Sample: The Modern History of Iraq


Sampled below is the Preface, Chapter Two, and Epilogue from The Modern History of Iraq, Fourth Edition, by Phebe Marr with Ibrahim al-Marashi.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
A Note on Transliteration

1. The Land and People of Modern Iraq

Legacy of the Past
The Land
The People

2. The British Mandate, 1920–1932

The British Occupation and the Institutions of the Indian School
The 1920 Revolt and Its Results
The Kurdish Problem
Oil and the Slow Pace of Development
The Nationalist Movement: Composition and Outlook
The 1930 Treaty and the End of the Mandate

3. The Erosion of the British Legacy, 1932–1945

An Era of Communal and Tribal Rebellion, 1932–1936
The Bakr Sidqi Coup, 1936

Attempts to Liberalize and Their Failure
The Army in Politics, 1937–1941
The 1941 Coup
The Second British Occupation and Its Legacy, 1941–1945

4. The End of the Monarchy, 1946–1958

Further Attempts at Liberalization
The 1948 Wathba and the War in Palestine
Oil and Economic Development
The Uprising of 1952
The Accession of Faisal II
Opposition and the Establishment
The Hashimite Monarchy in Retrospect

5. The Qasim Era, 1958–1963

The Military Revolt of 1958
The Struggle for Power Between Qasim and Arif
The Challenge of the Nationalists
The Challenge of the Communists
Liberalization Attempts and their Failure
The Social and Economic Revolution
Erosion of National Unity
Foreign Policy Failures
The Qasim Regime in the Balance

6. The Arab Nationalists in Power, 1963–1968

The Iraqi Ba‘th in 1963
Ba‘th Failures
The Arif Regime, 1963–1968
The Coup of 17 July 1968

7. The Era of Ba’th Party Rule, 1968–1979

Consolidation of Power, 1968–1973
Ba‘th Foreign Policy: The Radical Phase, 1969–1973
The One-Party State
Relations with the Kurds
The Nationalization of Oil
Socialist Economic Development
The Social Transformation
Iraq’s Foreign Policy: The Pragmatic Phase, 1975–1980
Opposition to the Regime
The Impact of the Iranian Revolution
The Ba‘th: The End of Its First Decade

8. The Saddam Husain Regime, 1979–1989

Saddam as President
The Outbreak of War with Iran
The Course of the War
The War’s Impact on Foreign Policy
The War’s Impact on National Cohesion
Economic and Social Effects of the War
The War’s Effect on Politics and the Military
Saddam’s First Decade

9. The Saddam Husain Regime, 1990–2003

The Occupation of Kuwait: Causes and Motivations
Iraq’s Invasion of Kuwait and Its Impact
The Gulf War, 17 January–28 February 1991
The Intifada of March 1991
Regime Survival and Reorganization
The Imposition of Foreign Control
Regime Consolidation and Its Limits
Changes in Regime Ideology
The Kurds in the North
The Shi‘a in the South
Opposition from Abroad
A Decade of Stagnation

10. The US Attempt at Nation-Building in Iraq, 2003–2006

Occupation of Iraq
Bremer and the CPA: Direct Rule and an Attempt at Nation-Building
Opposition to the Occupation
The 15 November Agreement: Changes in US Plans
The IIG of Ayad Allawi, June 2004–May 2005
The Elections of 2005: The Emergence of the “New” Iraq
The Sectarian Civil War in Baghdad, 2006–2007

11. The Stabilization and Destabilization of Iraq under Maliki, 2007–2014

The Subsiding of the 2006 Civil War
Kurdish Political and Economic Development
Maliki’s Consolidation of Power, 2007–2009
Relations with the United States: The Status of Forces Agreement
The Local and Regional Elections of 2009
Maliki and the National Scene in Baghdad
The Parties and Contenders of the 2010 Election
The 2010 Election: Results and Aftermath
Maliki’s Second Term: 2010–2014
The 2014 Elections and the Post-Election Stalemate

12. Iraq and the Challenge of the Islamic State, 2014–2016

The Abbadi Government
The Islamic State’s Conquest
The Birth and Consolidation of the Islamic State
Transnational Terrorism
Abbadi’s Attempts to Reform
The Future of a Post-Islamic State Iraq

13. Economic, Social, and Cultural Change in post-2003 Iraq

Epilogue: The Future of Iraq

Appendix: Tables
Political Personalities



Although Iraq has now been a modern state—of modest size—for almost a century, few countries have had such a potentially promising future, yet undergone such a turbulent history, or, in recent years, been the focus of such world attention. Wars, sanctions, occupation, and brutal civil strife have brought abrupt, severe, and often disabling change and now, with the incursion of an Islamic terrorist group, the Islamic State, have almost brought the state to the brink of collapse. These events have made it diffcult to chart Iraq’s future path and to relate these changes to Iraq’s enduring continuities. Yet the continuities will remain. Iraq has had a remarkably rich and varied history. Even before recent headlines made Iraq a household word in the West, it was diffcult to do justice to the complexity of Iraq’s modern history and to explain the impact of rapid change and modernization on a society going back six millennia. Events since 2003, with their profound discontinuities and uncertainties, have now made this task more challenging, but also more urgent. Although much more is now known (but possibly misunderstood) about contemporary Iraq, even more remains opaque. This revision will not seek to provide answers to the future but rather to identify the forces at work, particularly since 2003, the trends and directions in evidence, and to relate them to Iraq’s past history since its founding as a state in 1920.

This book is not meant to be an exhaustive and detailed history of modern Iraq. My aim instead has been to present a clear, readable one-volume account of the emergence of modern Iraq and the forces that shaped it. To understand how and why Iraq has reached this point in the context of a longer historical perspective, I have drawn extensively on many perceptive monographs and studies on modern Iraq. I have tried to include enough general interpretation of events to make the country and its people understandable and enough detail to give color to the events described. Above all, I have tried to be evenhanded in depicting the course of events and to avoid oversimplifying complex situations. The concluding chapters of this volume and the material on the Islamic State and its impact on Iraq are the work of my colleague, Ibrahim al-Marashi, to whom I owe a considerable debt. He has also been of enormous help in making suggestions and amendments to the rest of the book. Although the book is directed at the general reader, I hope that scholars and students of the Middle East as well as many of those now traveling and working in Iraq will find it useful.

