Violence in Iraq: Some Methodological and Historiographical Questions

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Sara Pursley, New York University

Introduction: Iraq as a perfect storm

On March 13, 2019, as the 16th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approached, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Long-Classified Memo Surfaces Warning of ‘Perfect Storm’ From Invading Iraq.” The State Department’s “Perfect Storm memo” had been the subject of speculation long before it was declassified. The subtitle of the Wall Street Journal article summarized the memo’s contents in much the way that previous rumors had envisioned them: “Diplomats accurately forecast many setbacks: sectarian violence, attacks on U.S. troops, Iranian intervention and long road to structural change.” Or, as the body of the article explained in slightly more detailed but just as predictable form: “The 10-page memo forecast many setbacks that came to pass—violence among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds; attacks on U.S. troops; intervention by Iran and other neighbors—and accurately predicted that trying to bring structural change and stability to Iraq would take years.”[1]

The memo was written in July 2002 by President Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. As Burns has explained, the document was not meant to oppose the US invasion and was simply intended as a “hurried list of horribles”—a collection by his team of all conceivable ways the invasion might affect “American interests.” Many of the scenarios imagined in the memo never happened, such as Saddam Husayn’s use of chemical weapons.[2]

Moreover, one presumes that not all of the scenarios even fall into the category of “horribles” from a State Department perspective. For example: “Sunni general and small group of followers get to Saddam before allies do, kills him, declares Iraq free, and announces provisional government. Calls for immediate truce, pledges elections after transition period, declares readiness to rid Iraq of all WMD, live in peace with neighbors, and abide by all UN resolutions.” Finally, a few sound prescient in ways presumably not of interest to the Wall Street Journal and thus not mentioned in the article, such as a prediction of increased restrictions on the entry of Arabs and Muslims into the US. “Sunni Islamic extremists paint picture of US warring against Islam. Bad karma as this mixes with negative Pal[estinian]-Israel sat[ellite] TV images all over Arab world. US backlash against upsurge in anti-US activity results in calls for even more restrictions on entry of Arabs and Muslims.”[3]

Among the highly varied types of scenarios described in the memo, then, the Wall Street Journal article was interested only in those that forecast particular things, namely “violence among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds; attacks on U.S. troops; [and] intervention by Iran and other neighbors.” Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the article is that the memo did not in fact predict the main thing it was said to predict, i.e., generic “sectarian violence” or “violence among Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.” While the memo does describe some of the actors it invokes in ethnosectarian terms, it assumes they have specific interests, rather than an essential predilection to violence, and the ethnosectarian groups they are identified with are assumed to be internally heterogeneous. For example: “Turkey, alarmed by increasing KDP, PUK unity, steps up flow of arms and money to Iraqi Turkmen Front, as well as contacts with Kurds opposed to KDP, PUK, and with Sunni tribes in north and west.”

In this essay, I do not wish to critique the 2002 “Perfect Storm” memo, which was quite clear about its purpose, namely to protect American interests during the impending invasion. Rather, I am interested in the way in which current American understandings of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and of violence in Iraq today, continue to rely on and reproduce what I call the “artificial-state narrative.” In (incorrectly) asserting that the State Department memo predicted a generic eruption of “sectarian violence,” the Wall Street Journal was repeating this narrative, which posits Iraq as an irrational collection of ethnosectarian identities and tensions held together, on the eve of the 2003 invasion, by a totalitarian strongman but waiting to explode again at the first opportunity. The violence of the invasion and occupation is thereby erased and their catastrophic outcomes reconfigured as reflections of the essential violence of Iraqis.[4] This is consistent with a dominant understanding of the war in US public discourse today, namely as a strategic mistake or failure reflecting the very impossibility of Iraq.

The artificial state narrative thus serves very usefully to simultaneously criticize the US invasion (as a mistake or miscalculation) and minimize its effects (which simply exposed what was already wrong about Iraq). It leaves little space for recognizing, let alone analyzing, the violence of the invasion and occupation, whether short-term (bombing, shooting, home raids, torture) or long-term (the ongoing decay of damaged infrastructure and of health and education systems; agricultural collapse; chemical pollution and other environmental disasters caused, exacerbated, or not helped by US military actions). In what follows, I will briefly review how the artificial-state narrative continues to be repeated in historical scholarship (and not just popular commentary) on Iraq, before turning to types of violence, both past and present, that are continually occluded in the focus on purportedly artificial borders and fixed ethnosectarian identities.

