New Dawn 2012: The Historical Backdrop


6/3/12: By Richard Weitz

From its initial emergence as a British mandate following World War I, to the post-independence monarchy from 1932-1958, through the military coups that ushered in the rule of first the Baath Party in 1968 and then Saddam Hussein in 1979, external threats and internal tensions have characterized the history of Iraq.

Now that all U.S. military forces have left the country, Iraq’s government once again faces the challenge of overcoming internal divisions, even as it becomes fully and solely responsible for Iraq’s security for the first time since the Anglo-American invasion of 2003.

Iraqi leaders must manage these interrelated challenges while trying to reintegrate into the regional and international order from which it has been largely isolated since 1991.

The last 100 years of Iraq’s history exhibit patterns of threats and government crises that have hampered its political and economic modernization. The roots of this disordered legacy extend back to the special role the provinces of modern Iraq played in defending the eastern boundaries of the Ottoman Empire against Persian aggression.

Baghdad and Basra were tightly controlled by Ottoman-favored political elites. Pre-Ottoman dynastic families, however, were allowed considerable autonomy in their rule of the outlying provinces, such as Kurdistan and the less important agricultural regions, in exchange for yearly tributes to the empire and promises to help guard the Ottoman-Persian frontier.

As the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, the British combined the Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul regions into modern Iraq and imposed the government of King Faisal, a Hashemite with ancient familial ties to Saudi Arabia.

In efforts to create a recognizable state structure with a stable social order, the British relied heavily on ex-Ottoman bureaucratic elites residing in the major population centers and Sunni nobles with vast land holdings.

Iraqi leaders must manage these interrelated challenges while trying to reintegrate into the regional and international order from which it has been largely isolated since 1991. Credit Image: Bigstock

Shiites and Kurds, although respectively comprising 50 and 20 percent of the population, were relegated to the lower economic classes and had little representation in military and civil administration.

The first modern Iraqi government was haphazardly formed in the face of ominous foreign and domestic tensions.

The British mandate pushed the temporary Iraqi Constituent Assembly to accept a form of parliamentary government under strict control of Faisal’s kingship. Even though both Faisal and the dissident Shiite factions mistrusted the efficacy of the political structure, their hands were forced by uprisings in the north.  Kurdish separatists rose in revolt of the British mandate, and Turkey laid claim to the province of Mosul. In order to secure British help in maintaining its territorial integrity, the Constituent Assembly accepted the new government—establishing the top-heavy executive institutions of the modern Iraqi state that would sow distrust among under-represented factions and ultimately hamper national unification.

Upon Iraq’s attainment of independence and entry into the League of Nations in 1932, the British mandate “delivered into the hands of those who staffed the state machinery and who commanded its resources a powerful instrument for the acquisition of land, the preservation of privilege and the maintenance of a landscape ordered to suit particular networks of favor and interest.”

The Hashemite monarchy dominated Iraqi politics from the moment of national independence until its overthrow in 1958.

Yet despite following tendencies characteristic of authoritarian regimes—shaping policy through the purview of the ruling elite, suppressing organic reform, overriding civil liberties, and deploying military force at the slightest hint of unrest—a vibrant political culture developed through the work of young intellectuals and the complaints of the provincial classes.

Reformist newspapers such as the Baghdad based Al-Ahali criticized the manipulation of elections and the high tax burdens placed on peasant farmers.  Marxists and social democrats were able to spark populist sentiments, unionize labor, and form political parties that motivated both intellectual and armed resistance to the government.

Cycles repeated in which protest led to coups and the installation of new parliamentary leadership, which would gradually become more authoritarian once their own interests were threatened.

This culminated in the ascension of Nuri al-Sa’id to prime minister. A strong nationalist, Nuri sought to develop Iraq as a modern state and strong player in pan-Arab international politics by increasing oil revenues and bolstering Iraq’s military and security forces.

