Iraq Table of Contents
A statue of a lion at Babylon
Courtesy Ronald L. Kuipers
Bas relief, Babylon
Courtesy Ronald L. Kuipers
On October 13, 1932, Iraq became a sovereign state, and it was admitted to the League of Nations. Iraq still was beset by a complex web of social, economic, ethnic, religious, and ideological conflicts, all of which retarded the process of state formation. The declaration of statehood and the imposition of fixed boundaries triggered an intense competition for power in the new entity. Sunnis and Shias, cities and tribes, shaykhs and tribesmen, Assyrians and Kurds, pan-Arabists and Iraqi nationalists--all fought vigorously for places in the emerging state structure. Ultimately, lacking legitimacy and unable to establish deep roots, the British-imposed political system was overwhelmed by these conflicting demands.
The Sunni-Shia conflict, a problem since the beginning of domination by the Umayyad caliphate in 661, continued to frustrate attempts to mold Iraq into a political community. The Shia tribes of the southern Euphrates, along with urban Shias, feared complete Sunni domination in the government. Their concern was well founded; a disproportionate number of Sunnis occupied administrative positions. Favored by the Ottomans, the Sunnis historically had gained much more administrative experience. The Shias' depressed economic situation further widened the Sunni- Shia split, and it intensified Shia efforts to obtain a greater share of the new state's budget.
The arbitrary borders that divided Iraq and the other Arab lands of the old Ottoman Empire caused severe economic dislocations, frequent border disputes, and a debilitating ideological conflict. The cities of Mosul in the north and Basra in the south, separated from their traditional trading partners in Syria and in Iran, suffered severe commercial dislocations that led to economic depression. In the south, the British- created border (drawn through the desert on the understanding that the region was largely uninhabited) impeded migration patterns and led to great tribal unrest. Also in the south, uncertainty surrounding Iraq's new borders with Kuwait, with Saudi Arabia, and especially with Iran led to frequent border skirmishes. The new boundaries also contributed to the growth of competing nationalisms; Iraqi versus pan-Arab loyalties would severely strain Iraqi politics during the 1950s and the 1960s, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser held emotional sway over the Iraqi masses.
Ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Assyrians, who had hoped for their own autonomous states, rebelled against inclusion within the Iraqi state. The Kurds, the majority of whom lived in the area around Mosul, had long been noted for their fierce spirit of independence and separatism. During the 1922 to 1924 period, the Kurds had engaged in a series of revolts in response to British encroachment in areas of traditional Kurdish autonomy; moreover, the Kurds preferred Turkish to Arab rule. When the League of Nations awarded Mosul to Iraq in 1925, Kurdish hostility thus increased. The Iraqi government maintained an uneasy peace with the Kurds in the first year of independence, but Kurdish hostility would remain an intractable problem for future governments.
From the start, the relationship of the Iraqi government with the Assyrians was openly hostile. Britain had resettled 20,000 Assyrians in northern Iraq around Zakhu and Dahuk after Turkey violently quelled a British-inspired Assyrian rebellion in 1918. As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who had sided with the British during World War I now found themselves citizens of Iraq. The Assyrians found this situation both objectionable and dangerous. Thousands of Assyrians had been incorporated into the Iraqi Levies, a British-paid and British-officered force separate from the regular Iraqi army. They had been encouraged by the British to consider themselves superior to the majority of Arab Iraqis by virtue of their profession of Christianity. The British also had used them for retaliatory operations against the Kurds, in whose lands most of the Assyrians had settled. Pro-British, they had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence.
The Assyrians had hoped to form a nation-state in a region of their own. When no unoccupied area sufficiently large could be found, the Assyrians continued to insist that, at the very least, their patriarch, the Mar Shamun, be given some temporal authority. This demand was flatly refused by both the British and the Iraqis. In response, the Assyrians, who had been permitted by the British to retain their weapons after the dissolution of the Iraq Levies, flaunted their strength and refused to recognize the government. In retaliation the Iraqi authorities held the Mar Shamun under virtual house arrest in mid-1933, making his release contingent on his signing a document renouncing forever any claims to temporal authority. During July about 800 armed Assyrians headed for the Syrian border. For reasons that have never been explained, they were repelled by the Syrians. During this time, King Faisal was outside the country for reasons of health. According to scholarly sources, Minister of Interior Hikmat Sulayman had adopted a policy aimed at the elimination of the Assyrians. This policy apparently was implemented by a Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi, who, after engaging in several clashes with the Assyrians, permitted his men to kill about 300 Assyrians, including women and children, at the Assyrian village of Simel (Sumayyil).
