Modern Iraqi History and the Day After: Part 2
Part 1 of this Dossier, in the last issue, dealt with the beginnings of modern Iraq and the British experiences in Iraq in the First World War and during the revolt of 1920, as well as the machinations which made Faysal King of Iraq in 1922.
No brief overview can of course do justice to the complexity of Iraqi history. One look at Hanna Batatu’s magisterial The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, which runs more than 1200 pages, should be enough to remind anyone tempted to oversimplify modern Iraqi history that it is quite complex. The mixture of Arab, Kurd, and Turkoman, of Sunni and Shi’i Muslims and other minorities, guaranteed that Iraqi history would be a complicated tapestry; events have made it a violent one. Combined with the complexity of the human population, differing by religion and ethnicity and language, there is the geographical disparity between the Turkish mountains, the fertile Mesopotamian river valleys, the southern marshes (now largely drained, but home to a culture unlike any other in the Middle East), and the western deserts.
As the British learned all too quickly, Iraq is hard to govern. Its modern history has oscillated between periods of strong central rule, often authoritarian or, in the case of Saddam Hussein, genuinely totalitarian, and weak central rule with strong local movements pushing for greater autonomy for individual groups or regions. There have been only a few interludes in modern Iraqi history when the Kurds of the north have been fully part of the government in Baghdad. There have been only a handful of Iraqi leaders who were not Sunni Arabs. (And one who was at least part Kurdish — ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, who came to power in 1958 and had a Kurdish mother — found himself facing Kurdish dissent anyway.)
This second part of the Dossier examines the elements which have contributed to the making of Iraq today, and how they will pose problems for the US or the new Iraqi regime, whichever attempts to create a postwar Iraq.
The Iraqi revolt of 1920 (the “Great Iraqi Revolution” to Iraqis, and as noted last time, the old British Lee-Enfield Saddam has been photographed firing into the air was captured in that revolt) led Britain to set up Faysal I as King of Iraq following the machinations noted in the last issue.
But Faysal’s reign was not a quiet one. In addition to internal problems, there were raids on Iraqi territory from Ibn Sa‘ud’s Ikhwan movement in what was to become Saudi Arabia.
Internally, in 1922 the Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmud declared an independent Kurdistan, as had been originally envisioned by the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919. Originally Britain’s choice to govern in the Suleimaniyya region, Mahmud had fallen out with the British in 1919 and had been captured but later pardoned. His second revolt in 1922 came at a time when Turkey was pressing hard its claims to Mosul. The British and the Iraqi government of Faysal responded, and by 1924, with the use of Royal Air Force aircraft and, reportedly, some use of gas, the British had put down the revolt, giving some autonomy to friendly Kurds who had assisted against Sheikh Mahmud.
Meanwhile, at the time Britain was creating the throne for Faisal, Kurdistan was deeply divided; though Kirkuk and Irbil demanded separate governorates and opposed Arab rule of Iraq, they could agree on little else. Nevertheless, faced with potential for continuing revolts, Faysal’s government agreed not to appoint Arab officials in Kurdish provinces.
In 1925 a major Kurdish uprising inside Turkey, led by Sheikh Sa‘d, had repercussions in Iraqi Kurdistan, but violence did not break out again until 1927. In the meantime, Kurdish leaders had been increasingly frustrated by their powerlessness in Parliament, where Arabs dominated. In 1927 a new uprising was led by Sheikh Ahmad Barzani, the uncle of the present head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq, Mas‘ud Barzani. Sheikh Ahmad had been ruling his own area pretty much without government interference, and as control from Baghdad increased, so did his resistance. His revolt continued until 1932, when he surrendered to Turkish troops rather than to Baghdad. In the meantime a massacre in Suleimaniyya in 1930 had helped cement the rise of Kurdish nationalism.
In 1930 Britain had negotiated a new treaty with Iraq, ending the mandate and agreeing to full independence in 1932, but with Britain retaining air base rights. In 1933, after independence and in Faysal’s last year on the throne, the Iraqi government clashed with the Assyrian minority at a time when Faysal was visiting Britain. The Iraqi Army carried out as full-scale massacre of Assyrians in the north, many of whom had already been driven out of Turkey.
Faysal, who at least had some leadership qualities, died in September 1933 while returning to Europe for medical treatment after a quick return home to deal with the Assyrian crisis. He was succeeded by King Ghazi, a playboy of sorts, and the government in Baghdad became increasingly the scene of shifting power alliances among various political factions. This in turn led to a weakness of the central government, and naturally also led to new revolts.
