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Arabic & Islamic Studies essay – Social and political history of Iraq

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What are the characteristics of society and politics and the evolution of political institutions in one of the following countries or regions in the Middle East?




Iraq’s history, society and politics have been marked by five main competing forces – colonialism, oil, religious sectarianism, ethnicity and the military. All of these have significantly influenced the Iraqi nation ever since its formation under mandate in 1920, and even today we see these five issues as paramount to future Iraqi society.


Despite the war-time promises of self-determination made to their Arab allies, after the creation of Iraq by mandate in 1920 the British set about establishing Iraqi political structures that would continue to give the British a significant element of control. Firstly, the British established the monarchy, and installed Amir Faisal as king. Faisal was a calculated appointment – he could trace his descent from the family of the Prophet, his ancestors had held political authority in Mecca and Medina since the tenth century, and he could claim leadership of the Arab emancipation movement due to his role in the 1916 revolt against the Turks – but was reliant on British support due to the cultivation of tribal allegiances.[1] As Mark Lewis describes it:


a major goal of the British policy was to keep the monarchy stronger than any one tribe but weaker than a coalition of tribes so that British power would ultimately be decisive in arbitrating disputes between the two.[2]


The institutionalisation of Faisal’s dependence on Britain came with the creation of the both constitution and the 1922 Anglo-Iraqi treaty. Although the constitution gave the monarchy considerable powers, the Treaty made the monarchy beholden to Britain in several regards – Faisal was obliged to consider all British advice on fiscal policy for as long as Iraq was in debt to Britain, British officials were to be appointed to specific posts in eighteen government departments, and Iraq was required to pay half the cost of supporting these officials.[3] William Cleveland argues, however, that the British recognised the inherent dangers in Faisal’s government being seen as a puppet of the British, and thus allowed Iraq “an increased degree of autonomy in the administration of its internal affairs.”[4] So much so that, by the final treaty in 1930, Iraq was to gain full independence within two years, Britain was bound to come to Iraq’s defence in case of war. However, the treaty also ensured the continuing influence of the British in the Iraqi army: any Iraqi military personnel trained abroad had to be trained in Britain, any foreign military instructors in Iraq had to be British, all the arms for the Iraqi army had to be supplied exclusively by Britain, and Britain had the right to maintain two air bases in Iraq.[5] While many Iraqi nationalists argued that this was “an impediment to Iraq’s real independence”[6], Faisal regarded the 1930 treaty as “the corner-stone for protecting Iraq’s independence, and…the basis of an extended Anglo-Arab friendship.”[7]



Despite Britain’s attempts to give Faisal’s monarchy at least a shred of legitimacy, there was no ignoring the fact that oil was becoming increasingly important in European affairs.  “This”, Cleveland suggests, “produced a contradiction in British policy”[8], simultaneously trying to promote the appearance of an independent Iraq and extract a favourable oil concession from the same government they had only recently installed. The ensuing lease negotiated a 75-year lease for the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), and while it provided for the payment of royalties the lease specifically excluded Iraq from even partial ownership of the company.

Throughout Iraq’s history, oil has been a major focus of both internal revolutions and external threats. By 1952 new pipelines to Lebanon and Syria increased government oil revenues to US $112 million, but corruption among government officials, the inflation caused by the oil boom and the relatively low number of Iraqis employed by oil companies contributed to the widespread dissatisfaction with the government of the day. This was underlined following the 1958 revolution when the monarchy was overthrown and, following Abd al Karim Qasim’s ascent to power, Public Law 80 was passed, dispossessing the IPC of 99.5 per cent of its concession area and dramatically increasing oil revenues to the government.[9]

Although both have had other catalysts, both Gulf Wars have, fundamentally, been about securing America’s oil supply. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 was sparked by Saddam Hussein’s claims that, firstly, Kuwait had stolen Iraqi oil from the Rumaila oilfields, and secondly that it had flooded the international oil market, causing prices to fall. The West’s immediate response to the invasion was based on concern that, should Kuwait fall, Saudi Arabia was next, and thus 40 per cent of the world’s oil reserves would be in Hussein’s possession. And although the ongoing Iraq War was supposedly based on weapons of mass destruction, numerous White House reports had emphasised the increasing importance of foreign oil to US oil consumption.[10] Michael Klare writes:


