The Formation of Iraq: Evolving Crisis

  August 07, 2021   Read time 5 min
The Formation of Iraq: Evolving Crisis
Prior to the end of World War I, there was no formal entity of Iraq. The area that we know today by that name formerly was an out-of-the-way corner of the Ottoman Empire called Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia in the mid-1800s had fewer than 1.3 million inhabitants. Over three-quarters of its area was desert where in summer the temperature could soar as high as 43.3° C. (about 110° F.). In the northeast corner of the region rainfall might reach 100 centimeters (40 inches) a year; elsewhere it averaged between only 10 and 17 centimeters (4 to 6.8 inches).

The victorious Allies at the end of World War I demarcated the formal boundaries of the Iraqi state. They did so as part of the League of Nations mandate scheme. Not only Iraq but the states of Trans-Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon came into being at this time. All had formerly been possessions of the now defunct Ottoman Empire, lands the Turks had forfeited by backing the Germans in the Great War. The new states became clients of the European powers, who were enjoined to mentor their development and prepare them ultimately to become independent, self-sustaining entities.

The great flaw of the mandate scheme was the way the states were composed. The mandate authorities failed in practically all cases to achieve internal cohesion. This was partially due to the impracticability of applying the European-derived state system to Middle Easterners. The Ottomans had ruled their vassals under the millet system, allowing the separate communities to police themselves and choose their own representatives, who acted as intermediaries with the Ottomans. But under the state system it was necessary to form an amalgam of many peoples within a single geographic entity, and the groups so joined by and large proved mutually antagonistic. As a result the new states were difficult to govern. Iraq was a prime example.

The British, the mandate authorities for Iraq, originally had intended that it should be formed of two vilayets (provinces) of the Ottoman Empire, Baghdad and Basrah. Later the British decided that, to make Iraq more defensible, they should incorporate Mosul, a mountainous vilayet north of Baghdad. This move benefited the Iraqis and the British commercially, since it put the rich oil fields of Mosul in their possession. At the same time, however, Britain’s decision to tack Mosul on to the rest of Iraq created problems. Much of Mosul was then—and is today—inhabited by Kurds, who are neither Semites nor plains dwellers, as are the Baghdadis and Basrawis. They are mountain warriors of Aryan racial stock who are unsympathetic to their southern neighbors, an attitude they have evinced by numerous clashes over the years. The Kurds for their fellow Iraqis became a factor of military importance when the Iran-Iraq War erupted in September 1980.

Boundary problems arose for Iraq in another area: It had no adequate outlet to the Gulf, being virtually sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran. To alleviate this difficulty, Britain supported Iraq’s claim to major control over the Shatt al Arab, the waterway connecting Iraq’s only significant port, Basrah, to the sea. The watercourse previously was shared with Iran. By compelling the Iranians to forgo their sovereignty over practically all of the Shatt, Britain revived a quarrel between the Arab Iraqis and Aryan Iran-ians that went back centuries. To us, the Shatt dispute is important because it later became the trigger that set off the Iran-Iraq War.

Britain’s decision to set up a monarchy in Iraq also gave trouble. Professing to find no suitable candidate for kingship among the native Iraqis, it imported a king from the Hejaz area of the Arabian Peninsula. The king, Faisal, was a Hashemite, an old and aristocratic Arab family that traces its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad. The decision to import a foreign dynasty alienated important elements of the local Iraqi elite. Britain, however, had incurred obligations to the Hashemites during World War I, and its desire to compensate them overrode arguments against the arrangement.

In setting up Iraq’s bureaucracy, Britain made another perhaps unwise decision: It staffed the new government with a number of British civil servants who were to assist in the rule. These Britishers served as advisers for many of the appointed Arab ministers. As might be expected, the setup caused keen resentment among nationalist-minded Iraqis, who accused the advisers of influencing the government to favor Great Britain; in particular they claimed that the advisers were behind Iraq’s decision to grant lucrative oil concessions to British interests.

Overall, the edifice Britain created in Iraq was fundamentally insecure. Nonetheless, Iraq ultimately became Britain’s bastion in the Middle East, a situation helped into being largely by the defection of Egypt from the Western camp. Prior to World War II, Egypt was foremost among Middle Eastern states with ties to Britain. After the 1953 Egyptian revolution, however, British influence in Egypt dimmed. Not only was Egypt’s President Nasser hostile to Britain—which he viewed as an exploiter of the Egyptians—but, in clashes with British interests, he turned for aid to the Soviet Union, which action alienated him generally from the West. As a result, Britain was forced to seek a new base in the region, and Iraq seemed a likely candidate. Unfortunately for the British, Arab nationalism soon spread to Iraq and poisoned relations in that corner of the world as well.

Although British influence in Iraq had rankled Arab nationalists for some time, relations did not become critical until relatively late. In 1955 Britain and the United States decided to make Iraq the seat of the Baghdad Pact, which proved to be a disastrous move.

Write your comment