In 1934 and 1935 there were tribal uprisings along the middle Euphrates, some of them quite serious. A new Kurdish uprising occurred in August of 1935, and soon after this, the Yazidis — a small, syncretistic, isolated sect living in northern Iraq — also rose. Further uprisings occurred in the Basra area in 1935 and 1936.
Coups and Assassinations
At the moment the Army was taking power, Bakr Sidqi ordered the assassination of the Defense Minister, Ja‘far al-‘Askari. A former Ottoman officer who had distinguished himself in the Arab revolt, Ja‘far was close to the Hashemite royal house and related by marriage to Nuri al-Sa’id, the other ex-Ottoman officer who would play a leading role in Iraq until 1958.
Thus, already by 1936, several themes of 20th century Iraqi history had established themselves: in times of central government weakness, Kurdish, tribal, and minority elements tend to revolt; the military coup has been introduced as a means of governmental change; and assassination of political figures has been used.
Bakr Sidqi had had a reputation of being an effective in brutal officer; as a political leader he proved corrupt and indulged himself in many ways. In August of 1937 the man who had ordered a rival’s assassination was himself assassinated. The Mosul command of the Armed Forces then turned on the military-led government and toppled Iraq’s first government installed by coup by yet another coup.
By now the Army was a central player in politics. Nuri al-Sa‘id would play a key role in the years that followed, usually in rivalry with Rashid ‘Ali al-Gaylani, who served several times as Prime Minister and was known as an opponent of Britain’s role. Late in 1938 a third coup led to Nuri’s becoming Prime Minister, a post he had held previously.
In 1939, young King Ghazi was unexpectedly killed in an automobile accident. His son, Faysal, became King as Faysal II, but as he was only four years old, a Regency was established under Amir ‘Abd al-Ilah, a cousin on the Hashemite side and also a maternal uncle of the young King.
While all this was going on in Baghdad, the Second World War erupted in Europe. In 1940 Rashid ‘Ali had replaced Nuri as Prime Minister, and while the government supported the British alliance nominally, Arab nationalists were pressing for a break with Britain. Arab nationalists close to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, supported the idea of an alignment with the Axis, as the Mufti had already done.
Britain Intervenes Again
With a pro-Axis government in power in Baghdad and Britain fighting for its life in Egypt and elsewhere, Britain insisted on going ahead with its movement of troops. When British troops landed at Basra on April 29, Rashid ‘Ali ordered Iraqi troops to the British air base at Habbaniyya. They ordered the British RAF there to stop all flights; the British Air Officer Commanding said that would constitute an act of war. The British aircraft began bombarding Iraqi position.
At this point Britain transferred Iraq from its Indian Command to the Middle East Command, while the Mufti (who had been in Baghdad) called for a jihad against Britain. The British dispatched a force from Palestine called the Habbaniyya Field Force (usually “Habforce”) to secure the airfield at Habbaniyya. By the end of May this force had reached the outskirts of Baghdad and Rashid ‘Ali, the four officers of the Golden Square, the Mufti, and others had fled into Iran. Rashid ‘Ali eventually went to Turkey, the Mufti of course to Germany.
The Axis had hoped to use a pro-Axis Iraq as a possible southern front against Russia; but the pro-Axis government moved too quickly against the British, prompting their own defeat before Axis support could begin to be felt.
Meanwhile, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, younger brother of Sheikh Ahmad Barzani, was agitating again in Kurdistan. He appears to have sought to align himself with the British against the Rashid ‘Ali regime, but failing that, a new Kurdish revolt broke out which lasted from 1943 to 1945, resulting in Mulla Mustafa fleeing to Iran at the time of the creation of the Kurdish “Mahabad Republic” during the period of Russian control in northern Iran.
Meanwhile, there continued to be a procession of Cabinets in Baghdad, with occasional crises, including a major popular uprising in 1948 in conjunction with the defeat in Palestine and efforts to negotiate a new British Treaty of Alliance. Troubles occurred again in 1952.
Iraq’s foreign policy remained pro-Western, and a lynchpin of the “Baghdad Pact” (later CENTO), one of the US’ and Britain’s regional alliances. In 1958 Nuri and the government in Baghdad positioned themselves (along with the other Hashemite monarchy, Jordan) as a pro-British coutnerweight against Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser’s United Arab Republic. Nuri proposed a “United Arab Kingdom”. In July of 1958, a group of military men calling themselves “Free Officers” and modeling their coup on Nasser’s 1952 coup in Egypt seized power.
