Iraq’s Five Catalysts for Civil War

An Iraqi Soldier in Baghdad, Wikimedia Commons

By James Dickey, Columnist

Revolutions and counter-revolutions embroil Iraq, providing the impetus for rebellion against the central government. While not all of these civil wars are ‘hot’ at any given time, no one movement has achieved complete victory, nor has any been completely defeated or appeased by Baghdad. Further, the myriad of ethnic and sectarian factions can and do shift between five competing motives for war as they seek to survive and profit in Iraq’s ‘full-contact’ political environment. For peace inIraq all of these competing political impulses must be addressed. Outside entities, which do not recognize the complexity of the interplay between competing desired outcomes, risk perpetuating the unstable and unsustainable status quo.

The Shia Revolution

The Shia have all but succeeded in their revolution against the Baath Party and formerly revolutionary elements are now running the central government. The last two Prime Ministers of Iraq are members of the Islamic Dawa Party, which was founded in the 1950s to further Shia Islamic political aspirations. In 2007, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another major Shia Islamic party, changed their name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) because, according to officials, the “Revolution’ was associated with Saddam Hussein and the Baath party.[1] However, other Shia groups, such as those associated with the Sadrist Trend and Muqtada al Sadr, continue their efforts to push Iraq towards Shia theocracy. The outcome is frequently organized violence directed against the central government.[2] The Shia pushing for completion of the revolution need to be content with their gains, otherwise their maximalist inclinations will permanently alienate both the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds.

The Salafist Revolution

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) is the latest incarnation of the radical Salafist revolution. The Salafists cherish a version of Islam as they imagine it was during the earliest days of the faith. The Salafist revolution calls for control of the state under orthodox Sharia Law by the strictest Islamic legal interpretations.[3] Further, to the most radical Salafists, all who are not with them, are against them, and are referred to as kfir (apostates). This does not leave much room for compromise with non-Sunni factions who refer to radical Salafists as takfiri (those who call others apostates), or more commonly, terrorists.[4] Salafism is not a dominant interpretation of Islam among the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, but the Salafists are well organized, well funded, and benefit from the Sunni Arab population’s perception of persecution by the Shia dominated central government.

The Baathist/Sunni Counter-Revolution

The moment Saddam fell in 2003, the counter-revolution began to reinstate Baathist rule in Iraq. This, at least, is what many Shia and Kurds will say. More prosaically, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs were the best represented faction within the Baath Party and consequently lost the most power in 2003.[5] While the Baath Party is dead to all but the hardest bitten revanchists, Sunni Arabs still represent a sizeable minority of the population. Sunni Arab leadership claim persecution and marginalization under the central government as evidenced by the 2012 attempted arrest and trial of the Sunni Arab Vice President, Tariq al Hashimi.[6] Over the past ten years, the counter-revolutionaries have drifted into and out of the orbit of the Salafist revolution as their political and military fortunes have waxed and waned.[7] To keep them permanently separated from the Salafists revolutionaries, they will need to believe they are free from Shia maximalist ambitions and can achieve an enduring and meaningful representation in the central government.

Kurdish Separatism

The Kurds have ‘no friends but the mountains.’ This common Kurdish homily regularly surfaces when studying the historical relationship between the Kurds and Baghdad. While the Iraqi Kurdish population is largely split between the two major Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, they are unified in their desire for independence from Baghdad. They are, however, pragmatic enough to maintain their commitment to Iraqi territorial and political integrity in the face of Turkey’s strident opposition to Kurdish independence. Should the Kurdish Regional Government believe its autonomy is threatened, or if Turkey will allow it, the Kurds are likely to seek full independence with or without the consent of Baghdad.[8] The Kurds need to believe there is some benefit in association with Baghdad, otherwise they will push for independence.

Southern Iraqi Separatism

Basra was once its own autonomous province under the Ottoman Empire and many in the south of Iraq would like a return to that state. Basra is the third largest city in Iraq and the oil fields of South-Eastern Iraq account for upwards to 60 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves.[9] It also has ready access to international markets through the Persian (Arabian) Gulf. Since Basra’s federalist ambitions were never realized following the ratification of the Iraqi constitution in 2005, the leadership of Basra has regularly flirted with de facto, if not de jure, autonomy. Basra’s autonomous impulse has often dovetailed with aspirations of Shia revolutionary factions, especially ISCI.[10] This has led to episodes of ‘full contact politics’ as major Shia factions have fought for control of southern cities against occupation forces, the central government, and each other. If Iraq’s political coherence falters, then the provinces of South-Eastern Iraq will likely follow Basra into a separatist future.

Each of these political catalysts for rebellion have deep roots within Iraqi political culture. It is not enough to merely compromise to meet the needs of the current battle against ISIS. The Iraqi central government must embrace political inclusion and compromise as an enduring strategy, rather than a temporary tactic.


LTC (Ret) James Dickey has 22 years of international experience in risk analysis, strategic planning, operations, training and leadership. His assignments as an intelligence officer with the United States Army took him from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, Germany, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan. He commanded a military intelligence company operating out of Fort Meade, Maryland and served as the senior intelligence analyst for Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2006. He was also appointed the director of the Theater Ground Intelligence Center – Central which provided intelligence and knowledge management services to US and Coalition Forces operating in the Middle East and Central Asia. Prior to matriculating in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, he served as the chief of operations at the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. 


[1] Karouny, Mariam. “Iraq’s SCIRI Party to Change Platform: Officials.” Reuters, November 11, 2007. Accessed November 18, 2014.

[2] Truscott, Claire, and Richard Norton-Taylor. “Maliki Vows There Will Be ‘no Retreat’ against Shia Militias in Basra.” The Guardian, March 27, 2008. Accessed November 18, 2014.

[3] Kepel, Gilles. “From the Gulf War to the Taliban Jihad.” In Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

[4] Rayburn, Joel. “The Sunni Chauvinists.” In Iraq after America Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2014.

[5] ibid

[6] Al-Jawoshy, Omar, and Michael Schwirtz. “Iraq’s Vice President Calls Death Sentence ‘Unjust’.” The New York Times, September 10, 2012.

[7] Rayburn, Joel. “The Sunni Chauvinists.” In Iraq after America Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance. Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2014.

[8] Park, Bill. Turkey-Kurdish Regional Government Relations after the U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq: Putting the Kurds on the Map? Carlisle, PA: United States Army War College Press, 2014.

[9] “Iraq.” U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis. April 2, 2013. Accessed November 18, 2014.

[10] Al-Qarawee, Harith. “Redefining a Nation: The Conflict of Identity and Federalism in Iraq.” <i>Perspectives on Federalism</i> 2, no. 1 (2010): 38. Accessed November 17, 2014.

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