July 23, 2011

Iraq, with its newly elected government, faces new opportunities and problems. We provide two readings for high school students. The first provides a capsule overview of Iraq; the second summarizes major problems that face the country now. Discussion questions and suggestions for student activities follow.

To the Teacher:

Iraq has entered a new period. The recently elected government presents fresh opportunities. But the nation still faces many challenges, such as the continuing insurgency and the contentious question of the relationship between mosque and state.
Below is a reading for students, divided into two parts. Part One provides a capsule overview of Iraq; Part Two summarizes major problems that face the country. Questions for discussion and other suggestions for student activities follow the second reading.

Student Reading

Part One: Some Background on Iraq

Iraq is a country somewhat larger in area than California. Most of Iraq's 25 million people are Muslims, whether they are Shiites, Sunnis, or Kurds. The Shiites and Sunnis are ethnically Arabs (that is, they speak Arabic and share a common culture). Kurds are not Arabs; they have their own culture and language. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
The division between Shiites and Sunnis dates to the death of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, in 632 A.D. As his successor, a leadership council chose Muhammad's father-in-law, Abu Bakr. A minority believed the leader should be a direct descendant of Muhammad-in this case, Ali, his cousin and son-in-law.
Those who accepted Abu Bakr became Sunnis or, in Arabic, "followers of the tradition" of the prophet. Supporters of Ali became Shiites or "followers of Ali." Some 90 percent of the world's Muslims today are Sunnis. Of the Muslim countries, only Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain have Shiite majorities.
In Iraq, Shiites are about 60 percent of the population, a majority living in the south. Their spiritual leader is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who also has a powerful political influence. (An "ayatollah" is a Shiite religious leader.) But there are secular, as well as religious, Shiites.
Despite the fact that Sunnis comprise only about 20 percent of the population, they have dominated Iraq since the founding of the country by the British after World War I. Under the tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, not only did Sunnis rule the country but also persecuted and killed thousands of Shiites and Kurds, most recently following their revolt against Saddam Hussein, after Iraq's defeat in the first Gulf War of 1991.
Sunnis are a majority in central Iraq. It is in this region where most of the attacks occur against the American occupation and against any Iraqi officials, police, or national guardsmen whom insurgents view as supporting the Americans.
After the Gulf War, American and British planes enforced a "no-fly" zone over northern Iraq, where most of the approximately five million Kurds live. This protection enabled the Kurds, under their own democratically elected leaders, to establish a good deal of independence that continues to this day. The Kurds' two main political parties, once in conflict with each other, now share power. Kurds supported and fought with American forces to overthrow Saddam Hussein. They favor a mostly secular government.
Millions of other Kurds live in mostly contiguous, mountainous areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. Turkey, on Iraq's northern border, is especially concerned about growing Kurdish power in Iraq and its effect on the 20 percent of its own population who are Kurds. They fear the possibility that Kurds will launch a concerted effort to form a separate Kurdish nation. The Turkish government does not recognize Kurds as a minority group, has outlawed the use of the Kurdish language, and adopted other policies that Kurds regard as discriminatory. A Kurdish guerrilla insurgency against Turkish rule began in 1984, but in recent years has not been active.
The January 30 Elections
In 2004 Ayatollah Sistani demanded that Iraqis vote directly for a national assembly by January 2005. The demand was initially opposed by the Bush administration, which supported a later, indirect election. But Sistani persisted, calling hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Baghdad and Basra to demonstrations that showed his power. The Bush administration then accepted the Sistani demand.
On Iraq's election day, January 30, 2005, mortar attacks and suicide bombings aimed at keeping voters away from polling stations killed dozens. But the attacks did not prevent 8.5 million people, a turnout of 58 percent, from voting in the election. The voters were primarily Shiites and Kurds. In Sunni areas most people did not vote. Fear of insurgent attacks, hatred of the Americans, and opposition by Sunni leaders, who said a fair election was impossible because of the violence, appear to be the main reasons.
Iraqi voters gave 140 seats and a 51 percent majority in the new national assembly to the United Iraqi Alliance, an alliance of the major Shiite parties; 75 seats went to the Kurdish Alliance, an alliance of the major Kurdish parties; 40 seats went to the Iraqi List, a coalition of secular Shiites and Sunnis; a sprinkling of seats went to 9 other parties; the remainder of the votes went to parties not receiving enough to win any seats. The elections were a success for the Shiites and the Kurds, but left the Sunnis with little representation. A number of Shiites lived in Iran for at least a portion of the Saddam Hussein period and have close ties with the Shiite leaders of that country.
The vote was for a provisional national assembly of 275 members. The assembly now must:
Draft a constitution to be submitted to the country's voters for approval by October 15
Elect by a two-thirds majority a president and two vice presidents, who will name a prime minister and a cabinet
Iraq is to hold another election by December 15,2005, to choose an assembly and government to serve for the following five years.
Services and reconstruction; destruction and death
Despite many reconstruction projects, Iraq continues to suffer from an absence of basic services. Daily power outages occur in Baghdad and other towns and cities. Potable water is unavailable in many places. At gas pumps there are mile-long lines of carsóthis in a country with huge deposits of oil. Insurgent attacks on "the complex network of pipelines, power cables and reservoirs feeding Baghdad [suggest] a systematic plan to cripple Baghdad's ability to provide basic services for its six million citizens and to prevent the fledgling government from operating." (New York Times, 2/21/05)
Iraqi joblessness is a serious problem. Repeated U.S. bombings have devastated such cities as Fallujah and Najaf, where reconstruction has hardly begun. As many as 100,000 Iraqis have been killed and thousands more wounded in the American bombings, in the fighting with insurgents, and in the insurgents' suicide attacks, mortar assaults, and the like, according to Lancet, a London-based medical publication, (BBC News Online, 10/29/04).
For discussion
1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?
2. What are the three major religious and ethnic groups in Iraq? What are sources of conflict among them?
3. What were the results of the January 30 Iraq election?
4. What are the tasks of the provisional national assembly?
5. Besides the violence, what other problems of daily living confront Iraqis?