The material has been grouped around several themes that, in my view, have dominated Iraq’s history from 1920 to the present. The first is the creation and construction of a modern state within the boundaries bequeathed to Iraq by the British in the 1920s and the search by Iraq’s leaders for a cultural and national identity capable of knitting together the country’s various ethnic, religious, and social groups. This issue of identity and its impact on the Iraqi state is paramount today. A second theme is the process of economic and social development, a process that began at the end of the nineteenth century but greatly accelerated in the 1970s, although it has suffered a multitude of setbacks recently through war, sanctions, social disruption and now more war. A third, and most essential, theme is the development of political institutions and ideologies and their interrelationship with domestic society and the world outside Iraq. The book seeks to show both changes and continuities in Iraq’s political dynamics as well as to explain the results of a brutal totalitarian system, like that of Saddam Husain, on society, the impact of foreign occupation on the political system and the emergence and deepening of ethnic and sectarian fractiousness in Iraq today. A fourth theme is that of foreign domination and the interaction of the newly created state with the West, the role of Iraq’s neighbors and how Iraq interacts with the global environment. This theme has, of course, intensified with the U.S-British occupation of 2003 and its aftermath. Although Iraq’s future is uncertain at this point, it is better understood through historical perspective.

In recent years a growing and valuable body of literature on Iraq written by Iraqis themselves has appeared, including memoirs, firsthand accounts, and studies. I have drawn on these whenever possible. Since 2003 a veritable flood of books and articles by journalists and practitioners has appeared in English about the occupation and its aftermath. Even though no one can read all of them, a number, especially those by Iraqis, have been very useful, and I have used them extensively. As the Western side of this story can be readily accessed in these works, I have tried to focus in this book on Iraq. Freedom of the press and media in Iraq and the spread of the internet to Iraqis have provided a multitude of new sources, such as blogs, which I have used selectively. Quantitative data and statistical reports from the United Nations, the World Bank, and international organizations, such as International Organization for Migration–Iraq, have also increased since 2003 and provide invaluable source material. The reader is warned, however, that statistics are still difficult to gather, are often subject to controversy, and should be treated with caution.

New to this Edition

The Third Edition concluded with events in Iraq as of 2011. The Fourth Edition covers the effects of the Arab Spring on Iraq, including the ramifications of the collapse of neighboring Syria during its civil war and the subsequent reemergence of the Islamic State (IS) and its conquest of Mosul and large swathes of Iraqi territory in the summer of 2014. This edition went to the presses after the battle to liberate Mosul had begun in November 2016. While the futures of Iraq and IS are fluid, the ramifications of the IS intrusion into Iraq has been profound, not just for Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, but in terms of global security as well. The IS occupation of Iraqi territory began in January 2014 with the capture of Falluja, and while its holdings in Iraq has been significantly reduced as of the end of 2016, Iraq has nonetheless gone through significant transformations within the span of those two years. While this updated edition deals with the military campaign against IS since 2014, it also examines the socioeconomic and cultural disruptions since then, ranging from internally displaced peoples to the destruction of Iraq’s pre-Islamic and Islamic heritage. This Fourth edition also provides an update of the endemic problems in Iraq’s development since 2003, including a fractured political landscape, a state rife with endemic corruption, and an economy dependent on the vicissitudes of the international oil market. Those dynamics continue to persist and are likely to persist, regardless of the government’s success in combatting IS.


I have gathered source material for this book over a period of many years of study and work in the Middle East, including several years spent in Iraq from 1957 to 1959, under the monarchy and through the revolution of 1958, including over six months spent in southern Iraq living with the family of a tribal shaikh and landowner, where I learned much of local tribal and (Shi’a) religious customs and of the prospects and problems of economic development under the monarchy. I was able in this period to interview many political leaders under the monarchy, such as Hikmat Sulaiman, and the opposition figures who came to power in 1958, such as leaders of the Istiqlal and the National Democratic Party. I returned to Iraq for several trips in 1967, 1986 and 1987 and to Kurdistan in the 1990s. I have made extensive use of interviews with Iraqi political figures, educators, writers and ordinary men and women in these periods. I would like to acknowledge their help and although most wish to remain anonymous, I would like to mention especially Yahya Qasim whose help on the politics of the old regime was invaluable; Khaldun al-Husri, whose continuing criticism of the earlier chapters was essential; Khayr al-Din Hasib, who challenged many of my assumptions of the Qasim and Arif periods and above all, Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani, who kindly made his library and vast store of knowledge available to me. For the opportunity to travel to Iraq and live there at various times I owe a great debt to the Harvard Middle East Center who sponsored some of my research and made some of my visits possible. Above all I owe a great debt to my thesis advisor, the late Sir Hamilton Gibb who enabled much of my early research under the monarchy.

Traveling in Iraq and talking to people openly and freely were virtually impossible in Saddam’s last decade. This changed in 2003 when the country opened up to Americans and others for a brief period of a year or two, but with increasing violence, traveling in much of Iraq subsequently became difficult and hazardous once again. Nonetheless, to supplement the published record, I have made extensive use of interviews with Iraqi political figures, educators, journalists, and ordinary men and women conducted during a number of trips to Iraq in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010, and 2014. I would like to acknowledge their help, particularly Iraqi leaders in ISCI, Da‘wa, Fadila, the IIP, and Iraqiyya, as well as various MPs, journalists, lawyers, tribal leaders, and civil society workers who gave generously of their time in attempting to explain what was happening in Iraq. In particular, I wish to thank Ibrahim al-Ja‘fari, Abd al-Karim al-Musawi, Muwaffiq al-Ruba‘i, Humam al-Hammudi, Saif al-Din Abd al-Rahman, and A. Heather Coyne for their help in arranging interviews and for the time they gave to my efforts. I am also indebted to Mas‘ud Barzani, president of the KRG, and Jalal Talabani, former president of Iraq, for their support and hospitality in making trips to Iraqi Kurdistan possible in the 1990s and to Hushyar Zibari, former foreign minister of Iraq, for the many hours he kindly took to explain Kurdish politics. Finally I would like to thank Muhammad al-Turaihi, former head of the Iraq Cultural Center in Washington and his wife, Dhu‘a for an invaluable trip to Najaf and Kufa in 2014.