Growing worries about the stability of Saudi Arabia…heightened by revelations of Saudi extremists’ involvement in the September 11 terror attacks, have prompted US strategists to seek a backup should future instability lead to a drop in Saudi oil production, which could trigger a global recession. Some strategists have proposed Russia as a backup, others the Caspian Sea states of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. But only one country has the capacity to substantially increase oil production in the event of a Saudi collapse: Iraq. With proven reserves of 112 billion barrels of oil (compared with 49 billion for Russia and 15 billion for the Caspian states), Iraq alone can serve as a backup for Saudi Arabia. At the same time, control over Iraqi oil would allow US leaders to more easily ignore Saudi demands for US action on behalf of the Palestinians and would weaken OPEC’s control over oil prices.[11]


Klare’s argument clearly shows that not only has Iraqi oil been formative in the creation and the ongoing internal conflicts within Iraq, but it has also significantly influenced US policy not only in relation to Iraq, but as concerns oil supply the world over.

Indeed, the reason for this may not just be attributable to America’s voracious energy needs, but by the oil producing nations themselves. The 1973 oil crisis was chiefly caused by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raising oil prices by 70 per cent and cutting production by 25 per cent. In addition to this, OPEC once again highlighted the geopolitical significant of oil supplies by banning oil sales to both the US and the Netherlands, due to their support of Israel. The resulting inflation, unemployment and even recession in many Western countries could only have served to reinforce their vulnerability to foreign oil, and the need to have a dependable supply.



   One of the more significant clashes throughout Iraq’s history has been that of sectarianism, but also ethnicity. Both have played an important part in the internal evolution of Iraq, but perhaps more importantly have had vital roles in relation to foreign policy and international relations.

Despite comprising a vast majority of Iraq’s Arab population, perhaps as much as 65%, Shi’as “have been both politically impotent and economically depressed”[12]. Here, once again, we see Iraq’s history of colonialism casting long shadows even today, although in this case it is not European, but rather Ottoman imperialism. However, this is not the result of a calculated and systematic repression, but rather an accident of history and necessity. During the reign of the Ottomans, they favoured their Sunni ideological brethren for positions of administration and governance. Then, once the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the new Iraq was being formed, King Faisal really had no choice but to choose experienced administrators as government officials, and thus Iraq’s bureaucracy for much of its history has been Sunni-dominated. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this is that, of the five men who shared the premiership of Iraq thirteen times between them from 1921 to 1941, all were Sunnis with experience in the Ottoman regime.

Issues of sectarianism have also been important factors in Iraqi foreign policy, most significantly in relation to Iran. One of the great fears following Khomeini’s revolution in 1979 was that an increasingly Shi’a Iran might inspire uprising from Iraq’s suppressed Shi’a majority. As Hourani states, “the Iraqi regime faced a double challenge, as a secular nationalist government and as one dominated by Sunni Muslims”.[13] While Iraq’s invasion of Iran was a successful pre-emptive move against Shi’a resurgence as it did not split Iraqi society, “to some extent it split the Arab world”[14] as Syria supported Iran while most other Arab states gave military or financial support to Iraq. Here we can see clearly how sectarianism is not only a huge concern within Iraq, but is an issue of such magnitude that it was worthy of fighting a war in order to avoid any manifestation of it.

But perhaps even more complicated than the sectarian divisions of Iraq are those divisions in ethnicity, specifically in regards to the Kurdish peoples of northern Iraq. There are areas of Iraq, Iran and Turkey that are predominantly Kurdish in their ethnicity, and are arguably the largest nationalist bloc in the world without their own state. This is largely because, throughout history, the Kurds have never banded together to form an independent political entity, and thus have been ruled by Armenians, Persians, Byzantines, Turks and Arabs.[15] Perhaps the strongest push for an autonomous Kurdish state took place during the decline of the Ottoman Empire with the establishment of several Kurdish newspapers and societies. Although these were shut down by the Ottomans, Kurdish appeals to Britain for autonomy proved successful with the declaration of the Treaty of Sevres, wherein the Allies recognised the right of both the Kurds and the Armenians to form their own independent states. However, Mustafa Kemal’s ascension to power in Turkey saw Turkish reclamation of the Kurdish regions in its east. Furthermore, Mosul’s importance as a source of oil led to Britain including it as part of Iraq under the 1920 mandate.

