A History Of Iraq
issue 316 - September 1999
Land between two rivers
The ancient land known in Greek as ‘Mesopotamia’ or the ‘land between two rivers’ is the site of what is today the beleaguered state of Iraq. This fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers was one of the cradles of human civilization. It is here that some of the first large-scale irrigation systems gave birth to a settled form of agriculture and to a centralized state. This provided security from hunger and the basis for the growth of towns such as Babylon, built by the Akkadians around 2,225 BC. Those who settled between the rivers – the Sumerians, Akkadians and later the Assyrians – had to be constantly vigilant against the peoples of the surrounding desert who cast envious eyes on their fertile bounty. Military virtues (including the ability to capture slaves) were thus mixed with other accomplishments of ‘civilization’ such as the written word (including the famous Epic of Gilgamesh), a legal code, the wheel, and the plough. The legendary wealth of this fertile crescent is echoed in biblical literature; the Euphrates flows through the Garden of Eden and the Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar (villainized in the Book of Daniel) is held to be responsible for building the Tower of Babel in downtown Babylon (illustration above). As always it is difficult to sort out political bias from historical fact.
The unholy wars
Facts, however, are more easily established when written down. The first appearance of the word ‘Arab’ is an Assyrian inscription. Early Arabs, keen traders and skilled in architecture, sculpture and metalwork, followed a supreme being whom they called Al-Rahman, ‘the Merciful’. But life was anything but merciful, as the stories of Sheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights show.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam took a firm hold on the region. Succession struggles between local Caliphs (kings) came to an end in 1055 when Tughril Beg, a warrior from the Turkish steppes, established a Seljuk dynasty (Sunni and Sufi Muslims) banned Arabic and marginalized Shi’a and Arab influence.
Then the first of a series of Christian holy wars (The Crusades) against Islam began, the ulterior motive for which was to establish European control over Middle Eastern riches. But the Crusaders faced powerful opposition, particularly from the legendary Salah-el-Din (Saladin). Successive Crusades failed to make significant gains, though the missions were carried out with such barbarity that Arabs still quote stories of the Crusaders eating Muslim babies. The peace of Ramla in 1192 consolidated Muslim victories but left the Islamic world fatally weakened in the face of the next onslaught – the Mongols.
The Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan declared that ‘All cities must be razed, so that the world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers may suckle free and happy children’. In 1258 he reduced Baghdad (now the capital) to rubble, killing 800,000 men, women and children in the process. But like all empires, the rule of the Mongols eventually declined, and they were defeated by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent. At the height of his power Suleiman presided over territory that spread from the deserts of North Africa to the plains of Hungary – a vast swathe to equal any empire. The next three centuries saw Ottoman rule interrupted only by sporadic Persian forays into Iraq. The hard-pressed people of the capital bore the brunt of this fighting and faced starvation and an attack of the bubonic plague in 1831.
Black gold and the Union Jack
The discovery of oil at the end of the nineteenth century meant that covetous Western gazes were once more being cast in Iraq’s direction. Britain already supplied 65 per cent of the Mesopotamian market and controlled much of the carrying trade in the area. In March 1917, in the midst of World War One, the British army took Baghdad with the help of an Arab revolt against the German-allied Ottomans. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 Arab lands were effectively shared out among the Western powers – despite earlier promises of independence after the war. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement the entire Middle East was carved up between France and Britain. France kept Syria, Greater Lebanon and some of northern Iraq while Britain grabbed Baghdad and Basra. The long-suffering Kurds were to be kept as a separate entity under the British.
The British brooked no dissent in their rule of Iraq. Winston Churchill argued ‘in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes’– mainly referring to the Kurds. The British crowned Feisal I as puppet-king in 1921. In a counter-insurgency war against a nascent independence movement whole villages were pulverized by artillery, suspected ringleaders shot without trial, and a plethora of nasty weapons such as phosphorus bombs and metal crowsfeet to maim livestock were introduced.
Independence and the Second World War
Although Britain continued to influence affairs through diplomacy and its secret service, in 1932 Iraq became independent and joined the League of Nations (King Feisal, right.visiting Berlin). Iraq was one of the first signatories to the UN Charter on Human Rights.
