2005 July 02 Saturday
Why Won't the Shiites Fight The Sunnis In Iraq?

The Economist reports that in an Iraqi military training academy in Tikrit at very most 5% of the trainees want to fight for their government.

The instructors had more pressing concerns than the quality of their recruits. Two months ago, Iraq's Ministry of Defence took over the job of paying its employees, up to then paid by America, and since then they had not seen a cent. Language is also a problem, with half the recruits speaking Arabic and the others Kurdish, and few instructors knowing both. Perhaps the worst problem is the quality of leadership. The Iraqi colonel nominally in charge of the academy tried to employ his relatives, said his American supervisors, including one who was subsequently arrested in murky circumstances. He would not have been the first insurgent to practise on the academy's range: after the fighting in Fallujah, last November, American marines found the academy's badges on enemy corpses. Asked to estimate how many of the academy's students were motivated by a desire to help their country, Major Donald McArdle, the American in charge, reckoned 5%; his colleagues thought this too high.

The lack of pay for Ministry of Defence workers might be the result of corrupt officials funnelling money off to foreign bank accounts.

The Iraqi force that is supposed to take over the fighting from American soldiers is a mirage. ARVN (Army for the Republic of Viet Nam - the South Vietnamese Army in the 1960s and early 70s) was a better fighting force.

In recent weeks, ISF units have taken charge of small areas of Baghdad and Mosul. By the end of this year, when elections are due to be held under a new constitution, they are supposed to number 230,000, and to be operating in divisions. America would withdraw, or so officials say, some troops early next year.

That is a pipedream. Corrupt, patchily trained and equipped, often abysmally led and devoid of confidence, most army units cannot operate above platoon-size. Between Iraqis and Americans there is deep mistrust: Iraqi units billeted on American bases are fenced off from their hosts as a security measure.

For every vaunted ISF success, examples of cowardice and incompetence abound. Even when stiffened by American forces, the ISF often flee when under attack. Iraqi marksmen have a habit of closing their eyes and spraying bullets in "death-blossoms", in GI slang. Some of the better units, including the 12-battalion, mostly Shia, police commandos, are accused of torture and sectarian violence.

Not that most American commanders--many of whom are on their second or third tour of Iraq, and want it to be their last--admit these deficiencies. To "put an Iraqi face" on operations, they are often accompanied by an Iraqi counterpart. But during operations observed by this correspondent in the violent northern town of Tal Afar last week, the "Iraqi face", that of a genial Kurdish general, spent much time with its eyes closed, gently dozing.

Look at it on the bright side. The dozing Kurdish general isn't going to pass military intelligence on to the insurgents. An alert Sunni Arab general might approach the operation looking for ways to give notice to the insurgents that the Americans are coming.

I don't buy the argument that the Iraqi military just needs more time training. The insurgents do not have training bases and big budgets. Yet they still manage to do lots of fighting. Also, plenty of Iraqis received military training under Saddam's regime. Plus, plenty of Iraqis who have been trained in the new Iraqi Army then left it and used their skills and equipment to eagerly fight for the insurgency.

John Tierney of the New York Times argues normal bias against outsiders is amplified in Iraq by the practice of cousin marriage.

Because marriage between cousins is so common in the Middle East - half of Iraqis are married to their first or second cousins - Arabs live in tightly knit clans long resistant to outsiders, including would-be liberators. T. E. Lawrence learned that lesson when trying to unify Arabs early in the last century.

"The Semites' idea of nationality," he wrote, "was the independence of clans and villages, and their ideal of national union was episodic combined resistance to an intruder. Constructive policies, an organized state, an extended empire, were not so much beyond their sight as hateful in it. They were fighting to get rid of Empire, not to win it."

Today's liberators in Iraq like to attribute the resistance to Islamic fascists' fear of democracy and hatred of the West. But those fascists know that an abstract critique of Western ideology isn't enough to attract followers. In their appeals they constantly invoke the need to expel foreigners from their soil, a battle cry that is the great common denominator of suicide bombers around the world.

For more links about the problem posed by consanguineous marriage (marriage to cousins and other genetic close relations) see Steve Sailer's excerpt of Tierney's essay. Also see my previous post on Tierney's previous essay on consanguineous marriage and Iraq. Also see my posts Consanguinity prevents Middle Eastern political development and Pessimists on Muslim Democracy.

