muslims are Bosnian, but not all Bosnians are Muslim. And in fact, the Bosnian forces in the late war were those which most repudiated any confessional definition. (And when did you ever hear the media saying that, “Today the Orthodox shelled Sarajevo,” or, “Yesterday the Catholics bombarded Mostar”?)

In Iraq there are also two apples and one orange in the media-coverage basket (as well as many important fruits that, as I mentioned above, are never specified). To be a Sunni or a Shiite is to follow one or another Muslim obedience, but to be a Kurd is to be a member of a large non-Arab ethnicity as well as to be, in the vast majority of cases, a Sunni. Thus, by any measure of accuracy, the “Sunni” turnout in the weekend’s referendum on the constitution was impressively large, very well-organized, and quite strongly in favor of a “yes” vote. Is that the way you remember it being reported? I thought not. Well, then, learn to think for yourself.

This same tribal habit of mind—tribal on our part, I mean, not on the part of the Iraqis—allows some people to make the lazy assumption that the liberation of Iraq has created these differences, or intensified them, rather than sought to compose and heal them. The Saddam Hussein regime was based on a minority of a minority—a Mafia clique based in and around the city of Tikrit—and it stayed in power not by being “secular” or multiethnic but by being sectarian and by playing the card of divide and rule. It treated all the inhabitants of the country as its personal property, and it made lifelong enemies among all communities and all confessional groups. The differences between these groups are now specified in a constitution, perhaps a bit more than I would like, but are at least specified in order that no group is to be left out, or classified as second-class.

A fair point and a trap that even those of us who know better usually fall into. The human mind likes to create simple category schemas to help us organize complicated information, so even when we “know” that we’re ridiculously oversimplying things, it’s still hard to resist.

There will soon be a comparative experiment to run. The Syrian Baathist dictatorship of Bashar Assad, which is also based on a tiny confessional minority—the Alawites—is currently entering its moribund stage. Its despotism and corruption to one side, it has made the vast additional mistake of supporting death squads in Lebanon as well as in Iraq. When Syrian Baathism implodes, and when the many Arab and Kurdish Muslims it has oppressed take revenge, and when its killers prowl the streets of Beirut as well as Damascus and Aleppo in the hope of saving what they can, will we hear again that this chaos and misery would never have happened if it were not for American imperialism?

I’m far from an expert in Iraqi politics but never had any inkling that the collapse of the Hussein family’s Baathist rule was anywhere near imminent. It’s undeniable that many of Iraq’s current problems would not exist absent the American-led invasion, as Saddam would still be in power and none of the myriad factions would have any choice but to submit. Outside of Saddam’s inner circle, Iraqis now have the potential for a far better life. The transition period, though, has been horrific and the promise of liberty is far from secured at this stage.

This is almost always the case, though. Despite the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, it took decades to achieve anything like universal equality in the United States and it was quite some time before the price paid in blood and treasure to shed the comparatively benign tyranny of George III was balanced. The defeat of Fascism in the 1940s came at the price of millions of lives and, in some cases, decades of financial ruin. Even the mostly bloodless collpase of Communism in the Soviet bloc did not go all that smoothly, with many yet to realize a better existence fifteen years later.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jahfjhasf says:

    it took decades to achieve anything like universal equality

    Decades? It took a century and a half!!!!

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yes, quite.

    Within decades, we at least had universal manhood suffrage for whites–which was probably all even the most egalitarian of the Founders had in mind.

    But it took nearly a century to achieve that on paper for blacks (Amendment XV) and much more than that for women (Amendment XIX). Substantive equality for blacks wasn’t achieved until at least the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act were settled law.

  3. slickdpdx says:

    Amir Taheri’s editorial in the NY POST today is also good on this topic. Taheri is usually good.


    If its not available at the POST its also likely to be at the Benador Associates website.

  4. Anderson says:

    Hitchens is such a dumbass sometimes. “Sunni” in discussions of Iraq 99% of the time means “Sunni Arab.” When people complain about “the Sunnis,” they’re understood not to be mentioning the Kurds.

    Very Hitchlike to take an obvious point, turn it into a brilliant insight, and then claim punditocratic superiority on that basis.

  5. jamal says:

    …and the reason its understood all wrong is because its reported all wrong by the mainstream media and politicians to give us a negative view of Iraqi people. Such propaganda feeds the delusion that Iraqi’s desire/need US/UK military intevention.

  6. jamal says:

    “Iraqis now have the potential for a far better life”

    While being bombed and slaughtered by US/UK missiles, landmines and bullets? … I dont think so!

  7. LJD says:

    Yeah Jamal,
    as opposed to being slaughtered by car bombs and bomb vests- cowardly attacks against women and children, civilians, by Arabs….
    as opposed to being strung up, beaten, electrocuted, or thrown off of rooftops by the dictator’s henchmen….
    I suppose U.S./U.K. food, medicine, and infrastructure is pretty terrible as well, compared to the, OIL for FOOD money pouring in, to Saddam’s pockets and palaces….