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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Shi'is in Iraq

View Group Chronology

Iraq Facts
Area:    437,072 sq. km.
Capital:    Baghdad
Total Population:    217,220,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Until the first few months of 2003, the situation of the Shi'a in southern Iraq remained basically unchanged since 1992: they were severely discriminated against culturally and politically, and government repression came in many forms. However, since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, the political process has been opened up to Shi'a, and a plethora of religious and cultural rights have been reinstituted. The Shi'a represent approximately 63 percent of the population in Iraq, which is largely reflected in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s working legislative body, where Shiites held approximately 47 percent of the seats in 2006. While the current power-sharing model incorporating Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds may ultimately lead to a more stable and democratic Iraq if the groups learn to compromise with one another, the future of Iraq is extremely hard to predict right now. Security concerns are real for much of the population, Sunni and Shi'a alike. Law and order has broken down in Iraq, and U.S. forces are struggling to quell an insurgency. Although most of the violent insurgency is comprised of Sunnis, and while many Shi'a have welcomed the end to Saddam Hussein's regime, there are strong leaders within the Shi'a community that demand that U.S. occupation forces leave the country as soon as possible. Whether or not a power-sharing government can function in Iraq remains to be seen.


Analytic Summary

Despite constituting approximately 63 percent of Iraq's population, Arabic-speaking Shi'a Muslims have historically been dominated by the country's Sunni minority, and this continued under Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. The Ba'ath party maintained that ethnic and linguistic modes of identity should be suppressed, but in practice, its membership contained only .2 percent of the population, and was almost exclusively Sunni with individuals having direct social ties to Hussein. Although there are Shi'a in other parts of Iraq, much of the country's Shi'a population lives in the southern marshland regions near the Iranian border (GROUPCON = 3). Discrimination on a massive scale occurred against Iraqi Shi'a in the political, cultural and economic arenas. Until the Iraqi Governing Council was set up in 2003, the Shi'a in Iraq were formally excluded from political participation (POLDIS02 = 4 ), and did not have rights to free expression or political organizing. Since 2003, they have not faced such restrictions (POLDIS03-06 = 0).

In the religious arena during Hussein's regime, Shi'a were restricted from communal Friday prayer, on the loaning of books by Shi'a mosque libraries, and on the broadcast of Shi'a programs on government-controlled radio or television. In response to domestic Shi'a disturbances, Hussein also resorted to arbitrary execution, a forced resettlement policy and a saturation of military presence. In response to Hussein's repressive policies, Shi'a Muslims in Iraq formed mainly militant organizations which sought the violent overthrow of Saddam, including an unsuccessful civil war in 1991 (REB91 = 7). Violent activities lessened in scale after 1991, but Shi'a continued to launch small-scale guerilla activities (REB99-00 = 4) and arose in protest several times against Hussein's religious bans or in response to the assassination of Shi'a clerics (PROT99 = 3). These protests/riots were generally quelled through force by Hussein's revolutionary guard.

In March 2003, after months of war build-up, American-led coalition forces invaded Iraq. Lawlessness quickly erupted, affecting much of the Iraqi population. Within a few months, Ba'ath party members were on the run, Hussein's regime had collapsed, and Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. The Ba'ath Party has become illegal. Since the start of the invasion and occupation, most of the violent insurgency has been comprised of Sunnis, including Sunni Muslim radicals, people still loyal to Saddam and former soldiers. However, Shi'a militants have also engaged in large-scale guerrilla activity during the 2004-2006 period (REB04-06 = 6). The U.S. continues to employ all its military might in suppressing the Shiite militants, from destroying suspected rebel hide outs to carrying out massive attacks on rebel-controlled areas (REPVIOL04-06 = 5), Shiite- dominated areas such as Najaf, Basra, Karbala and Sadr City have been saturated with Iraqi police/military forces and coalition forces during these years (REPGENCIV04-06 = 2). Intergroup violence between Shi'a and Sunni has increased. Shiite militants as well as Shiite-led government security forces have been responsible for revenge attacks, particularly in the predominantly Shi'a districts in Baghdad and southern areas of the country. Sunni radicals have carried out violent attacks and car bombings that target Shi'a leaders and communities (INTERCON04-06 = 1).



Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1990. "The Middle East, Seventh Edition." Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C.

Dgenhardt, Henry W., ed. 1987. Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide, A Keesing's Reference Publication. London: Longman.

Human Rights Watch. Various reports. 1992-1993.

International Crisis Group. 2006. The Next Iraq War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict. Middle East Report No. 53.

International Crisis Group. 2007. Shiite Politics in Iraq: The Role of the Supreme Council. Middle East Report No. 70.

LexisNexis. Various reports. 1994-2006.

Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. 8/2006. "Country Profile: Iraq."

Marr, Phebe. 2003. The Modern History of Iraq. Second edition. Westview Press.

Nakash, Yitzhak. 1995. The Shi'is of Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

U.S Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Iraq 2001- 2006.

Amnesty International. Iraq Report 2001 - 2004. , accessed 9/16/2004.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006