Steve Sailer argues that Iraqis have a stronger desire to dominate than to be free.

Freedom or Dominance: I fear that one of the Administration's fundamental misconceptions about Iraq was the assumption that Arabs value freedom most of all. In reality, I suspect they prize dominance most highly We assumed we could hand them their freedom and they'd be grateful to us for our selfless sacrifice, or, at worst, appreciate our enlightened self-interest. But Arabs have no history of the powerful giving anyone their freedom, so they assume it is a trick and a trap. In Arab thought, the only way to prevent the dominant from exploiting you is to be the dominant one yourself.

The practice of polygamy as a "winner take all" competition for a limited supply of females makes my list of reasons why democracy is doomed in Iraq. Polygamy might be a major cause of the preference for domination over freedom.

The timing of eventual American withdrawal from Iraq will be determined by a combination of US domestic factors and developments in Iraq. On the latter score the most important question in my mind is why aren't the Shias joining the Iraqi military to vigorously fight the Sunni insurgency? Some possibilities:

  1. Most Sunnis are fighting in areas where few Shias live and the Shias just don't see a threat. But Baghdad and a few other cities have substantial numbers of both groups.
  2. The Shias are content to let the United States do their fighting for them. Why get killed when American troops will die for you? If this is the case then only the withdrawal of US troops will make the Shias fight for their government.
  3. Most Shias do not see the Iraqi government as their government even though it is dominated by Shias because the government is predictably so corrupt that it just exists for the people who are in power. If they believe this then they probably have an accurate assessment of the situation.
  4. Most Shias do not feel much allegiance to the abstract concept of "Iraq" since their loyalties to extended families are much stronger. Consanguineous marriage weakens higher level loyalties so much that nation-states can't work. In this case the Shiites are hopeless and we can never hope to establish a functional democracy in Iraq.
  5. As long as the Americans are present the Shias question whether fighting for the government amounts to fighting for their Iraq controlled by Shia Iraqis. Are the Americans just going to use Shias to suppress the Sunni so that the Americans can take all the oil? If this fear is holding them back then US withdrawal should cause the Shiite majority to fight harder for their government.
  6. The Shias figure that the Sunnis are most eager to fight the Americans and that if the Americans would leave the Sunnis would make peace with the Shias. Well, if so then this argues for American withdrawal.
  7. The Shiites have become conditioned to a submissive position vis a vis dominant Sunnis for so long that they are just don't have the mindset needed to defend their position in power.

Can you think of other reasons why the Shiites are not eager to fight for the government while the Sunnis are eager to fiight for the insurgency? Or do you think one or more of the proposed explanations above suffice to explain the unwillingness of the predominantly Iraqi Army to show some eagerness when going up against the Sunnis?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 July 02 04:26 PM  Mideast Iraq Ethnic Conflict

Bob Badour said at July 2, 2005 6:07 PM:

8. Ain't Payback a bitch! King Bush I encouraged the Shias to rise against their oppressors and then left them to get creamed. Why not let the Americans get a taste too?

Lycan said at July 2, 2005 9:23 PM:

I'd also add that the rate of population growth in those countries supplying the lion's share of the suicide bombers (like Saudi Arabia) is among the highest in the world, and perhaps the Shiites don't want to wind up on the shit list of a rising generation of tens of millions of budding militants. Check out this article incidentally-- http://www.wpherald.com/storyview.php?StoryID=20050702-092836-8744r

Damn scary. The Bush Administration as usual is sticking it's head in the sand and refuses to even ponder the contribution of overpopulation to the terrorist threat, but this may be one reason why the US may be doomed to economic collapse over the next two decades, bankrupted by battles against a virtually infinite number of budding terrorists-- with the Iraq War, we've become Enemy #1 of regions with the highest population growth rates, never a good sign. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian territories-- all these places are supplying a decent share of the suicide bombers and have wicked high fertility rates. There's a virtually limitless supply of suicide bombers to be used against the US-led effort. Afghanistan is also in there. South Asia thus far has fortunately featured a more moderate strain of Islam but we're probably one additional Abu Ghraib away from radicalizing them too. India's Untouchables (40% of the population or so) are rapidly joining the Muslim fold and, while they currently hold rather moderate views, that could change if the US war on Iraq expands to include more Muslim countries and is indeed seen as a Huntingtonian war of civilizations. Same situation with Bangladesh.