I am also greatly indebted to the United States Institute of Peace for a fellowship grant for two years 2004–2006 to enable me to gather data on the newly emerging regime and its political figures. My time at the institute and the trips to Iraq it enabled me to make were indispensable. Above all, I wish to thank my intern during this period, Sam Parker, for his support, collaboration in research and writing, and fund of valuable ideas. He has contributed a great deal to the post-2003 period. I also thank Denise Natali for sponsorship of a trip to Kurdistan in 2010. Last, but not least, I am indebted to my collaborator in this final edition, Ibrahim al-Marashi, both for his contribution in the final chapters and his insights in revising other portions of the book.

I would also like to thank the reviewers who offered suggestions for the new edition, including: Stacy E. Holden (Purdue University); Nancy L. Stockdale (University of North Texas); Nabil Al-Tikriti (University of Mary Washington); and others who wish to remain anonymous.

My greatest gratitude goes to my husband, Louay Bahry, first, for his invaluable insights on Iraqi history as a former professor of political science at Baghdad University, and second, for his patience in putting up with my long hours in the library and at the computer.

Naturally the interpretations, as well as any historical errors in the manuscript, are my own.

Phebe Marr

A Note from Ibrahim al-Marashi

I remember reading the first edition of The Modern History of Iraq as a teenager in 1987. Growing up in California, my parents hesitated to discuss their lives in Iraq, giving me the impression that it was some place they did not want me to ask or know about. My parents only discussed Iraq in whispered conversations that I overheard. Whenever I wanted to be included in their conversations, they abruptly ended their conversation. So Iraq became something I only thought about, imagining how traumatic their past must have been that they could not even tell me. The mystery they created surrounding Iraq and Saddam Hussein only did more to enhance my curiosity. To satiate that curiosity, I turned to Marr’s book in my high school library, one of the only comprehensive histories of my native Iraq that was available in the eighties. I became fascinated with Iraq’s past ever since reading that book. I never thought back then that its author would ask me to contribute to its fourth edition. I thank Phebe Marr for connecting me to the history of my ancestral home as a youth, for putting me on the path to becoming a historian of Iraq, and for the opportunity of contributing to this edition.

Ibrahim al-Marashi

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

The British Mandate, 1920–1932

The impact of British rule in shaping modern Iraq has been second only to that of Ottoman rule. In some respects, the British left remarkably little behind; in others, they made a more lasting impression. Before the British mandate, there was no Iraq as a cohesive political entity; after it, a new state with the beginnings of a modern government had come into being. The British bequeathed Iraq its present boundaries and, as a result, potential minority problems and border problems with its neighbors.

Imposing British rule did not prove easy. Conquest took four years, and the first attempt at administration, the imposition of the Indian colonial model, failed after a nationalist revolt in 1920. Thereafter, Britain fell back on “indirect rule,” using elements of the local population willing to work with them. To govern Iraq, Britain installed an array of state institutions: a monarchy to head the central government and symbolize Iraq’s unity, an army and a bureaucracy to keep order and run the country, and a Western-style constitution providing for indirect elections and a parliament. A treaty with Britain regulated Britain’s “advisory” and military support role. Britain also concluded an oil concession with the new Iraqi government, which kept control in foreign hands, but serious oil production did not begin until well after the mandate.

Much of this political structure—especially the monarchy and the Western-style parliamentary institutions—was unstable and swept away after 1958. This is not surprising because Britain’s stay in Iraq was one of the shortest in its imperial career, and it spent few resources on Iraq. But the bureaucracy and the army, institutions predating the mandate, remained. So, too, did the Iraqi leaders placed in power by the British themselves—the Ottoman-educated Arab Sunni officers and bureaucrats. They and the traditions of government they brought with them would do more to shape modern Iraq than the British had.

The British Occupation and the Institutions of the Indian School

Despite Britain’s long-standing interests in the Gulf, the British had no intention of occupying the Tigris and Euphrates valleys at the outbreak of the First World War. However, when it became apparent late in 1914 that the Ottoman Empire, Britain’s traditional ally, would enter the war on the side of the Central Powers and was mobilizing at the head of the Gulf, Britain decided to occupy Faw and Basra to protect its strategic interests and communications and its oil fields at the head of the Gulf in Persia. On 6 November 1914, British troops landed at Faw, and by 22 November they had moved up to Basra. In March 1917, they took Baghdad, and in 1918 they occupied Mosul.[1]

The administration initially imposed on Iraq was overwhelmingly the work of men seconded from the India Office and was modeled largely on Britain’s imperial structure in India. The philosophy guiding the group was largely based on nineteenth-century ideas of the “white man’s burden,” a predilection for direct rule, and a distrust of local Arabs’ capacity for self-government. These attitudes deterred the appointment of local Arabs to positions of responsibility. Meanwhile, the British dismantled and supplanted the Ottoman administration as rapidly as possible. A new civil and criminal code based on Anglo-Indian laws replaced the old Ottoman laws, the Indian rupee became the medium of exchange, and the army and police force were increasingly staffed with Indians.

