Posted by: sean | January 3, 2007

Media coverage of Iraq

Al Jazeera has an interesting article about the Western media coverage of Iraq, and Iraq’s sectarian makeup in particular.

Among the complaints about Western coverage is the claim by Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni Arab vice-president, that the media overestimates the number of Shia in the country:

Western media often refer to Iraq as being “overwhelmingly Shia”, or use other phrases to imply a large Shia majority. This, [al-Hashimi] says, is wrong — and it has resulted in over-representation of Shia parties in the Iraqi government at the expense of Sunni Arabs.

Al-Hashimi said: “The false allegations promoted by Western media have resulted in an [inappropriate] political process, and everyone is paying the price for its wrong foundations.”

Where the figures came from to back up assertions of a large Shia majority are unclear: no Iraqi census in modern history has ever included sect.

Sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica put the Shia population in Iraq at 52 per cent of the total in 2001. However, figures circulated by the US military, which invaded Iraq in 2003, put the figure at 60 per cent.

The CIA’s World Factbook puts the Shia at 60 to 65 percent of the Iraqi population.

Other complaints include the characterization of the insurgency as essentially Sunni and the assertion that the Baath party was a Sunni-run apparatus that persecuted the Shia. According to the current Baath spokesperson,

“Actually, sect was never an issue in Iraq. I am a Shia and I have been a senior Baath official … No Baath party official — no Iraqi official — ever asked me about my sect.

“When the US army occupied Iraq they issued a list of 55 wanted top Iraqi officials, starting with President Saddam Hussein; half of those senior officials were Shia.

“The Committee of Debaathification issued a list of 100,000 senior Iraqi Baathists who would not be allowed to enjoy governmental posts, 66,000 of them were Shia – so how is the Baath party a Sunni party?

…Abu Muhammad voiced resentment at the the term “Sunni insurgency”, saying that Iraqis from different backgrounds are fighting the foreign presence in Iraq.

“This term plays down Iraqi nationalism,” he said. “I repeat, I am a Shia and I am resisting the US forces in Iraq, and we know for sure that resistance fighters from all background are fighting. Why do the Western agencies insist that only Sunni are fighting? Big question mark, I think.”

On the other hand, there are those who disagree:

However, Karim Bader, an independent Iraqi politician, said that Western media had done a decent job on reporting what had occurred under Saddam’s rule.

He said one had to look only at the senior army commanders and intelligence officers in Saddam’s day, all of whom he said were Sunni. Or to look at the sizes of houses in Shia suburbs – small and overcrowded – or in Sunni areas, where houses were far larger but with fewer occupants.

Bader said: “I think there was sectarianism under Saddam and the Western media reflected that, but the question is, should we hold the Sunni sect responsible for that? I think Iraqis must be careful in answering this question.”



  1. Well, that’s the historical question. The current Iraqi prime minister is dead right in asserting that it’s utterly dangerous to over-represent the “Shi’ite” in our historical understandings of their oppressed status. Not just for historical accuracy, but for our own sake.

    Still, it is quite phenomenal how the Ba’ath regime, and more specifically Sadaam Hussein, managed to run a more or less efficient secular nation state for such a long time.

    I don’t get the impression that Iraq had been governed under official “us” (Sunni) and “them” (Kurds, Shi’ites, Berbers) policies, but rather that there had been pivotal moments of anti-Baa’th mass-insurgencies – most of them sectarian-based – had occured during his regime. Still, as we’ve found out, much history had been discarded.

    Still, Tariq al-Hashimi is right in the sense that we should not automatically assume that such identities, i.e. “Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurd, etc”, have always been mobilized in the way they are now. If we already think along these ethno-religious lines, then what would result is a potential nationalist Iraq devastated *along* such fault lines. And although we’re outside of Iraq, the west is only reinforcing such identity claims of the military factionalists, a very dangerous thing.

    Yet, if we are to accept that such identities *are* salient as categories to begin with, then there is no other choice but to start thinking about a fragile consociational democracy, like Lebanon. Yet, we all know how weak such nations really are.

    Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurd, or what have you, kudos to the current prime minister who has stressed that the definition of the players means everything in terms of potential tragic outcomes.

    The crystallization of identities mean everything. The whole nation-state formation of Iraq, then, must avoid Western-style categorizations of who comprises “us” and “them”.

    Too bad so many Europeans from our generation forget to ask their grandparents if they were ever really exceptionally “European” and not “French” or “German”. Because, after all, we can definitely turn to some even more situations from the real dark continent of the world.


  2. While you might not get the impression that Iraq was ruled on a Sunni vs. Shia and Kurd basis (Berbers are in North Africa, not Iraq, by the way, but there are Assyrians and Turkoman communities), pretty much all of the Iraqis I have spoken to have said otherwise.

    While we can speculate on how big the Shia majority is, we can know that except for the very beginning of Ba’ath rule, the Shia of Iraq have been more or less excluded from the country’s politics. This also goes for Hashemite and Ottoman rule.

    At the end of the day, sectarian lines don’t need any reinforcement by outside forces; Iraqis have done a fine job of that themselves. And this stems in no small way from the aleatoric way Iraq was cobbled together.

    Getrude Bell was warned against creating Iraq long ago by an American missionary in Mesopotamia:

    You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity! Assyria always looked to the west and the east and the north, and Babylonia to the south. They have never been an independent unity. You’ve got to take time to get them integrated, it must be done gradually. They have no conception of nationhood yet.

  3. I was only pointing out that it is perhaps not fair to view the current situation as “Sunni vs All”. I’m not quite sure if there was ever *official policy* which granted Sunnis special priveleges. From what I understand, the Baa’th party had run under a despotic following of secular pan-Arab nationalism, a practice which was entirely disagreeable to many.

    However, aside from that point, I merely wanted to point out that the many categorical claims we hear today assume as if such political identities are already set in stone. Yes, it’s true that there is much ethno-religious mobilization occurring. It may now be the case, for example, that civilian-based ethnic cleansing in Baghdad (removal of Sunni) is perhaps a reality.

    Still, the very *practice* of declaring the situation as a contentious conflict based on crystallized identities is wrong, voluntary or not. The Iraqi national identity is still in the process of being negotiated, competed, and defined as we speak. The following of the Iraqi constitution is perhaps the last hope we have for co-existence.

    My apologies about including Berbers: my general point was to highlight the very diversity of Iraq.

    “Order without liberty and liberty without order are equally destructive. ~Theodore Roosevelt”

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