The Historical Backdrop: New dawn 2012
By Richard Weitz - Second Line of Defense SLD
June 4, 2012
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
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
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,www.ekurd.net
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Iraq found itself in deep isolation from 1991 to
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
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