Reversing Ottoman tribal policy, which had aimed at weakening tribal leaders and bringing the tribes under the control of the central government, the British now attempted to restore tribal cohesion, to make the paramount shaikhs responsible for law and order and the collection of revenue in their districts, and to tie them to the nascent British administration through grants and privileges. This policy was applied not only in the Arab areas but also to the Kurdish provinces as they were taken. Efficient and economical, this policy reduced the need for highly paid British staff in the countryside, but ultimately it strengthened the hold of the shaikhs over their tribesmen and their land. Entrenchment of a class of landlord-shaikhs, though not wholly a British invention, was certainly one of the most lasting and problematic legacies of the Indian school.[2]

It was not long before the policies of the Indian school generated opposition both in Britain and Iraq. In March 1917, the British government issued a memo making it clear that an indigenous Arab government under British guidance was to be substituted for direct administration. As a response to the memo, the Anglo-Indian civil code was replaced by a return to Ottoman courts and laws. However, little else was changed. Local British bureaucrats continued to strengthen their hold on the country, appointing few Arabs to senior positions. The result was not long in coming.

The 1920 Revolt and Its Results

The 1920 revolt was sparked by an April 1920 announcement that the principal victors in the First World War, meeting at San Remo, had assigned a mandate for Iraq to Britain. Opposition to the British had already been growing for some time among Iraqi communities, inside and outside the country. Rising anti-British sentiment had been fanned by the nationalists in Baghdad, the Shi‘i religious leaders of the holy cities, and disaffected mid-Euphrates tribal leaders.[3] Though the motives of these groups were mixed, all were united by a desire to be free of British rule. A chief feature of the movement was the unprecedented cooperation between the Sunni and Shi‘i communities.

The revolt began on 30 June 1920, when a shaikh who had refused to repay an agricultural debt was placed in prison at Rumaitha. His incensed tribesmen rose up against the British, and they were soon joined by others. Anti-British sentiments were aroused, and the revolt spread. All in all, the insurgency lasted for about three months and affected about a third of the countryside; none of the major cities and few of the urban nationalists were affected.[4] The movement was disorganized, diverse, and localized, making it vulnerable to suppression by a determined central government.[5] However, the uprising was costly for the British—over four hundred lives and up to £40 million—and caused an outcry in the press at home and very nearly wrecked the British position entirely.[6] Although the revolt did not achieve Iraqi independence or turn real authority over to the Iraqis, it did succeed in thoroughly discrediting the India Office policy, and it assured a much larger measure of participation by the Iraqis in their first national government.

On 1 October 1920, Sir Percy Cox landed in Basra to assume his responsibilities as high commissioner in Iraq. The first decisive step in creating the institutions and structure of the new Iraqi state and the British role in it took place at the Cairo Conference of 1921. It was there that the three pillars of the Iraqi state were conceived: the monarchy, in the person of Faisal, the third son of the sharif of Mecca; the treaty, the legal basis for Britain’s rule; and the constitution, designed to integrate elements of the population under a democratic formula. All three were intertwined.[7]

The Monarchy

On 27 August 1921, Faisal was installed as Iraq’s first king. The founder of the Hashimite dynasty in Iraq was born in Mecca to a family that traced its lineage back to the Prophet. Firmly rooted by practice and conscience to the Arab nationalist cause, Faisal did not initially favor the Arab alliance with the British and became a supporter only by necessity. Faisal’s subsequent career as head of the short-lived Syrian kingdom between 1918 and 1920, his fruitless efforts at the European peace conference on behalf of the Arabs, and his humiliating removal from power in Syria by the French served to sharpen his sense of realism and his ability to deal with a variety of people and groups.

Whereas some of his associates saw Faisal as weak, others saw him as a subtle politician, one of the few capable of manipulating and balancing various Iraqi forces. Whatever his style, it is clear that Faisal’s position was weak. As a monarch imposed on Iraq by an alien, dominant power, Faisal was always conscious of the need to put down roots in Iraq and to appeal to its different ethnic and sectarian communities if the monarchy were to remain.

Once Faisal had been nominated, he needed to be elected. A well-managed plebiscite gave Faisal an estimated 96 percent of the vote; his real support was nowhere near that high. Nevertheless, on 27 August 1921, Faisal was installed as king. With Faisal’s accession the Iraqi nationalists who had served with him in the war and who had formed the backbone of his short-lived government in Syria returned to Iraq. Staunchly loyal to Faisal, Arab nationalist in outlook, yet willing to work within the limits of the British mandate, these repatriated Iraqis rapidly filled the high offices of state, giving Faisal the support he lacked elsewhere in the country. This handful of young, Ottoman-educated Arab lawyers, officers, and civil servants soon achieved a position in Iraqi politics second only to that of the British and Faisal, displacing the older notables originally installed by the British.

The intrusion of these Iraqis into the administration at all levels marked a first step in establishing Arab Sunni dominance in government. At the same time, it also had the effect of Arabizing the regime, a process intensified by the shift from Turkish to Arabic in the administration and the school system. Although the Ottoman civil code was retained and made the basis of its curriculum, the Law College, the institution responsible for training most bureaucrats, was put under Arab administration. The centralized education system in particular emphasized the Arabic language and Arab history, with an underlying thrust toward secularism and pan-Arabism; both had a long-lasting impact. This emphasis was mainly the handiwork not of the British but of Sati‘-al-Husri, a strong Arab nationalist from Syria and chief education administrator in the early mandate.

However positive the contributions of the strong pan-Arab orientation, it thwarted the development of a more inward-looking, Iraq-centered patriotism while excluding and alienating large elements of the Arab-speaking Shi‘i population and the Kurds, who might have been more attracted to a distinctly Iraqi identity.[8]

The Cairo Conference also established a native Iraqi army. The lower ranks were drawn from tribal elements, often Shi‘i, but the officer corps came almost solely from the ranks of former Ottoman army officers. These officers inevitably were Sunni, perpetuating Sunni dominance of the officer corps. Officers with pro-Turkish sentiments were soon weeded out, making the army officer corps primarily Arab in composition and orientation. Some Kurdish officers were eventually brought in as well.

