Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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January 14, 2003

Iraqi Population, Cultural Patterns Provide Critical Underpinning for Conduct of Conflict, Reconstruction of a Post-Saddam Society

Analysis. By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. The complex mosaic of ethnic and clan groups, historic political and social cultures, religious and linguistic groups — and the loyalties and attitudes which they each embody — which comprise modern-day Iraq have had a critical impact in the build-up to the anticipated US-led war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein. An understanding of these factions will also determine how successful any post-war Iraqi Government can be in retaining, or building, a coherent nation-state in the modern context. At present, only international norms — which recognize Iraq as a territorial entity — coupled with direct suppression of most population elements, keep Iraq alive as an entity.

In the absence of international insistence on continued Iraqi cohesion as a multi-communal nation-state within its present borders, there is every indication that Iraq would fracture along regional and communal lines. There are, indeed, internal and external pressures (for example, from the Kurds and Turks respectively) which have long militated for a break-up of Iraq. And while international and US pressures may ensure that the pan-Turkic momentum for a restoration of the Iraqi portions of the former Turkish Caliphate to Turkey may not receive support, the momentum for a cohesive Kurdish homeland continues unabated.

Significantly, Russian intelligence services, from Tsarist times, have historically maintained the most comprehensive records of clans, groups, tribes and families in what is modern-day Iraq (as they did throughout the Middle East, even down into Ethiopia). Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) has inherited the files and contacts — and presumably the understanding of the genealogy and cultures — which began even before the Tsarist Okhrana. And while US intelligence services have been concerned over contacts, sustained during the current crisis, between the SVR and the Iraqi General Intelligence (al-Mukhabarat al-‘Amma) for fear that US intelligence provided to the United Nations could find its way, via the SVR, to Iraq, the reality is that Russia holds much of the key to developing strategies to transforming Iraq through and beyond any anticipated conflict.

The key intelligence resource in understanding the Iraqi population groupings, their allegiances and relative importance is a study undertaken by a Palestinian Christian, the late Prof. Hanna Batatu (1926-2000), and published as The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, by Princeton University Press (1,283pp; first edition 1978; subsequent edition 1989).1

There have been some changes, or evolutions, in the situation, obviously, since that study was published, but it remains the definitive starting point. It was based on the author’s access to the files of the Iraqi intelligence and security services during the 1950s and 1960s. 

Any analysis of Iraq’s mosaic must take into account, at the very least, the overlapping groupings which include:

1. Ethnic groups (with tribal, clan and key family breakdowns; usually regionally-associated);
2. Religious groups (with attention to the impact of regional or ethnic factors on the approach to religion and religious loyalties);
3. Historical cultural groupings:
4. Language groupings;
5. Military communities (including veteran’s groupings and attitudes associated with the military experience);
6. Political/ideological communities;
7. Modern power structure affiliates (nomenklatura) of ruling national and regional élites.

The following overviews are intended to provide a framework of perspective for consideration of dealing with Iraq in the current strategic situation and in planning post-conflict policies in and toward Iraq. However, all of these aspects of the perspective need to be dealt with in separate reports, in greater detail, as do the military variables. This report, then, represents an overview of some of the human/social factors which must be considered in the impending conflict between the Coalition and Iraq.

1. Ethnic and Population Groupings and Considerations

An estimated 45 percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of 15, and the society supports a high rate of population growth.

Virtually all the ethnic groups which inhabit modern-day Iraq are classified as Semites, but this is largely because they speak languages of the North Semitic and South Semitic families rather than because of their ethnicity. The key exceptions to this are the Turkic group of peoples — originally from Central Asia — and the Persian-origin peoples. The Kurds, who have linguistic connections to the Turkic and Persian peoples, fall into this category, and are the fourth-largest ethno-linguistic group in the Middle East. Significantly, the spread of Arabic (a South Semitic language) following the rise and expansion of Islam in the Seventh Century, tended to blur some of the ethnic and other social distinctions between groups which had hitherto been marked by separate dialects and languages associated with tribes and regions. Nonetheless, the ethnic differences have persisted.

