In recent years much ink has been spilled to explain the ascendancy of sectarian divisions in post-2003 Iraqi state and society. Currently, explanations primarily focus on the legacy of Ba‘thist rule, the effects of the sanctions era, the failures of US policy in post-invasion Iraq, and the actions of Iraqi opposition movement. Regarding the latter, several opposition groups that returned to Iraq and rose to power following the Ba‘th’s ouster are charged with engaging in a “Shi‘i-centric state-building project.” Undergirded by feelings of collective Shi‘i persecution and social and political disenfranchisement, this form of state-craft led to the forceful mapping of Shi‘i myths and symbols onto Iraq’s post-2003 national identity and facilitated the exclusion of Iraqi Sunnis from the central levers of state power. Over time, the former exiles’ actions fostered sentiments of alienation, loss, and victimhood among Iraqi Sunnis, a development that contributed to the outbreak of sectarian violence and later, the rise of the so called “Islamic State.”
While this form of statecraft was only implemented following Saddam Hussein’s ouster, its ideological roots can be found in the immediate post-Cold War era. By way of a historical analysis of the publications, statements, and actions of several key Iraqi opposition figures, chief among them being Kanan Makiya and Hassan ‘Alawi, this study traces a critical shift in the wider Iraqi opposition movement’s conceptualization of Iraqi Shi‘i identities that enabled the imagining and implementation of Iraq’s post-2003 Shi‘i-centric political order. Specifically, it will outline the process through which Iraq’s Shi‘i communities, once understood and complex and ideologically diverse, were reduced and repackaged by the Iraqi opposition movement as a monolithic socio-political unit defined by collective victimhood and feelings of political entitlement over the course of the 1990s.
Beyond demonstrating the historical roots of one of the core drivers of sectarian politics and violence witnessed in post-2003 Iraq, this paper also makes inroads into larger debates surrounding the ways in which sectarian identities acquire socio-political salience. At a time when sub-national forms of identification are rapidly gaining traction the world over, perhaps such a study is not only long overdue, but urgently needed.