Student Reading

Part Two: Major Problems

1. The relationship between mosque and state
Some Shiite clerics want Sharia (or Islamic law, which is derived from the Koran and other Islamic writings) to be the basis for all legislation by a new Iraqi government. Other Shiites and Sunnis support Sharia as a major, but not the only, basis for legislation.
Leaders of Sunni and Shiite Muslim countries do not necessarily interpret Sharia in the same ways. The Koran says that men and women should dress modestly. Does this mean that women should be completely covered with a burqa in public, as all women were required to be when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan? Or does a scarf head covering satisfy Sharia, as it does for many Muslim women? Does Sharia mean, as it does in Saudi Arabia, that women should not drive cars? That a thief should have his hands cut off?
Two vital problems for the majority Shiites are how to build a government that is inclusive of other groups and how to work to resolve differences among them.
2. The Kurds' demand for a secular state and relative autonomy
Most Kurds seem to support a secular, federalist Iraqi government that will give them a high degree of independence in governing the northern section of Iraq. They want that section to extend to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Arabs and others living there, as well as the leaders of neighboring Turkey, oppose any enlargement of Kurdish territory. Turkey fears an attempt to establish an independent Kurdistan that might seek a union with Kurds in Turkey and revive the Kurdish guerrilla insurgency there.
Kurds maintain their own militia and want a guarantee that no other Iraqi military will enter their territory without permission. They also want control over taxes in their area and freedom to determine how much revenue they will provide to the national government.
Most Kurds are reluctant citizens of an Iraq that, under Saddam Hussein, forced them from their homes and murdered and gassed them. Most Kurds distrust other Iraqi leaders as well. They fear the loss of the freedom and independence they have enjoyed since the first Gulf War.
What's more, the Kurds have a potential veto power over any new constitution they see as violating that freedom and independence. According to Iraq's provisional constitution, any three provinces in Iraq can, by a two-thirds vote, prevent its ratification. Kurds are the majority in three of Iraq's northern provinces. Sistani and other Shiite leaders are opposed to the two-thirds rule, and may seek to overturn it. Thus, this is another potential source of conflict between Iraq's Shiites and Kurds.
3. The role of the Sunnis
Since most Sunnis did not vote in the January 30 election, they have practically no representation in the new national assemblyóeven though they make up some 20 percent of the population. Probably many Sunnis resent their loss of influence and power. However, they may be invited to participate in the work of the national assembly, especially in the writing of a constitution. Because they are the majority in three provinces, the Sunnis, like the Kurds, might have the power to prevent ratification of the constitution if they disagree with its provisions.
4. The role of the United States
The U.S. has 150,000 troops and 14 military bases in Iraq, including some under construction and the very sizable Camp Anaconda, which occupies more than 15 square miles and can house 20,000 soldiers. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has many agents in the country. All current Iraqi ministries have American advisors. The U.S. plans to build a very expensive new embassy in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
The winning Shiite party in the elections, the United Iraqi Alliance, wants the U.S. to state a "timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq." But given the poor security situation, they and most other Iraqi leaders do not seem to want the U.S. to withdraw its troops immediately. However, they may want the U.S. to leave by the end of the year.
President Bush said, "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out. We are in Iraq to achieve a result: a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself." (2/2/05)
Can these aims be achieved? And if so, at what financial cost? The U.S. occupation faces many potential challenges:
  • How will the Bush administration respond to protests in the U.S. demanding an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq?
  • How will the administration respond if the Iraqi government requests a U.S. pullout? Will the U.S. abandon its bases, its commanding position in the Middle East, and surrender oversight and control of Iraq's government and its oil wealth (second only to Saudi Arabia's in proven reserves)?
  • Will the U.S. become entangled in a civil war involving Sunnis and Shiites, and perhaps Kurds?
  • How will the Bush administration, Congress and the American people respond to mounting revelations of widespread abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners in violation of the UN Convention Against Torture (1994) and The War Crimes Act of 1996, which were both approved by the U.S. Congress?
5. The insurgency
Insurgents and their active supporters seem to number in the many thousands, though an accurate estimate is impossible. They include Sunni followers of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, criminals who fight for pay, and foreign fighters, whose most notable leader is the Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Daily, insurgents kill Iraqi policemen, national guardsmen, and government officials and launch mortar attacks and suicide and roadside bombings that kill American soldiers as well as Iraqi bystanders. Attacks on Shiites and bombings of their mosques seem designed to provoke civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Kidnappings and assaults on roads connecting with major cities like Baghdad make travel extremely dangerous. Rampant crime also contributes to the violent and insecure environment in the country. Two years of American effort have not achieved security.
The Bush administration says one of its main goals is training an Iraqi security force that can eventually supplant American forces. But two years into the occupation, according to two senior Pentagon officials, "less than a third of the Iraqi security forces that the Pentagon says have been trained are capable of tackling the most dangerous missions. Iraqi Army units are also suffering severe troop shortages, officials said, and absenteeism and even corruption in the security forces is a problem." (New York Times, 2/23/05) Iraqi forces have no heavy arms and no air force.
According to the new CIA director, Porter Goss, "Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists. Those jihadists who survive will leave Iraq experienced and focused on acts of urban terrorism. They represent a potential pool of contacts to build transnational terrorist cells, groups and networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other countries." (2/16/05) In short, as critics of the Iraq war have pointed out, a consequence of the U.S. occupation has been to attract foreign terrorists to Iraq and to move some Iraqis to become terrorists themselves. Some of those who survive the Iraq conflict may go on to create new terrorist networks elsewhere.

