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Nationalism, Sectarianism, and the Future of the U.S. Presence in Post-Saddam Iraq

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | July 2003

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The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq has opened the path to a new future for Iraqis, although it is not yet certain what direction that future will take. Iraq is a fragile political entity created in the aftermath of World War I through the involuntary union of ethnically and religiously diverse portions of the former Ottoman Empire. In the years following Iraq?s creation, a nascent nationalism emerged, which successive leaders sought to nurture and encourage. This effort culminated in Saddam Hussein?s efforts to generate a radical Iraq-centered form of Arab nationalism, which served to promote loyalty to the state and more importantly to Saddam.

The U.S.-Iraqi War of 2003 did not emerge as a strong test of Iraqi nationalism. While Saddam did have some committed defenders, large segments of the population remained neutral in the confrontation between the U.S.-led coalition and Saddam?s defenders. After the war, the United States emerged as a power on probation with the Iraqi population, many of whom were uncertain that their well-being was a major factor in the U.S. decision to intervene and remain in Iraq. Anti-American conspiracy theories became widespread in Iraq, while conservative Muslims worried about the corrupting influence of perceived Western vices.

The removal of Saddam?s regime created problems and opportunities for Iraqi ethnic and religious communities. Arab Shi?ites, who comprise the majority of the population, saw new opportunities for political leadership, perhaps with a powerful but fragmented clergy leading the way. Sunni Arabs correspondingly worried about a new distribution of power, and many began to view de-Baathification as a process that further threatens their community. Kurds remain interested in de facto, but not formal, independence from Iraq, and the danger of an Arab backlash to Kurdish aspirations is correspondingly serious. Tribal identities further complicate the situation.

Some attacks against U.S. forces have occurred following the war with most of the violence associated with residual Saddam loyalists from among the Sunni Arab community. Many Shi?ites are more reluctant to engage in such activity so long as it appears that they can take power by political means. Nevertheless, strong anti-U.S. views are present in the pro-Iranian Shi?ite organizations, and these views may spread among other Shi?ites over time. The possibility of confrontations between U.S. troops and hostile crowds is particularly worrisome as is the availability of massive quantities of weapons to the Iraqi population.

In light of this situation, the United States needs to search continually for areas of agreement with the nonextremist clergy while also recognizing issues on which collaboration is not possible. U.S. leaders must also support a continued strong information campaign, expand efforts to challenge Iranian activities in Iraq, and provide troops with extensive training in stabilization and occupation duties. The participation of troops from moderate Arab and Muslim states in stabilization and reconstruction activities is important and should be encouraged. U.S. administrators must also be careful how they use the word de-Baathification since some Baath ideals are not inherently anti-democratic, although the party itself was deeply corrupted by Saddam. Finally, any U.S. efforts to achieve long-term dominance of Iraqi politics can be expected to produce a serious backlash.


The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime by a U.S.-led military force has opened the path to a variety of alternative futures for Iraq. The preferred option for the West is the creation of a secular, constitutional democracy, although it is deeply unclear that such an entity can be established and then survive in the turbulent milieu of Iraqi politics. A less desirable possibility that may still serve U.S. interests would be the rise of a pro-Western military authority figure who nevertheless displays some respect for human rights. An alternative that the United States considers unacceptable is the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic republic supported predominantly by the Iraqi Shi?ites.

The preferred option of most Iraqis is not yet fully clear. Moreover, the type of regime change that they support will have a great deal to do with how they define their own identities in a postwar environment. In the aftermath of Saddam?s ouster, Iraqis must determine how to order and emphasize their national and subnational identities now that unconditional loyalty to an entitycalled ?Iraq? is no longer proscribed by a totalitarian government. They must further decide if their ethnic and religious identities are complementary or antithetical to their identities as Iraqis. Moreover, they must consider to what extent pan-Arab values exist and if these values should be important to their lives.

Iraqis also must decide if their national, subnational, or pan-Arab identity will allow them to accept the concept of a friendly relationship with the United States as well as a U.S. presence in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Does friendship with the United States require them to be ?bad? Arabs (for those Iraqis who are Arabs), bad Muslims, or bad Iraqis? Conversely, is cooperation with the West acceptable to help build a new and more prosperous Iraq? Moreover, can a pious Islamic government or an Arab nationalist leadership coexist with a U.S. presence in Iraq or support the development of Western style institutions?

Conclusion: Implications for U.S. Troops Remaining in Iraq.

Nationalist emotion seems to flourish when challenged or when an external power presents a threat of some kind. Palestinian nationalism developed rapidly and became angry in response to Zionism. Kurdish nationalism developed in response to Turkish, Iraqi, and other attempts to eradicate it. The danger of a new Iraqi Arab nationalism defining itself as an anti-U.S. force is real, but it may still be possible to minimize this phenomenon.

Iraqi nationalism is currently in the process of redefining itself for a post-Saddam world. The chances of this nationalism being anti-Western and anti-U.S. seem serious. With Saddam?s defeat, the choice for Iraqis is no longer between his brutality and foreign rule. The choice may appear to them to be between direct or indirect foreign rule and rule by indigenous elites, most probably the clergy. While Shi?ite clerics were among the bitterest enemies of the Saddam regime, this bitterness has not translated into love of the United States or a high level of toleration for U.S. influence in Iraq. With this in mind, the author provides the following policy guidelines and recommendations.

