Story of a carve - up

9th May 2003 at 01:00
Invasions, occupations, regime changes engineered by foreign powers, factionalism and atrocities perpetrated by forces without as well as within: welcome to the history of Iraq. Reva Klein reports

Whatever way peace is imposed in the aftermath of this latest war in Iraq, it will be watched closely by those with a sense of history. The events we have witnessed have been played out before. Modern Iraq came into the world with a long record of manipulation by foreign powers with a keen interest in its strategic position and, in the 20th century, its vast oil reserves.

A succession of occupations by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols and Turkish Ottomans were imposed on the disparate peoples of Iraq. From the 1920s until the end of the 1950s, Britain joined the list. Disentangling the complexities of those years is crucial to understanding events in Iraq today.

Turkish to British

During the First World War, Britain and France took over vast swathes of the Middle East that had been under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had aligned itself with Germany at the outbreak of war. Britain was keen to gain ground in the Middle East. The British Government was already in charge of the administration of Egypt, where it kept an eye on foreign investments and ensured the security of the Suez Canal. This was a vital strategic point from which to safeguard access to India, the jewel in the crown of the British empire. When General Stanley Maude captured Baghdad from Turkey in 1917, he assured the Iraqis that they would be given progressively more control over their country, and the promise of freedom encouraged nationalists to support the Allied powers against Turkey.

But things turned out rather differently. The British and French carved up the Middle East between them, dividing the various provinces into separate countries. Syria and Lebanon went to France, while Jordan, Palestine and Iraq went to Britain under the League of Nations' mandate system.

Crucially, they were given Level A mandates, meaning they would become autonomous after a short period of foreign control.

The British mandate in Iraq was characterised by inconsistencies, vagueness and imperialistic manoeuvrings. With Turkey dominating the region at the outset of the First World War, Britain looked for allies in the Arab world who were known to be planning revolts against Ottoman rule. The idea was motivated by European interests: an Arab uprising against the Turks would not only loosen the Ottoman stranglehold on the region, but would divert the Turkish army, weakening the military might of the Central Powers on the European front (Turkey, Germany, Austria-Hungary).

The British Commissioner Sir Henry McMahon negotiated a deal with Sherif Hussein, the head of a powerful Mecca-based Hashemite family. McMahon indicated to Hussein that an Arab-led revolt against the Turks would pave the way for a British-backed, unified Arab kingdom under Hashemite leadership. TELawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") supported the plan but, in the event, the revolt was a damp squib. When Britain took control of Iraq, Palestine and Jordan at the end of the war and France moved into Syria and Lebanon, the Arabs were furious at what they saw as the British reneging on a promise.

The Great Iraqi Revolution

It soon became clear that ruling Iraq was going to be no picnic. Iraqi nationalists felt betrayed by British rule under a mandate, and saw it as another chapter in the long saga of European colonialism. The British helped that perception by excluding Iraqis from Sir Patrick Cox's administration in favour of Indians. Outbreaks against the British occurred all over the country, local infighting between tribal groups erupted and the borders with Iran and Turkey became unstable. Anti-imperialist secret societies formed all over the country. Violent demonstrations and strikes led to deaths on both sides and the arrest of rebel leaders, further intensifying nationalist fervour. The declaration of a holy jihad against the British, on the grounds that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to be ruled by non-Muslims, led to a revolt in 1920 stretching from Mosul in the north down through the Euphrates river valley in the south.

While it lasted only a few months, the Great Iraqi Revolution, as it became known, was a seminal moment in the country's history, bringing together an unprecedented alliance of Sunnis and Shias (see box), warring tribesmen and clans, Kurds, urban professionals, religious leaders, business people and other geographically and socially disparate groups. It signified a wake-up call to the British that their leadership style had to change - and it did, up to a point. A provisional Arab government was installed, dominated by members of the Sunni minority, creating a buffer between the British and the rebellious population. An Iraqi army was established, led by Sunni officers who had served during Ottoman rule.

