There is no gainsaying the fact that the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a watershed event in contemporary times. One can debate whether this war was or was not justified, but what one cannot debate is the fact that the war had a dramatic impact on the Iraqi population and, more generally, on the relatively delicate balance between alternate geopolitical forces in the Middle East. Given this state of affairs, how specifically did the Iraqi population cope with and adapt to the war and its consequences? What were the sectarian implications of the war in Iraq and in the Middle East? Looking forward in time, which sectarian group is now most likely to hold sway over geopolitical affairs in Iraq? These are the sorts of questions that are tackled by Deborah Amos in this slim but compelling book. In the remainder of this review, I shall sample eclectically from the book’s fourteen chapters to give the reader an adequate flavor for its intellectual contributions.
The author begins by pointing out the three primary sectarian groups in Iraq: the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias. Generally speaking, the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shias occupy the north, the center, and the south of the country. Even though the Sunnis are a minority, in the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, they were the most powerful group in virtually all spheres of life. This feature, although clearly odious to some, was well understood by all the major players in the Middle East. In addition, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia in particular (and some other nations as well) appreciated the fact that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq acted as a bulwark against the regional ambitions of Shiite Iran.
The US-led invasion of Iraq dramatically altered that equilibrium. Within Iraq, hitherto suppressed sectarian tensions emerged to the forefront; with the passage of time, an Iraqi individual’s identity in terms of his or her nationality became less salient than his or her sectarian identity. Put differently, one was now a Shia or a Sunni or a Kurd first and an Iraqi second. The civil war that raged in Iraq after the defeat of Saddam Hussein gave rise to appalling violence, and this violence resulted in the displacement of four million Iraqis. Two million Iraqis, primarily Sunnis, left their country. As a result, the demographic balance of Iraq shifted decisively, and it became in essence a Shiite-dominated nation.
The author goes to great lengths to painstakingly chronicle the trials and the tribulations of the Iraqi population, living in exile, primarily in Syria but also in other nations like Jordan and Lebanon. Amos’s successful storytelling tactic is to focus on individual Iraqis or Iraqi families and lucidly explain the terrible impact that the war in their homeland has had not only on their psyches but also on their will to live. Inter alia, we learn about theater actor Rasim al-Jumaily; Nabras Naseer, the eighteen-year-old who was kidnapped and beaten, presumably by members of the infamous “Al Qaeda in Mesopotemia”; and Um Nour, a single mother who escaped death threats in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. A repeated refrain emanating from Amos’s discussion of the saturnine lives of these three and other Iraqis is the question of identity. Even in 2009, an inability to answer the twin questions - “What is Iraq now?” and “Who is an Iraqi now?” - kept the exiles from returning to Iraq and kept them in an unenviable situation marked only by nostalgia for a time and a place now gone and uncertainty about what may lie ahead in the future.
The author strengthens her basic point about the decline of the Sunnis by extending her discussion of this point beyond Iraq to include neighboring nations such as Syria and Lebanon. In Syria, since Hafez al-Assad’s coup, the author explains that the tiny Alawite minority has completely dominated virtually all spheres of public life with significant instruments of repression in place. As such, the current Syrian leader’s "goal is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country" (p. 77). Similarly, in Lebanon, with the passage of time, the Shiite militia Hezbollah has become the most potent political force. As a result, just "as they were in Iraq, Sunnis in Lebanon [have been] on the defensive, marginalized and bitter" (p. 105).
If this book has a weakness, it stems from the author’s periodic penchant for description and over-analysis. This notwithstanding, Eclipse of the Sunnis is a fine book that does a good job of chronicling some of the geopolitical realities in the Middle East today. I recommend this book to all readers who seek to learn more about the 2003 war-induced privations of the dispossessed and the displaced in Iraq and in the neighboring countries of the region.