The Assyrian affair marked the military's entrance into Iraqi politics, setting a precedent that would be followed throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. It also paved the way for the passage of a conscription law that strengthened the army and, as increasing numbers of tribesmen were brought into military service, sapped strength from the tribal shaykhs. The Assyrian affair also set the stage for the increased prominence of Bakr Sidqi.
At the time of independence, tribal Iraq was experiencing a destabilizing realignment characterized by the waning role of the shaykhs in tribal society. The privatization of property rights, begun with the tanzimat reforms in the late 1860s, intensified when the British-supported Lazmah land reform of 1932 dispossessed even greater numbers of tribesmen. While the British were augmenting the economic power of the shaykhs, however, the tribal-urban balance was rapidly shifting in favor of the cities. The accelerated pace of modernization and the growth of a highly nationalistic intelligentsia, of a bureaucracy, and of a powerful military, all favored the cities. Thus, while the economic position of the shaykhs had improved significantly, their role in tribal society and their status in relation to the rapidly emerging urban elite had seriously eroded. These contradictory trends in tribal structure and authority pushed tribal Iraq into a major social revolution that would last for the next thirty years.
The ascendancy of the cities and the waning power of the tribes were most evident in the ease with which the military, led by Bakr Sidqi, put down tribal unrest. The tribal revolts themselves were set off by the government's decision in 1934 to allocate money for the new conscription plan rather than for a new dam, which would have improved agricultural productivity in the south.
The monarchy's ability to deal with tribal unrest suffered a major setback in September 1933, when King Faisal died while undergoing medical treatment in Switzerland. Faisal's death meant the loss of the main stabilizing personality in Iraqi politics. He was the one figure with sufficient prestige to draw the politicians together around a concept of national interest. Faisal was succeeded by his twenty-one-year-old son, Ghazi (1933- 39), an ardent but inexperienced Arab nationalist. Unlike his father, Ghazi was a product of Western education and had little experience with the complexities of Iraqi tribal life. Ghazi also was unable to balance nationalist and British pressures within the framework of the Anglo-Iraqi alliance; increasingly, the nationalist movement saw the monarchy as a British puppet. Iraqi politics during Ghazi's reign degenerated into a meaningless competition among narrowly based tribal shaykhs and urban notables that further eroded the legitimacy of the state and its constitutional structures.
In 1936 Iraq experienced its first military coup d'etat--the first coup d'etat in the modern Arab world. The agents of the coup, General Bakr Sidqi and two politicians (Hikmat Sulayman and Abu Timman, who were Turkoman and Shia respectively), represented a minority response to the pan-Arab Sunni government of Yasin al Hashimi. The eighteen-month Hashimi government was the most successful and the longest lived of the eight governments that came and went during the reign of King Ghazi. Hashimi's government was nationalistic and pan-Arab, but many Iraqis resented its authoritarianism and its supression of honest dissent. Sulayman, a reformer, sought to engineer an alliance of other reformers and minority elements within the army. The reformers included communists, orthodox and unorthodox socialists, and persons with more moderate positions. Most of the more moderate reformers were associated with the leftist-leaning Al Ahali newspaper, from which their group took its name.
The Sidqi coup marked a major turning point in Iraqi history; it made a crucial breach in the constitution, and it opened the door to further military involvement in politics. It also temporarily displaced the elite that had ruled since the state was founded; the new government contained few Arab Sunnis and not a single advocate of a pan-Arab cause. This configuration resulted in a foreign policy oriented toward Turkey and Iran instead of toward the Arab countries. The new government promptly signed an agreement with Iran, temporarily settling the question of boundary between Iraq and Iran in the Shatt al Arab. Iran maintained that it had agreed under British pressure to the international boundary's being set at the low water mark on the Iranian side rather than the usual international practice of the midpoint or thalweg.
After Bakr Sidqi moved against Baghdad, Sulayman formed an Ahali cabinet. Hashimi and Rashid Ali were banished, and Nuri as Said fled to Egypt. In the course of the assault on Baghdad, Nuri as Said's brother-in-law, Minister of Defense Jafar Askari, was killed.
Ghazi sanctioned Sulayman's government even though it had achieved power unconstitutionally; nevertheless, the coalition of forces that gained power in 1936 was beset by major contradictions. The Ahali group was interested in social reform whereas Sidqi and his supporters in the military were interested in expansion. Sidqi, moreover, alienated important sectors of the population: the nationalists in the army resented him because of his Kurdish background and because he encouraged Kurds to join the army; the Shias abhorred him because of his brutal suppression of a tribal revolt the previous year; and Nuri as Said sought revenge for the murder of his brother-in-law. Eventually, Sidqi's excesses alienated both his civilian and his military supporters, and he was murdered by a military group in August 1937.
