Human Journey

Geography in the News: The Uncoupling of Iraq

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM

Uncoupling Iraq

As the 2005 Iraqi election approached following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, ethnic and sectarian hostilities increased dramatically. Now, more than 10 years after the invasion and with the departure of American and allied troops, Iraq appears to be uncoupling.

Iraq watchers have long predicted that civil war was likely, given the deep political, ethnic and economic divisions of the Iraqi population. These differences have been exacerbated by political divides in the country, political instability accompanying the Iraqi war, the disbanding of the Iraqi army creating a power vacuum and interference in the political process by neighboring countries. At present, a civil war has begun.

Over the years, authors (including this author) repeatedly have written about the divisions between the Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, all of whom occupy geographic parts of Iraq. An arbitrarily-drawn European boundary enclosed these ethnic groups into present-day Iraq, despite that fact that each group largely occupied its own territory within.

These groups perpetrated horrific crimes on one another in the past and it appears impossible to heal the wounds. In this part of the world, oral histories passed down from generation to generation also perpetuate the pain of centuries-old transgressions.

Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs, traditionally the wealthiest and most powerful political group, had been in control of the country’s government since at least 1958. Historically, the Sunnis have been concentrated in central and southwest Iraq and have controlled the major Sunni Triangle cities of Tikrit and Baghdad on the Tigris River and Ramadi on the Euphrates River. Saddam Hussein was their most notorious modern leader.

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Iraq’s Shiite (she-ITE or SHE-ah) Muslim Arabs have largely been from the middle and lower socio-economic classes. The Shiite sect of Islam tends to be more fundamentalist and emotional in their religious beliefs than its Sunni counterpart. Iraq’s Shiites have strong connections to neighboring Iran’s ayatollahs, or religious leaders. Most of Iraq’s Shiites reside in South Iraq and they are dominant in Karbala, Najaf, Nasirlya, and Basra, the four largest southern cities.

Iraq’s Kurds are distinctly different from either of the other two cultures. Their language and physical appearance is more like the Persians of Iran than Arab. Nonetheless, their religion is Muslim and their sect Sunni. They occupy northeastern Iraq, as well as parts of Iran, Syria, Turkey and the neighboring Caucasus states. Kurds control the cities of Dohuk and Erbil and recently have taken Kirkuk, the oil rich city at the western edge of Iraq’s northern mountains. The town of Halabjah lies within Kurdish territory and it was there that Saddam and his general, infamous “Chemical” Ali, used chemical weapons in 1988 killing thousands, leading to partial justification for the U.S. invasion.

Although the Sunni Arabs represent only about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated 2014 population of 32.5 million people, they were brutal in controlling the Shiites and the Kurds throughout Saddam’s reign. After the 1991 Desert Storm, Saddam’s Republican Guard invaded the Kurdish northern territory. This led to the U.S. coalition establishing No-Fly zones in the north and south to protect the Kurds and Shiites, respectively, from Saddam’s air force. Now the Kurds largely control their territory.

The Kurds were considered a strong linchpin in any sort of a united coalition in Iraq. However, there is major doubt about their long-term allegiance to a united Iraq, in the face of their search for an independent Kurdistan crossing several current international borders.

Shiite opposition to Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated Baath Arab Socialist party was legend, leading to his overthrow in 2003 and execution in 2005. The Americans transferred power to the Shiites, leading to the election of current Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki. Given the history of Sunni domination, Al-Maliki has been unwilling to share power with the Sunni Arabs. In any countrywide, free election, the Shiites’ majority has the number of votes to take political control of the government at the ballot box. Their maintaining military control, however, in the face of recent rebellion by the Sunnis is another matter.

The Sunnis have chaffed under the Shiite government. Now the most recent development is the Sunnis support for the violent terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to gain control of the traditional Sunni territory. This action is likely to lead to further decoupling of Iraq along traditional cultural territorial lines.

Will balkanization, or breaking up, of Iraq into three separate cultural entities be the final solution? Evidence points in that direction, but civil war can be devastating to all sides. Just look at Syria.

And that is Geography in the News.

Sources: GITN 765, “Who Will Win Iraq?”,, Jan. 28, 2005; and GITN 659, “Critical Cities of Iraq,”, Jan. 17, 2003.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.


Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • John Dahodi

    In my opinion, America should send Bush-Cheney and Rumsfeld to inaugurate the first office of Islamic State, and hand over the US Award to the new khalifa, Baghdadi. It was their act of attacking Iraq and removing Saddam from the office to enable Baghdadi to achieve his life long dream. Also, do not forget to request Obama to be the first to recognize the Islamic Kingdom sending Hillary Clinton to solemn the great Occasion, only because they too helped Baghdadi by providing American arms causing up-rise against Assad. Soon we may have an Islamic State comprised of all gulf nations alongwith Iran and Turkey too, and America has to deal with only one dictator, rather than many at this time. Bottomline, we will get OIL almost FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

  • Ima Ryma

    “Infidels” did carve up the land
    Including what became Iraq.
    And mostly blood has drenched the sand,
    As cultures fight to take time back.
    The Sunni, the Shiite, the Kurd,
    All call to Allah to bring peace,
    But differ as to Allah’s word,
    And so their battles do not cease.
    The factions fight in Allah’s name,
    New pain ignited by old hate,
    Spilt blood pursuing holy aim.
    Left of Iraq, left to ill fate.

    Does Allah have some willed design?
    Err is human. Forgive divine?

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