The Treaty

The mandate awarded to Britain by the League of Nations had specified that Iraq should be prepared for self-government under British tutelage but left the means and mode to the mandatory power. The British decided to express the mandatory relationship by a treaty, deemed the most imaginative way to neutralize Iraqi opposition. Treaty negotiations with the Iraqis were begun shortly after Faisal was installed as king, and in October 1922 the Council of Ministers, Iraq’s cabinet, ratified the treaty.

The treaty was the backbone of Britain’s indirect rule. It provided that the king would heed Britain’s advice on all matters affecting British interests and on fiscal policy as long as Iraq was in debt to Britain. A subsequent financial agreement required Iraq to pay half the costs of the British residency and other costs, which not only placed Iraq in a state of economic dependence on Britain but also helped retard its development. The treaty also required Iraq to appoint British officials to specified posts in eighteen departments to act as advisers and inspectors.[9] It was with this network of intelligence and influence, supported by the provisions of the treaty and the option of military sanctions, that the British governed during the mandate. In return Britain promised to provide Iraq with various kinds of aid, including military aid, and to propose Iraq for membership in the League of Nations at the earliest possible moment. The duration of the treaty was to be twenty years.

[Figure 2.1 – Iraq’s Provinces (not displayed)]

The Constitution

The constitution was closely intertwined with the treaty. The first critical issue between the British and the Iraqis revolved around the powers of the king, whom the British hoped to make their instrument, and of parliament, which the Iraqi nationalists hoped to dominate. The proposed constitution gave parliament sufficient power to bring down a cabinet but counterbalanced this power by granting the king the right to confirm all laws, to call for general elections, and to prorogue parliament.

This constitution was finally passed in 1924 by the newly elected Constituent Assembly, after a long struggle with the opposition. With a few modifications, the constitution provided the country’s political and legal structure under the monarchy until the revolution of 1958. It was an instrument well designed to foster Britain’s indirect control. The monarch functioned partly as a symbol of unity but mainly as a means by which the high commissioner could bring his influence to bear in cases of conflict. Parliament soon became a stronghold of the tribal leaders whom the British had done so much to protect and strengthen. The constitution failed to take root, however—partly because Iraqis were never given real responsibility in the government and partly because they came to regard it as an instrument of foreign manipulation and control. As a result, Iraqi elites focused their energies not on developing constitutional institutions as a foothold of eventual control but rather on removing unwanted British influence.

The Kurdish Problem

European policymakers had originally expected that the Kurds, like the Armenians, would be given national autonomy or independence under a mandate. In fact, the abortive Treaty of Sevres, concluded in August 1920 with the Ottoman sultan, had provided for an autonomous Kurdish state and had stipulated that the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq could apply for admission to the League of Nations within a year. The problem lay in finding suitable Kurdish leaders to assume responsibility for such an administration.

The one British attempt in this direction had failed. In 1922, the British had appointed Shaikh Mahmud al-Barzinja, a local religious leader, as governor of Sulaimaniyya. Shaikh Mahmud was expected to establish a viable Kurdish entity there, yet remain compliant toward British influence. In short, Mahmud was to become a Kurdish Faisal. To aid him in the task, the British allowed a number of Ottoman-trained Kurdish army officers and administrators to join him. The hope was that they could infuse a sense of nationalism into an essentially tribal environment.

But Mahmud attempted to carve out an independent principality, sacrificed the loyalty of his Kurdish officers in appointing his relatives to high positions, and was also in touch with the newly formed Republic of Turkey. These actions alienated any British support Mahmud might otherwise have acquired, and in February 1923 the British forced him out of power. By the summer of 1923, when elections for the Constituent Assembly were finally held, the Kurds were no longer offered a choice of joining the new Iraqi state or holding aloof. The Kurds were brought under the sovereignty of the new Iraqi state by fiat. The inclusion of the Kurdish minority into the Iraqi state was a fateful decision both for the Kurds and for the future stability and direction of the Iraqi state.[10] The border with Turkey was finally fixed by an international commission in March 1925.

Oil and the Slow Pace of Development

Negotiations between Britain and Iraq for an oil concession began later in 1923 and generated a protracted and acrimonious debate. The main sticking point was Iraq’s demand for 20 percent ownership in the company, which would have given Iraqis a voice in management and some control over oil production. The company refused, and Iraqis, fearing the loss of the Mosul wilaya (province) to Turkey if they did not give in, signed the concession in March 1925. It was not until October 1927 that the new Iraq Petroleum Company brought in its first well north of Kirkuk. Although the oil concession and the revenue it eventually brought Iraq are among the most important legacies of the British mandate, the benefits from oil were slow to materialize. Only in the 1950s did substantial revenues from oil begin to accrue to Iraq.

During the entire mandate period, Iraq lacked the funds for development and penury was widespread. Continuing budget deficits were exacerbated by Iraq’s obligation to pay its share of the Ottoman debt and to pay for the public facilities constructed by Britain. As a result, little was accomplished under the mandate in the way of economic or social development. Although there was some increase in agriculture, Iraq’s resources were underdeveloped and a large proportion of its population remained illiterate.[11] The educational situation under the mandate was poor, owing partly to lack of funds and partly to the small numbers trained by the British, who were afraid of producing more graduates than the bureaucracy could absorb. In 1930, only 159 secondary students passed the public examination.[12] At the end of the mandate, much of Iraq’s countryside—where 70 percent of the population lived—was still virtually untouched by modernization and modern industry had scarcely begun.

In the cities, a small middle class of civil servants, retail merchants, and professionals had begun to emerge, but the bulk of the population—urban and rural—remained at or near the poverty level. Urban migration, although not as severe as in the 1930s, produced a group of uprooted people inhabiting urban slums. A small number of workers benefited from the start of the oil industry and the development of the port and the railroad system, but the lack of funds slowed the growth of industry and infrastructure. Meanwhile, local artisans and craftsmen were gradually undermined by foreign imports.

