An exerpt from 'Unshudat al-matar ('Song of the Rain') by al-Sayyab, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest poems in modern Arabic language:
In every raindrop
A red or yellow flower-bud.
Each tear of hungry and naked people,
Each drop spilled from the blood of slaves,
Each is a smile awaiting new lips,
A teat rosy on a babe's mouth
In tomorrow's youthful world, giver of life.
Rain, rain, rain,
Iraq will blossom with rain.

Iraq and its recent history

The country

The Republic of Iraq is a country on the Persian Gulf in the Middle East which borders Iran, Syria, Turkey, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Euphrates valley is arable but most of the country is harsh desert and mountains. The capital Baghdad sits roughly 1000 kilometres from the Iranian border. The two principle rivers in the country are the Euphrates and Tigris.

The people

95% of the population subscribe to one of two sects of Islam: Sunni and Shi'a Ithna. The other 5% belong to various Christian sects. The two main ethinic groups in the country are Arab (79%) and Kurdish (16%). There are small minority Turkish and Persian populations.

Over 75% of the population live in the cities, with extremely low standard of living in the rural areas. There is a huge shortage of trained medical personnel throughout the country, and diseases in the rural areas and the oppressed Kurdish regions are rampant.

The economy

Iraq has a large labour force and the second-largest crude oil and natural gas reserves in OPEC. UN sanctions halved Iraqi's GNP, which was $20bn for the year 1999. The U.N. described the Iraqi economy as pre-industrial - even the agricultural sector was severely smashed by the Gulf War.

Ancient history

Possibly the first civilization on Earth, Sumer, was cradled between the two life-giving yet potentially destructive rivers that are now part of Iraq. The land between the two rivers was known as Mesopotamia. It was settled by 6000 BC and civilization was flourishing by 3000 BC. Writing and mathematics originated in this civilization.

While the rivers allowed surplus food to be grown for the first time in history, they could also unleash devastating floods that could wipe out entire settlements.

In 634 AD Mesopotamia, at the time mostly Christian, was conquered by Arab Muslims and forced to pay tribute for not being Muslim. A few decades later it was conquered wholesale. Mesopotamia was forever established as an Islamic state.

The birth of modern Iraq

During World War I, the British invaded the middle-Eastern region of the Ottoman Empire when Turkey joined the war on the side of the Germans. By 1917 the British were in Baghdad, and they vowed to give the people of the present-day Iraq some of their freedom back from the Ottoman Empire, which then controlled it.

The League of Nations made Iraq a British mandate, and jihad was called against the British (Muslims don't like being ruled by non-Muslims). For the first time ever Sunni and Shi'a co-operated to work towards the common goal of self-rule, and eventually the British established a monarchy.

The coming of Saddam Hussein

Saddam Hussein is now the best-known and most-hated Arab leader. He was born in 1937 and joined the Ba'ath party at the age of twenty. The party, which now rules Iraq, was founded on the principles of hating the West and unity in the Arab world. Saddam Hussein rose to the head of the party and in 1979 he officially replaced President Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr, although he had been the power behind the throne for some years.

The Kurds

The Kurdish people have always opposed central government in Iraq and Iran, as what they really desire is the establishment of their own state. The Ba'ath Party perpetrated many atrocities against the Kurds, including poisons gas attacks, economic action and brutal occupation of Kurdish regions. After the Gulf War a Kurdish rebellion broke out, and the Kurdish Enclave was established. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to flee from the predominantly-Sunni central region through the mountains to the north.

The Iran-Iraq war

The Iran-Iraq war lasted from 1980 to 1988. The reasons for it starting were legion, but control of the Persian Gulf (Iraq's only coastline) was a critical factor. At first the Iranian military crumbled, and it seemed the war would be over in a matter of weeks - but only eight years and 1.3 million dead later was a cease-fire finally signed. The Iranian human wave tactics (often children) were shocking, and Iraq used chemical weapons possibly up to forty times against Iranian forces.

The Gulf War

Touted as a "success" for Iraq by Saddam, it was in fact a disaster on a grand scale. It all began when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991, initiating an environmental disaster on a grand scale and destabilising the oil market. A coalition of seventeen countries smashed the Iraqi army in a matter of weeks. In an attempt to bolster support from the Arab world (of whom only Syria are a close ally as they are ruled by the Ba'ath Party), Iraq fired scud missiles at Israel, the Arab punchbag.