In 1933 King Feisal I died and was succeeded by his son Ghazi I, whose nationalist sympathies made him the target of several attempted coups. In 1938 General Nuri al-Said seized power, aided by an army faction known as the Seven. The staunchly pro-British Nuri crushed all political dissent. In April 1939 Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident (some believe assassinated by the British), and was succeeded by his infant son Feisal II under a regent.
In March 1940 the anti-British agitator Rashid al-Gilani became Prime Minister and saw a German victory in World War Two as the way of ridding his country of British domination. On 28 April 1941 he signed a secret agreement with German and Italian forces in Baghdad.
But German support never materialized and British troops soon reached Baghdad. Churchill cabled congratulations and noted that the ‘immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad’.
This remains the aim of Western policy to this day.
Monarchy to Republic
In June 1943 a small group calling themselves the Arab Ba’ath (Resurrection) Party issued their first statement in Damascus. Their principal inspiration was the idea of ‘pan-Arabism’; that individual Arab states were ‘regions’ of an Arab nation.
In 1948, also the year when Israel was established, a new agreement was signed between Britain and Iraq in Portsmouth, England, but it was almost immediately repudiated by Iraq after riots in Baghdad over Palestinian rights.
Meanwhile the oil industry was flourishing. Riches from the oil fields were invested in ambitious national projects. Iraq – like many Third World nations in the Cold War era – was forced to choose between Western powers determined to keep a defence foothold in the area and a Soviet Union trying to develop economic ties with the Middle East. Martial law was imposed twice: once in November 1952, and then again after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Iraq broke diplomatic ties with Britain and France. Meanwhile, the US had made it clear that it would give substantial aid to any Middle Eastern state which would toe the US line.
In 1958 King Feisal, his son, and General Nuri Al Said died in a coup led by the Iraqi army. Brigadier Abd al-Karim Kassem was named Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief. In 1963 Kassem himself fell victim to a military coup when he was shot and replaced by General Aref, who in 1964 announced the merger of all political parties into the Arab Socialist Union and a major nationalization programme. In 1966 decades of Kurdish demands were finally addressed with a decentralized administration and the legal recognition of the Kurdish language and national identity.
CAROLINE PENN /
The militarization of Iraq
In 1968 a bloodless coup saw President Aref exiled and replaced by General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. Open hostilities with the Kurds broke out in 1974, but the US, who provided them with weapons, failed to come to their aid when Iraq unleashed a massive attack.
In July 1979 Saddam Hussein Takriti became President. The continuing dispute in the south with Iran over the Shatt Al-Arab waterway led to the Iran-Iraq War which has been compared in terms of slaughter to the First World War. More than a million people had died by the time the war ended in July 1988. Both the US and the USSR assisted and armed Iraq.
Meanwhile, continuous fighting in the north led to a poison gas attack by Iraq on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which 5,000 people perished. In March1990 Iranian-Kurdish journalist Farzad Bazoft was convicted of espionage and executed in Baghdad. The incident provoked outrage in the West. In July the US Congress voted to impose sanctions against Iraq.
Disputes with Kuwait about oil and land issues became increasingly tense, leading to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces and then the Gulf War. An alliance of 33 nations launched a six-week long attack in which about 250,000 people died and much of Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed. Following Iraq’s defeat there were uprisings among the Shi’a population in the south and the Kurds in the north, in the vain hope of Western military support. The Kurds were able to gain a UN-sanctioned ‘safe haven’ from Iraqi forces presided over by a US-enforced no-fly zone. The Shi’a revolt was brutally suppressed.
In the meantime, sanctions continue. To date more than a million deaths can be traced to their effects.
Research by Felicity Arbuthnot and Nikki van der Gaag.
Iraq from Sumer to Saddam Geoff Simons (Macmillan, 1996);
The Fire this time Ramsey Clark (Thunders Mouth Press, 1994);
The Middle East and North Africa (Europa Publications);
Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War John R Macarthur (University of California Press, 1993).
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.