The Nationalist Movement: Composition and Outlook

The early 1920s, which brought the creation of the state and its instrumentalities, also marked the beginnings of strident opposition to foreign control. Nationalist opposition was to dominate the political scene right up to the revolution of 1958. The opposition’s dislike of the foreign connection came to include the parliamentary institutions established by the British and the groups they placed in power, contributing to the removal of both in 1958.

The period of opposition, despite its spasmodic and spontaneous nature, can be divided into three overlapping waves. The first wave was the 1920 revolt already discussed. Based mainly on tribal insurgents, urged on by Shi‘i religious leaders and various urban elements, it was the first and only armed confrontation with the mandatory regime. In addition to its effects on British policy, the revolt’s impact on Iraqis was profound. The decisiveness with which the tribes were defeated convinced many of the urban leaders that recourse to armed revolt would be futile while British troops remained on Iraqi soil and were not counter-balanced by an Iraqi force. They promptly turned their attention to the development of a regular army, which would replace the tribes as a military force and could ultimately be used as an instrument against the British. As for the tribal leaders, their power to influence events was greatly diminished after 1920, although not entirely eliminated.

The second wave of opposition accompanied the cabinet’s treaty discussions in 1922 and the subsequent election of the Constituent Assembly that was to ratify the treaty. This opposition, led primarily by urban nationalists and ex- pressed through political parties and the press, had a strong Shi‘i component. In June 1923, a series of fatwas (religious decrees) against the election were issued by Shi‘i religious leaders. When the king and the government, backed by the British, decided shortly thereafter to arrest the offenders, including a leading Shi‘i cleric, a number of Shi‘i mujtahids withdrew in protest to Persia. They expected this act to generate pressure on the cabinet from disaffected Shi‘a and the Persian government, but it did not. In fact, the appeal of the mujtahids to a foreign power—Persia—alienated not only the British but the Sunni politicians as well. When the mujtahids were allowed to return much later, it was only on the condition that they formally renounce their political activities. The failure of this move dealt a decisive blow to Shi‘i clerical participation in politics.[13]

The Arab Sunni opposition, though it shared the antiforeign sentiments of the Shi‘a, disliked the prospects of Shi‘i dominance even more. Many feared that Shi‘i leadership of government would open the door to sectarianism and even to theocratic rule. To many Sunnis the creation of a secular state based on Arabism, even under temporary British control, seemed preferable. In any event, the suppression of the Shi‘i militants left the leadership of the nationalist movement in the hands of Arab Sunni nationalists willing to cooperate with the British.

Arab Sunni nationalists led the third wave of opposition to the treaty, which began at the Constituent Assembly convened in 1924 and continued until the end of the mandate. In formulating the constitution, the opposition attempted to strengthen the Chamber of Deputies at the expense of the cabinet and the king. In general, tribal groups joined the opposition in return for compensation in two areas: confirmation of their rights to land and a guarantee that their disputes would be settled according to tribal custom embodied in a separate Tribal Disputes Code. On both counts they were successful. These compromises ultimately helped to bolster the position of the emerging tribal landlord class and to forge an alliance between the urban Sunni politicians and the Shi‘i tribal leaders of the south, an alliance subsequently supported by legislation granting the shaikhs tax immunities and benefits.

Political and social dynamics soon took on a character that persisted right up to the revolution of 1958. Political life came to revolve around a tripartite balance of power. One element consisted of the king, a foreign monarch dependent on the British for his position but anxious to develop a more permanent power base among the local politicians. Another comprised the British, anxious to neutralize the opposition and to see their supporters in the offices of prime minister and minister of interior. A third component consisted of a shifting group of Arab Sunni politicians, some more anti-British than others but all willing to assume office. One feature of the period was political pluralism and sometimes-intense competition for power at the top. Nuri al-Sa‘id, a staunch supporter of the Arab revolt and of Faisal, was a leading exponent of this group.[14] A few Kurds and Shi‘a joined this contingent. Unused to political parties, the politicians formed parliamentary blocs, based mainly on personal ties and shifting political alliances.

Few of these politicians had roots in any large constituencies outside the halls of parliament, except for their links with tribal leaders. The failure to build broadly based political institutions or to reach out to groups beyond their personal or familial circles was a critical weakness of the nationalist movement. It allowed for manipulation by the British and the monarchy and prevented any one group from establishing sufficient power to move the country along in a particular direction.

The establishment of these urban Arab Sunnis in the political sphere was accompanied by developments in the economic sphere that gradually gave them an economic and social base as well: the growth of a new landed class, owing largely to the acquisition by private individuals of prescriptive rights over large tracts of land. Many of these investors were resident tribal shaikhs anxious to gain legal title to the land inhabited by their tribes, but most were urban investors and speculators who, profiting from the security introduced by the mandate, borrowed capital and bought up land. By 1930, the growth of a new oligarchy of landlords, urban entrepreneurs, and politicians was well under way.

Meanwhile, another development was under way—the buildup of the army and the security system under British aegis. These institutions soon became the real support base for the urban Arab Sunni nationalists in their struggle against the British, although the majority of army recruits came from the Shi‘i south—the area the nationalists most desired to penetrate. The reach of the central government was extended, slowly but surely, into the countryside. One indication of this expansion was the increased effectiveness of tax collecting, which now reached groups and individuals who previously had been only marginally involved. By the end of the mandate, virtually all citizens of every class were liable for taxes.

The 1930 Treaty and the End of the Mandate

In June 1929, a newly elected labor government in Britain announced its intention to support Iraq’s admission to the League of Nations in 1932 and negotiate a new treaty recognizing Iraq’s independence. Nuri al-Sa‘id became the new Iraqi prime minister. Although the British had some doubts about Nuri’s ability to handle the situation, they were soon disabused of this idea. Nuri’s firm hand was needed, for the government was faced with an opposition movement more broadly based and vocal than ever before. For the first time, Nuri used the tactics for which he later became famous. He silenced the opposition, muzzled the press, and insisted that the king prorogue parliament. Nuri’s successful handling of the treaty issue and the internal opposition raised him to the position of Iraq’s first politician in the eyes of the British, a position he was to hold thereafter.

