Three years ago, the influential journal Foreign Affairs published an article on Iraq entitled “The Rollback Fantasy.” It was a typically long and sober piece, challenging the thinking of those who were arguing for a United States role in toppling Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein. But unfortunately, the article contained its own odd piece of fantasy: In referring to “Iraq’s Sunni majority,” it managed to get one of the most basic pieces of demographic information about Iraq exactly backward. There is no Sunni majority. In proclaiming that the United States should back this alleged majority in a post-Saddam Iraq, while opposing either “Kurdish or Shi’ite bids for hegemony over the Sunnis,” the magazine garbled its analysis. The Sunni Arabs who now govern Iraq make up no more than 17 percent of the population. As Foreign Affairs’ editors noted two issues later: “Most Iraqis are Shi’ites. Our apologies.”
In fact, as a quick look at a good almanac will tell you, Shi’ite Muslims make up at least 60 percent of Iraq’s population, while Sunni Muslims (including Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs) are no more than 37 percent. These are important distinctions — perhaps the most crucial facts to know about Iraq if one is speculating about a post-Saddam future for the country, as much of official Washington is these days.
Yet here was Henry Kissinger popping up on the op-ed page of The Washington Post in January referring to “the Sunni majority, which now dominates Iraq” and, for good measure, adding an observation about “the Shi’ite minority in the south.” It seems to be a mistake that has staying power. A Washington Post editorial last spring also made mention of “minority Shi’ites from the south.” And last month, New York Times reporter Todd S. Purdum worried in print “that a change in regime could leave Iraq’s Shi’ite minority more empowered.”
Neither the Post nor the Times has corrected the mistake, so we can surely expect to see more references in the U.S. press to a Shi’ite minority that does not exist — not in the south of Iraq, not in the north, not in the country as a whole. Most Iraqis are Shi’ites. And it matters. For all the plans that are now being hotly discussed about turning U.S. military might against the Iraqi regime, there is widespread confusion about what political outcome is desirable and what is realistic. If Saddam were removed from power, would the United States feel compelled to prevent the majority Shi’ites from forming a new Islamic state? What kind of “axis of evil” would the Bush administration face if both Iran and Iraq were controlled by Shi’ite clerics? What are the alternatives?
The same U.S. newspapers that are misguided about Iraq’s demographics have been calling the Iraqi National Congress “the Iraqi opposition.” But the INC is the active opposition’s least-significant part: It has not mounted any military efforts in Iraq since September 1996. The group is based in London and is made up mostly of families who fled Iraq after the fall of the British-imposed monarchy in 1958. They are mainly Sunni Arabs – just like much of Saddam’s regime — and thus are not representative of the Iraqi majority.
Meanwhile, it’s been Shi’ite rebel groups in southern Iraq that have attempted to attack the “pillars” of Saddam’s regime. In December 1996, a group calling itself al-Nahda (Renaissance) wounded Saddam’s eldest son and security chief, Uday, a notorious enforcer who is credibly accused of using torture against suspected dissidents. In 1998, Shi’ite rebels farther south threw hand grenades at Izzat Ibrahim, Saddam’s second-in command in the Baath Party’s ruling Revolutionary Command Council (The grenades missed their target).
In fact, a quiet war has been under way between Saddam’s security forces and Shi’ite clerics in southern Iraq. In a bloody crackdown from April 1998 to February 1999, three grand ayatollahs were killed in gangland-style assassinations. In each case, the cleric had been handpicked by Saddam to lead Iraq’s Shi’ites. But each one had defied Saddam by encouraging Shi’ite Muslims to return to their local mosques to receive prayers instead of receiving them through Iraqi state television. The clerics had also asked
Saddam to release other religious leaders from imprisonment.
After Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Sadr was gunned down with his two sons on the road to Najaf, Shi’ites from Beirut to Tehran marched in the streets denouncing Saddam. Inside Iraq, some brave Shiites took to the streets, even in cities as far north as “Saddam City,” a Shi’ite slum on the [outskirts] of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces opened fire there, reportedly killing 54 people.
The Shi’ites could be Saddam’s Achilles’ heel, but what will U.S. policy be toward the enemies of our enemy? Policy makers and pundits have voiced concern about whether the instability and “fragmentation” that might follow Saddam’s overthrow would be worse than Saddam’s continued rule. Neighboring Turkey fears the possibility that Iraqi Kurds in the north might attempt to secede, thus fomenting Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. The United States is concerned with the specter of Iraq’s Shiites turning either all or most of Iraq into a pro-Iranian Islamic state. Yet as long as the United States remains distant from Shi’ite opposition groups, the opposition to Saddam will remain divided — and insignificant.
If only those troublesome Shiites really were a minority, as Henry Kissinger and some in the press would have us believe, the answers might be simpler. But hasn’t Kissinger always insisted on “realism” in foreign
policy? Or did he mean magical realism?