Iraqi nationalism and the Iran-Iraq War

By Lisa Blaydes, Stanford University

*This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop, February 6, 2015

Who bears the costs associated with the foreign policy decisions of dictators? And to what extent are the burdens of war borne by particular ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic society? Using internal Iraqi government documents amassed in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, I address the following three questions: 1) which ethnic groups within Iraq bore the greatest burden associated with Iran-Iraq War causalities, 2) how did the regime of then-President Saddam Hussein try to deal with declining citizen and soldier morale as a result of the tremendous human, and other, losses associated with the war, and 3) how can scholars weigh the net impact of war causalities versus government efforts at morale boosting on overall levels of nationalist sentiment across Iraqi ethno-sectarian groups in the years following the conflict?

To preview the main findings, I show that Shiite Iraqis were more likely than their Sunni counterparts – and much more likely than Iraqi Kurds – to have been killed, have become prisoners of war, or have gone missing in action during the first half of the Iran-Iraq War. Government efforts to counteract declining citizen morale during the course of the war took a number of forms, including compensation for families of fallen soldiers, educational programs, and symbolic displays. I argue that despite expending considerable political and material capital in response to concerns about morale, the differential war costs significantly hurt national sentiment and laid the groundwork for the uprisings that were to take place in 1991.

Identity, Conflict, and Nationalism

Despite initial fears within the Saddam regime about Iraqi Shiites defecting to the Iranian side, this did not turn out to be major source of concern for the regime during the course of the conflict.[1] Why didn’t Iraqi Shiites identify to a greater extent with the Iranians? Chubin and Tripp discuss a variety of relevant factors including the fact that there did not exist a “distinct community” of Iraqi Shiites given the many differences within the community, particularly tribal and occupational variation.[2] This has led analysts to argue that Iraq’s Shiites “were not automatic enemies of the regime.”[3] Indeed, according to Johnson, Shiite Iraqis were largely unsympathetic to then-Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and may have feared Shiite Islamist organization that could bring violence to their communities.[4]

The war had a very different impact on Iraq’s Kurdish population. At the start of the Iran-Iraq War, animosity between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) gave the Saddam regime confidence that Kurdish factions were so busy fighting each other that they would not pose a challenge to regime interests.[5] The Iranian offensive into Kurdistan in 1983, however, changed the value of Kurdish loyalty and resistance. When the KDP assisted Iranian forces, the regime “vanished” over 8,000 civilians affiliated with the Barzani tribe.[6] The PUK was engaged in negotiations with the Saddam regime in 1983 and 1984; these negotiations ultimately broke down, however, when the group failed to obtain the primary objectives of political autonomy and fixed oil revenue.[7] Eventually both groups came to be engaged in harassment of Iraqi forces, at times with assistance from the Iranians (Chubin and Tripp 1988, 106). By 1985, the regime had lost control of the Kurdish countryside to the Kurdish Peshmerga, but it was able to retain influence in northern towns and cities.[8]

The Human Cost of War

Data about war causalities in the first four years of the Iran-Iraq War were found in a series of internal Iraqi government memoranda that provide province, and in some cases, district or village-level information on three dimensions: number of individuals killed, number missing in action (MIA) and number taken as prisoners of war (POW).[9] These memoranda were dated October 1984. Khoury has argued that after 1984-5 desertions among rank-and-file members of the Iraqi military increased exponentially,[10] suggesting that the casualty estimates generated in October 1984 would not be highly impacted by desertions. In order to calculate the number of causalities per capita, I calculate a weighted average of the 1977 and 1987 province-level population estimates from the Iraq census.

Southern provinces, which are predominantly Shiite, saw an average of 4.9 individuals killed per 1,000 individuals in the province population. In northern Iraq, which has a large Kurdish population, the average was only 1.7 per 1,000. For the central provinces of Salah al-Din and Diyala, predominantly but not exclusively Sunni provinces, the average number killed was 2.4 per 1,000 and for Anbar province in the Sunni west, the rate was 2.7 per 1,000. The number killed, MIA, or POW for southern provinces was 11.0 individuals per 1,000 compared to 3.7 in the north. Salah al-Din and Diyala averaged 5.7 killed, MIA, or POW per 1,000 while that figure was 6.2 in Anbar. This suggests that the predominantly Shiite southern areas of Iraq not only saw higher rates of war deaths but also more MIA and POW soldiers. The Kurdish areas saw the lowest number killed, missing, or taken prisoner.

The Regime Response

Maintaining the morale of both the population and the army itself became an important priority of the Saddam regime. In the early years of the war, when Iraq was still flush with oil revenue, Saddam recognized the hardship associated with war casualties. Families of fallen soldiers received thousands of dinars and a car – originally a Toyota Corona and, later, the less expensive Volkswagen Passat.[11] Negative inducements were also common. During the war, party members who exhibited cowardice might be forced out of the party and have their party-related privileges taken away from them. One memorandum describes those benefits as including special loans and contracts, life insurance benefits, housing, health care, the right to travel, acceptance into colleges or institutions of higher learning, the right to facilitate tourism investment, and licenses to work with foreign companies in Iraq.[12] This memorandum is interesting in multiple ways. First, it makes clear the myriad of benefits party membership awarded Iraqis during the early 1980s, particularly access to opportunities that were not widely shared in lucrative industries and scarce benefits. But it also suggests that cowardice in the war might lead these privileges to be taken away if dismissed from the party.

