Were sectarian differences a problem in Iraq before the 2003 US invasion?

PRO (yes)

George W. Bush, US President, stated in a Mar. 29, 2006 speech:

"Today, some Americans ask whether removing Saddam caused the divisions and instability we're now seeing. In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein. He is a tyrant who exacerbated sectarian divisions to keep himself in power...

To prevent these different groups from coming to challenge his regime, Saddam Hussein undertook a deliberate strategy of maintaining control by dividing the Iraqi people. He stayed on top by brutally repressing different Iraqi communities and pitting them one against the other. He forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of their homes using expulsion as a weapon to subdue and punish any group that resisted his rule. By displacing Iraqi communities and dividing the Iraqi people, he sought to establish himself as the only force that could hold the country together...

The argument that Iraq was stable under Saddam and that stability is now in danger because we removed him is wrong. While liberation has brought its own set of challenges, Saddam Hussein's removal from power was the necessary first step in restoring stability and freedom to the people of Iraq."

Mar. 29, 2006 - George W. Bush, MBA 

Henry Kissinger, PhD, former U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. National Security Advisor, in a July 2, 2007 International Herald Tribune article titled "A Political Program to Exit Iraq," stated:

"The internal parties - the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds - have been subjected to insistent American appeals to achieve national reconciliation. But groups that have been conducting blood feuds with one another for centuries are, not surprisingly, struggling in their efforts to compose their differences by constitutional means. They need the buttress of a diplomatic process that could provide international support for carrying out any internal agreements reached or to contain their conflict if the internal parties cannot agree and Iraq breaks up."

July 2, 2007 - Henry Kissinger, PhD 

David Gritten, former BBC News Correspondent, in a Feb. 25, 2006 article titled "Long Path to Iraq's Sectarian Split," stated:

"For more than 1,000 years, Iraq has served as a battleground for many of the events that have defined the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

In more recent decades, the political and economic dominance of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and their persecution of the country's Shia majority have only served to stoke sectarian tensions.

The US-led invasion in 2003, in which the nominally secular Baath government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown, finally gave Iraq's Shias an opportunity to seek redress and end the imbalance of power."

Feb. 25, 2006 - David Gritten 

Patrick Cockburn, Iraq Correspondent for The Independent, stated in an Apr. 14, 2003 article titled "Looting's Roots: Poverty and Despair Behind Iraq's Ethnic Violence":

"Saddam Hussein's state was always deeply sectarian. On the day Kirkuk fell I talked to 10 Iraqi army deserters, all private soldiers, who had been defending a large village. Nine of them were Shias from the south of Iraq and one was a Turkoman. Although they came from different units, not one of the soldiers had met a Sunni Muslim who was a private soldier or a Shia who was an officer...

In 1991 the Shias and Kurds rose against President Saddam but the Sunni heartland did not. In the following years, Shia religious leaders within Iraq were systematically assassinated and their followers persecuted. I used to think that Sunni or Christian friends in Baghdad were exaggerating when they expressed terror at what would happen if the Shias of Saddam City in east Baghdad or in the south ever revolted, but it turns out that they were right."

Apr. 14, 2003 - Patrick Cockburn 

Munir Chalabi, an activist for Iraq Occupation Focus, stated in a Jan. 24, 2007 ZNet article titled "Political Observations on Sectarianism in Iraq":

"There is a widespread misconception in the minds of many people that the US/UK Occupation created the sectarian political map in Iraq and that the sectarian massacres only started after the occupation of Iraq...

The sectarian massacres of over 300,000 Shiites and 200,000 Kurdish civilians, whose bodies were dumped in hundreds of mass graves, took place during the 1980s/1990s by the Baathist sectarian state (and not by the Sunni community in Iraq), well before the occupation."

Jan. 24, 2007 - Munir Chalabi 

CON (no)

Saddam Hussein, former leader of Iraq, stated the following in an interview with TIME magazine, as quoted by then Time Inc. Senior Edior Murray Gart and former TIME Correspondent Dean Brelis in a July 19, 1982 article titled "An Interview with Saddam Hussein":

"A great deal of misinformation has been spread in the Western press concerning religious differences in Iraq. It is true that religious and sectarian differences could create problems in some countries, but not in Iraq. I am not saying we do not have any problems at all. Any leader would prefer his people to think from one point of view, to be of one religion, one sect, in one city. The Iraqi people think from various angles but agree on one central point. We have Sunnis and Shi'ites here, that is a fact. But all of them are Iraqis, and all of them love their revolution. They are fighting their enemy with the same spirit."