Violence, sectarianism, and the archives

The artificial state narrative, as I have argued elsewhere, was created during the period of British mandate rule (1920-32). It was originally a colonial narrative, used against anticolonial insurgents and nationalist thinkers who demanded the independence of Iraq within what they called its “natural borders,” which they defined as stretching from “north of Mosul to the Persian Gulf.” In countering this movement, British officials argued that Iraq was not yet coherent enough to govern itself and must therefore be governed by Britain. The popularity of the narrative has waxed and waned over the past century, but was dusted off and trotted out with particular fanfare after the US invasions of 1991 and especially 2003. As I wrote in an earlier article: “what harm had been done in destroying a country that had never authentically existed in the first place?”[5]

Iraq’s purported artificiality has been linked from the beginning to the existence of large Shi‘i and Sunni populations within its borders. For example, many scholars continue to assert that “the Shi‘a” in Iraq opposed the British choice of a “Sunni” king in 1921, which then fueled sectarian divisions and the incoherence of the Iraqi state. The narrative’s persistence is partly due to the over-reliance on British primary sources. In fact, it was British mandate officials who introduced the claim that Iraqi Shi‘a opposed King Faysal on sectarian grounds, despite the fact that the claim seems critical of the British choice of Faysal. In its attempt to depoliticize and sectarianize resistance against the mandate, the narrative is far more consistent with British colonial reasoning than would have been a recognition of the anticolonial motives of the rebels.

Unfortunately, the narrative continues to shape scholarship on Iraq, including recent work by the “new” British imperial historians. For example, Susan Pedersen writes of early mandate-era Iraq: “Some of these [non-Arab-Sunni] groups had their own ‘national’ dreams. The Shi‘i clerics and tribesmen who had been the backbone of the 1920 rising hoped to bring about an independent and devoutly Islamic Iraq.”[6] The notion that Iraq’s Shi‘a had “national” dreams as Shi‘a in 1920 is nonsensical even with the word in scare quotes. I am not aware of any major Shi‘i clerical or other leader in Iraq who argued for Iraq’s borders to be anything other than those claimed by all Iraqi nationalists, namely as stretching “from north of Mosul to the Persian Gulf.” I also do not know of any who spoke against a “Sunni” king for Iraq, or who was even thinking or writing in those terms. On the contrary, the leading Shi‘i clerics involved in the 1920 revolt explicitly called for a son of Sharif Husayn—Faysal, for example—to govern Iraq under a constitutional monarchy, which was one reason the British chose Faysal. It was only in mid-1922, a full year after his crowning, that they turned against Faysal, since the original conditions of their support—the withdrawal of British troops and a fully sovereign Iraqi state governed by a representative constitutional monarchy—had not been fulfilled.[7]

Beyond the ongoing problem of over-reliance on British sources for writing the history of Iraq’s formation, the sectarian narrative of conflict in 1920s Iraq may have been inadvertently strengthened by recent work based on the League of Nations archives, including that of Pedersen. This work has drawn on petitions sent to the League on a range of concerns related to the governance of the mandate territories. In fact, Pedersen’s book makes a number of important arguments about the mandate system on a global level and of Iraq’s pivotal role in it. For example, she shows how the responses of the League to petitions it received and processed from Iraq were strongly shaped by the assumptions of League officials related to Iraq’s minorities. “Petitioners who sought the Commission’s protection against majority nationalisms or who opposed the lifting of mandatory protection—as did Iraq’s Bahai, Assyrian, and Kurdish communities—found the Commission very willing to publicize grievances so in keeping with its assumptions.”[8] One of the more important broader arguments she makes is that the “Iraq process did not simply reveal minorities’ fears; it also helped establish the category of ‘minority’ within Iraq and indeed within international politics.”[9]

Pedersen is well aware that the League would only process petitions that were sent through the mandatory authorities (the British, in Iraq’s case), and thus that it is “impossible to know how many petitions were sent to the League (since some were suppressed along the way).”[10] She does not, however, seem to consider that sending petitions from Iraq without going through the mandate authorities was difficult if not impossible, since British officials controlled the media and the mail and telegraph systems, and strongly censored all of them for political content. It is thus not only a question of how many petitions were sent to the League and not processed by it but also of how many petitions could not be sent at all. Currently, one must turn to the Arabic-language historiography for any discussion of these questions.