In April 1939, Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident and was succeeded by his infant son, Faisal II. Ghazi's first cousin, Amir Abd al Ilah, was made regent. The death of Ghazi and the rise of Prince Abd al Ilah and Nuri as Said--the latter one of the Ottoman-trained officers who had fought with Sharif Husayn of Mecca--dramatically changed both the goals and the role of the monarchy. Whereas Faisal and Ghazi had been strong Arab nationalists and had opposed the British-supported tribal shaykhs, Abd al Ilah and Nuri as Said were Iraqi nationalists who relied on the tribal shaykhs as a counterforce against the growing urban nationalist movement. By the end of the 1930s, pan- Arabism had become a powerful ideological force in the Iraqi military, especially among younger officers who hailed from the northern provinces and who had suffered economically from the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The British role in quelling the Palestine revolt of 1936 to 1939 further intensified anti-British sentiments in the military and led a group of disgruntled officers to form the Free Officers' Movement, which aimed at overthrowing the monarchy.
As World War II approached, Nazi Germany attempted to capitalize on the anti-British sentiments in Iraq and to woo Baghdad to the Axis cause. In 1939 Iraq severed diplomatic relations with Germany--as it was obliged to do because of treaty obligations with Britain. In 1940, however, the Iraqi nationalist and ardent anglophobe Rashid Ali succeeded Nuri as Said as prime minister. The new prime minister was reluctant to break completely with the Axis powers, and he proposed restrictions on British troop movements in Iraq.
Abd al Ilah and Nuri as Said both were proponents of close cooperation with Britain. They opposed Rashid Ali's policies and pressed him to resign. In response, Rashid Ali and four generals led a military coup that ousted Nuri as Said and the regent, both of whom escaped to Transjordan. Shortly after seizing power in 1941, Rashid Ali appointed an ultranationalist civilian cabinet, which gave only conditional consent to British requests in April 1941 for troop landings in Iraq. The British quickly retaliated by landing forces at Basra, justifying this second occupation of Iraq by citing Rashid Ali's violation of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Many Iraqis regarded the move as an attempt to restore British rule. They rallied to the support of the Iraqi army, which receiveda number of aircraft from the Axis powers. The Germans, however, were preoccupied with campaigns in Crete and with preparations for the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they could spare little assistance to Iraq. As the British steadily advanced, Rashid Ali and his government fled to Egypt. An armis- tice was signed on May 30. Abd al Ilah returned as regent, and Rashid Ali and the four generals were tried in absentia and were sentenced to death. The generals returned to Iraq and were subsequently executed, but Rashid Ali remained in exile.
The most important aspect of the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 was Britain's use of Transjordan's Arab Legion against the Iraqis and their reimposition by force of arms of Abd al Ilah as regent. Nothing contributed more to nationalist sentiment in Iraq, especially in the military, than the British invasion of 1941 and the reimposition of the monarchy. From then on, the monarchy was completely divorced from the powerful nationalist trend. Widely viewed as an anachronism that lacked popular legitimacy, the monarchy was perceived to be aligned with social forces that were retarding the country's development.
In January 1943, under the terms of the 1930 treaty with Britain, Iraq declared war on the Axis powers. Iraq cooperated completely with the British under the successive governments of Nuri as Said (1941-44) and Hamdi al Pachachi (1944-46). Iraq became a base for the military occupation of Iran and of the Levant (see Glossary). In March 1945, Iraq became a founding member of the British-supported League of Arab States (Arab League), which included Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Although the Arab League was ostensibly designed to foster Arab unity, many Arab nationalists viewed it as a British-dominated alignment of pro-Western Arab states. In December 1945, Iraq joined the United Nations (UN).
World War II exacerbated Iraq's social and economic problems. The spiraling prices and shortages brought on by the war increased the opportunity for exploitation and significantly widened the gap between rich and poor; thus, while wealthy landowners were enriching themselves through corruption, the salaried middle class, including teachers, civil servants, and army officers, saw their incomes depreciate daily. Even worse off were the peasants, who lived under the heavy burden of the 1932 land reform that permitted their landlords (shaykhs) to make huge profits selling cash crops to the British occupying force. The worsening economic situation of the mass of Iraqis during the 1950s and the 1960s enabled the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) to establish deep roots during this period.
In addition to its festering socioeconomic problems, post- World War II Iraq was beset by a leadership crisis. After the 1941 Rashid Ali coup, Iraqi politics had been dominated by the pro-British Nuri as Said. The latter's British orientation and autocratic manner increasingly were at variance with the liberal, reformist philosophy of Iraq's new nationalists. Even before the end of the war, nationalists had demanded the restoration of political activity, which had been banned during the war in the interest of national security. Not until the government of Tawfiq Suwaidi (February-March 1946), however, were political parties allowed to organize. Within a short period, six parties were formed. The parties soon became so outspoken in their criticism of the government that the government closed or curtailed the activities of the more extreme leftist parties.