July 19, 1982 - Saddam Hussein  
Murray Gart 
Dean Brelis 

Al-Shikaki Ahmed, Political Researcher at the Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World (CERMAM), stated in a CERMAM article titled "A Political Program to Help USA in Iraq" (accessed Aug. 22, 2007):

"Mr. Kissinger was...in error when he referred to centuries of conflict between Iraqis. On the contrary, despite the diversity of the Iraqi population, people have lived together in harmony in this part of the world for centuries. Although the population was often difficult to subdue by central government, a real civil conflict, based on ethnic or sectarian animosities, was rare."

Aug. 22, 2007 - Al-Shikaki Ahmed 

Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, Religion Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, quoted two Iraqis, Rod Shoubber and Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian, in a July 3, 2006 article titled "Bay Area Sunnis, Shiites Find Common Ground":

"Growing up in Nasiriya, Iraq, Rod Shoubber mainly knew fellow Shiites. There were Sunnis in the neighborhood, and his uncle married a Sunni. The groups co-existed peacefully, he said, even as Saddam Hussein persecuted Shiites.

'We never felt sectarian issues between us,' said Shoubber, 52, a Santa Clara resident, whose father and eight siblings live in Iraq. 'It wasn't an issue at that time...

After the invasion, it brought all the historical issues of Sunni and Shia to the surface,' said Shoubber, whose former San Bruno home was the site of a visit in 2002 from current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunnis, who had more power than Shiites when Hussein ruled, 'have changed hearts,' he said...

The power vacuum that formed after Hussein's fall has allowed old divisions to return, UC Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian said. Fueling the conflict are colonial histories, the rule of monarchs, the threat of U.S. influence over the Arab world and the Sunni-Shiite sectarian issues."

July 3, 2006 - Matthai Chakko Kuruvila 

Erik Leaver, Research Fellow for Peace and Security at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Raed Jarrar, Iraq Program Director at Global Exchange, stated in their Aug. 10, 2006 Foreign Policy in Focus website article titled "Iraq's Sectarian Bloodshed 'Made in the USA'":

"Iraqi Shia and Sunnis have lived in harmony for centuries. Historically, the two sects lived in the same areas, intermarried, worked together and didn't fight over religious beliefs. During the decade of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Iraq's generally secular society became far more religious. This transformation even affected the secular Baathist regime, which gave Islam a bigger role in schools and other aspects of everyday life. Still, there were no social conflicts based on religious differences in the country.

When the United States ousted Saddam Hussein in April 2003, crime spiked and full-scale looting erupted. But there were still no signs of sectarian clashes. That quickly changed, however, as the U.S. administration assumed control over Iraq, led by Paul Bremer."

Aug. 10, 2006 - Erik Leaver, MA 
Raed Jarrar 

Riverbend, the blog pseudonym for a Baghdadi computer programmer, stated in her Apr. 26, 2007 entry titled "The Great Wall of Segregation" on her website "Baghdad Burning":

"I always hear the Iraqi pro-war crowd interviewed on television from foreign capitals (they can only appear on television from the safety of foreign capitals because I defy anyone to be publicly pro-war in Iraq). They refuse to believe that their religiously inclined, sectarian political parties fueled this whole Sunni/Shia conflict. They refuse to acknowledge that this situation is a direct result of the war and occupation. They go on and on about Iraq's history and how Sunnis and Shia were always in conflict and I hate that. I hate that a handful of expats who haven't been to the country in decades pretend to know more about it than people actually living there.

I remember Baghdad before the war- one could live anywhere. We didn't know what our neighbors were- we didn't care. No one asked about religion or sect. No one bothered with what was considered a trivial topic: are you Sunni or Shia? You only asked something like that if you were uncouth and backward. Our lives revolve around it now. Our existence depends on hiding it or highlighting it- depending on the group of masked men who stop you or raid your home in the middle of the night."

Apr. 26, 2007 - Riverbend (pseudonym)