In June 1930, a newly elected Iraqi parliament ratified the treaty that would take Iraq into the League of Nations. The treaty ended the mandate but retained British influence. Britain leased two bases and retained a right to all Iraqi military facilities; British “advisers and experts” remained. In return, Iraq was to receive military training, equipment, and assistance from Britain.[15]

Although suppressed by Nuri and tempered by subsequent events, opposition to the treaty and the foreign connection continued to surface in subsequent years, and even during periods of calm, suspicions of Britain’s hidden hand remained. It is only in the light of this continued opposition to the treaty that the revolution of 1958 and the anti-Western sentiment since that date can be understood. Though unsuccessful in eliminating British influence, the nationalist agenda and the anti-imperialist orientation the opposition projected came to exercise profound sway over successive generations of educated Iraqis. Although the nationalists opposed the treaty because it did not sever the British connection, Iraqi minorities—in particular the Christians and the Kurds—opposed the treaty because it weakened it. The Kurds, fearful for their status, began the agitation that was to plague the new state in the decade after independence. Through all of this, however, the king and Nuri stood firm, and in October 1932 Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations, as the first mandated state to receive its independence.

As British advisers departed from Baghdad, their place was taken by just the constellation of forces the British had envisaged. The throne inherited most of their power, and cabinets continued to be controlled by pro-British former army officers and lawyers, led by Nuri al-Sa‘id. A new opposition party, Ikha-l-Watani (National Brotherhood) was briefly allowed into the citadels of power. It was led by Arab Sunnis but included new elements, such as the Shi‘a Ja’far Abu-l-Timman and a liberal, left-wing reformer, Kamil al-Chadirchi. However, the party soon split over the willingness of some members to collaborate with the British and accept the treaty. In the countryside, tribal leaders, content with the privileges they had received for their support, remained for the moment quiescent. Although the Shi‘a and the Kurds were mainly excluded from the emerging structure of power, their opposition had been neutralized by a few seats in the cabinet and by representation of their more moderate elements in parliament. The main weakness of the mandate and mandatory institutions was their narrow scope. They reached only the upper urban strata, scarcely affecting the rural areas and the lower urban classes.

Such a result in 1932 is not surprising. In retrospect, British tutelage had been short—a mere decade or so. Even though “liberal” institutions—a parliament, elections, an open press, and political parties—had been created in Iraq, their effective operation was hampered not only by British limits but also by the absence of Iraqi “liberals” and a homegrown liberal ideology. Indirect rule generated, instead, strong antiforeign sentiments and a national movement that, because of its leaders’ Ottoman background and training, had deeper roots in the army and the bureaucratic structures of state than in the parliament or political parties. These cultural continuities would color much of Iraq’s subsequent political history.


[1] The occupation was not without setbacks. An initial attempt to take Kut, in 1916, met with defeat and a retreat. The city of Mosul was occupied only after the armistice was declared and was challenged—for years—by Turkey.
[2] Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq, 1914–1932 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), chap. 6.
[3] For the 1920 revolt, see Pierre-Jean Luizard, La Formation de l’Irak Contemporain (The Formation of Contemporary Iraq) (Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1991), pp. 403–413; Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi‘is of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 66–72; Ghassan Atiyyah, Iraq, 1908–1921: A Political Study (Beirut: Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973), pp. 326–338; Abdul Hadi Hairi, Shiism and Constitutionalism in Iran (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1977), pp. 125–126; and Muhammad Mahdi al-Basir, Ta’rikh al-Qadiyya-l-Iraqiyya, 2nd ed. (London: LAAM, 1990). A new interpretation of the revolt is to be found in Abbas Kadhim, Reclaiming Iraq: The 1920 Revolution and the Founding of the Modern State (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press) 2012.
[4] Stephen Longrigg, Iraq, 1900 to 1950 (London: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 112; ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani, al-Thaura-l-Iraqiyya-l-Kubra (The Great Iraqi Revolt)(Sidon, Lebanon: Matba’at al- Irfan, 1952), pp. 124–170.
[5] For diverse interpretations of the revolt, see Luizard, La Formation de l’Irak, pp. 414–422 and Kadhim, Reclaiming Iraq, chapter one.; for an excellent summary of works on the revolt, see pp. 383–384 and Kadhim, op.cit., bibliography. For the role of various groups in the revolt, see Atiyyah, Iraq, pp. 270–354.
[6] Philip Ireland, Iraq: A Study in Political Development (New York: Macmillan, 1938), p. 273; Longrigg, Iraq, 1900–1950, p. 123.
[7] For an excellent study of the structures and method of rule under the mandate, see Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press) 2003.
[8] For Husri’s role on the curriculum and especially his clash with the Shi‘a and Kurds, see Sati’-l-Husri, Mudhakkirati fi-l-Iraq (My Memoirs in Iraq) (Beirut: Dar al- Tali’a, 1967), 1: 79–80, 215–216, 271–277, 377–378, 401–402, 457–464, 585, 588–602; and William Cleveland, The Making of an Arab Nationalist (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), 1971, pp. 62–70. For criticism of that role, see Abd al-Karim al-Uzri, Mushkilat al-Hukm fi-l-Iraq (The Problem of Governance in Iraq) (London: n.p., 1991), chap. 5; and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Dhikrayati (My Memoirs) (Damascus: Dar al- Rafi dain, 1988–1991), 1: chap. 3.
[9] For the treaty, see Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani, Ta’rikh al-Wizarat al-Iraqiyya (The History of Iraqi Cabinets) (Sidon, Lebanon: Matba’at al- Irfan, 1953–1967), 1:94–98; for the agreements, see 1:223–258.
[10] For an account of the tortuous British diplomacy on this issue, see David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I. B. Tauris, 1997), pp. 163–171.
[11] Hilton Young, Report on Economic Conditions and Policy and Loan Policy (Baghdad: Government Press, 1930), p. 12.
[12] Iraq, Ministry of Planning, Report on Education in Iraq (Baghdad: Government Press, 1959), pp. 20–21.
[13] For this episode and its implications, see Nakash, The Shi‘is of Iraq, pp. 75–88; Luizard, La Formation de l’Irak, pp. 440–493; and Hairi, Shi‘ism and Constitutionalism, pp. 131–134.
[14] For a succinct biography of Nuri al- Sa’id, see Louay Bahry and Phebe Marr, “Nuri Said,” in Political Leaders of the Contemporary Middle East and North Africa, ed. Bernard Reich (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), pp. 467–475.
[15] Great Britain, Colonial Office, Special Report on the Progress of Iraq, 1920–1931 (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1932), pp. 289–292.