Following the Gulf War U.N. weapons inspectors were admitted into the country to inspect sites suspecting of producing weapons of mass destruction. They were kicked out in 1998 and punitive air strikes were launched by the United States and United Kingdom.

The present

11th August, 2002. War is again looming in Iraq. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and government-held evidence of Iraq supporting international terrorism and its programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, the United States is drawing up plans to invade the Arab state, possibly before the year is out.

The U.N. sanctions and no-fly zones to the south of Baghdad are not sufficient, say the U.S. administration. Although Saddam Hussein has offered to let U.N. weapons inspectors and even U.S. teams back into the country, it would be somewhat naive of the Western world to fall for this one again. Quoting U.S. Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld -

"The big thing that was there was the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) issue. And he had agreed, and the UN had agreed that they would - he would not have a WMD programme. We know he does have one. And he is continuing it,"

The U.S. government has set it at as a stated goal to remove the Hussein regime, but no official timetable has being set to do it.

Meanwhile, America's allies are faltering. Over 70% of the American population support the war on Iraq, but the European media is full of criticism on the War on Terrorism. The realities of the September 11 attacks are perhaps not as acutely clear to Europeans as they are to Americans, and falling European defence budgets (the United Kingdom being an exception, although its Chancellor Gordon Brown today announced that the United Kingdom could ill-afford a war) make most of Europe queasy at the thought of toppling Baghdad.

At the end of the day, it is almost inconceivable that America will not go through with the attack, whether her allies are with her or not. To paraphrase an article in today's Sunday Times, all that remains for Europe to decide is if it wants to be "an adult player in this new, dangerous world".

Iraqi history is complex and fascinating and justice could never be done to in a single node. Here I will attempt to give an outline, chronologically, as well as highlight the most important themes. In the coming months, and possibly with your help, I will hopefully fill in in greater depth some of the more interesting concepts.


Beginnings ~ Ancient Civilisation is Born

Regardless of your beliefs about the origin of mankind and civilisation -- be they Darwinist or Creationist -- Iraq features at the very dawn of it all. Biblical Mesopotamia is traced to the alluvial plains between the Tigres and Euphrates rivers, also called the Fertile Crescent. The two rivers, in equal measures sustainers and destroyers of human life on a grand scale, cut Iraq into three more-or-less north/south slivers.

Settlement in Mesopotamia has been traced back to 6000 BC, when migrants from the Turkish and Iranian highlands discovered her fertile soils. Life in early Sumer was governed by the unpredictable rivers. The floods that deposited the fertile alluvium also swept away life, crops, shelters. On a balance, people prevailed, and for the first time ever, around 4000 BC, they were able to grow a surplus of food.

There's no point having more food than you can eat if you don't have a fridge. The natural progression was thus to an organised society, which in turn advanced agricultural practises and increased the surpluses. Word spread and more and more people moved to Sumer from further afield. Historic evidence suggests that the people of Sumer formed a cosmopolitan mix of linguistic and ethnic groups.

Sumerian society continued for thousands of years, during which time the Sumerians introduced the earth to writing; irrigation; the wheel; astronomy; the sixty-minute hour; the double-entry accounting practise; and literature. The first known recorded story is that of Gilgamesh, king of city-state Uruk around 2700 BC. The tale tells of his grief after his friend dies, which inspires him to pursue a quest for immortality. Another recurring story is one about a chap who survived a great flood by building an ark.

The first known religion actually predates the rise of Sumer: there is evidence of cult centres such as Eridu as far back as 5000 BC. People undertook pilgrimages to these cult centres, making them natural locations for the future growth and development of cities. Sumerians themselves were pantheistic, their gods reflecting the elements and challenges that made up their daily lives. Many of the ziggurats (temples, think Tower of Babel) that the Sumerians built of sunbaked brick still stand in Iraq today.

Sumerians also developed the wheeled chariot, created a step-change in warfare technology, discovered bronze and all the weaponry benefits it brought. Having weapons, as the Americans will tell you, is absolutely no fun at all unless you've got someone to use them on, so the Sumerians divided themselves up into kingships, each with their own city-state, and began to beat the crap out of each other. This is the general state-of-play for a couple thousand years, before the rest of the world caught up and stumbled upon the Fertile Crescent.