These two moves increased the non-egalitarian nature of the society, exacerbated political tensions, and left both the parliament and monarchy vulnerable to eventual overthrow by a small group of officers wielding an immense level of military power and taking control of the burgeoning oil industry.

The 1958 coup inaugurated a republic headed by military men that seemed to hold sympathy with many civilian reform movements. General ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, however,  seized control of the revolutionary movement, thwarted popular campaigns organized by the influential Iraq Communist Party (ICP), and established himself as dictator.

As with previous coups, no effort was made to establish representative institutions.  Qasim created a three-man Sovereignty Council to act as a ceremonial head of state, but personally fulfilled the duties of prime minister, minister of defense, and commander in chief. In opposition to the group of thinkers enticed by Nuri’s eventual aim for Iraq to become a major player in pan-Arab affairs, Qasim was obsessed with quashing internal dissent and maintaining territorial integrity. He stifled the public discourses of the formally recognized Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Baath Party, and he revoked the ICP’s license.

As for foreign policy, his “Iraq First” movement led to two disastrous foreign policy blunders.

First, Qasim withdrew from British influenced treaties with Turkey and Iran. This move had popular support among nationalists, yet breaking with Iran and subsequently seeking alliance with the USSR caused a crisis in Iraq-Iran relations.

Second, in 1961 he also laid claim to Kuwait, which prompted the British to send troops to dissuade a potential invasion. These moves sowed the seeds for the two most consequential foreign policy blunders in Iraq’s history.

After Qasim was deposed in 1963, the period until the rise of Saddam Hussein in 1979 saw a revolving door of dictatorships and coups while Iraq was constantly dealing with Kurdish revolts in its northern sectors.

The common thread running through the disturbances was the belief, by those who could effectively challenge the government, that the state was merely an instrument of power that could be controlled by seizing and manipulating the centralized bureaucracy and growing oil revenues.

Political activity did not extend outside the ruling party, and all domestic and foreign policy neglected to consider Iraqi society in its calculations of political advantage. Husain was able to maintain power longer than any of his predecessors by using the Baath Party to choke out threats and potential dissenters while simultaneously focusing the country’s energies on aggressive campaign against the Kurds and a disastrous war with Iran.

Two specific sentiments — nationalism and pan-Arabism — combined to shape Iraqi politics in the last quarter of the 20th century.

While no party or government resolutely embodied either platform, shifting combinations of these themes were manifested in the presumptuous and erratic nature of Iraqi foreign policy. The Baath party came to power in 1968. Party head Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr became de facto ruler, and he held a close relationship with the young, politically inexperienced Saddam Hussein. As the two men worked to purge the former government and consolidate their power domestically, they utilized propaganda campaigns to divert attention to Iraq’s alleged external threats—namely Iran, Israel, and the United States, which they depicted as colluding for the detriment of the regime.

This strong nationalism played on the idea, popular since the British mandate, that Iraq should have the unencumbered right to exercise their sovereignty in order to become a robust, modern nation-state.

After a treaty dispute with Iran in 1969, both governments began supporting dissident movements against each other. Bakr and Saddam were able to exploit Iranian support for Kurdish rebels in order to raise suspicion of Iran and legitimate their move toward government consolidation. Between 1969 and 1979, the Baath party used its monopoly of power to strengthen oil revenues, substantially redistribute wealth through economic and agriculture reform, establish institutional welfare capabilities, and increase health care access and education levels.

When Saddam deposed Bakr in 1979, he inherited a prosperous, modernizing economy and one of the strongest militaries in the Middle East.

Almost immediately, the domestic focus of Iraqi nationalism gave way to a new vision of Iraq’s involvement in pan-Arab affairs.

Pan-Arabism had long been a common theme of Muslim intellectuals seeking a unified Arab government structure to rival European and Russian power. Although the movement was inherently global rather than nationalistic, strong Arab nations were frequently called upon to positively influence situations in weaker Arab countries.

