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Iraqi nationalism then and now: the war anniversary’s bigger picture

Published: Updated:

Iraqi nationalism was the main factor in instigating the 1920 revolution against British occupation. Decades later, a liberated Iraq saw its Hashemite monarchy, which was viewed as a foreign imposition, dismantled in yet another revolution in 1958. There was no reference to sectarianism in those revolutionary phases, unlike the narrative that plagues Iraqi and Arab politics today.

Abdulkarim Qassem, the Iraqi army general who became the country’s prime minister after 1958’s toppling of the monarchy, was from a mixed Arab-Kurdish background. His humble demeanor made him a popular leader and one that was beloved by plebian Iraqis, who had long been estranged by the monarchy’s aristocrats. Qassem endorsed an all-inclusive Iraqi nationalism, aiming to take account of Kurds and Arabs alike. It was no surprise that Kurds liked him.

However, a severe undermining of Iraqi nationalism occurred when Saddam Hussein and his one-party rule prioritized pan-Arab concerns over those of Iraq’s. This continued from the beginning of his rule in 1979 and ended when the United States decided to topple his regime in 2003.

Baathists did espouse some facets of Iraqi nationalism, Saddam Hussein filtered the image of national icons such as the neo-Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, and the crusher of the crusaders, Salahudin, into the country’s political discourse in a bid to remind Iraqis of their powerful history.

However, in general Baathists undermined Iraqi nationalism by drilling its redundant rhetoric of “Unity, Arabism, Socialism” into the Iraqi psyche. The motto, which I repeated during my elementary school days while growing up in Baghdad, made me think that God’s greatest gift to me was that I was born an Arab.

Inter-marriage in an ethnic, religious melting pot

Socially, Iraq, unlike other-not- so homogeneous Arab nations, boasted a trend of intermarriage between its Sunnis and Shiites. Kurds and Arabs also entered into relationships and the resulting children were, naturally, of mixed decent. This especially occurred in major urban centers, such as Baghdad.

In the tribal regions, many of Iraq’s proud Arab clans are comprised of both Sunnis and Shiites.

Iraqi pride in their national achievements has helped to shore up nationalist sentiments. The country is home to the first female minister in the Arab world, appointed in the 1950’s, and the first free verse poetry in Arabic which was pioneered by another Iraqi woman.

But since 2003, Iraqi nationalism, already faltering at the hands of the Baath party’s pan-Arab agenda, has proven highly susceptible to sectarian divisions.

Kurds and their search for a homeland

Shiites, who have long felt marginalized by the Sunni-dominated Baath party, are now in power. Kurds, who were also devastated because of Saddam Hussein’s cruelty, have a wider access to power. For the first time in the Arab world, a president of an Arab majority country is a Kurd. However even this has not encouraged Kurds to see Iraq as their homeland.

The Kurds stayed in Iraq because they couldn’t declare their semi-autonomous region as a separate country and that is because no foreign powers would allow that.

After being subjected to chemical weapons attacks in the 1980’s it is hard to trust the government again, especially with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tilting towards centralism to expand his powers.

Marginalized Sunnis

The trend of feeling marginalized continues but this time with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who are increasingly affected by the repercussions of the Arab Spring. Waves of refugees from Syria have crossed into the Sunni-stronghold region of Anbar, a prime example of the shift in local demographics caused by regional politics.

Additionally, Sunnis felt targeted by a court verdict issuing a warrant for the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi. The warrant is based on his alleged sectarian crimes and the organization of death squads to target particular sects. Critics have asserted that many Iraqi politicians have led militias that targeted and maimed one sect’s community over another, so why is Hashimi in particular being targeted?

Since late 2012, Sunnis have demanded that the government scrap anti-terrorism laws that allow for the arrest and detention of people suspected of terrorism sans a trial. The protests spread through the country’s Sunni provinces, including Salahudin. Nine protesters were killed by the armed forces, and until now an investigation has not incarcerate anyone. This week another protest coordinator was killed.

To curb the central state’s power to randomly arrest protesters, some Sunnis want a more federalized system, just like the Kurds. However, there are Sunnis who denounce such an arrangement, as they consider it a precursor of a wider plan to divide Iraq.

Ahmed Abu Risha, head of the Awakening National Council in Anbar, told me in an interview that he is against Sunnis having a federal region for themselves. However, Abu Risha claimed that the reason behind Iraq’s Hezbollah movement’s forming of a new militia, the Mukhtar Army, was to frighten Sunnis into refraining from protesting in the capital.

While Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadar showed support to the protests, going so far as to call upon Maliki to step down, some protesters snubbed his admonition of the government. Some Sunni protesters have rejected Shiite attempts at calming the situation by humiliating tribal leaders hailing from Shiite provinces. In the same time, some Shiites claim that the protest was infiltrated by al-Qaeda members.

Unlike protests that take place in Shiiite areas, that urge the government to provide better services and to end corruption, Sunnis have prioritized political demands. This shows a great disparity in aims and concerns between the two sects.

Earlier in their protests, some demonstrators even carried the Syrian revolutionary flag, highlighting how the Arab Spring has pervaded the minds of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, more so than any other Iraqi group. Shiites denounced such an act, which makes me rewind to the political memory of the way in which Sunnis viewed the Shiite’s use of Ayatollah Khomeini’s symbolism post 2003 as offensive.

In the Arab world, Shiites were supporters of the Bahraini uprising while simultaneously opposing the Syrian revolution. Sunnis, on the other hand, are not highly supportive of what is happening in Bahrain but want to see Assad fall.

Iraqis are not alone in their apparent sectarian identity crisis.

Working together to rid Iraq of sectarianism?

But yes, there is a political mish-mash in Iraq. There are Iraqi Sunnis who are part of Shiite dominated political parties. There are independents, there are seculars, but can these people get rid of sectarianism?

Iraqis have shown that there is still hope in Iraqi nationalism when they voted in 2010 for the secular bloc, Iraqiya List, however this bloc didn’t have the backing of Washington and Tehran. Both non-Iraqi powers thought in sectarian terms. Washington didn’t want to anger the Shiite majority, according to former Iraqi Foreign Minister Adnan al-Pachachi in an interview I had with him.

One cannot deny that there is definitely still a lingering sense of Iraqi nationalism, a flip through Iraq’s TV channels will prove the love and loyalty felt by the population

But this nationalism needs to be nurtured by the government by reducing sectarian differences. Seculars ought to feel the responsibility to further expand their influence or else Iraq will become a loose, unmanageable nation like Lebanon.

I remember this beautiful national Lebanese song - I even enjoyed singing it as an Iraqi. The song promises that “Lebanon is coming back, Lebanon will be rebuild…” but after all these years the country has not been restored back to its former glory. The last article I read about Lebanon says that Beirut, which was known as Paris of the Middle East, is now the Detroit of the region.

Definitely, Iraqis need to learn from other people’s experiences, we must do more than feed on left-over nationalism found in nostalgic national songs, reminiscing will do nothing.

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Dina Al-Shibeeb is a journalist at Al Arabiya English. She can be found on Twitter: @EpicofIraq