New American Series: Iraqis

We are finishing a series on the five largest ethnic groups to be resettled to Sioux Falls in the last five years by the Center for New Americans (CNA). Upcoming blog posts will focus on the following topics: Conflict History, Cultural Differences, and New American Success Stories. Please join us as we learn together about our new neighbors and their courageous stories.

New American Series: Iraqis

Conflict History

In researching the history of Iraq, I had to keep reminding myself that I was focusing on the conflict(s) that led to the resettlement of our most recent group of Iraqis to the United States. The region of Iraq has known conflict and foreign military intervention throughout its history, which is quite extensive as some of the earliest known non-nomadic agrarian societies originated between its two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates.  From the ancient powers of Babylon, Assyria, and Persia and later the Greeks and Romans, until its conquest by Muslim Arabs whose ruling Abbasid caliphs made Baghdad their capital of an empire that stretched from Spain across Asia to parts of India, the region has been the backdrop of major world history. Mongols invaded in 1258 and in the fifteenth century the region was eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turks. As part of the Ottoman Empire, the region was brought into international politics at the conclusion of World War I in 1918. Great Britain exercised imperial and political influence until Iraq became an independent political entity in 1932. The “young” Iraq experienced political instability, including several coups, and tension with neighboring countries. A successful bloodless coup d’état in July 1968 brought the Ba ‘th Party, a nationalistic and socialistic-minded party, into power and within its ranks was Saddam Hussein, who acted as Vice President. He helped bring Iraq back into good relations with many of its neighbors—excluding Israel—after its slide into almost total isolation. He proclaimed himself President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces in 1979.

Saddam Hussein (photo courtsey of Wikipedia)

Saddam Hussein (photo courtsey of Wikipedia)

Saddam’s rise to power was due in large part to his leadership of Iraq’s internal security forces. Saddam’s internal security apparatus, including a newly created Presidential Guard, tolerated absolutely no dissent or opposition either from party members or ethnic groups within Iraq. Under his rule, Iraq did see economic development and political stability but at the cost of great personal freedom and civil rights. In 1980, Saddam led Iraq into a military conflict with neighboring Iran that lasted eight years. Both sides supported opposition groups within each other’s borders in attempts to destabilize each other. In 1990 he invaded Kuwait, which brought Iraq into military conflict with the United States. Due to its many military conflicts and constant need to quell any internal opposition from marginalized groups, Saddam amassed a large arsenal of weapons and military armaments. U.S. foreign policy towards Iraq and Saddam’s regime morphed from initial containment to support for a complete regime change, which was accelerated following terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Grouping Saddam’s regime with a larger “axis of evil,” the U.S. military and coalition forces overthrew the regime in 2003. Saddam was executed December 30th, 2006.

Coalition forces set up the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as a transitional government within Iraq and implemented several actions to increase the governmental power of the marginalized Shias and Kurds and disband its military apparatus. From early on, violent and frequent clashes occurred between coalition forces and opposition forces such as disenfranchised Ba’th leaders, Sunnis, former Iraqi army and intelligence officers, and al-Qa’ida, an international terrorist network that only started to exist within Iraq after 2003. A fledgling and weak Iraqi Transitional Government left a destabilized Iraq open to waves of sectarian violence that engulfed it. Suicide bombings, attacks against civilians, death squads, and assassinations became daily occurrences for Iraqi citizens.

Initially Sunni and Shi’I leaders preached national cohesion and played down ethnic and sectarian differences, but the cycle of sectarian killings and revenge took its tool. In 2006, the bombing of the Imam al-‘Askari Shrine, a historic Shi’I mosque, opened the floodgates to sectarian killing. Both Sunni and Shi’I militias engaged in widespread ethnic cleansing in Baghadad and elsewhere. Neighborhoods that had always had a mixed population became homogeneous.[i]   

Today as Iraq’s democratic government tries to move the country forward towards unity among its major factions, the country remains a battleground of sectarian violence, bombings, and terrorist-led attacks, the most recent being by those of Isis.

Map shows the three major sects within Iraq.  Photo courtesy of CNN.

Map shows the three major sects within Iraq. Photo courtesy of CNN.

[i] Cultural Orientation Resource Center, Center for Applied Linguistics. “Refugees from Iraq: Their History, Cultures, and Background Experiences” COR Center Enhanced Refugee Backgrounder No. 1. October 2008

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