Traditional agricultural patterns tended to help perpetuate social, ethnic and clan groupings in Iraq long after such patterns ceased to be of material influence in, say, Mediterranean and European societies. Because of the continued partial separation of Iraq, politically and economically, from the international trading community, small tract farming continues to play a rôle — albeit diminishing — in the shape of Iraqi society, and therefore in the shape and importance of regional and tribal/clan groupings.

Significantly, Kurdish society — spread across the North of Iraq — has its origins as a pastoral-nomadic grouping (centered largely around sheep and goat herding, practicing only marginal agriculture), distinct from the crop-raising agricultural communities further to the south. And while modern technology has tended to bring the lifestyles and aspirations of each of the communities (the planters and the pastoralists) closer together, there are historic characteristics and approaches to life which are sustained in each community. But in both communities, the tradition of endogamous marriage (marriage within a very small social circle) has ensured that family/clan links remain extremely strong. This tendency has broken down more slowly than in Western societies, or even in such states as Egypt, because of the constraints of autocratic government on the movement of people. Nonetheless, the urbanization and industrialization which has been essential to the construction and defense of the ideologically-based ruling élite — the Ba’ath Party — has meant that the “modernization” of society has begun, bringing different Iraqi peoples together to create the basis of a separate class of society, albeit one which remains subservient to the Takriti clan which controls the Ba’ath Party and through it the country. 

Having said that, it is important to remember that an urban culture has existed in Iraq longer than in almost any other recorded culture: a period of more than 4,000 years. A Kurdish scholar, Siyamend Othman, noted at a November 4, 2002, panel discussion on The Day After: Planning for a Post-Saddam Iraq: “I subscribe to the views expounded by Iraq's foremost sociologist Ali al-Wardi and the late Princeton Professor Hanna Batatu, that the history of Iraq has been conditioned, if not determined, by the conflict between city and countryside. This conflict is centuries old ...”

In that higher levels of literacy and access to learning and information are associated with the urban areas, so xenophobia tends to be more pronounced in isolated rural areas of Iraq. Where xenophobia appears evident in urban cultures, it is usually more a result of a conscious choice: in other words, survival is best assured within the framework of the polity by adopting the xenophobic attitude toward outsiders demanded by the ruling élite. This means that in the conduct of operations to affect the attitudes, will and directions of the Iraqi peoples, significantly different approaches need to be taken with isolated rural societies and those in cities, quite apart from any specific religious, linguistic or cultural differences. As well, those groups with frequent access to external stimuli — such as the Kurds who deal with neighbors in Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Syria, etc. — also tend to be more open to different attitudes, albeit within the confines of their own experience.

Geography absolutely impacts on the differing attitudes prevalent within the Iraqi tribal and societal groupings. Tribes in the south tend to be more influenced by Saudi Arabian (and Arab) pressures, and therefore tend to be less loyal to Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein; or they are shaped by Iranian and Shi’ite influences, making them less loyal to Saddam. More Northern, central Iraqi tribes, tend to be less exposed to influence from Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example, and come more within the orbit of Saddam loyalists. 

In the Kurdish area of Iraq, the tribe remains the principal social unit, led by a sheikh. As Kurdish society became more sedentary and revolving around villages and towns, the rôle of the sheikhs changed somewhat, and the various Kurdish groupings began resembling more like national units, almost under supra-tribal clan leaderships. The rivalry between these strong semi-national Kurdish elements vitiated attempts to create an independent and sovereign Kurdish state, as had been proposed (but not ratified) by the Treaty of Sèvres drawn up in 1920 [the Treaty of Lausanne, which replaced the Treaty of Sèvres in 1923, made no mention of the Kurds or Kurdistan].