  1. The United States needs to be continually searching for areas of agreement with the nonextremist clergy while recognizing issues and activities upon which collaboration is not possible. It is natural and useful for the United States to encourage secular and liberal trends in Iraq. Yet, if the United States attempts to circumvent the religious Shi?ites, there is a risk that we will appear to be denying the clerics their due. It is interesting that the Shi?ite clergy was able to maintain itself as a source of at least some authority throughout the Saddam Hussein years. If Saddam, with his unlimited capacity for brutality, had to coexist with it, then it is unrealistic to think that U.S. power can eliminate clerical influence in politics. Moreover, the United States, as a non-Muslim power, will be at a severe disadvantage in attempting to explain actions that the Shi?ite clergy label as hostile to Islam. Rather, the United States may have to show its concerns for Iraqi citizens with strong aid programs. These programs may be coordinated with the clergy but never ceded to their control.
  2. The United States should continue to support a strong information campaign directed at the Iraqi citizenry. Views that the United States seeks to wipe out or Americanize Islam are widespread in the Arab World and need to be refuted by both an information campaign and the conduct of U.S. troops. It has already been noted that some Iraqis are concerned about U.S. forces bringing vice, bad morals, alcohol, and sexually transmitted diseases into the country. All possible effort should be made to refute the stereotype of U.S. troops as a threat to Muslim morals. It might even be useful for U.S. troops not to eat or drink water too publicly during Ramadan as a gesture of solidarity. Any U.S. military collaboration with Christian proselytizing risks a severe backlash.
  3. The United States should maintain and expand efforts to challenge Iranian activities in the area while continuing to point out the differences between Iraqi and Iranian interests. Respecting Islam does not require U.S. forces to tolerate Iranian infiltration across the border or let Iranian propaganda go unchallenged. U.S. efforts to interdict Badr Corps operatives are important and should be continued. Also, as noted earlier in this work, Iran would probably see a number of advantages in the dismemberment of Iraq and its corresponding collapse as a major Arab state. This prospect and other potential anti-Arab agendas may be worth pointing out publicly as a counterpoint to Iranian anti-U.S. charges. Furthermore, a continuing U.S. information campaign in general is vital to reaching the Iraqi population. Such a campaign will need to confront aggressively the many conspiracy theories that arise on their own as well as those which become prominent through Iranian encouragement.
  4. U.S. troops must never be allowed to treat the Iraqis as ungrateful wards. A natural cultural conflict between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians might also be expected over the issues of both gratitude and values. U.S. troops have been told that they have liberated a long-suffering people from the clutches of a bloodthirsty tyrant. This is true, but by internalizing this fact, U.S. troops may at some level expect a population that is passive, dependent, and grateful. This is an illusion. U.S. troops are dealing with a proud people who are still not certain that their liberation was the result of U.S. altruistic motives. The United States must avoid any acts that may symbolically imply U.S. sovereignty over Iraq. Moreover, Iraqis, like most other Arabs, are highly sensitive to status. They will notice and take offense should they be treated in an arrogant or condescending manner. Additionally, American and Arab ways of understanding a problem are often so different that little can be assumed when the two work together. It is correspondingly important to discuss any joint plans or projects in detail to insure that misunderstandings do not take place.
  5. Extensive detail work needs to be maintained and expanded to avoid conflict between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. One of the most serious dangers facing U.S. soldiers is that patterns of confrontation may develop between U.S. troops and nationalist militants seeking to end the U.S. presence. U.S. troops must understand the need to optout of such confrontations with Iraqis when there is a way to do so. When possible, U.S. troops need to develop friendly relations with neighborhood leaders. Proper liaison with local leaders will help efforts to settle grievances before they reach the level of confrontation and are important. Additionally, military intelligence units will need to keep local commanders informed about groups that are seeking to confront the United States over legitimate grievances and those that are seeking excuses to confront the United States in an effort to incite opinion against the U.S. presence.
  6. Troops that remain in Iraq will need extensive training in the conduct of occupation duties. U.S. Army combat troops and U.S. Marines are often trained in the aggressive use of force to deal with an enemy. Force as a last resort may not be a principle high in their concerns and priorities due to past training and background. Winning a war and maintaining peace in a post-conflict environment are different skills with different approaches about when to use force. Those without a background in occupation duty may need immediate support from mobile training teams. Deescalating confrontational situations rather than escalating them is of course essential.
  7. U.S. forces need to be careful and precise about what they mean by the term ?de-Baathification.? ?De-Baathification? is a concept borrowed from the post-World War II context of de-Nazification, where the United States sought to uproot an ideology based on race hatred and dictatorship. In the case of the Baath, as noted earlier, some aspects of ideology such as an equality of religions and secularization are not in conflict with basic human values. What is in conflict is the way in which Saddam Hussein used the Baath party as an instrument of social control and a justification for dictatorship. ?De-Saddamization? and if possible ?democratication? are probably more useful words to describe U.S. goals. U.S. leaders also need to make clear that deBaathification does not mean that the United States opposes a strong and restored Arab World in favor of a divided and impoverished Arab society. The United States is not against an Arab renaissance.
  8. The United States needs to expand the numbers of foreign Arab and Muslim troops involved with the management of postwar Iraq. Their presence in Iraq for postwar security duties could also be very valuable in convincing Iraqis that the United States is not interested in severing them from the larger Arab World. Such a deployment would have to be coordinated with responsible Iraqi leaders. Moreover, many Arab and Muslim countries would probably be willing to contribute to a postwar stabilization force if it was authorized by the United Nations. While the United States may have to help finance such a force, it would be worth the expense to reduce the danger of U.S. confrontations with the population and assuage Iraqi fears of U.S. domination.

Finally, the United States has a reputation in the Arab World of favoring democracy so long as the democratic process produces leaders acceptable to Western interests. Advocating democracy and dictating who can be elected are two different concepts. One of the clearest ways the United States can avoid a nationalist backlash is to recognize that ousting Saddam Hussein has not earned for us the privilege of dominating Iraq for the indefinite future. If U.S. leaders believe that it does, then the United States has truly become a colonial power that will inevitably face colonial wars.