Uniting Iraq's Disparate Cultures a Challenge, Experts Say

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
April 24, 2003

Constructing a representative government from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime is a daunting challenge for Iraq. "If you look at an ethnic map, you'd say that Iraq's political geography is at odds with its cultural geography," says geographer Harm De Blij, distinguished professor at Michigan State University.

"As with most of the nations in that region, the boundaries [of Iraq] are the result of political decisions, mostly arbitrary, by the colonial powers early last century," said James P. Reams, retired Army Artillery Field officer and former West Point geography instructor. "That the boundaries have lasted into the 21st century is more a tribute to the series of local despots that have run these 'countries' since the colonial powers left."

Now that Iraq's regime has been toppled, the old cultural divisions are again surfacing. How and if different ethnic and religious groups can be united under one peaceful, stable system of government remains to be seen.

Modern Iraq was created after the defeat of the German-allied Ottoman Empire in World War I, when the victorious British and French carved up the territory of their defeated rival. One of their decisions was the establishment of the new nation of Iraq under the rule of King Faisal I. The monarch had led the great war's Arab revolt—popularized by Lawrence of Arabia—and had captured Damascus from the Ottomans in 1918.

Within the country's borders, three major groups—each with an identity and an agenda—occupy fairly distinct geographic regions (see map): Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, and Kurds. Each calls Iraq home, but each is unsure of what its role will be in the new Iraq. If the country's territorial integrity is to be respected, they must somehow work together.

Kurdish Aspirations

In northern Iraq, the Kurds have recently begun to shake off decades of oppression. These traditionally pastoral people dwell in a region split by four different nations (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria). Though most Kurds are Muslim, they represent a unique group that has long held its own national aspirations. "They are a distinct people with a distinct language (related to Persian or Farsi), much as Basques are different from Spaniards," explained David Miller, senior editor for National Geographic Maps.

The Kurdish minority was persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds took refuge in the mountainous north of Iraq where they enjoyed some degree of autonomy from Baghdad during the period between the Gulf War and the 2003 war that ousted the Hussein regime. Although these Iraqi Kurds played a role in the U.S.-led coalition that routed Hussein, their place at the table in the new Iraq is yet to be determined.

"Numerically, they represent optimistically only a fifth of the population and that's not a lot," said Harm De Blij. "Everyone talks about how much influence they'll have, but with their location and lack of presence elsewhere in the country I don't know how much they will be able to expect," De Blij said, while noting that the Kurds are themselves divided into two rival regional authorities.

But Iraq's Kurds now have over ten years of experience in self-government and will not be anxious to surrender influence to Baghdad. "They are regionally concentrated and can continue to run their own government—and even secede—if a central government of the new Iraq does not listen to them," Miller said.

"They will demand no less autonomy than that which they had under Saddam," Reams said of the Kurds. "However, I think they will realize that they cannot demand so much autonomy that they will incur Turkish wrath and even Turkish military incursions." Turkey is ever wary of Kurdish aspirations because of the sizable and often restive Kurdish minority within Turkey. "Since 1991, they've periodically staged raids into northern Iraq to get Turkish Kurd rebels who've fled to [Kurdish] Iraq to escape the armed forces," Miller added. "Hussein's government had protested these incursions, but couldn't do much about them."

"The Turks will be loath to see the Kurds playing a major role in a neighboring country," said De Blij.

Continued on Next Page >>


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