In 1991, in Iraq, the number of Kurds was officially given as 4,100,000 (23 percent of the Iraqi population). An estimated two-thirds of Iraqi Kurdistan is under direct Kurdish control, as opposed to control by the Iraqi central Government in Baghdad. This is an area of 50,000 square kilometers now believed to be populated by 3.5-million people, 500,000 of whom are refugees. In October 1992, after the Gulf War, Iraqi Kurdish groups proclaimed the establishment of a federal Kurdish state, which caused a great deal of concern in Turkey, Syria and Iran. In the Spring of 1994, a serious conflict erupted between the two leading Kurdish guerilla groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq, led by Mas’ud Barzani. The two had previously shared power in a regional government for the Kurds. The conflict was, in fact, a surprise attack by Barzani’s forces against those of the Talabani leadership, resulting in the killing of Jalal Talabani and many members of his family, effectively ending the power and effectiveness of the Talabani clan and their party.

The Kurdish supra-tribal groupings within Iraq have, to a very large extent, translated into political parties. Mas’ud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) is now pre-eminent in terms of power, and has structured significant secret accords with the Iraqi central Government of Saddam Hussein, in order to broker the transit of goods and people across northern Iraq into and out of Turkey. Tribal/political power translates directly into “economic franchises” for the leaderships.

[On October 12, 1997, fighting broke out between rival Kurdish groups in the north; the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under Mas'ud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), under Jalal Talabani, was said to have been the fiercest in over a year. The two Kurdish factions had reached a ceasefire agreement on October 31, 1996. There were claims and counter-claims by both parties on the start of hostilities. Oct. 14, the KDP claimed to have repulsed PUK attacks. Oct. 15, Iraqi sources said 57 KDP fighters were killed in the fighting. Oct. 17, the KDP said it would observe a 72-hour ceasefire, and urged a withdrawal of the PUK; which ceasefire the PUK said was violated by the KDP in the Shaqlawah area on Oct. 21. Reported same day by KDP radio that 600 PUK fighters were killed between Oct. 13-17, 1997. — reported in the Conflict Index of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, November-December 1997.]

Iraq, overall, has some 150 major tribes, which break down into about 2,000 smaller clans. An estimated 75 percent of the Iraqi population claims identification with a tribal structure. The largest tribes have more than one-million people, the smallest a few thousand. Of the larger groups, roughly 30 to 35 have a significant rôle in controlling Iraq. The tribal units maintain their historic structures as fighting groups, in many respects, either in support of, or against, the Government. Many have access to arms, particularly if they are in areas dominated by either the Government or opposition power blocs who can count on their loyalty to act in support of their interests. The Tikriti tribe, from the town of Tikrit, is the tribe of Pres. Saddam Hussein, and the influence of the Tikriti in current Iraqi politics highlights the strength of tribal politics within the Iraqi system.

Not surprisingly, the dominant group — the Sunni “Arab” component of Iraqi society — has attempted to undertake population engineering in order to break up the power of some of the major Shi’a and Kurdish tribes. The post-Gulf War (ie: post-1991) situation, in which the US and UK protect some southern and northern (Kurdish) regions, has meant that for the past decade much of this population engineering has been limited in scope. Nonetheless, Kurdish sources claim that large numbers — possibly exceeding 100,000 people — of Kurds have been forcibly relocated from their homes outside the northern “No Fly” zone, protected by the US and UK, and replaced by “Arabs”. Most of this has occurred in the predominantly ethnically Kurdish districts of Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sinjar over the decade since 1992, with the intention of creating a buffer zone, separating the virtually autonomous Kurdish northern tribal areas from the oilfields which represent the core of Iraqi wealth. The new buffer zone runs from the Iraqi North-West, at the border with Syria, down to Mosul (Iraq’s third city, on the Tigris, the key center for the upper Tigris basin and the center for agricultural and animal products) and Kirkuk (a key oil-producing center) and over to the North-Eastern border with Iran. The attempt was made to ensure that a cordon existed to ensure the protection of the key economic areas from penetration from the more-or-less autonomous Kurdish zone.