Once again, as with much Iraqi history, the military has played an important role in regards to the Kurds, most obviously apparent in 1964-65. Iranian-supported Kurdish attacks in the north of Iraq prompted Iraq’s Prime Minister Bazzaz to propose a comprehensive peace settlement with the Kurds, including; predominant use of the Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, Kurdish administration of their educational, health and municipal institutions, and proportional representation in national and provincial governments. The acceptance of these terms by Mustafa Barzani, a Kurdish leader, suggested that the conflict was over. However, the army, who feared the potential damage to the armed forces if Bazzaz, a civilian, remained prime minister, strongly denounced any and all reconciliation with the Kurds, leading to President Arif asking for Bazzaz’s resignation.[16]

Interestingly, Mark Lewis argues that the entrance of the military into Iraqi politics came about following the massacre of Assyrians at a village called Simel in 1933. This massacre was ordered by a Kurdish general, Bakr Sidqi, and set precedence for military intervention “that would be followed throughout the 1950s and the 1960s.”[17] Perhaps, in a cruel twist of fate, were it not for the actions of a Kurdish general in 1933, the Kurds would have attained statehood thirty years later.

However, the greatest tragedy for the Kurds in Iraq centres on Saddam Hussein and the remarkable, monstrous shift in his treatment of Kurdish people during the course of his reign. Beginning in 1969, when Hussein was vice-chairman of the Ba’ath Party, “the party continued its efforts to win over the Kurdish people by gradually granting the Kurds a number of political rights and adopting measures aimed at encouraging reconciliation.”[18] These included:


“the establishment of the Kurdish new year Nawruz as a national holiday; the teaching of the Kurdish language in all Iraqi schools and universities; the establishment of a new university in Sulaymaniyya; the establishment of a Dohuk province (an old Kurdish demand for the establishment of a Kurdish province in Mosul province); the publication of Kurdish books and periodicals; the creation of an Academy for Kurdish Culture within the Ministry of Information; the elaboration of a departmental law based on the principle of decentralisation; an increase in the number of Kurdish programs on Kirkuk television; the granting of an amnesty to all civilians who participated in the fighting in the Kurdish area.”[19]

And indeed much of this agenda was adapted in the March 1970 Manifesto, including:


“recognition of Kurdish as the official language in those areas where Kurds constitute a majority. Kurdish and Arabic would be taught together in all schools; participation of Kurds in government, including the appointment of Kurds to key posts in the state; furtherance of Kurdish education and culture; requirement that officials in the Kurdish area speak Kurdish; right to establish Kurdish student, youth, women’s, and teacher’s organisations; economic development of the Kurdish area; return of Kurds to their villages or financial compensation; agrarian reform; amendment of the constitution to read “the Iraqi people consist of two main nationalities: the Arab and Kurdish nationalities”; return of the clandestine radio stations and heavy weapons to the government; appointment of a Kurdish vice-president; amendment of provincial laws in accordance with this declaration; formation of a Kurdish area with self-government.”[20]

Furthermore, within one month of the agreement a nine-man high commission, chaired by Saddam Hussein, was created to carry out the implementation of this agreement. A 1970 amendment to the provisional constitution declared that “all citizens are equal before the law”[21], the Kurdish language would exist side-by-side with Arabic, and the “Iraqi people are composed of two main nationalities, Arab and Kurdish.”[22]

However, all moves towards Kurdish nationalism ceased following this declaration, and 1974 saw renewed fighting. The Algerian Agreement between Iran and Iraq led to a cessation of the shah’s support for the Kurdish resistance, which led to the forced relocation of nearly 250,000 Kurds to the southern parts of Iraq. Furthermore, Ba’ath Party officials forced Arabs to move to northern regions, diluting the Kurdish presence even more.[23] And the drastic turnaround in Hussein’s policy could not be more morbidly underlined than with his use of chemical and biological weapons against Kurdish towns, such as at Halabja in the 1987 Anfal campaign,[24] allegedly killing 5,000 men, women and children within 30 minutes.



