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February 2003

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Greater Than the Whole
Diversity in a desert land

On a mountain in northwestern Iraq stands a modest temple with a cone-shaped steeple. It is a shrine of the Yazidis, a sect that practices angel worship.

Yazidis are one example of Iraq's diversity of peoples and faiths. When Iraq was created out of parts of the defeated Ottoman Empire after World War I—first as a British protectorate, but independent since 1932—it brought together Assyrian Christians still worshiping in Aramaic, the language of Jesus; Turkomans whose ancestors arrived in the 13th century with the conqueror Tamerlane; and a community of Jews in Baghdad. Then and now, the dominant groups in Iraq are Kurds and Arabs who practice both Sunni and Shiite Islam. The at times fractious relationships among these major groups will be pivotal to Iraq's future.

Northern mountain ranges have long sheltered the Kurds, a resilient people who have never had a politically recognized homeland. Iraq's largest minority—17 percent of the 24 million people—had their first chance to run their own affairs after Saddam Hussein's army withdrew in 1991, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war. Funds collected from Iraqi oil revenue by the UN have paid for food, medicine, new roads, and schools. Kurdish leaders want autonomy in an Iraqi federal state. If it doesn't come to be, Kurds may attempt to win outright independence.

Much of Iraq south of the mountains is empty desert. The population huddles close to the Tigris and Euphrates, as did the Sumerians and other ancients of Mesopotamia. The population is largely urban; the capital, Baghdad, alone is home to five million people.

Baghdad is also the citadel of Arab Sunni Muslims. Bureaucrats since Ottoman days, they are a well-educated elite accustomed to power—although outnumbered three to one by the less urban Shiites.

Poorer than Sunnis, the Shiites are also more devoted to religious leaders. Shrines in Karbala and An Najaf hold the remains of martyrs slaughtered in the Islamic schism that wrenched control of the faith from Muhammad's kin in A.D.680. The Shiites—the losing side in that violent episode—revere these shrines almost as much as they do Mecca.

Saddam, wary of Iraqi Shiites' ties to Iranian Shiites, viciously cracked down on Iraqi Shiites in the 1970s. They rose against him as the gulf war ended in 1991, only to be put down again.

In a future Iraq, freed from Saddam's dictatorship, the Shiites, like the Kurds, might pursue a federal system giving them control over their own affairs. It wouldn't be achieved easily; political autonomy is a novel concept in historically autocratic Iraq. But such a change might weld Iraq's diverse pieces into a united nation—perhaps even a peaceful one.

—Mike Edwards

Web Links

Center for Defense Information
Visit CDI's "Eye on Iraq" to get recent news and analysis on what is happening in Iraq.

Center for Nonproliferation Studies
This group is working to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Visit its site to view a special collection of reports on Iraq.

Free World Map

Cockburn, Andrew, and Patrick Cockburn. Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. HarperCollins, 2000.

Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace. Henry Holt and Company, 1989.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Warner Books, Inc., 1991.

Mackey, Sandra. The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein. W. W. Norton and Company, 2002.

Makiya, Kanan. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press, 1998.


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