The population engineering is not new, and began during the period of the Monarchy in the late 1930s, only being accelerated after the Ba’athists assumed power. Significantly, as well, the “population engineering” has taken the form of allowing Kurds to re-state their ethnic identity as “Arab”, although often even this expedient results in movement of the “new Arabs” to homes further south in Arab majority areas. It is by now no means certain that Kirkuk, for example, remains a Kurdish majority city. The population engineering also occurred in the 1970s (particularly in 1976, following the collapse of much of the Kurdish revolt) in order to provide an Arab buffer along the border with Iran, in the North-East of Iraq, to break some of the continuity of the Kurdish population which overlaps Iran and Iraq. 

Apart from the Iraqi tribal groupings, including the Kurds, very small minority groups exist of Turks, Turkmen and Assyrians living near the northern border (with Turkey, and close to northern Syria and northern Iran). A Farsi-speaking minority, the Lurs, live near the Iranian border.

Of key significance, in some respects, to Coalition military planning with regard to Iraq will be the attitudes and capabilities of the tribes in the desert al-Anbar and Kabbala governorates which abut Jordan in Iraq’s central east and the north of Saudi Arabia, respectively. 

There has been some suggestion that external Coalition forces will be able to deal with the Iraqi tribes in much the same way as Coalition forces dealt with Afghan tribes in the post-September 11, 2001, war in Afghanistan. However, that will be true only up to a limited point and, indeed, the long-term efficacy of attempts to “buy” the loyalty of Afghan tribes has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the process of finding accommodations with the Iraqi tribes in the countryside will be an important part of the progress of any Coalition force in moving toward Baghdad. But once Baghdad is reached, the process will become entirely different, highlighting, among other things, the difference between city perspectives and rural ones. And also the fact that different sets of defenses — and different types of defenders — will be arrayed to protect key leadership positions.

2. Religious Groupings

To a large extent, Iraq’s Christian and Jewish communities represent only a very small fraction of the population, although, for example, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is of Christian communal background. Islam dominates the population, and, within that framework, Shi’ite Muslims outnumber Sunni Muslims, although political power has substantially remained in the hands of Sunnis in modern times. Officially, the population is 97 percent Muslim (60-65 percent Shi’a Muslim, 32-37percent Sunni Muslim); three percent Christian (predominantly Chaldean Catholic, sometimes called Eastern Syrian, rite) , or other. Within this broad-brush picture, however, the subtleties of religion play a significant rôle. The political influence of Islam diminished substantially with the creation of the modern Iraqi state following World War I, and even more so following the overthrow of the Monarchy in 1958 which introduced the increasingly pervasive (and nominally ideologically socialist) rather than confessional Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. However, the Ba’ath Party itself increasingly became a vehicle for Saddam Hussein and his Takriti clan (who are Sunni) following the 1979 transition when Pres. Hasan al-Bakr was retired and Saddam Hussein formally took over full authority.

However, it was during the 1990s, following the Gulf War defeat of the Iraqi Armed Forces that Pres. Saddam who, while stamping the authority and power of the Ba’ath Party on the country had, in fact, failed to change the fundamental beliefs of the country. The party was merely an instrument of power which had some aspects of a modern, urban societal tool, but it was also seen as the instrument of Saddam. Thus, when Islamism became prevalent throughout the Muslim world, including Iraq, Pres. Saddam abandoned his secular approach to leadership and embraced Islamism as a vehicle to sustain his power and to revive his influence in the Arab and Muslim world. To an extent, this Islamist-Ba’athist alliance provides a new and separate strand of the Iraqi cultural/power matrix, but in some other ways has allowed traditional religious leaders and beliefs to re-emerge. This is particularly true of the Shi’ite community and leaders, who had been particularly savagely suppressed for much of Saddam’s period in power but who now, because of the need for the support of political Islam and, indeed, of the Iranian Shi’ite leadership, have greater freedom of action and influence.