But Iraq’s coup was quite different from the bloodless toppling of King Farouq in Egypt. King Faysal and the former Regent were both killed. Nuri, caught trying to escape, was killed and his body dragged through the streets. Iraq became a republic in bloodshed.
The Free Officers were led by ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim. A Sunni Arab but with a mother who was a Faili Kurd (Kurdish but also Shi‘ite), he began by naming a three-person “Sovereignty Council”, one Sunni, one Shi‘i, one Kurd. Qasim also permitted Mulla Mustafa Barzani to return from exile.
The initial Arab-Kurdish good relations did not endure. There was also a strong Arab nationalist streak, influenced by Nasser, in the Free Officers; this Arab nationalism naturally clashed with Kurdish aspirations. Mustafa Barzani remained allied to Qasim, and his Kurds helped put down an Arab nationalist rising in Mosul in 1959. The same year members of the Iraqi Communist Party attacked Turkoman shops in Kirkuk; this became a pretext for Qasim to crack down on the Communists, who also happened to be heavily Kurdish in the north.
Meanwhile, though Barzani had supported Qasim in Mosul, Qasim became concerned about Barzani’s near-independent feudal strength in the north and began cultivating his tribal rivals. The interactions are complex, and Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which he nominally headed often took different positions. But by 1961 Qasim faced a new Kurdish revolt.
The rebel Kurds called themselves peshmergas, soldiers of death, while the Qasim government recruited friendly Kurdish elements to fight against the rebels, calling them fursan or “knights”, but the rebel Kurds soon dubbed the pro-government Kurds jash or donkeys, a term which would long remain in use for Kurdish fighters backed by Baghdad. The jash tended to loot and plunder, not limiting themselves to military targets, and this further exacerbated Kurdish dissatisfaction with the central government.
Qasim himself was overthrown in 1963. A new government consisted of the nationalist, Nasserist military officer ‘Abd al-Salam ‘Arif, and the Ba‘ath Party, with Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr becoming Prim Minister. The KDP agreed to a ceasefire, and talks began on Kurdish autonomy. These collapsed because the Kurds insisted on including Kirkuk and the Mosul area oilfields in the Kurdish autonomous region. With the failure of this effort at autonomy, the Ba‘athists began military operations against the Kurds. But in November of 1963, in the year’s second coup, the Ba‘ath were ousted and ‘Arif installed a Nasserist regime.
Seeking an agreement with the Kurds, ‘Arif and Barzani signed a peace agreement, but one which did not guarantee autonomy and, worse, one in which Barzani personally signed without consulting the KDP. Internal quarreling among the Kurds ensued, and soon thereafter there was new fighting with the central government. By early 1966 the government was winning, but then in April 1966 ‘Arif was killed in a helicopter crash. He was succeeded by his brother, ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Arif.
The new President gave more power to civilians, and a civilian Cabinet led by ‘Abd al-Rahman Bazzaz issued a statement affirming Kurdish language rights and implying regional autonomy so long as that did not undermine Iraqi unity. The fighting in the north eased, but by this time Barzani had already begun receiving arms and support from the Shah of Iran and, reportedly, from Israel, further complicating the international alignments relating to this internal Iraqi dispute.
The conflict had weakened the government, and in July of 1968 the Ba‘ath took power in its own right. In 1970 the Ba‘ath tried to reach an agreement with the Kurds, which ultimately failed over the usual issues: real autonomy, control of Kirkuk, and internal Kurdish disputes. Another war, backed by Iran, would be fought, ending in 1975 when Iraq traded a claim to the entire channel fo the Shatt al-‘Arab waterway for Iran’s agreement to end support of the Kurds. By that time, of course, the Ba‘ath government of Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was increasingly dominated by the emerging Vice President, Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish war would be resumed again, and of course wars with Iran and with the United States over Kuwait would further complicate the complex fabric of Iraqi society. Saddam would improve the lot of Iraq’s Shi‘ites only, in the end, to turn against them.
Iraqi history did not begin with Saddam Hussein, and it will not end with him. The tensions and difficulties which the British and multiple governments in Baghdad have faced since World War I remind us of the complexities which the US (or a new Iraqi government) will have to contend with once in control. History does not repeat itself, but the legacy of the past 85 years does not encourage optimism. Ethnicity, tribalism, and communalism are at their strongest when central government is at its weakest, which has encouraged some to seek strongly authoritarian governments.
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