Iraq was no exception; and because they were the first Middle Eastern country to gain independence from European power and a seat at the League of Nations, many of its leaders aspired to make Iraq the primary power in pan-Arab affairs. Official Baath Party correspondence in 1979 outlined a vision of Iraq as a “strong, united, and under the umbrella of a new Salah al-Din.”

It was a dangerous ideology that provided strong motivation leading the following year to a disastrous war with Iran.

Perennially annoyed with border disputes and cultural suspicions, Saddam saw an enemy Iran weakened by its revolution as a chance to thrust his government into a dominant position in the Gulf region.

The new clerical regime under Supreme Ruler Ayatollah Khomeini also offered a militantly Islamic form of government serving as a polar opposite to Iraq’s vision of a strong, secular nation championing Arab causes throughout the Middle East. Finally, longstanding internal tensions with Iraqi Shiite Arabs raised Sunni fears that their combining with Iranian Shiite Persians could destabilize the Iraqi regime.

After a month of escalating bombing campaigns, Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980. Despite Saddam’s hubris, Iraq did not have the capability to win the war and the conflict was cumbersome and brutal for both sides. Saddam was forced to rely on support from other Arab countries, Europe, and the United States.

When the two sides reached a cease-fire in 1988, Iraq was economically crippled and Saddam had lost all chances to leverage his power into an expanded role in Middle Eastern and international affairs.

Subsequent to the end of the war with Iran, Saddam focused his military on the Al-Anfal campaign against the country’s minority Kurdish population, whose striving for autonomy had always irritated both the southern Shiite masses and Baghdad Sunni elites jockeying for control of the government. Between July and September 1988, 80 percent of Kurdish villages were destroyed and at least 100,000 people lost their lives. The campaign temporarily repressed Kurdish resistance and, along with the successful war against Iran, when Iraqi Shiites had been generally loyal to Baghdad rather than Tehran, led to a major reduction in Sunni-Shiite tensions.

To an extent, the miscalculation to invade Kuwait in August 1990 was a development on the themes of both Iraq nationalism and pan-Arabism.

Nationalist propaganda saw the invasion and occupation of Kuwait as a sort of crowning achievement, inaugurated in 1961, to rectify the unjust partitioning of an historic Iraqi territory by the British.

Furthermore, Saddam exploited Iraqi feelings that, because they had borne the brunt of defending the Arab Middle East from the Persian onslaught, other Arab countries should forgive the crippling debts Iraq accrued during the war on their behalf. When Kuwait refused to waits its loans unless without a settlement of their bilateral disputes over border territory and port access, Saddam told an Arab summit in May 1990 that their actions were a “kind of war against Iraq.”

But Iraq’s brutal occupation of Kuwait resulted in the resounding condemnation of the Arab League, Iraq’s rapid and devastating defeat by American forces, and the imposition of crippling international sanctions.

Iraq found itself in deep isolation from 1991 to 2003.

Although Saddam was able to maintain power until 2002, many of the tensions afflicting current Iraqi politics were evident in the 1990s.

An Iranian-funded Shiite organized intifada arose in the southern town of Basra in 1991. The United States rejected the revolutionaries’ calls for aid, allowing Saddam to suppress the rebellion and earning resentment against the United States in the minds of many Shiites. Rebellion also spread to the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.

Yet the heavily-Sunni populations in the center of the country never rose against the Saddam regime, which they perhaps saw as their patron and defender against Kurds and Shiites.  UN mandated no-fly zones provided protection to Saddam’s political enemies, but they effectively splintered Iraq into three regions with southern and especially northern Iraq enjoying considerable autonomy.

Furthermore, international sanctions and a rapid exodus of the middle class produced a stagnating economy. Social turmoil, ethnic splintering, and popular unrest persisted until the Anglo-American invasion dealt Saddam’s regime a well-deserved coup de grace.