The contradictions of systemic sectarianism in Iraq

26th Nov 2019 by Toby Dodge

The contradictions of systemic sectarianism in Iraq

This piece is taken from the SEPAD report ‘Sectarianism in the Longue Duree’ available here: 

Iraq’s political system, an elite pact, was imposed upon the country in the aftermath of regime change in 2003. In Iraq itself, the system is known as Muhasasa, the division of government offices and the resources that come with them amongst the ruling elite.[1] Since its imposition, the system has been built on three pillars; corruption, sectarianism and coercion. In the sixteen years since its imposition, the balance between these three pillars has changed dramatically in order to sustain it. Corruption, as the central mechanism for elite cohesion has remained constant.  It has also become the main driver for the de-legitimation of the ruling elite. The sectarianization of the system reached its high point with the first two national elections of 2005 and the writing of the constitution.  However, after 2005, sectarianism increasingly failed to legitimise the system. The ruling elite has struggled to find a replacement ideology. An anti-systemic movement, built around a secular nationalism, equal citizenship and transparent government, gained momentum from 2011 onwards, reaching its peak in size and ideational coherence in October and November 2019. When faced with the de-legitimation of the system and the inability of sectarianism to rally the population, the ruling elite has had to increasingly rely on the deployment of both overt and covert coercion to defend the Muhasasa system and their place at its core. 

Understanding Iraq’s political system.

On a superficial reading, the Iraqi state possesses all the attributes of a Weberian democratic state. It has a constitution that regulates national elections.  In the aftermath of those elections, the parliament elects a speaker, then the country’s President and finally, the Prime Minister is chosen from the largest parliamentary bloc. The state is served by an army, police force and judiciary, all operating within a territorially defined state. However, a closer examination of the state reveals not an institutionalised state but a political field shaped by the struggle between different groups for domination.[2]  A rough and ready order was imposed on this political field through an elite pact. After the invasion of 2003, the formerly exiled politicians who had done so much to campaign for Saddam Hussein’s removal, were placed in power by the United States.  It is they, in alliance with the US, who built the Muhasasa system.  

Cohesion within this elite pact is based on the distribution of resources taken from the Iraqi state’s budget through corrupt practices.  These resources are primarily extracted it two ways. The first is payroll corruption, the offering of jobs in a patronage system to the clients of the ruling elite in return for political loyalty.  The second vehicle for systemically sanctioned corruption is endemic contract fraud.  The politicians in charge of each ministry, and the senior civil servants they appoint, oversee the tendering of corrupt government contracts to companies they own or their allies control. [3] The resources obtained through contract fraud are used to fund the political parties and militias that dominate Iraq’s political field. Government minister’s I interviewed in Iraq across 2019 estimate that these two forms of corruption take as much as fifty percent of the state’s yearly budget.  It is endemic corruption at the centre of Iraq’s system that has been the main driver of popular alienation.

From 2003 onwards, the elite pact at the centre of Iraq’s political system was justified through sectarianism. As Ussama Makdisi and Fredrik Barth argue, sectarianization sees politicians or sectarian entrepreneurs impose religious and ethnic difference as the “… primary marker of modern political identity …”, solidifying both the internal coherence of each group but, more importantly, the boundaries that divide one group from another.[4]

In Iraq, national elections played a key role in this process.  The ruling elite overtly interpellated, mobilised and sent the Iraqi electorate to the ballot box as members of specific ethnic and religious groups, primarily Sunni, Shi’a and Kurd. The elections of 2005 were dominated by large multi-party coalitions running on ethno-sectarian platforms.  This left little or no space for those seeking to recognise and mobilise Iraqis on the basis of a unitary secular nationalism. 

However, after 2005, the sectarian justification of Iraq’s Muhasasa system quickly began to lose its ability to mobilise the population.  The elections of 2010, 2014, and 2018 saw a steady reduction in voter turnout as sectarian rhetoric failed to resonate.  There were two major reasons for this.  First, the governments of national unity formed in the name of sectarian apportionment after each election proved incapable of rebuilding the institutions of the state and their ability to deliver services.  The Iraqi population continues to suffer from a lack of clean running water and reliable electricity supplies, both crucial in Iraq’s hot summer months.[5] The second reason was the civil war that engulfed Iraq in 2005 and lasted until 2008.  

The violence deployed during this conflict was largely justified through sectarian rhetoric.  Once the violence declined, Iraqi voters in provincial election in 2009 and in national elections in 2010 increasingly refused to vote for parties who campaigned on overtly sectarian lines.  The Iraqi ruling elite, when faced with the declining resonance of sectarian rhetoric, failed to develop a different ideological justification for their role at the top of the system.  They also failed to constrain, let alone eliminate, the systemic corruption that tied them together and to the status quo.

From 2009 onwards, the Iraqi population, faced with a corrupt ruling elite and incoherent state institutions, began to protest against the system imposed after 2003. This social movement began to cohere both organisationally and ideologically.  By 2015 it had developed a powerful critique of both the corruption and sectarianization that were crucial to the functioning and justification of the system.  As a million people mobilised in central Baghdad, they chanted the movement’s new slogan, ‘In the name of religion the thieves have robbed us’ (Bismil deen baguna al-haramiya).[6]

This movement reached its peak, in terms of geographical impact, the numbers mobilised and ideological coherence, in October and November 2019.  During these demonstrations, over a million Iraqis have repeatedly gone onto the streets of Baghdad and cities and towns across the south of the country. At the core of this latest wave of protests is an attempt to directly challenge the post-2003 system and remove those who had built it from power. 