King of Iraq

In a further attempt to soften the blow of British rule as well as to provide a consolation prize for Sherif Hussein's son Faisal, who had been deposed from the throne of Syria by the French, Britain installed him as Iraq's first king in 1921, under a constitutional monarchy. Faisal was a perfect figurehead for the British: as a Hashemite (therefore reputedly a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed), he appealed to the broad-based Muslim population, but he also depended on the British in order to maintain power, since the notion of a monarchy was as foreign to the Iraqis as was the Mecca-born monarch.

To contain the national consciousness that the monarchy would inspire, the British drew on the divide-and-rule strategy used elsewhere, encouraging tribal sheikhs to sow discontent and fragmentation, thereby helping to subvert the influence of the monarchy and ensuring the indispensability of the British in maintaining a semblance of order.

Internal discontent

The new regime faced the pressing issue of borders. Mosul Province in the north was particularly vexing, for two reasons: Britain and Turkey both had a keen interest in gaining oil concessions in the area, and the proponents of Kurdish independence were opposed to both countries. Britain had tried twice to set up an independent Kurdish province and it had failed both times. In 1925, the League of Nations intervened, putting Mosul under Iraqi rule under a 25-year treaty, making provision for special protection for the Kurds and ensuring them positions in the local government. But by refusing them autonomy, the League of Nations ensured the fierce struggle for Kurdish independence that remains to this day.

This was not the beginning of a new era for Iraq that the League of Nations hoped for. The British democratic model had little credibility with the Iraqi people. Rivalries between Sunnis and Shias and between the landowning tribal sheikhs and the powerful Sunni families in the cities grew. When the British mandate ended in 1932, Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state. But British political and military influence remained powerful. So too did the social and political discord left behind by the British, most notably a fierce vying for power between Sunnis and Shias, sheikhs and tribesmen, pan-Arabists and Iraqi nationalists, Assyrians and Kurds, people from the cities and those from the tribes.

These conflicts were interwoven with other difficulties. There were skirmishes on the arbitrarily drawn borders between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iran. Basra in the south and Mosul in the north were cut off from their former trading partners Iran and Syria, leading to economic hardship. And disrupted migration patterns of desert tribesmen in the south led to tribal hostilities.

Rifts and bloody coups

King Faisal's death in 1933 was followed by the reign of his son, Ghazi. A weak monarch, he failed to master the intricacies of tribalism or the complex juggling act between nationalist and British pressures. Civil unrest was a recurring theme for decades to come. The shift of power from tribal sheikhs to the quickly modernising cities and the growth of an intelligentsia that embraced Iraqi nationalism created enormous rifts.

Eight governments came and went during Ghazi's six-year reign, and the first coup d'etat in modern Arab history took place, setting a precedent for others to follow. As the Second World War approached, pan-Arabism was the dominant ideology in the Iraqi military, and anti-British attitudes gained force. A second coup in 1941, by the nationalistic and Anglophobic Rashid Ali, was quelled by British forces with the help of Transjordan's Arab Legion. This effectively stirred up Iraqi nationalism and anti-British sentiment to unprecedented levels.

The social and economic hardships that befell Iraq during the Second World War and the uprisings that followed created further social schisms and rifts between the autocratic and repressive government of prime minister Nuri es-Said and the benign monarchy.

Saddam Hussein and the Kurds

An underground opposition movement staged a military revolution in 1958, overthrowing Faisal II and paving the way for the Ba'ath Socialist Party to take power in 1968, led by General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and his deputy, Saddam Hussein. The new regime ushered in radical reforms to bolster its popularity, the most important being the nationalisation of the Iraqi Petroleum Company. The economy benefited dramatically but the problems inherited by the Ba'ath regime would not go away. Fighting broke out between Kurds and government forces in 1974 after Iraqi pledges of an autonomous Kurdish area were not met. The Shah of Iran supported the Kurds and closed the border with Iraq, fearing Soviet involvement.

