Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2017, 08:57 GMT

Assessment for Shi'is in Iraq

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Shi'is in Iraq, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 22 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
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

From 2001 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 60 percent of the population in Iraq, and this is now reflected in the interim Iraqi Governing Council for postwar Iraq (25 members total: 13 ministries for Shiite Muslims, 5 to Sunni Muslims, 5 to Kurds, and 1 each to the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians). The U.S. occupation forces retain ultimate control until a functioning elected government is in place. 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 Shiite 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 Shiite community that demand that U.S. occupation forces leave the country as soon as possible. At the end of 2003, the future of the Iraqi Shi'a is very uncertain. Even if the insurgency ends, law and order returns, free and fair elections are held, and the U.S. leaves, whether or not a power-sharing government can function in Iraq remains to be seen.

Analytic Summary

Despite constituting 60% of Iraq's population, Shi'a Muslims (Arabic-speaking Arabs) have historically been dominated by the country's Sunni minority (BELIEF=1; LANG=0; RACE=0), 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% 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; POLDIS03 = 0), and did not have rights to free expression (POLIC102 = 2) or political organizing (POLIC402 = 2).

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 (CULPO199-02 = 2). In response to domestic Shi'a disturbances, Hussein has also resorted to arbitrary execution (REP0699-02 = 3), a forced resettlement policy (REP1299-02 = 3), and a saturation military presence (REP1799-02 = 3). In response to Hussein's repressive policies, Shi'a Muslims in Iraq have formed mainly militant organizations which have sought the violent overthrow of Saddam, including an unsuccessful civil war in 1991 (REB91 = 7), once American assistance was not forthcoming. 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 (REP1999 = 3).

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, Baath 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. For the most part, the Iraqi Shi'a community has remained relatively calm, though Shi'a protest against the U.S. occupation and its policies have occurred (PROT03 = 3). There have been reports of a few small groups of Shi'a militants that have organized themselves and demanded an immediate withdrawal of American forces, such as the powerful Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (REB03 = 4), although their participation in the insurgency appears to be minimal. The Sunni-led insurgency has continued to grow, employing large-scale guerilla warfare against coalition forces, international relief organizations, and members of the new Iraqi government. So far no nationwide front against American forces has been organized, and most of the insurgency has been conducted by regional leaders. The U.S. continues to employ all its military might in suppressing the Sunni rebellion, from destroying suspected rebel hide outs to carrying out massive attacks on rebel-controlled areas. There have been mass arrests of suspected members of the insurgency, as well as of Shi'a militants but in smaller numbers (REP0203 = 3). The use of torture has been widely reported on. Intergroup violence between Shi'a and former Baath party members has increased. Shi'a 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.


Congressional Quarterly Inc, 1990, "The Middle East Seventh Ed" 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, Human Rights Watch World Reports 1993: Events of 1992, 1993, (New York: Human Rights Watch- Africa Watch, Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Helsinki Watch, Middle East Watch, and Fund for Free Expression)

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, 1990-1993, Keesing Record of World Events: Record of National and International Current Affairs with Continually Updated Indexes, Keesing's Publication, (London: Longman Group Ltd.)

Lexis/Nexis: All news Wires 1994-2003.

U.S Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Iraq 2001- 2003.

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

The Associated Press. "Shiite Militants Raided In Karbala; U.S. Under Attack For Third Day At Fallujah." October 21, 2003. Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, April 22, 2003, "Shiite Pilgrims Worship At Holy Shrine In Karbala." Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, March 3, 2003, "Shiite Minority Says They Stand By The Government But Need Reforms." Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, September 15, 2003, "To Change-Resistant Arab Rulers, New Iraq Is An Unwanted Role Model." Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

Newsweek, May 19, 2003, "Murder At The Mosque." Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

Search Refworld