During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s the oil rich coastal Iraqi city of Basra was devastated both in terms of its human population and its physical infrastructure. After the US led war on Iraq in 1990, the Shi’a Muslim majority city and wider region openly rebelled against the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. This rebellion was mercilessly quashed as was another attempted rebellion in 1999.
During the 1990s, much of the internal narrative issued by Basra’s Shi’a rebels, the Iranian narrative on the matter and ironically also the American narrative, all pointed to a repressive sectarian (aka anti-Shi’a) crackdown by the Sunni Muslim President Saddam Hussein. While it is beyond doubt that Saddam’s government directly targeted prominent Shi’a clerics and political figures during the crackdown, it is also true that many of these leaders were openly conspiring against the legitimate central government.
Today, Iraq is ruled by a Shi’a Prime Minister and a majority Shi’a parliament and in spite of this very different political reality vis-a-vis the Saddam years, history appears to be on the verge of repeating in many respects. For over a week, violent protests in Basra against the generally poor economic conditions of the nation have become less of a collective political protest but more of a regional agitation against the current government whose status is something of a prolonged interim government as a manual recount of this year’s parliamentary ballots continues to drag on.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who himself was a member of the Basra based Islamic Dawa Party during the height of Saddam’s 1980s and 1990s crackdown on the Shi’a group now finds himself in a similar situation as Saddam in so far as al-Abadi has now sent the armed forces into Basra in order to attempt and restore order in the midst of an early stage rebellion that shows no signs of stopping.
Without taking credit for having a hand in the uprising, it is widely presumed that political leader and Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is at least partly behind the rebellion as many of his political enemies have been targeted by rioters while he has been vocal regarding the fact that he believes the recount of votes from the election in which his coalition won a plurality is designed to minimise his electoral impact.
During the last election, al-Sadr coalesced around a rather awkward group of Shi’a politicians, anti-Iranian politicians (something somewhat unusual but by no means unheard of in Iraq’s Shi’a Islamic politics), radical feminist groups and the always controversial Iraqi Communist party (known more for its open opposition to Arab Nationalism), all while courting Kurdish groups from the opposite end of the country. What this proved more than anything is that while al-Sadr’s family background is clearly ideological and arguably highly sectarian, when it comes to his political manoeuvring, he excels at pandering to the downtrodden, the angry and the disenfranchised although without providing much of a meaningful solution to the problems of this rag-tag socio-political coalition. Clearly such a reality is as much of a threat to the weak Shi’a Prime Minister al-Abadi as it was to the strongman presidential rule of the Sunni Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Putting himself in a unique position of alienating Iran, Syria, the United States and now the current Iraqi government, Sadr’s obstructionist role is much the same as that of his powerful family during the Saddam years – after all the Sadr clan had open doctrinal differences with the Islamic Revolutionaries in Iran dating back to the early 1980s. The difference today is that one cannot blame a Sunni Iraqi leader for cracking down on the Shi’a population of Basra because the Iraqi government is now a Shi’a majority government led by a man with close ideological links to prominent movements which originated in Basra.
Inversely, while Saddam blamed Iranian elements for fomenting rebellion in Basra during his time in power, today such an allegation would not hold any water as Iran is a close and important ally of both the current government and Sadr’s main rival, the Iraqi Fatah Alliance led by the fluent Persian/Farsi speaker Hadi Al-Amiri.
What this proves is that Iraq’s internal problems were always more complex than a “Shi’a versus Sunni” narrative and also more complex than an “Arab vs. Iranian” narrative. The fact of the matter is that the modern borders of Iraq which were drawn in 1916 in the secret Anglo-French agreements between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot are in reality an amalgamation of three Ottoman Vilayets (provinces) which each had (and retain) unique social, ethnic, religious and cultural dynamics.
In this sense, it is in many ways more helpful to think of Iraq as a country divided by the former Vilayet of Basra, the former Vilayet of Baghdad and the former Vilayet of Mosul, rather than a country strictly divided on Sunni vs. Shi’a lines let along on Arab vs. Kurdish lines. With some suggesting that a regional civil war could be the outcome of the current Basra rebellion if matters are not brought under control by the legitimate security services, it speaks for itself that the decades old narratives regarding Saddam’s position vis-a-vis Basra clearly need to be revised.
In this sense, while current events neither vindicate nor condemn any specific leaders or political movements of the recent past, they do serve as a reminder that the simplistic sectarian narrative was always insufficient at best and patently dishonest when taken to its logical extreme.