I'm cutting things pretty short here, and you'll want to look out for the following places:

Babylon

Babylon (from Bab-ili, meaning Gate of God) deserves a section of its own, if only because its the only place I've mentioned so far that you know anything about. Babylon first put itself on the world map around 1792 BC, under its sixth ruler, King Hammurabi. This chap ruled most of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley from the Persian (or Arabian, depending on your sympathies) Gulf to Assyria in the north. Hammurabi developed an administrative structure and introduced a code of law. The Hammurabi Code was not the first code of law in the world, but it was the most sophisticated. It was designed to cause justice to prevail in the country, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong may not oppress the weak. Apart from such lovely ideals, he also included some practical laws about land tenure; rent; the position of women; marriage; divorce; inheritance; contracts; control of public order; administration of justice; wages and labour conditions. He invented the notion of the punishment must befit the crime, but you are probably more familiar with it in its "an eye for an eye" guise.

Into the second paragraph on Babylon and I still haven't mentioned the Hanging Gardens. Before getting onto Nebuchadnezzar and his Wonder of the World, we have a couple hundred years of argy-bargy. The Assyrians rose to prominence, went off on a regional pillaging tour, occupying Phoenician cities and conquering Damascus and Babylon and making Judah a vassal state. Sennacherib was not content with the cities he'd taken over, so he built himself a new capital for his new empire, Nineveh, and destroyed Babylon because its people had risen in revolt.

The Assyrians invented forced resettlement of their subject people, which did not win them any friends. In 612 BC, the revolters allied themselves with the forces of two new kingdoms: Medes and the Chaldeans (or Neo-Babylonians). They managed to extinguish Assyrian power, destroyed Nineveh and took over the Assyrian lands of Syria and Palestine. King Nebuchadnezzar took over in 605 BC and conquered the kingdom of Judah and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. It was actually his descendent, Nebuchadnezzar II, who build the majesty of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reportedly for his home-sick wife.

Greeks and Iranians Enter the Fray

You'll probably be pleased to hear that Nebuchadnezzar and his clan did not last long. First came the Archaemenid Iranians, when Cyrus the Great incorporated Babylon into the Iranian empire and released the Jews who had been held in captivity there. You may think this feat makes him a nice guy, but let me tell you those Old Testament rulers were not a friendly bunch. Cyrus may have respected local customs, but he also wanted his dues: they had to pay a tribute and be particularly well behaved. These were the Persian Empire years, and Cyrus the Great was followed by Darius the Great who in turn was followed by Alexander the Great. (See a pattern developing? Except Alex was a Greek and I should have waited before mentioning him.)

Unfortunately for the Babylonians, the Iranian trade routes didn't go through their turf, so they fell into economic decline and impoverishment. The Iranians may not have spread their boodle, but they did spread their language. The linguistic complexity of Babylonia, or erstwhile Sumeria, became predominantly Aramaic speaking. Clearly the Iranians were not a popular bunch, so when Alexander the Great arrived, he was viewed as a liberator. Other nodes can tell you about him in much better detail, but I will mention that before he died in Babylon, he did restore trade to the area.

In 126 BC, the Greeks were ushered on their way by the Parthians (or Arsacids). They were "an intelligent, nomadic people" who had migrated from the Steppes of Turkistan to north-eastern Iran and conquered the Iranians while tending their goats. Under their tenure, Arabs, Iranians and Aramaeans joined the melting pot. Parthian/Arsacidian rule came to an abrupt end with the resurgence of an Iranian people, the Sassanids, who took back control in 227 AD.

The Sassanids were actually relative heathens and allowed Mesopotamia to fall to ruins. The canals and irrigation ditches had fallen into disrepair beyond use, and the rivers again took command. Booting the Sassanids out was childs play for the recently grouped Arabs.

Islam and the Arab Conquest

Brevity is not my strong point and I'll thank you to stay awake. It gets damn interesting here, and I also tell you about a pretty amazing woman so take notes.

The Arabs were known to the Iranians as a nice little tribal people more interested in their own paternalistic society and infighting than bothering the neighbours. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting Iranians, God had other plans. Muhammad, a Hashemite clansman from the powerful Quraysh tribe of Mecca, received divine inspiration that became what is still the world's fastest-growing religion. In spreading his monotheistic faith, Islam, Muhammad managed to unite the Arabian people.

Muhammad died in 632 AD, and among his widows was 19 year old Ayesha. Her father, Abu Bakr, and Muhammad had been tight most of her life, and when her husband died, her father became the first caliph. Not content with his spiritual role, Abu Bakr decided to take on both the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Empire.