For discussion, inquiry, and action

1. Ask good questions
Following their reading of Part Two, ask students to prepare two or three good questions about any problems discussed in it. A "good question" is one that, if answered well, would lead to greater understanding of the situation in Iraq and its future and/or the role of the U.S. in Iraq.
In class, have students meet in groups of three or four to discuss their questions and decide on one or two they would like to have considered by the whole class.
Then open up a class-wide discussion about the questions each group has selected. This is likely to generate additional questions and uncertainties. The questions offer opportunities for independent and small-group inquiry. See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for suggestions.
2. Discuss
Why is each of the following a major problem:
  • the mosque-state issue
  • the Kurds' demand for independence
  • the lack of Sunni representation in the national assembly
  • the role of the U.S.
  • the insurgency and terrorism
3. Other Readings and Activities on TeachableMoment.Org
Teachers may find useful "Bloody Iraq & Its Future," available on this website. It offers additional background on Iraq and includes a reading "Iraq: How to Get Out," as well as "Two Citizenship Activities" for students that include expressing their views to public officials and "bringing Iraq into the school."

Additional Sources

Juan Cole, "Informed Comment":, 2/05
Tom Englehardt, "Flattened Iraq"; Dilip Hiro,"An Election That Sharpened Iraq's Fault Lines":, 2/05
Stephen Magagnini, "Split in Islam's Past Key to Iraq's Future," Sacramento Bee:, 2/6/05
Pepe Escobar, "The Shiites' Faustian Pact," Asia Times:, 2/11/05
Philip Kennicott, "The Religious Face of Iraq," Washington Post:, 2/17/05
Tony Karon, "The Islamist Who Could Run Iraq," Time:, 2/17/05
Edward Wong, "Iraqi Kurds Detail Demands for a Degree of Autonomy," New York Times, 2/18/05
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: