In-State Conflicts Threaten Iraq’s Existence

Mohammed Hussein

By Mohammed Hussein:

The Iraqi political situation is a proper case to show the challenges and problems of post-colonial states; problems that have not let these states create normal citizenship, strong economies and real sovereignty. Consequently, many of these states have faced civil wars, economic collapse and strong deadlock that have stopped their development and prosperity. Since 1958, Iraq has not gotten its political stability; there have always been wars, revolutions, uprisings, and internal conflicts. Within this instability, there have also been tyrannical governments to impose specific sectarian and ethnic identities upon all Iraqis. Therefore, these despotic identities have worsened the already-failed state, and they have forced Iraqi individuals to appeal to their ethnic and sectarian identities to fill the gap that the Iraqi modern state has created.

This article is an attempt to show how sectarianism and in-state conflicts have devastated Iraq’s existence by a constructivist approach. Constructivism is a school that focuses on the role of ideas, social norms and structures for analyzing actors’ attitudes and interests, and it could help in clarifying what is going on in Iraq. As Joseph S Nye and David A. Welch (international relations and political science specialists) showed, the method could be useful to show why Iraqis kill each other over their religions, sects, ethnicities and political ideologies while constructivism is a clear theory for examining the situation where leaders and their followers are focusing on their identities.(Nye& Welch p15).

Since the early1920s, when Iraq was built as a modern state, in-state conflicts have been a serious problem among Iraqi people, so ethnic and sectarian identities have been much stronger than Iraqi national identity. As a result, loyalties to Arab, Kurd, Turkman, Sunni, Shia are strongly expressed by political parties and platforms while you can hardly see an Iraqi political entity and party that has policies based on Iraqi citizenship. Especially, the majority of parties that have run Iraqi governments have tried to force their ethnic and sectarian agendas on people, regardless of their complexities and variety. This is what Saddam Hussein did by the Arabizing process and Prime Minister Nuri AL-Maliki has done by imposing his sectarian agenda upon the Iraqi people.

As the International Crises Group’s recent report explained, what Maliki’s government does by suppressing the Iraqi Sunni communities, is directly enhancing the opportunity of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) to drastically undermine it. ISIL, which is an Al-Qaida linked group, is always against modern-state institutions and it destroys them after winning controlling anywhere; it is now more welcome than Iraqi troops in some cities. According to the report, “Falluja residents held no brief for ISIL, but their hatred of the Iraqi army– seen as the instrument of a Shiite, sectarian regime, directed from Tehran, that discriminates against Sunnis in general and Anbar in particular – ran even deeper”(ICG).

The fight between Maliki’s government and ISIL is just one example about how in-state conflict is pushing the Iraqi national state towards more divisions. Sectarianism usually pushes back the sense of Iraqi citizenship, and it creates more divisions that could be manipulated for mobilizing people.

Usually, ethnic myths and symbols divide people. As Nye and Welch explained, when state authority gets weak, like the Iraqi government in Falluja, the population gets concerned about its survival and destiny. This uncertainty would be a great opportunity for sectarian elites to mobilize these terrified people by appealing to ethnic and sectarian symbols. (Nye &Welch, p.219) Here, it is easy to see how a charged situation of sectarian and ethnic problems emerges from the absence of a strong state.

Moreover, the weakness of state authority is not the only reason for the problem. Ethnic and sectarian conflicts sometimes come from reactions to governmental identity politics. In the Iraqi case, the government-imposed identity has triggered strongly organized reactions among people in almost every election since 2003, said Reidar Visser, an Iraq and Gulf analyst (Visser). Due to the fact that Iraqi governments have represented just one group of Iraqi people (before 2003 Arabic Sunni, and since then Islamic Shia), there have always been people who found themselves marginalized. Here, the fertile ground of sectarian and ethnic conflicts arises, according to Ameen Maalouf, a Lebanese special writer about identity problems.

In Maalouf’s book, In the Name of Identity, it is deeply analyzed how the problematic manipulation of identities leads individuals to fight each other and destroy their common destinies and historical links (P. 12-14). He said, “Where people feel their faith is threatened, it is their religious affiliation that seems to reflect their whole identity. But if their mother tongue or their ethnic group is in danger, then they fight ferociously against their own coreligionists” (P.13). This is what exactly happening in Iraq. Some Sunni religious groups fight the Iraqi government because they feel they are marginalized by a Shia-dominated government, and some Kurdish leaders occasionally threaten to split from Iraq because their “ethnic rights are not granted”, to quote Masud Barzani, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional president, in his last speech about the issue. It is perfectly a situation in which in-state conflicts are destroying the state. And it is what makes the Iraqi government unable to protect its citizens and secure its borders and sovereignty from its neighbor’s interventions. What Iraqi federal government now decides may not be implemented in province of Anbar and the Kurdistan region.

To elaborate, as much as in-state conflict weakens Iraq as a state, the weak state also fuels ethnical and sectarian conflicts. Actually, the weak state has made rulers fail to achieve political hegemony, and so this weakness led  to political, economic, and ideological vacuums that are filled by tribal and religious leaders, said Mark Levine, Middle-East specialist and professor in Boston University. He said, these alternative leaders increase political chaos that jeopardizes both the Iraqi state and society. He describes how “chaos and a weak state structure” led the Iraqi people in 2004 to shift their identities away from the national level toward religious and local ones in which they could get more protection (LeVine).

Further than what happened in Iraq, in-state conflicts mostly come from the absence of a strong state as predicted by Migdal, Harvard University professor. In the absence of a strong state, he expects a situation when “The violence and anarchy has turned many religious leaders into virtual world leaders creating parliamentary groups to prevent looting and keep public order and secure their local power” (Migdal, P5 ). Somehow the problem he describes is similar to what Muqtada Sadr, Iraqi Shia young clerk, did with his group from 2003 until 2013 in some neighborhoods of Baghdad. This is how the vacuum of weak states and in-state conflicts makes local religious and ethnic groups replace governmental institutions.

Actually, Iraqi in-state conflict is too complicated to be studied just by a constructivist approach. The problem has many regional and international dimensions, but understanding the internal dynamics of the conflict and the state’s weakness might show why these internal problems could easily jeopardize the Iraqi state.

Mohammed Hussein lives in Slemani where he is an editor for In the last two years he has reported from Iraqi Kurdistan for some Kurdish and English publications. He has also worked as a translator and translated three books into Kurdish. You can email him at:

4 Responses to In-State Conflicts Threaten Iraq’s Existence
  1. KIM
    May 30, 2014 | 09:38

    An appeal to Esteemed Pope Francis at the Vatican regarding his recent visit with Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani. :

    We would like to share the following concerns in South Kurdistan with your Excellency:

    1) More Respect for Democratic Values ( President Barzani should step down and be a symbol of peace, not dictatorship). There are hundreds of other qualified candidates in South. He has been in power for decades.

    2) More Respect for Freedom of Speech: Stop Execution of political dissidents voices with bullets.

    3) Disclose the whereabouts/information regarding Kurdish Civil War victims.

    4) Respect Women Rights more.

    5) Leave corruption and return all the funds in his KDPs accounts in foreign states back to the people of South Kurdistan ( Customs, Oil, Construction, Partisan Trade,etc). We ask all foreign countries who are doing business with KRG to freeze any account belonging to corrupt Kurdish politicians/officials and return the assets back to citizens to be used for Reconstruction, Healthcare, Education, Environment, Defense.etc purpose.This is the best first way to help Kurds start battling with the rampant corruption epidemic.Your cooperation is perquisite.

    6) President Obama should stop supporting dictatorship. corruption and injustice for economic interests. He should not overhaul/boost the US economy at the expense of corruption.

    We also appeal to Revered Pope to express his support for an independent Kurdish state in South Kurdistan in near future and pay a visit to the Christian Community in South.


  2. Karzan
    May 30, 2014 | 12:28

    We all love Pope regardless of ones religious belief.

    Some of the recently published pictures of Barzani in numerous Kurdish press ( His professionally-dressed Italian escorts ) indicate that his next station would most probably be to Los Vegas to try his luck.

  3. Amanj
    May 30, 2014 | 13:14
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