As in the past, the demonstrations were initially driven forward by popular frustration and anger with the role that politically sanctioned corruption plays at the core of the system. However, as the protests grew and were subject to extensive and extended violence, their demands radicalised and expanded to encompass a programme for the transformation of the whole system. The protest movement demanded that the political parties renounce power. Party offices across the south of Iraq were burnt down. Those parties and organisations who supported reform in 2015, the Sadrist movement and the Iraqi Communist Party, were damned in 2019 for being co-opted into the government formation process of 2018.

In early November, the protest movement issue a manifesto of demands, a ten-point programme circulated in their own newspaper, TuqTuq, and promoted through the banners displayed on the demonstrator’s headquarters overlooking Tahrir square in central Baghdad. At the centre of the protestors’ demands was an assertion of equal citizenship and rights and a secular Iraqi nationalism. The manifesto called for the resignation of the current government and its replacement by an independent non-party caretaker administration. This was to be followed by the complete overhaul of electoral regulations and supervisory authorities, new laws to identify the sources of party political funding and new national elections supervised by the United Nations.  

The ruling elite who built the Muhasasa system were constrained by its own dynamics as they struggled to respond to the largest protest movement they had experienced.  Their own position at the top of the system was justified by the notion of sectarian apportionment.  They claimed to represent the divided ethno-sectarian communities that were meant to make up Iraqi society.  However, Iraq’s population, first at the ballot box and then in sustained and expanding protests, rejected the sectarian justification of the system.  Instead, they mobilised around calls for the system to be torn down and replaced by one based on a secular nationalism and civic citizenship.  In addition, the systemic corruption that triggered every demonstration since 2009 was so central to the system and elite participation in it that no government since 2003 had enacted any meaningful reforms to tackle it.

Iraq’s ruling elite, when faced with an ideology that no longer worked and unable to end the systemic corruption they were all culpable in, reverted to the heavy use of system’s third pillar, coercion, in order to survive. From the start of the demonstrations on 1st October 2019, the elite deployed both overt and covert violence in an attempt to demobilise the protest movement. From the start, the Ministry of Interior’s anti-riot police used live rounds to kill demonstrators.  Government sanctioned snipers were deployed on rooftops surrounding demonstration sites, with protestors being assassinated. Numerous teargas canisters were then shot directly at campaigners with the express intention of killing them. Ministry of Interior intelligence operatives then coordinated night raids on the houses of activists, while militias carried out kidnappings and the closing down of television stations. During a two-month period, thousands were arrested and tortured, over 300 killed and thousands more wounded.[7] When faced with coherent and widely shared demands to radically reform the post-2003 system they built, the ruling elite could only respond with extended violence and repression.


The elite pact imposed on Iraq after 2003 contained within it the inherent contradictions that fuelled the protest movement that sought its end.  Systemic corruption deployed to secure elite cohesion and participation became the key driver of popular alienation and the sustained de-legitimisation of the ruling elite.  Sectarianization was meant to justify the system as a whole and the elite’s role at the top.  However, after 2005, sectarianization, culpable as it was with the violence used in the civil war and the corruption that undermined the state, could not play the legitimising role assigned to it.  As the ruling elite failed to develop any ideological alternative, they were forced to rely on increasing levels of violence to stay in power.  If this current round of protests does not result in sustained systemic reform then Iraq’s political field will remain dominated by very high levels of elite sanctioned violence used to suppress a population who have rejected the system as hopelessly corrupt and completely unrepresentative of Iraqi society.

1] For a humorous Iraqi explanation of the system see The Al-Basheer Show, “Episode 2: Muhasasa” YouTube video English, 13:29, November 20, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019,

[2] See Toby Dodge, ‘Bourdieu goes to Baghdad; explaining hybrid political identities in Iraq’, Historical Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 1, (March 2018): 25–38, Sami Zubaida, ‘Islam, the people and the state; political ideas and movements in the Middle East, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 1989): 121-182; Joel S. Migdal, State in society, studying how states and societies transform and constitute one another, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2001): 22.

[3] For more details see Toby Dodge, ‘Corruption continues to destabilize Iraq’, Chatham House Expert Comment, October 1, 2019, accessed 24 November 2019,

[4] Ussama Makdisi, The culture of sectarianism; community, history, and violence in nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon, (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 2000): 7; Fredrik Barth, ‘Introduction’, in Fredrik Barth (ed), Ethnic groups and boundaries. The social organization of culture difference, (Boston, Massachusetts:  Little, Brown and Company, 1969): 9-38.

[5] See Toby Dodge, Iraq: from war to a new Authoritarianism, (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2012): 136-140.

[6] Faleh Jabar, “The Iraq Protest Movement: From Identity Politics to Issues politics,” LSE Middle East Centre paper series, Volume 25, (2018): 9,

[7] See UNAMI, Human Rights Special Report, ‘Demonstrations in Iraq’, October 1-9, 2019, Baghdad, Iraq, accessed October, 2019,; Ali Dab Dab, Human Rights Special Report, ‘Demonstrations in Iraq Update’, 25 October – November 4 2019, accessed November 5, 2019,