The bitter truth, as you said, is that the US focus thus far has been on Iraq, Syria and Iran-- places that threaten Israel but not the US as much. Whereas, Saudi Arabia and Yemen-- teeming with raging anti-American militants but for whatever reason less of a threat to Israel-- don't capture the neocons attention. This definitely has to change.

Stephen said at July 2, 2005 9:44 PM:

Maybe Occam's razor tells us the real answer as to why Sunni won't fight Shia: Its because their differences aren't that great. Consider this: They live next-door to each other, they worship next to each other at the same mosques, they don't have big signs over their head identifying their particular religious affiliation, they inter-marry, they get on with their lives. Just like the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats in the US.

Saddam put a lot of effort into making his tyranny more inclusive by broadening the ethnic/religious groups who governed the country (ie broadening the number of groups whose power was dependent upon Saddam remaining in power). This process was spurred on by the massive losses during the Iran/Iraq war. By the end of the war he had plenty of high ranking ministers, public servants and military officers from Shia, Sunni and Kurd groups.

PS: Why is a civil war considered a good thing? Especially the particularly nasty ethnic cleansing variety that Randall appears to be advocating. How would such a horrible thing make the world a better place? Or what would the strategic benefit be to the US?

Randall Parker said at July 2, 2005 11:25 PM:


Would you prefer that the Shia not put down the Sunni insurgency? If so, why?

Maybe withdrawal of US troops would end the Sunni insurgency. Do you think so?

The benefit to the US of the Shia taking up the fight is that then Bush would probably be willing to pull out most US troops. He could declare victory. I'd prefer he just pull out the troops now. But until US public opinion swings even harder against the war I do not expect him to do it while the insurgency is carrying out a lot of attacks.

James Bowery said at July 2, 2005 11:53 PM:

De facto polygyny results from serial monogamy and cuckoldry -- the newly acceptable reproductive standards of the West.

How confident are we that the West's centralization of male reproduction is still less than the historic pattern among Islamic cultures?

Stephen said at July 3, 2005 2:00 AM:

What Sunni insurgency? Where's the evidence that this is a Sunni-only game? Looking at the Iraqi cities reported as having had uprisings over the last 12 months, I don't see any strong pattern indicating that its only the Sunni majority cities that are happily shooting at the occupying forces. Also, if it were a Sunni-only war, wouldn't the Shia have been busily informing on their 'terrorist' neighbours (ie not fighting, but at least informing)? Therefore, it seems to me that the anti-US forces are better characterised as a broad based resistance and hoping that its only a Sunni insurgency is just wishful thinking.

To answer your questions: Would I prefer that the Shia not put down the Sunni insurgency? Yes, because then it'd be a particularly nasty civil war which would ultimately lead to a Shia-based alliance between Iran and Iraq - a very powerful block that would shake the region to its core. Do I think the withdrawal of US troops would end the insurgency? Yes, but only because it would transform from an insurgency into the aforementioned nasty civil war.

If I were being particularly machiavellian, my guess why the Shia won't fight would be because their leaders have been told by Iran to let the occupiers bleed slowly. Surely Iran must be doing all it can to keep the US tied down for a couple of years while it develops some nukes.

In terms of grand strategy, my feeling is that the best outcome would be for all of the Iraqi groups to take up arms against the US and for the US to leave quickly. Maybe then Iraq will be able to form some kind of coalition forged in blood (and the myth forming that goes with that) and they will be able to stand alone without need for support from outside the country. Kind of like how Iran stayed together post-revolution because its people had a universally understood myth that it had successfully stood up to the US; kind of like how Israel has its uniting myth; kind of like how the US has its own uniting mythology; kind of like how the French have their revolution mythology.

noone said at July 3, 2005 4:06 AM:

"The Shias are content to let the United States do their fighting for them. Why get killed when American troops will die for you? If this is the case then only the withdrawal of US troops will make the Shias fight for their government."

Conservation of Force is a basic military principle right up there with Take the High Ground.

The Shia know:
1)America has no staying power,the Yanks will leave,be patient.
2)As long as the Yanks are there,the Sunnis will attack them(it was a Sunni dictator we took down,Sunnis fear being a minority under a Shia g'ment and will fight to avoid that)
3)Given the above,the more Sunni fighters the Yanks kill,the fewer Sunni fighters Shia fighters will have to deal with when the Yanks give up and go home.Be patient.
4)In chaos,there is profit.Somebody has to sell guns and bullets and Iraq is definitely a hot market right now.