Now don't you worry, I'm sure he was on something of a crusade (actually the original Jihad), but he got together an army of 18,000 tribesmen, appointed the brilliant general Khalid ibn al Walid (The Sword of Islam) and sent them off to the Euphrates delta. I don't know if it was luck or foresight, but handily the much larger Sassanid force had a spot of burn-out thanks to their own campaigns against the Byzantines. It must have helped that the Byzantine and the Sassanid Empires were culturally and socially bankrupt. In what became known as the Battle of the Chains (because defeated soldiers were chained together so they could not escape), Khalid and co emerged victorious.

Khalid did not appear to set out to win friends or influence people. He issued the locals with an ultimatum:

Accept the faith and you are safe; otherwise pay tribute. If you refuse to do either, you have only yourself to blame. A people is already upon you loving death as you love life.
Now I don't know if that was big talk or mistranslation, but it doesn't strike me as a good opening gambit. Khalid was not really a monster: being on a Jihad meant that his soldiers didn't get to do the usual victory dance of rape and pillage. They weren't even allowed to kill women, children, religious leaders or men who had not fought.

Most of the Iraqi tribes at the time were Christian, and they decided to pay the tribute and live under Islamic law. Caliph Umar took over and founded two garrisoned cities: Kufah, the new capital of Iraq, and Basra, a port. Umar continued the administrative practices established by the Sassanids (look out for divan or diwan in its Arabic form). Arabic replaced Persian as the official language, and Arabs intermarried with the locals, who gradually converted to Islam. Everything looked set for a rosy future.

The Sunni-Shia Split

The Arabs may have been a unified nation under Islam, but they still lived by their paternalistic code. If the Abu Bakr-Ayesha-Muhammad triangle wasn't enough, wait 'til you see what I got in store for you now.

Muhammad had only been dead a few years, and was time to elect just the third caliph. Uthman encountered opposition both during and after his election to the post. His rival had been Ali ibn Abu Talib, Muhammad's cousin and also his son-in-law, after he married Fatima (no, not "Fatti-ma", "Faah-ti-maa"), Muhammad's only surviving child. (This is interesting, since I'd earlier read that Ibrahim was his only child and Ibrahim died very young. Maybe girlchilds don't count? Maybe someone can clear this mess up?)

Anyway, Ali's pedigree is about as blue-blooded as they come and it turns out he was a snotty little pious chap too. Many groups (who had vested interests of course) preferred Ali to his rival, because they thought it more likely that he would carry on the practises of the previous caliph, Umar. Ali formally opposed Uthman's claim to the office, but drew the trump card by basing his opposition on religious grounds: Ali claimed that Uthman had introduced things that were contrary to Qur'anic laws.

There was a small matter of Economics at play as well. Many Bedouins had offered themselves up for military service in Iraq and Egypt. After the warring, they had gone back to their lifestyles, while the Arabs in the Hijaz (western part of the Arabian peninsula, where you'll find Mecca and Medina) began to live off the fat of the conquered land. When the Bedouins questioned the equitability of the situation, they found a sympathetic ear in Ali.

Groups set off from Iraq and Egypt for Medina to seek redress. Uthman promised reforms, but on their way back to Egypt, the group intercepted a message to the governor of Egypt directing him to punish them upon their return. Uthman was besieged in his home in Medina, and was eventually slain by a son of none other than Abu Bakr. Ali had kept his nose clean in the fray and while the Muslim world was shaken, Ali became caliph.

Here's where it gets interesting: two opponents of Ali set off to demand retribution for Uthman's death, and enlisted the aid of Ayesha, Muhammad's widow, Abu Bakr's daughter and Uthman's slayer's sister. The trio set off for Iraq, but encountered Ali's forces near Basra and the two men were killed. Ayesha returned to her normal life, though trust me there is nothing normal about this incredible woman. She is widely regaled as the wisest woman on earth and was held in particularly high esteem by Muslims in 7th Century Arabia. Enough nodevertising for one day, back to the story.

Mauwiyah, a relative of Uthamn and governor of Syria, refused to recognise Ali. He demanded the right to avenge the death of his kin, which rather than a gentleman's sword fight in later middle ages tradition, was a humdinger of a battle down at the Plain of Siffin, near the largest bend in the Euphrates river. Mauwiyah's forces were on the back foot, so he proposed arbitration. Two arbitrators were chosen to decide whether Uthman's slayer should be deemed an executioner or a murderer, and the arbitrators found the former. Ali then declared that arbitration is contrary to the Sharia, and returned to battle.