The Ba'ath regime met Kurdish resistance with brutality, killing thousands of fighters, destroying villages and transferring masses of civilians into fortified encampments. As Iraq grew economically stronger throughout the 1970s, thanks to the nationalisation of the oilfields, so did Saddam Hussein and his political supporters. He came to power after the resignation of President al-Bakr in 1979 and set up his own security force, the Republican Guard.

IranIraq War

After mounting tension between Iraq and Iran following the Islamic revolution in Iran during the previous year, war broke out between the two countries in 1980. Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain supported Iraq through arms sales and military credits during eight long and devastating years of fighting. The US, Soviet Union, France, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also backed Iraq against what they saw as the destabilising effect of the fundamentalist regime next door, despite their knowledge of Iraq's gas attacks against Iranian troops and, in March 1988, against 5,000 Kurdish civilians at Halabja in northern Iraq. As well as the massive casualty toll of the IranIraq war (400,000 deaths, mainly Iranian), Iraq found itself economically crippled when it finally complied with a ceasefire in 1988.

The costs of the sustained military campaign had flattened its thriving economy.

The Gulf War and post-Saddam

In 2000, Saddam declared the annexation of Kuwait, signalling the first Gulf War. The world's response to the invasion was dramatically different from its reaction to the IranIraq war 10 years earlier. The UN Security Council passed "the mother of all resolutions", authorising military force to be used against Iraq. Within two months, US-led allied forces were bombing Iraq. A month later, Iraq surrendered. Immediately before the ceasefire was agreed, President George Bush called on the Iraqi people to overthrow their leader but, instead of supporting an uprising, allowed Iraqi helicopters to fly through US lines to attack Kurds in the north and Shias in the south.

Iraq agreed to regular weapons inspections by UNSCOM (the UN Special Commission) as part of the conditions imposed under the cease-fire. The first inspection revealed chemical and biological weapons production and, over the years, the inspections teams destroyed massive arsenals. However, UNSCOM was certain, despite Iraqi denials, that large quantities were being hidden and files destroyed. To pressure Iraq into compliance, the UN imposed an economic embargo in 1990, which has had a profoundly destructive impact on Iraq's infrastructure and civilian population. The latest war was the climax of this process. How the country is rebuilt and run, by whom, and how the lessons of the past are heeded by the allies and the Iraqis themselves remains to be seen.


Shias and Sunnis belong to the two major branches of Islam. The schism came about as the result of a disagreement over the successor to the Prophet Muhammed after his death in the 7th century. The Sunnis believe that they are the orthodox branch, following Muhammed's teachings. They don't have an elaborate clerical hierarchy like the Shias, believing instead that Allah should be approached directly, through prayer. The Shias have a carefully constructed Imamate comprised of religious leaders who have been chosen by God through the Prophet Muhammed for their wisdom, spiritual guidance and freedom from sin. In Iraq, where 77 per cent of the population are Arabs, Shias comprise more than 60 per cent and Sunnis 17 per cent of the Arab population. However, the Sunnis, who come mainly from the north, have been disproportionately represented in positions of power, and in society in general, since Turkey conquered Iraq in the 16th century. The majority Shias come from the depressed regions of the south. Observers believe that, in recent years, the social gulf between Shias and Sunnis has narrowed.

Saddam Hussein's government had made strides in integrating Shias into the government and the military. What the future holds for an inclusive Iraq will be watched closely by other Arab Gulf states, all of whom have Shia minorities who have been treated badly for centuries.


The Kurds have been fighting for a national homeland called Kurdistan for generations. Success for this struggle would have enormous implications for Turkey, Iran and Syria, as well as for Iraq. The second largest ethnic group in Iraq and Turkey, and the third largest in Iran, there are smaller groupings in Armenia, Georgia and other Central Asian republics. The Kurds represented the biggest sustained thorn in the side of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq. However, infighting between the rival factions of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and inconsistencies in their relations with the Iraqi government, led to their easy manipulation by Saddam Hussein's government. Their fate in a post-Saddam Iraq will have a major impact on Turkey.

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