A variety of Baath Party memoranda describe the challenges associated with improving morale on the part of citizens and soldiers during a period of large and rising number of casualties. For example, one January 1983 memorandum from northern Iraq describes meetings with Kurdish Special Forces fighters with the goal of making the fighters feel more confident and less hesitant about their participation in policing the North and fighting the Iranians.[13] During the meeting, Baath Party officials emphasized that the Iraqis had destroyed the Iranian war machine despite Iran’s much larger population. The goal was to suggest that small groups of saboteurs would not stand a chance in impacting the stability of the Iraqi state. Party officials further emphasized that detachments that fought with honor and courage on behalf of national safety and sovereignty would never be abandoned or forgotten, nor would their children and families be forgotten or abandoned. In these meetings, it was emphasized that one should only listen to official government mouthpieces and avoid saboteur propaganda.

In general, problems of morale among the rank and file were considered to be more common than within the officer corps. According to the internal analysis, problem soldiers fell into five major categories: 1) those politically affiliated with the opposition, 2) those who pursue their own agendas even if not affiliated with the opposition, 3) those who are hesitant, confused, and lacking in determination, 4) those who are completely ignorant, driven only by survival instincts, and 5) those who prioritize their traditional tribal or other personal commitments over the interests of the country. Wide-ranging educational programs were believed to be the solution to this problem. Soldiers would be instructed about the achievements of the regime, including cleansing the internal front of spies, agents, and vandals, and achieving equality of citizens (regardless of race or sect), as well as policy achievements in the areas of petroleum industry development, rural development, education, and health.[14]

Impact on Nationalist Sentiment

In 1980, the Saddam regime was poorly positioned to anticipate the duration, intensity, and political impact of the decision to initiate conflict with Iran. Expecting a limited war lasting weeks or months rather than years, the regime was confronted with the challenge of handling the political implications of war casualties and declining citizen and military morale.

There is little doubt that the Saddam regime was concerned with the heavy cost of war for population. The regime collected a great deal of information about the war burden with an eye toward compensating the families of war martyrs. Using this information, I have sought to provide more precise information about the relatively uneven distribution of war burden across Iraq’s multi-ethnic community. These results provide evidence for the existence of a hierarchy of burden associated with the conflict where Iraqi Shiites were subjected to higher casualty rates than either Arab Sunni or Kurdish Iraqis. This differential war burden exists not only for deaths but also for MIA and POW status.

Within the existing scholarship on Iraqi politics, there are multiple interpretations regarding the impact of the Iran-Iraq War on nationalist sentiment within Iraq. On the one hand, some scholars have argued that the only way Iraq could have sustained such a long conflict with so many causalities was through a surge in nationalist sentiment.[15] This perspective was shared by the Saddam regime which believed that helped to forge “a new Iraqi national community out of the ethnically diverse population.”[16] Yet others have argued that the war had a tendency to undermine nationalist sentiment and, instead, “atomize Iraqi society, throwing its members back on the security of primordial loyalties and collective identities.”[17] Jabar argues that in the years immediately following the Iran-Iraq War, “cracks in the union of popular and official nationalisms began to surface among the restless war generation.”[18] The data and information that I have presented do not provide direct evidence on the net impact of the war on nationalism but do suggest which communities, within Iraq, might have been most susceptible to declining nationalist support. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, popular uprisings first emerged in Shiite areas of southern Iraq that also had witnessed the largest casualty counts during the Iran-Iraq War.

Lisa Blaydes is an associate professor in the department of political science at Stanford University. She is the author of several works including, most recently, Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak’s Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


[1] Chubin, Shahram and Charles Tripp. 1988. Iran and Iraq at War. London: I.B. Tauris and Co.: 98

[2] Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War: 99

[3] Johnson, Rob. 2011. The Iran-Iraq War. London: Palgrave Macmillan: 122

[4] Johnson, The Iran-Iraq War: 122

[5] Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War: 105

[6] Kirmanj, Sherko. 2013. Identity and Nation in Iraq. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner: 144

[7] Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War: 106

[8] Kirmanj, Identity and Nation in Iraq: 145

[9] See BRCC Boxfile 01-2202-0003.

[10] Khoury, Dina Rizk. 2013. Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press: 73

[11] Bashir, Ala. 2005. The Insider: Trapped in Saddam’s Brutal Regime. London: Abacus: 59

[12] BRCC Doc. No. 01-3388-0001-0171, January 18 1982.

[13] Iraqi Politics Files (Boulder) Doc. Nos. 30703 to 05, January 11 1983.

[14] BRCC Doc. Nos. 01-2479-0004-0259 to 0273, October 22 1986.

[15] Jabar, Faleh. 2003b. “Clerics, Tribes, Ideologues and Urban Dwellers in the South of Iraq: The Potential for Rebellion.” Iraq at the Crossroads: State and Society in the Shadow of Regime Change. Editors, Toby Dodge and Steven Simon. International Institute for Strategic Studies. Adelphi Paper 354.

[16] Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War: 84

[17] Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War: 84

[18]Jabar, Faleh. 2003a. “The Iraqi Army and the Anti-Army and the Anti-Army: Some Reflections on the Role of the Military.” Iraq at the Crossroads: State and Society in the Shadow of Regime Change. Editors, Toby Dodge and Steven Simon. International Institute for Strategic Studies. Adelphi Paper 354: 118

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