The joke was on Ali, however, because a group of his followers, the Kharajites, threw the Qur'an back at him, citing that he was morally wrong to submit to arbitration, and they deserted. Being a reasonable man, Ali appealed to them to return before he slaughtered many of them for refusing. Sensibly, the rest of Ali's army then deserted too. Somehow Ali escaped with his life and hightailed it back to Al Kufah (near Baghdad).

Not surprisingly, when Islamic leaders met to discuss who to elect to the leadership role, neither Muawiyah's nor Ali's name came forward. Umar's son, Abd Allah (more familiarly written as Abdullah) was proposed, but the meeting adjourned without a clear decision. Meanwhile, with Ali and Muawiyah cooling off in Iraq and Egypt respectively, both had been elected caliph by their supporters.

Islam might have recovered from the turmoil quickly, but Ali was murdered in 661 by a Kharajite while praying in a mosque at Al Kufah. Muawiyah tried to capitalise on the situation by persuading Ali's eldest son Hasan to renounce his claim to the caliphate (a task made easier by the fact that Hasan's days were numbered thanks to a spot of consumption). Unfortunately though the "martyr" tag had already been placed on Ali and inspired the Shias (or Shiite or Shiat Ali) to stick with Ali's cause. Muawiyah's mob - the Ahl as Sunna or Sunnis, were equally sticking to their man. The rivalry endures to today.

The Abbasid Caliphate

The family structure gets a little convoluted here so hold your breath, close your eyes and go with trust. Muhammad's grandfather was called Hashim, hence his male-line descendants were known as the Hashimites. Hashim was a descendent of both the Shia line and the Abbas line. Therefore anyone claiming to be of the House of Abbas (so having a name ending in al Abbas) could also claim kinship with the Prophet. The Shia also. The Shias therefore actively supported the Hashemite leaders. Abd al Abbas, not a Shia but a Hashemite, organised a group of rebels under the battle cry of "House of Hashim" and under Hashemite leader Abu Muslim, took on the Umayyads who were resident in Baghdad. In 750 AD therefore, Abd al Abbas became the first caliph of the Abbasid Dynasty. You still with me? Good.

The Abbasid Dynasty lasted until 1258 AD, elevating Baghdad to prominence (it was second in size only to Constantinople, which you may be more familiar with under its earlier name of Byzantium or later name of Istanbul). The growth was thanks to the construction dykes, canals and reservoirs, which contained the mighty rivers and eradicated malaria from the City.

Baghdad became a thriving hub of Arab and Iranian cultures, exporting vast quantities of food as well as philosophical and scientific thought and literature. Of course the Sunnis and Shias were still squabbling, and every time a caliph passed on there was the mandatory infighting, but the Abbasid Dynasty managed to endure even while in the west empires were breaking up. The Iranians got the hump in the early 9th Century, and the Turkish military began to be a bit of a niggle up north.

The Abbasids responded to the Turkish threat by importing Turks as slave-warriors (Mamluks). The Turks began to move upwards through social strata pretty quick, and 833 AD's new caliph, Mutasim, was the son of a Turkish slave girl. The caliphate role was evolving, and under Mutasim, its religious importance was separated from its political office. While the caliphs of the era from Mutasim onwards were all Abbasids, politically Iraq was changing hands again and again. Christian crusaders were beaten off in the 12th Century, but out east, another Empire Builder was getting into the swing of things.

Mongol Invasion

Mongol leader Temujin united the majority of the Mongol tribes and swept across China leaving a wake of destruction. Inspired by his feats, he changed his name to Genghis Khan (also seen as Chinggis Khan, and meaning World Conqueror). With a force of 700,000, he trampled a couple of (present-day) Russian cities before taking out Neyshabur in Iran. He celebrated the latter victory by killing every living thing in the city. Before he died in 1227, Khan managed to burn and pillage his way to western Azerbaijan.

If the Iraqis thought they had gotten off, they were sorely mistaken. Khan's grandson, a wee nip of a lad of 10 when his Grandpa died, matured into the type of person you wouldn't want to invite to dinner and set off for Baghdad. A right little savage, when he arrived in 1258, he killed the last Abbasid caliph, destroyed the canal network, and made a pyramid of skulls of the scholars, religious leaders and poets. Iraq fell into neglect, and after the last Khan died in 1335, the local Jalayirids took power.

It wasn't to last: With the Khans out of the way, Tamerlane (or Timur the Lame) emerged as a leader. He made for Baghdad, where he massacred the inhabitants and made a pyramid of skulls of his own. Despite professing to be a pious Sunni, Tamerlane is blamed for the demise of Islamic art and scholarship everywhere but in Samarkand, Tamerlane's capital.