As just one example, ‘Ali al-Wardi reports, in his six-volume history of Iraq, that a petition to the League was signed by 73 leaders of the 1920 revolt (Sunni and Shi‘i). Since there was no way to transmit such petitions through British officials, or to send them out of Iraq by way of the tightly censored telegraph and postal systems, it was smuggled on foot across the border to Iran with the aim of delivery to the European and US consulates in Tehran and from there to the League of Nations. The petition read in part:

We used legal and peaceful means [to achieve the independence promised by the Western powers after the war], but were met with heavy repression by the occupation troops…They attacked and burned down the houses of our tribal shaykhs, killing many men, horses, and animals in the shaykhs’ absence…They pursued us with their troops, cannons, and airplanes…They killed our women and children and bombed our houses of worship, violating all humanitarian, civil, and religious norms, and all the while shutting every door through which we could have reported our grievances to other governments…We learned recently that we can send our grievances to the League of Nations, and so here we are crying out to the League of Nations…[11]

According to al-Wardi, the petition was not delivered to the consulates to which it was addressed until the revolt was over, due to the messenger’s fear of punishment.

More research is needed into this apparently unsuccessful petition-sending effort, and into similar incidents reported in Arabic-language scholarship and memoirs. (I have not seen the original version of the petition and am relying on al-Wardi’s account of it.) But it does point to some of the limitations of relying on the British and League of Nations archives. Even while aware that petitions related to minority grievances were the most likely to be processed by the League, Pedersen’s arguments assume that the petitions stored in the League’s archives reflect certain truths not only about League politics but also about political conflict in mandate Iraq, namely that it was driven by ethnosectarian concerns. For example, she writes,

In most [mandate] territories… petitions were used to articulate collective and often proto-nationalist claims against mandatory rule; in Iraq, however, since an Arab government was nominally in control, petitions arrived from those ethnic and religious minorities who feared that government’s growing power. Since those petitions did not challenge the mandate, and indeed usually wished to see it prolonged, the PMC could take them seriously.[12]

The claim is both that members of Iraq’s Arab Muslim majority were not trying to send petitions against the mandate to the League of Nations—which is not true—and that the reason they were not doing so was that an “Arab government” was “nominally in control”—in other words, that their political interests were driven by ethnosectarian affiliations.

The violence that disappears

Political conflict and forms of violence in Iraq that cannot be explained by reference to ethnosectarian categories have been subject to far less discussion and analysis in the scholarship. It is not that the violence of the Iraqi state has not been seen, of course. On the contrary, much of the work on Iraq’s history has been driven by a teleological interest in explaining the rise of Ba‘thist dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. But this scholarship, too, is strongly shaped by ethnosectarian narratives. For example, scholars have shown a fair amount of interest in the militarization of the Iraqi education system in the 1920s and 1930s, especially the al-Futuwwa program of compulsory military training in schools, which can be linked to a particular right-wing trend in Arab nationalist thought. Reeva Simon has gone so far as to connect these projects to interwar German fascist ideology on the one hand and to the rise of the Ba‘th in the late 20th century on the other.[13] By contrast, there has been virtually no scholarly interest in the far more brutal projects to discipline schoolboys during the 1940s and 1950s that were implemented by the Western-aligned Cold War-era Hashimite regime and motivated by anti-communist concerns. These latter projects, which may have been supported by US advisors in Iraq, punished students exhibiting leftist sentiments by incarcerating them in military boot camps for the summer or expelling them from school and conscripting them directly into the army.[14]

Finally, forms of economic, including infrastructural and environmental, violence often get lost entirely in the narrativization of violence in Iraq through ethnosectarian categories. In my own work, I look at a land settlement project shaped by US agrarian reform theory in the 1950s that resulted in social and ecological catastrophe—the rampant spread of disease and the salinization of the soil—due to factors that were clearly predicted from the start.[15]

Economic, environmental, infrastructural, and imperial forms of violence are all highly relevant (and inter-related) in Iraq today, and indeed have been the targets of recurring protest across the southern and central regions since 2015. The initial protests in July 2015 were against power outages in Basra during the summer heat, and escalated after security forces opened fire and killed 18-year-old Muntadhar Ali Ghani al-Hilifi. They then spread to other southern and central cities, including Baghdad. While the movement is often framed as opposing the twin evils of “corruption” and “sectarianism,” terms that are indeed often invoked by the protesters, this framing can miss the larger systemic critiques of the environmental and infrastructural types of violence that make Iraqi lives so difficult to live today. A recurrent slogan of the protesters has been: “In the name of religion the thieves have robbed us” (bism al-din baguna al-haramiya).[16] The slogan posits religion not as fueling primeval violence from below but as being exploited by the state and the elite classes to further economic violence from above. It challenges both sectarianism in Iraq and the discourses of sectarian violence repeated endlessly in Western media and scholarship. In 2019, as Fanar Haddad writes, the “excessive focus on ‘sectarianism’ and the politics of the Sunni–Shia divide continues to unduly overshadow the far more relevant divide between elites and people” to which the protests should be calling our attention.[17]