This surge of Islamism and Shi’ite activity and influence is also seen in the opposition to the Saddam power structure, both inside Iraq and among the Iraqi expatriate community.

The Kurds of northern Iraq converted to Islam with the first wave of Islamic expansion. About 85 percent of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, however religion plays only a minor rôle in creating the feeling of Kurdish distinctiveness, although religious adherence may reflect loyalty to different villages and tribes.

3. Historical Cultural Groupings

Historical cultural groupings often reflect tribal, linguistic or religious group patterns, but some, in Iraq, have transcended their original forms to become enduring national symbols. The examples of Salah ud-Din (Saladin), the Kurdish Muslim leader who fought against the Christian Crusades (1137-1193 CE), and King Nebuchadrezzar  II (605–562 BCE) (aka Nebuchadnezzar, with various spelling options) continue to have profound symbolic value for all of Iraq. However, with the rise of the critical importance of Islamist “legitimacy” to Pres. Saddam Hussein’s leadership, it has been necessary to abandon the nationalist image and continuity of his, and Iraq’s, “historical legitimacy” which embraces pre-Islamic civilization and leadership such as that provided by Nebuchadnezzar.

4. Language Groupings

While the dominant lingua franca is the Iraqi dialect of Arabic (more than 80 percent of the Iraqi population speak Arabic), which literally associates the society with Arabism and Islam, the Kurdish language, spoken by an estimated 15 percent of the population, is essentially a West Iranian language in the Indo-European (or Indo-German) language family (related to Persian/Farsi and Pashto/Pushtun). This differentiation provides a fundamental schism in the outlooks of the Kurds and the Arabic-speaking elements of Iraqi society, even when the common element of religion or political grouping tends to obscure the underlying separation. The Kurdish language is the third-largest Iranian/Persian language group after Farsi (Persian) and Pashto. It has numerous dialects. The northern group — spoken from Mosul, in Iraq, and up into the Caucasus — is called Kurmanji. Kurmanji uses Arabized script, as opposed to the Turkish Latin script used by the Kurdish dialect (Hawar) in Turkey. Armenian Kurds used a Cyrillic form of written Kurdish language.

The central group of Kurdish speakers use a form of Kurdish known as Kurdi, or Sorani, which has emerged as the major literary form of the language. In Iraq, Kurdi is the official form of Kurdish, and sub-dialects include Kermanshahi, Leki, Gurani, and Zaza.

Apart from the Arabic and Kurdi/Sorani speakers, a small minority of Iraqis speak Turkish, Turkmen or Syriac as the primary language. A substantial number of Iraqis are bilingual, and English is fairly widely spoken.

5. Military communities (including veteran’s groupings and attitudes associated with the military experience)

This study is not intended to go into the significant depths of the various Iraqi military groups, other than to highlight the fact that conventional conflict planning must obviously take account of the Iraqi force structure and its variations in quality and loyalty. What is perhaps of more significance, from the viewpoint of this particular study, is the fact that the Iraqi “military communities” embrace veterans’ groups, militias, armed tribal levees, etc.

Exiled Military Groups: Several groups of former Iraqi military officers live in exile. In July 2002, 70 of them met in north-west London under the sponsorship of the Iraqi National Accord, which claimed to be in contact with scores of important military leaders within Iraq. The meeting included Brig.-Gen. Najib al-Salhi, a former commander in the Iraqi Republican Guard, who heads the Free Officers Movement based in the United States. This organization emerged in 2001, was welcomed by the US State Department and by the London-based, US-sponsored, Iraqi National Congress. Of the 2002 meeting, State Department spokesperson, Richard Boucher said it was a “useful tool”. However, some such exiled Iraqi military officials, including Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji, a former Chief of Army Staff, who now lives in Denmark, have been linked by international bodies to war crimes inside Iraq before their defections. A leader in the Iran-Iraq war who defected in 1995, Gen. al-Khazraji is under investigation in Denmark for war crimes against the Kurds in 1988.