If Iraq hadn't suffered enough under the Mongols, worse was to come. Baghdad had at least until then retained its position as a trade centre, and seaside Basra likewise was important for Eastern trade with Europe. In the 1400's, however, the Portugese were being able little seamen and discovered a nippy route via the tip of Africa. Iraq, where civilisation began, fell into the dark ages; her people giving up their city lifestyle for a tribal life in the valleys.

Ottoman Empire

In the 16th Century, the Iraqis had to contend with both the Iranians (for a change... this time as the Safavid Empire) and the Turks (now branded as the Ottomans™). The Safavids got there first, in 1509, under Ismail Shah, but they came under attack five years later by Selim the Grim. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent booted the Iranians out of Baghdad in 1535... only for Shah Abbas of the Safavids to kick them back out in 1623. In 1638 the Ottomans under Murad IV eventually emerged victorious.

The most important thing to remember from all of this is that the Ottomans were Sunnis and the Safavids Shias. In their own power struggle, they were rallying support of the locals under their particular banner of Islam, effectively pitting Iraqis against each other. Clever. The Sunni-Shia rift is one of the constant themes of Iraqi history and it endures to the present-day.

Another enduring theme of Iraqi history emerged during the Ottoman period: that of the Kurds. This node is long enough already, so I'll leave the Kurdish issue to another node. Suffice to say that the Kurdish people live in Northern Iraq and have been used as pawns over the ages by the Iranians, the Turks and latterly the Americans in trying to gain the upper hand in their Iraqi agenda.

For their own part, the Kurds have often come close to their coveted self-determination. Despite many promises, the fact that a bit of the land they want is rich in oil means they're unlikely to ever be in control of it. At the time of writing, American troops are moored off the coast of Turkey, who is holding out for more dough and the assurance that the Kurds will not be given independence when the Americans are finished kicking Saddam's butt. More about that later.

The Marsh Arabs, or Madan, lived down in the south near Basra and under the Ottoman period, went about their daily lives ignoring the Ottoman governor in Baghdad. Their daily lives were instead ruled with an iron fist by their local sheikhs, who engaged in tribal warfare which only deteriorated their lot. The Mamluks briefly took over Iraq in the 1800's, but a flood-and-plague double catastrophe allowed the Ottomans to take back control. Midhat Pasha took over Baghdad and being reform-minded, set about rebuilding the city on a Western model.

This involved secularising the school system, creating codes of civil and criminal law, reorganising the army and generally improving upon the administration system put into place by the Mamluks. Students were introduced to western languages and disciplines, and the British and French established consulates. Midhat also put into place the TAPU laws regarding land holdings and farm taxation. This enriched the sheikhs, but doomed the tribesmen to poverty-stricken sharecroppers. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1862, the sheikhs began exporting cash crops to the west.

Things really got moving and shaking when the Young Turks took over Sublime Porte (Ottoman government) in the latter stages of the 19th Century. They were an ambitious band, and started the notion of Arab nationalism (another theme particularly important in the 20th Century). Surprisingly, given their Arab nationalism, they also aggressively pursued a Turkification policy which didn't win them any friends with the Iraqi Intelligentsia.

World War I and its aftermath

At the dawn of the century, the Ottomans granted the Germans the right to build a railroad from Konya in southwest Turkey to Basra via Baghdad. The British, who still had colonies in India and the Arabian peninsula, pricked their ears in alarm, fearing the worst for their communication lines through Iran and Afghanistan. When Turkey entered the war on the side of the Germans in 1914, the British launched their Middle Eastern campaign.

In 1916, as things were getting pretty interesting in Iraq and Palestine, it looked like the Allies would win, so pre-emptively they got together to divvy up the spoils. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (roughly) gave Palestine (then still including Jordan) and Iraq to the British, with Syria and Lebanon going to the French. With the Balfour Declaration safely signed, the Jews of Palestine helped to eject the Turks there, and a similar tack was used with the Iraqis. Promising them self-rule after the storm died down, the Iraqis decided to cooperate with their latest invader. Hasta la Vista, Baby to the Turks.