The Future of Iraq

As of 2016, more than a decade after the 2003 Iraq war, the creation of the new Iraq is still a work in progress. The country’s future direction remains uncertain, but Iraq has reached a modicum of stability and an uneasy, perhaps fragile, equilibrium among its domestic forces, while its political shape is emerging more clearly, despite the vicissitudes of its military campaign against ISIS. New, more democratic forms of governance have been introduced, along with more openness to the outside world, both of which promise a better future. But these forces of change have also been disruptive and difficult to absorb. Traditional patterns and habits of governance—authoritarianism, patrimonialism, and patronage-based relations—have proven resilient and difficult to change. Even more important are the effects of the upheaval and conflict brought by the occupation and the onslaught of ISIS, which need to be overcome to make progress sustainable.

In this transition, Iraq’s new leaders face four interrelated challenges. The first is the consolidation of Iraq’s national cohesion based on a greater degree of consensus among its various communities than has emerged in the post 2003 period. The sectarian strife that erupted in Baghdad and its environs in 2006– 2007 and the war with ISIS after 2014 have resulted in displacement and shifts in population that have left deep divisions between Shi’a and Sunnis. Relations between the Kurdish population, now ensconced in a recognized region in the north, and the rest of Iraq—mainly Arab—remain divisive, making the solution of economic and political problems more difficult. How Iraqis handle this issue will determine whether the nation-state will ultimately survive or whether a more decentralized polity will ensue.

A second challenge is the development of Iraq’s economic resources and the repair of its torn social fabric. Iraq’s favorable resource base, including oil and human resources, is well known, but economic development requires more attention than recent turbulent events have allowed. The erosion of these resources by wars, sanctions under Saddam, and then occupation, civil strife, and population displacement has been devastating. By 2007, however, the tide had begun to turn. Foreign investment and oil contracts as well as trade and local business began to revive, indicating a turn in the economic situation, which could provide a path to long-term improvement. Nevertheless, full-scale oil development was still hampered by disputes between the central government and the KRG, and the expenses incurred by combat with ISIS.

Repairing the social fabric caused by the violence and social disruption that has occurred since 2003 will be harder, especially after the trauma caused by the emergence of IS. Chief among these tasks will be the education of a new generation of Iraqis and the replacement of the expertise that Iraq has lost since the occupation. The departure of the educated middle class has not only set back Iraq’s expertise but also redefined its social structure and cultural orientation. Poorer, less-well-educated people now make up a much larger percentage of the population, while more traditional and conservative customs have revived, including Islamic norms and kinship relations, some of which may slow the modernization process.

Third, and most critical, is the challenge of governance. Here the record of the new regime has been mixed. It has made major improvements over Saddam’s era of oppression, providing Iraq with a new, more democratic framework. There is a new constitution (albeit flawed), and the political leadership includes all segments of the population. The regime has conducted several free and fair elections for a national parliament, all with unpredictable outcomes. Iraq also has more freedom of expression and access to the outside world. But these new advances have been accompanied by their own problems—a dysfunctional, indecisive government, a weak and fractious political landscape, and politicians obsessed with getting and keeping power at the expense of broader economic and social development, illustrated by their failure to develop a cohesive strategy to deal with the IS threat. In the ensuing struggle for power, older, more traditional patterns of government have emerged—reliance on kin and clan, restoration of the patronage system and wasta, with their inevitable corruption. Genuine political parties based on an alignment of interest are still in an initial stage. Iraq has developed a hybrid regime, characterized by a democratic façade but undermined by systemic authoritarianism and corruption. Political elites practice ethnic and sectarian “clientism” which allows for political pluralism with competing parties, elections and changes in executive leadership but has so far failed to change the political elite which has come to power since 2003 or to provide efficient government and a rule of law.[1]

The last challenge for Iraq is dealing with foreign influence and control and Iraq’s traditional desire for independence. One such problem—the occupation—appeared well on its way to closure after the withdrawal of US forces in 2011. However, a small American military “presence,” which remained to equip and train Iraqi forces, began to expand in size and scope to deal with the ISIS challenge after 2014. Civilian influence is also likely to remain through support for various endeavors in education, health, and civil society. The reduced US position after 2011, however, has been matched by increased influence from regional competitors, especially Iran, but also Turkey and Arab neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia. Some of this regional influence has been negative. Saudi Arabia and Turkey withheld cooperation or, worse, stirred local instability. Iran’s influence increased through training and equipping domestic Shi’i militias often outside of government control. Saudis, in particular, fear Iraq’s ties with Iran. Iraq, now a weak state, will have to develop more domestic cohesion to be able to speak with one voice and to exercise a more significant regional role. Meanwhile, regional forces will continue to have considerable impact on Iraq’s domestic politics.

The most important ingredients for making progress in overcoming these challenges will be time, a respite from domestic conflicts, and a more benign external environment that allows the country and its leadership to sort through Iraq’s multiple problems and challenges. Otherwise, Iraq could slip back into more of the disruption and discontinuity that have been the chief features of the post-Saddam era and, indeed, much of Iraq’s modern history.


[1] Ibrahim al- Marashi and Aysegul Keskin, “Reconciliation Dilemmas in post-Baathist Iraq—Truth Commissions, Media and Ethno- sectarian Conflicts”, Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 13, no.2 (Summer) 2008, pp. 243–259.

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