Jay Z said at July 3, 2005 5:27 AM:

The Shiite leaders are accepting the current government and its policies to keep U.S. from worrying about them. However, after we leave the Shiite leaders will take control of most of the country and crush the insurgency.

They know there's nothing we can do after the U.S. troops leave. All they need to do is wait for a few more years and they'll own the country
and the oil.

I suspect they'll probably make a deal with the
Kurds to give them their own country (or autonomous zone) in the north.

Bob Badour said at July 3, 2005 11:18 AM:

9. All the Shias who trusted the US and who were motivated enough to fight for their people were killed by Saddam after Bush I called them to arms and left them hanging.

Randall Parker said at July 3, 2005 1:45 PM:


The bulk of the insurgency is in the Sunni Triangle. Yes, some cities which also have Shia have an insurgency. But where's the evidence that Shia are fighting in the insurgency? I don't see it.

I can't figure out you want. If the Shia take down the Sunni insurgency while we are there then it is a nasty civil war. If they do it when we leave then ditto. You seemingly recoil from these possibilities unless I misunderstand you. Well, do you think that all conflicts have non-military solutions?

There are only 3 possibilities here:

1) Some military force has to defeat the insurgency. Well, the US isn't going to do it. That leaves the Shias if only there is some condition in which they will fight.

2) The insurgency wins.

3) The insurgency decides that their demands are met and they stop fighting.

Well, as long as US troops are in Iraq the Shias are not going to step up to the plate and take over the fightin. The insurgents will continue to fight US troops and kill membes of the the Iraqi government (whether soldiers, police, or regular employees or leaders).

If we leave the Shia and Sunnis might cut a deal. And then again, maybe not. At that point one of my 3 options eventually ends the fighting.

I do not foresee a partition. Though possibly the Kurds will secede and make it stick.

Jay Z said at July 3, 2005 6:44 PM:

Turkey has a large Kurdish population in the southeastern part of that has rebelled agains the government before. The previous rebellion was ended a few years ago, but I wonder if a new Kurdish nation in northern Iraq would start supporting Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey with arms and soldiers. Kurdish history does indicate that Kurds are not afraid to fight for their independence.

Ned said at July 4, 2005 6:31 PM:

An interesting demographic - all the Arabs' neighbors hate them. Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Israelis, sub-Saharan Africans....whatever they may think of each other, they all hate the Arabs. Wonder why?

Stephen said at July 4, 2005 7:36 PM:

Ned, the only nation that I found to be consistently hated in the region is Israel. That said, the gulf arabs (ie not arabs in general) would probably come second. I like the Egyptians - they always seem to have a happening vibe going on.

Suleiman Hassan said at March 22, 2006 3:03 AM:

Arabs in Iraq love to kill Americans exactly like Americans love to kill Arabs. When Americans kill 5 or 10 in a family, relatives join the resistance to take revenge. Any American including those Iraqis working with Americans then become the target. America will be defeated in Iraq. Civil war will never start in Iraq unless it is ignited by the Americans. Americans have to leave immediately. The Iraqis will be able to settle their problems by themselves. Then, America has to take responsibility for all the destruction and pay for it.

Shiite and Sunni rubbish is an American creation to divide and conquer. It is temporary. The idea will not hold once the Americans leave. Shiites and Sunnis lived without any problem for more than a thousand years. No war between them. The evil entity in Iraq is the American army. America has to get out immediately.

My question to any American reading my comment is this. How do you feel if an Iraqi or a Russian soldier searched you, your wife and your car on Washington street at gun point? This is the reason why America is the most hated country in the world today.

Randall Parker said at March 23, 2006 5:20 PM:

Suleiman Hassan,

Sunnis and Shias in Iraq have fought on many occasions. Usually the Sunnis have won. The most recent occasion before the current fighting was in 1991. After the US withdrew the Shias rose up against Saddam Hussein and were brutally crushed.

I think the US should withdraw from Iraq. But one has to be willfully ignorant of history to think then they will all just get along. The Kurds want no part of Iraq and the Sunnis do not want to bow to a Shia majority regime.

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