Unfortunately, the English had made one promise too many in trying to curry favour: Hashemite princes Faisal and Abdullah had both been promised kingdoms for their support. (Faisal had happily lead the Arab Revolt against the Turks. He had also met with Chaim Weiszman and sold out the Palestinian Arabs to the Zionists for £1000 down and more to come when he ruled the roost.) Abdullah was happily accommodated in otherwise useless Jordan (much to the nasal disfigurement of the Jews at the reduction in size of their Promised Land™). The plan to install Prince Faisal as king of Syria, however did not go well. Faisal was installed as King by the Syrian national congress in March 1920, and sent packing by the French four months later. He and his 25 wives and a few score concubines fled for Haifa on the Mediterranean shores of Palestine.

At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Middle East held its breath expecting the Allies to come good on their promises. They needn't have bothered. If the Palestinian Arabs and Zionist Jews were both suitably miffed at their British Mandate status, they had nothing on the Iraqis. A British Mandate was far less than they had expected and they weren't taking it lying down. The Jamiyat an Nahda al Islamiya or League of the Islamic Awakening was formed, soon followed by the formation of the Al Jamiya al Wataniya al Islamiya or Muslim National League. Still more resistance organisation in the Haras al Istiqlal or Guardians of Independence.

During Ramadan in 1920, resistance got mobile and Sunni and Shia put aside their differences, albeit for a short while. Violent demonstrations ensued, followed by a meeting in May with Governor Wilson. He didn't indulge the Iraqis, so they issued a fatwa identifying that it is contrary to the Sharia for Muslims to be ruled by non-Muslims. Anarchy prevailed for three months, quickly quelled by the Royal Air Force bombers and reinforcements from Iran and India.

Back in Britain, politicians were under pressure from the electorate that the Mandates in the Middle East didn't cost them any hard-earned Pounds. This pressure from home is directly responsible for the reprehensible mismanagement of the volatile Palestinian situation (which continues today). Iraq's two saving graces were its oil and the kingdomless Prince Faisal. The British needed stability in Iraq to secure their oil aspirations, so they were a little more charitable and open to suggestion. At the 1921 Cairo Conference, they agreed to a little more political flexibility on condition that pliable Prince Faisal be installed as King.

Faisal can thank his Arab Nationalist ideologies (which were the basis to his only conceivable claim to the Iraqi throne), his Hashemite lineage and his general congeniality for his endurance as monarch. Much as he'd signed away the lot of the Palestinian Arabs, he was open to any suggestion from Whitehall. Faisal entered into some dubious treaties but managed to secure a Constitutional Monarchy with Representative Government... even if it did have the Royal Coat of Arms practically branded into it.

Oil reserves discovered in Mosul Province sealed the fate of the Kurds: they were calling for independence, but the British had oil interests so they got the medium-length straw and ended up Iraqi citizens (the short straw would have seen them bearing Turkish passports).

Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations in 1932 and set about negotiating their independence. Negotiations were carried out by Faisal's closest adviser, Nuri as Said. His good relationship with the British did not win him friends at home, particularly in June 1930 when he signed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty securing a close alliance and British use of airbases near Basra for the next 25 years.

Independent Monarchy

Stick with me, we're nearly there.

Iraq became a Sovereign State on October 13, 1932. On the surface things were okay, but underneath the fires were heating up the stew. The Kurds were voicing their dissent, violently; the minority Assyrians weren't too happy either; the British were screwing with the tribal sheikhs (giving them more power and dispossessing the already dispossessed peasant farmers). In September 1933, Faisal died while undergoing medical treatment in Switzerland. Faisal's 21 year old son Ghazi took over, but he'd had a Western education and new nothing about the nuances of Iraqi tribal life. As a leader, he was ill-equipped, and the Arab Nationalist movement began to see the Monarchy as it was: a puppet for the British.

The first of several dozen coup d'etat (somebody pluralise that for me) was successfully lead by General Bakr Sidqi in 1936. The Hashimi government only lasted a year and a half, but it had effectively ripped the constitution in half. The next few decades saw coup after coup and it was only the second Ba'ath Party coup that resulted in the stability of the present government.

The other constant theme initiated by Ghazi in his short reign was that of conflict with Kuwait. Shortly before driving his sports car into a lamppost and ending his life, Ghazi had amassed troops on the Kuwaiti boarder. The Iraqis had never been satisfied with the arbitrary border drawn by the British in 1923 and successive leaders would invoke this and oil squabbles in subsequent attempts to reunite the territories.

Ghazi's infant son Faisal II succeeded him, with his first cousin Amir Abd al llah installed as Regent. Nuri as Said was the brains behind it all and he was no more popular, particularly as he and Amir Abd al llah did not share the popular Nationalist ideologies. More coups and after the Second World War, Communism began to influence Iraqi politics.