6. Political/ideological communities

The exiled political communities of Iraq are outside the purview of this phase of the study, although such groups as the Iraqi National Congress (INA) and its subordinate membership groups, are clearly significant to post-conflict considerations for the country. To a great extent, the INA and other external political communities lack current capabilities on the ground inside Iraq, and are therefore less significant to planning considerations related to the actual, anticipated conflict between members of the international community and the nominally Ba’athist Saddam Administration.

Significantly, although the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party dominates the internal political structure — except for the autonomous Kurdish region — and has strenuously fought all other political groupings, particularly the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), it is the ICP which has provided much of the “philosophical underpinning” for the Iraqi political dialectic. After the Ba’athist coup of February 8, 1963, the ICP suffered an unprecedented campaign of mass physical liquidation. Leading figures and cadres of the Party were tortured to death, including its First Secretary Salam ‘Adil. But despite numerous losses, the Party claimed to remain a leading force in the fight against the Ba’athist rule, and “joined in the armed struggle waged by the Kurdish national movement in Iraqi Kurdistan”.

The Ba’ath Party began as a political movement in Syria in the 1930s under Michel Aflaq, a Christian from Damascus. Aflaq, who had studied in Paris, developed progressive Arab nationalism articulated in the Ba’ath Party slogan Unity, Freedom and Socialism, which was far more radical than that of the liberal nationalists. Possessing a clear intellect Aflaq became the leading ideologue of Arab unity popularizing the concept: “One Arab Nation with an eternal mission”. The fundamental message, then, of Ba’athism is that it is a pan-Arab movement, but not a Muslim one. However, as the expediencies of the Syrian and Iraqi political situations have demanded, the Ba’athist movement has been adapted to meet the needs of the respective leaderships and, in the current milieu, has particularly adapted to accommodate radical Islamism: political Islam. As with communism in the USSR, the ideology was relegated to an immaterial status following the use of the “legitimizing banner” of the ideology to seize power and win recognition/legitimacy.

Even today, the Iraqi Ba’ath Party maintains a propaganda projection to sustain the impression that it is a conventional political party built around an ideological foundation. This is not the case. However, the Party, as a structure, remains an effective organizing tool of the national/party leadership, affording a credible body to mobilize support for the national leadership and to provide a vehicle for elections, etc.

Within the Kurdish arena, clearly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), built around the Talabani tribe, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq, led by Mas’ud Barzani, are of greatest significance. Of these, the KDP has had the greatest historical — and current — power, but has traditionally proven loyal only to its own objectives. The KDP has undertaken tactical alliances with the Saddam Administration to win dominance of the Kurdish region, and continues to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with Baghdad. In essence, although the Kurdish groupings — like Saddam and his Ba’athists — work through political structures, these essentially represent tools of the leaderships and élites. In the immediate sense, then, the ideological communities are essentially only mediums by which the élites, or tribal leaders (including Saddam) project their authority.

7. Modern power structure affiliates (nomenklatura) of ruling national and regional élites

The essence of “Iraqi” capability, in a national sense, and the ability of the country to project a coherent military defense against the US-led Coalition, rests on the will and organization of the national élite comprising Pres. Saddam Hussein, his immediate and extended family and clan, and their ability to command obedience from a nomenklatura at the national level, and regional leaders around the country. This, then, entails both a physical capability to command and ensure respect and an iconographic legitimacy.

To a significant, short-term extent, Pres. Saddam can mobilize or ride on a number of psychologically powerful trends, such as Islamism, in generating support for resisting the US-led Coalition. However, this is a resource of limited duration and effectiveness, and depends on Saddam’s ability to extend the Islamist (and axiomatically anti-US/anti-Western) populism by extending the conflict to include Israel, as noted in earlier GIS reports.


1. Books on Demand has also published a paperback version of the Batatu book; ISBN: 0608064130, with a list price of $200.