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Efforts at cross-ethic cooperation: The 1920 Revolution and sectarian identities in Iraq

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This article revisits the manifestations of amicable Shi'a–Sunni relations in the months leading to, and during the course of, Iraq's 1920 Revolution. During the 1920 Revolution there was cooperation exhibited by some social and religious leaders in both communities. They persuaded their respective constituents to disregard their mutual aversion and focus on the country's national interests. But many among the political and religious elite were not interested in such cooperation. On the one hand there were Sunnis who cooperated with the Shi'a and assumed an active role in the resistance to the British occupation in the Middle Euphrates region, but there were also those who refrained from participating in such activities, either because of their anti-Shi'a mindset or because they supported the British as a matter of social and financial interest, or were motivated by political ambitions, such as the political hopefuls in Baghdad and Basra. This group of 'non-cooperative' Sunnis publicly criticized the revolution and described the participants as short-sighted rebels and agents of foreign powers who allowed themselves to be used against the interests of the Iraqi people. Historically, Shi'a and Sunni members of the Iraqi elite fought over power, privileges and political control, while their constituents intermarried and entered in business partnerships. Similarly, Shi'a landlords maintained good relations and strong trust with Sunni city merchants and Sunni Bedouin camel owners who undertook the transport of the Shi'a farm produce from rural Middle Euphrates to the cities. But during the events that led to the revolution, Sunni and Shi'a leaders made extraordinary concessions towards each other. Sunni notables participated in Shi'a religious services and vice versa. The main aim of this article is to analyse the meaning of these events and their implications for the current and future Iraqi Shi'a–Sunni relations in light of the significant changes of power distribution since 2003.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2010

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  • The International Journal of Contemporary Iraqi Studies is a new peer-reviewed, tri- annual, academic publication devoted to the study of modern Iraq. In recognition of Iraq's increasingly important position on the world stage, the time is right for a new journal dedicated to scholarly engagement with the country.
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