The Palestinian situation was prominent in Arab politics after the war as well. Iraq joined the other Arab nations in strongly objecting to the partition plan of 1947. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war (or the War of Independence, depending on your sympathies), Iraq contributed 10,000 soldiers who were withdrawn in April 1949. For their pains, the Israelis cut off the Iraqi oil pipeline to Haifa. After the Iraqis hanged a Jewish businessman, 120,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel.

With international companies still dominating the Iraqi oil industry, the government relied on its hefty oil taxes. Without the pipeline, the companies couldn't shift their oil so the government got no boodle. They rectified the situation by bullying the companies to "agree" to new terms, granting them 50% of company before-tax profits. With the help of the oil boom, the government takings quadrupled from 1951 to 1952. Thanks to corruption, not much filtered down to on-the-ground Iraqis.

Nuri as Said invoked the ire of Arab Nationalism champion and popular new Egyptian leader Gamel Abdul Nasser. Nasser launched a media campaign branding the monarchy illegitimate and called for the people to overthrow it. Iraq's refusal to come to Egyptian aid in the 1956 Israeli-Franco-Anglo sortie over the Suez Canal was the last straw. On July 14, 1958 the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown by Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim and Colonel Abd as Salaam Arif. Young King Faisal II and Abd al llah were killed, and Nuri as Said tried to escape dressed as a woman. He lasted a day before being caught and killed. The British embassy came under attack too and sustained considerable damage.

Republican Era

This period is complex and interesting, but can be ably summed up by the following banners:

  • coup after coup after coup after coup
  • bloody Kurdish instability
  • declining relationship with Iran
  • more attempts to reclaim Kuwait
  • increasing communist influence
  • consequent rising American interest/fears
  • emergence of Saddam Hussein

The Present Regime

The present regime came to power with a coup in 1968. They had previously held power for a short time in 1963, but this time they were better equipped to hold onto the reins. The Ba'ath Party was based around a Sunni family from Tikrit in Northern Iraq, all related to Ahmad Hasan al Bakr. Saddam Hussein is one of these Tikritis, and he and Bakr initially held onto power through brutally quashing any rebellions. On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein officially took over control of Iraq.

The Ba'ath Party's brutality was no different to any other Iraqi government over the past 50 years, and they were certainly not all-bad. Based on Socialist (rather than Communist) principals, the policies initially implemented by the government enriched the poorest Iraqis (Shias included) for the first time. Hussein even managed to restore relations with Iran, after he recognised the thalweg as the boundary in the Shatt al Arab on March 6, 1975 in Algiers.

With the decline of Egyptian prominence in the Arab world following Nasser's truce with Israel, Hussein attempted to raise Iraq's profile. He convened an Arab summit in Baghdad that punished Egypt with sanctions. Things were looking better for the Iraqi people than they had done for centuries. Unfortunately, in the Spring of 1980, the Iranians backed an assassination attempt on then Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz. Cross-border skirmishes sparked and erupted into the Iran-Iraq War that would last for 8 years, thanks to a little duplicity on the part of the Americans. When it ended, hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost, but no territorial gains were made by either side. The Americans made millions in arms sales to both sides.

After the eventual ceasefire, Hussein attempted to rebuild Iraq. The Kuwaitis, who had been angle-drilling into Iraqi oil fields, flooded the international oil market and the oil price plummeted. Hussein cried "No Fair!", but the world wasn't listening, and the lenders called in the loans he'd taken out to fund the war with Iran. Hussein responded with his invasion of Kuwait, which lead to the 1991 Gulf War.

The Gulf War ended with Iraq in a much worse state of affairs, which would worsen still under sanctions. The region which was the first to produce food excesses suddenly had to rely on donations and oil-for-food programmes to feed its people. With latent mistrust of the West, relationships have deteriorated rapidly in the years since the ceasefire. At the time of writing, a coalition of US, British and Australian forces is building up in the Gulf region for what many fatalistically believe will be Gulf War 2.


Sources:

  • http://www.countryreports.org/history/iraqhist.htm
  • http://www.home.achilles.net/~sal/iraq_history.html
  • http://www.scn.org/wwfor/iraqhist.html
  • One Palestine, Complete by Tom Segev, Abacus, 2000


Spelling should be correct now. Any underlying errors, take them up with Bill Gates. Ta.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.