Conclusion: The need for new directions

In the summer of 2018, tens of thousands of people were hospitalized after drinking polluted water in Basra, a city in which “it is hard to find a glass of clean water.”[18] The causes of the crisis include the failure of desalinization and other water treatment plants during the post-2003 era of privatization, deregulation, and rampant corruption; mismanaged or unregulated agricultural and industrial waste practices; chemical pollutants left over from the wars; and a decline in water level caused by drought associated with climate change and by dams going up in Iran and Turkey at a time when the Iraqi government has limited leverage in negotiations with neighboring states. The extreme degradation of the Iraqi agricultural sector since the US invasion of 2003 has also played an important role, being associated with desertification, dust storms, salinization, food insecurity, and increased rural-urban migration. In protests against the water crisis last August alone, at least 20 protesters were killed in Basra by Iraqi security forces and hundreds were injured and arrested.[19] Because these protests against the current Shi‘i-centered government have taken place predominantly in Shi‘i-majority areas, they do not fit easily within standard sectarian narratives of Iraqi politics and the Iraqi state.

Historians of other regions of the world have been employing innovative new methodologies for exploring infrastructural and environmental history and the multi-scalar production of space involved in state-building (and re-building) projects. In the historiography on Iraq, despite the increasingly glaring importance of such spatial questions to any history of the present, they tend to be relegated to footnotes or to studies that continue to employ older methodologies—focusing, for example, on agriculture or oil as discrete spheres separate from questions of religion, violence, and the production of space. One explanation may be the resilience of imperial narratives that are just as obfuscating of the country’s past and present in 2019 as they were in 1920.

[1] Warren Strobel, “Long-Classified Memo Surfaces Warning of ‘Perfect Storm’ From Invading Iraq,” Wall Street Journal, 3/13/2019.

[2] William Burns, “Iraq: The Perfect Storm,” linked from Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Recall also that another of the memo’s supposed predictions highlighted by the WSJ was “attacks on US troops,” presumably not a very difficult scenario for an invading and occupying army to foresee.

[5] Sara Pursley, “‘Lines Drawn on an Empty Map’: Iraq’s Borders and the Legend of the Artificial State,” Jadaliyya, 6/2/2015,

[6] Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 278.

[7] See Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), Chap. 1.

[8] Pedersen, The Guardians, 93.

[9] Pedersen, The Guardians, 277.

[10] Pedersen, The Guardians, 86.

[11] `Ali al-Wardi, Lamahat Ijtima`iyya min Tarikh al-`Iraq al-Hadith (London: Alwarrak Publishing, 2007), 5.1:392-93.  

[12] Pedersen, The Guardians, 278-79. Emphasis added.

[13] Reeva Simon, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). Peter Wien also looks at al-Futuwwa, but contests Simon’s argument on some crucial points. Peter Wien, Iraqi Arab Nationalism: Authoritarian, Totalitarian and Pro-Fascist Inclinations, 1932-1941 (London & New York: Routledge, 2006).

[14] I deal with this tangentially in Sara Pursley, “The Stage of Adolescence: Anticolonial Time, Youth Insurgency, and the Marriage Crisis in Hashimite Iraq,”   History of the Present 3, no. 2 (2013): 160-97.

[15] Sara Pursley, Familiar Futures: Time, Selfhood, and Sovereignty in Iraq (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019), Chap. 5. For another recent work analyzing forms of environmental violence, see Jennifer Derr, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2019).

[16] Faleh A. Jabar, “The Iraq Protest Movement: From Identity Politics to Issue Politics,” London School of Economics Middle East Centre Paper Series, June 25, 2018,

[17] Fanar Haddad, “The Waning Relevance of the Sunni-Shia Divide,” The Century Foundation, April 10, 2019,

[18] Bel Trew, “Boiling Basra: Residents afraid of their taps as Iraq’s water crisis threatens to destabilise the region,” Independent, October 1, 2018,

[19] Ibid; “Basra Polluted Water Crisis, Iraq,” Environmental Justice Atlas, December 2, 2019,