Accumulated grievances against Nuri as Said and the regent climaxed in the 1948 Wathbah (uprising). The Wathbah was a protest against the Portsmouth Treaty of January 1948 and its provision that a board of Iraqis and British be established to decide on defense matters of mutual interest. The treaty enraged Iraqi nationalists, who were still bitter over the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 and the continued influence of the British in Iraqi affairs. The uprising also was fueled by widespread popular discontent over rising prices, by an acute bread shortage, and by the regime's failure to liberalize the political system.
The Wathbah had three important effects on Iraqi politics. First, and most directly, it led Nuri as Said and the regent to repudiate the Portsmouth Treaty. Second, the success of the uprising led the opposition to intensify its campaign to discredit the regime. This activity not only weakened the monarchy but also seriously eroded the legitimacy of the political process. Finally, the uprising created a schism between Nuri as Said and Abd al Ilah. The former wanted to tighten political control and to deal harshly with the opposition; the regent advocated a more tempered approach. In response, the British increasingly mistrusted the regent and relied more and more on Nuri as Said.
Iraq bitterly objected to the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine and sent several hundred recruits to the Palestine front when hostilities broke out on May 15, 1948. Iraq sent an additional 8,000 to 10,000 troops of the regular army during the course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; these troops were withdrawn in April 1949. The Iraqis had arrived at the Palestine front poorly equipped and undertrained because of the drastic reduction in defense expenditures imposed by Nuri as Said following the 1941 Rashid Ali coup. As a result, they fared very poorly in the fighting and returned to Iraq even more alienated from the regime. The war also had a negative impact on the Iraqi economy. The government allocated 40 percent of available funds for the army and for Palestinian refugees. Oil royalties paid to Iraq were halved when the pipeline to Haifa was cut off in 1948. The war and the hanging of a Jewish businessman led, moreover, to the departure of most of Iraq's prosperous Jewish community; about 120,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel between 1948 and 1952.
In 1952 the depressed economic situation, which had been exacerbated by a bad harvest and by the government's refusal to hold direct elections, triggered large-scale antiregime protests; the protests turned especially violent in Baghdad. In response, the government declared martial law, banned all political parties, suspended a number of newspapers, and imposed a curfew. The immense size of the protests showed how widespread dissatisfaction with the regime had become. The middle class, which had grown considerably as a result of the monarchy's expanded education system, had become increasingly alienated from the regime, in large part because they were unable to earn an income commensurate with their status. Nuri as Said's autocratic manner, his intolerance of dissent, and his heavy-handed treatment of the political opposition had further alienated the middle class, especially the army. Forced underground, the opposition had become more revolutionary.
By the early 1950s, government revenues began to improve with the growth of the oil industry. New pipelines were built to Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1949 and to Baniyas, Syria, in 1952. A new oil agreement, concluded in 1952, netted the government 50 percent of oil company profits before taxes. As a result, government oil revenues increased almost four-fold, from US$32 million in 1951 to US$112 million in 1952. The increased oil payments, however, did little for the masses. Corruption among high government officials increased; oil companies employed relatively few Iraqis; and the oil boom also had a severe inflationary effect on the economy. Inflation hurt in particular a growing number of urban poor and the salaried middle class. The increased economic power of the state further isolated Nuri as Said and the regent from Iraqi society and obscured from their view the tenuous nature of the monarchy's hold on power.
In the mid-1950s, the monarchy was embroiled in a series of foreign policy blunders that ultimately contributed to its overthrow. Following a 1949 military coup in Syria that brought to power Adib Shishakli, a military strongman who opposed union with Iraq, a split developed between Abd al Ilah, who had called for a Syrian-Iraqi union, and Nuri as Said, who opposed the union plan. Although Shishakli was overthrown with Iraqi help in 1954, the union plan never came to fruition. Instead, the schism between Nuri as Said and the regent widened. Sensing the regime's weakness, the opposition intensified its antiregime activity.
The monarchy's major foreign policy mistake occurred in 1955, when Nuri as Said announced that Iraq was joining a British- supported mutual defense pact with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. The Baghdad Pact constituted a direct challenge to Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser. In response, Nasser launched a vituperative media campaign that challenged the legitimacy of the Iraqi monarchy and called on the officer corps to overthrow it. The 1956 British-French-Israeli attack on Sinai further alienated Nuri as Said's regime from the growing ranks of the opposition. In 1958 King Hussein of Jordan and Abd al Ilah proposed a union of Hashimite monarchies to counter the recently formed Egyptian- Syrian union. At this point, the monarchy found itself completely isolated. Nuri as Said was able to contain the rising discontent only by resorting to even greater oppression and to tighter control over the political process.
Data as of May 1988
Iraq Table of Contents