Shiites account for about 15 percent of the world’s Muslims. Shiites are dominant in Iran and are also the largest sect in Iraq. Pockets of Shiite Islam also exist in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Shiites insist that true leaders of Islam must be descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and Mohammed’s son-in-law. Shiism, originally a dissident faction, has its own distinct rituals and a more organized and hierarchical clerical system than Sunni Islam.
A non-Arab Middle Eastern minority population that inhabits the region known as Kurdistan, an extensive plateau and mountain area in Southwest Asia including parts of East Turkey, Northeast Iraq, and Northwest Iran and smaller sections of Northeast Syria and Armenia. There were estimated to be more than 20 million Kurds, as of the late 1990s. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.
Sunnis account for about 85 percent of the world’s Muslims. They believe that the first four caliphs, the supreme religious leaders, were the rightful successors of the Prophet Mohammed but have chosen subsequent leaders based on Islamic political realities of the time. The Taliban are Sunni Muslims.
Ba’ath party, meaning “rebirth” in Arabic, is concentrated in Iraq and Syria, coming to power in 1963. This party’s idealogical objectives include secularism, socialism and pan-Arab unionism. The Iraqi sector of Ba’athists is led by Saddam Hussein while Syria’s is led by Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr.