Start your own Iraq Study Group

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Last night President Bush revealed his new plan for the Iraq war. This strategy is based on the findings of the “Petraeus Report” issued earlier this week by General David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

A key issue addressed in the report, and mentioned no less than five times in Bush’s speech: sectarian violence. I’m sure that many out there—even those actively following the news reports—have, at best, a foggy idea of what this actually means. The term itself refers to fighting among rival groups, usually within a single religion, or country. The actual dynamics are much more difficult to sort out.

And “sort them out” is exactly what I’ve been attempting to do over the last few days. With this year’s Geography Action! focus on Asia, it’s all the more relevant (yes, Iraq is considered part of Asia).

My Quest
To begin this task, I scanned an assortment of reputable news and information organizations on the web. This process led me to draw two primary conclusions: First, there are a relatively limited number of sources available, perhaps because the dynamics of sectarian strife are so complex. Second, the complexity is largely a product of physical, cultural, and historical geography.

In the following, I attempt to briefly summarize what I’ve been able to ascertain. I don’t claim to serve as an authority on these issues: My hope is that readers will recognize the central role of human and physical geographies in the situation in Iraq and contemporary politics in general, and will be inspired to conduct their own quests for knowledge.

The Breakdown of Sectarian Groups
There are three main groups of influence in Iraq. These groups represent ethnicities and religious heritages that overlap in some respects (over 97% are Muslim, for example), but are ultimately disparate. These distinctions are mapped onto separate geopolitical regions.


                    geographic distribution of ethnoreligious groups in Iraq
image courtesy of National Geographic News


ethnicity: Kurdish religion: mostly Sunni Islam region: Northeastern Iraq oil resources: modest (20%) 
primary sympathizers:
Kurds in Iran, Syria, and Turkey
The Kurds represent 15-20% of the total Iraqi population. Kurds are ethnically distinct from Arabs, which comprise the other two groups. They speak a unique language, and are part of a larger Kurdish group occupying a region that stretches across the nations of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Kurds have long aspired to consolidate these regions into an independent Kurdish nation (often referred to as “Kurdistan”). In Iraq, the Kurds were targeted under Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror, which resulted in their banishment to the Northeastern region they now occupy. Since the time of that conflict, they have maintained a tradition of semi-autonomous self-governance. They are moderately represented in the new transitional government. Most Kurds practice the Sunni tradition of Islam, but the government remains secular. The Kurds maintain about 20% of Iraq’s oil reserves—the country’s most profitable natural resource.

Sunni Arabs
: Arab religion: Sunni Islam region: Central Iraq (including Baghdad) Oil resources: scant primary sympathizers: Sunni Arabs throughout the Middle East
The second group is the Sunni Arabs. While they share a religious tradition of Sunni Islam with most Kurds, they are ethnically distinct and generally more dogmatic in their beliefs. They make up only about 15-20% of the population. This differentiates Iraq from most other Middle Eastern countries where Sunni Arabs dominate–with the notable exception of the Persian Shiite majority in Iran. They occupy the central region, which contains very few oil resources. In the current U.S. led attempts at transitional democracy, they have been largely excluded from the political process. Outnumbered by the Shiites and out-resourced by both the Shiites and the Kurds, they have limited power. This makes them somewhat defensive: Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party formed out of a group of secularized Sunni Arabs.

Shiite Arabs
Arab religion: Shia Islam region: Southwestern Iraq(including Baghdad) oil resources: overwhelming, 80% sympathizers: Shiites (mostly Persians in Iran)
Finally, the most sizable, wealthy group in Iraq is the Shiite Arabs of the South. Representing about 60-65% of the population, they share an ethnic heritage with Sunni Arabs to their north, but follow the Shia tradition of Islam: a source of contentious ideological division in the Muslim world. In their extremely dogmatic religious beliefs, they are largely supported by the Persian Shiites in Iran (different ethnic heritage, similar religious beliefs). The Shiites have two main resources working in their favor: numbers and control of approximately 80% of the nation’s oil (centered around the oil rich capital of Basra). They have contemplated autonomy, but are not quite as independent as the Kurds. They have largely dominated the political scene since the coalition was formed; current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shiite Arab.

Map of Iraq oil resources
Image courtesy of BBC News

I hope the preceding description has been at least mildly useful in helping to disambiguate the ethnic, religious, and geographic characteristics of these three main groups. Of course, it merely scratches the surface of the complex dynamics in what is now considered by many to be a Civil War. The divisions reflect  a religious history dating back to the 7th century, followed by a colonial legacy of strategic resource extraction and tribal affiliations, and a hasty process of border drawing in the 20th century. Within the three groups there are hundreds of subgroups and “sects” that interact differently in each of the nation’s provinces and in Baghdad: Most of the violence reported in the media is perpetrated by these small extremist groups. Add the influence of incoming Muslim opportunists (e.g. many claim that al-Qaeda entered the country only after 2003) and U.S.-led coalition forces to the mix, and you have a quite a tumultuous situation. Or as comedian Jon Stewart quips: A “Mess o’Potamia.”

I urge you to start your own Iraq Study Group to search deeper into these issues and consider how human and physical geography are implicated in conflicts throughout the Middle East, the post-colonial states of Africa, and similar circumstances across the geopolitical landscape.

For a start, check out the following resources I found to be useful on Iraq:

1)“Iraq’s Central Struggles” Washington Post, September 8, 2007 (provides brief breakdown of recent activities among the three main groups)

2) “Uniting Iraq’s Disparate Cultures a Challenge, Experts Say” National Geographic News, April 24, 2003 (Very helpful!!)


3) CIA World Factbook Iraq Country Profile (relatively short & succinct)

4) Library of Congress country profile (very comprehensive, especially in providing historical context)

5) Wikipedia profile of Civil War in Iraq (very reader-friendly)

6) “Geography Shapes Nature of War in Iraq National Geographic News, March 27, 2003 (a different take on the impact of physical geography on the Iraq War)

Happy researching!

Sarah, for My Wonderful World


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2 thoughts on “Start your own Iraq Study Group

  1. An interesting article: The Senate resolution that would divide Iraq into 3 separate ethnic states–and the allegations relating to oil interests–are definitely right on on par with the topics discussed in this post. Thanks for pointing this out, Umar.

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