Mark Lewis offers a general explanation as to the primacy of the army throughout Iraqi history, stating that “in Iraq, as in much of the developing world, the military establishment has been the best organised institution in an otherwise weak political system.”[25] This organisation came, at the very beginning, from the British, who established the Iraqi army at the Cairo Conference of 1921, and since its inception the army has been responsible for close to a dozen coups. Including the 1936 Bakr Sidi coup, the 1941 coup led by Rashid Ali, the 1948 Wathbah uprising, the 1963 bloodless coup that installed Arif into power, and of course the 1968 coup that established the Ba’ath party in office. And we have already seen how important the army was in relation to the answering of the Kurdish question, especially in 1964-65. Furthermore, the Sunni minority that has so often held political power in Iraq has usually tried to keep all leadership positions in the army occupied by Sunnis, with the rank and file comprising mostly Shi’a. Thus we can see that the Iraqi military has always been a microcosm of Iraqi society, full of sectarian and ethnic divisions, controlled by power-hungry leaders, and seemingly haunted by the long shadow of British colonialism. Although the military has not been a factor in every aspect of Iraq’s social and political history, countless Iraqi leaders come from military backgrounds, and the frequency of coups meant that, at time, the army became the arbiter of Iraqi politics. The absolute power of the army, especially in regards to the early period of the monarchy, is perhaps explained by Lewis, who argues, “while Iraq’s body politic crumbled under immense political and economic pressure throughout the monarchic period, the military gained increased power and influence.”[26]

One of the greatest examples of the importance of the military can be found in the rise and rule of Saddam Hussein. Despite international opposition from the US, UN, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, until the US-led invasion in 2003 there emerged not a single serious Iraqi opposition leader ready to challenge Saddam’s leadership. Hourani argues that this is because Saddam enjoys ‘asabiyya – a corporate spirit oriented towards obtaining and keeping power – largely based around the dominance of his al-Bu Nasr clan and the large numbers of Tikiritis who remain loyal to him. It was from this region that a “significant part of the officer corps had been recruited”[27] prior to the 1968 revolution that installed Hussein and Hasan al-Bakri to power. It was this same ‘asabiyya, specifically within the Republic Guard, that upheld Saddam’s power following Kurdish and Shi’a uprisings in 1991.


The history, society and politics of Iraq are all remarkably complex, interwoven as they are with the history of world wars, cold wars and colonialism to name but a few. At various moments sectarian and ethnic divisions have been paramount; at others, the military has been ascendant; and at yet others oil and geopolitics have been irresistible forces. There is perhaps no country in the world whose past, present and future is as difficult to analyse or predict, as it is impossible to know which of these competing forces will next achieve supremacy, no matter how temporary it may be.





1.      Amatzia Baram, Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 1968-89 (St Martin’s Press: New York), 1991

2.      William L. Cleveland. A history of the modern Middle East (Westview Press: Boulder), 1994.

3.      Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York), 1981

4.      Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Belknap, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2002

5.      Abbas Kelidar (ed.), The Integration of Modern Iraq (Croom Helm: London), 1979

6.      Michael T. Klare, “Oiling the Wheels of War”, The Nation, October 7, 2002

7.      Helen Chapin Metz (ed.), Iraq: a country study (Library of Congress: Washington), 1990

8.      Benjamin Shwadran, The Power Struggle in Iraq (Council For Middle Eastern Affairs Press: New York), 1960

9.      Mohammad A. Tarbush, The role of the military in politics: A case study of Iraq to 1941 (Keegan Paul International: London), 1982




[1] Mark Lewis, “Historical Setting”, in Helen Chapin Metz (ed), Iraq: a country study (Library of Congress: Washington), 1990, p.35,

[2] Lewis, op cit., p.36.

[3] Lewis, op cit., p.36-7

[4] William L. Cleveland. A history of the modern Middle East (Westview Press: Boulder), 1994, p.203.

[5] Cleveland, op cit., p.204.

[6] A. Shakara, “Faisal’s Ambitions of Leadership in the Fertile Crescent: Aspirations and Constraints” in Abbas Kelidar (ed), The Integration of Modern Iraq (Croom Helm: London), 1979, p.36.

[7] Shakar, ibid., p.36.

[8] Cleveland, op. cit., p.204

[9] Lewis, op cit., p.50.

[10] Michael T. Klare, “Oiling the Wheels of War”, The Nation, October 7, 2002

[11] Klare, ibid.,

[12] Lewis, op. cit., p.63.

[13] Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (Belknap, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts), 2002, p.432.

[14] Hourani, ibid., p.432.

[15] Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, New York), 1981, p.5.

[16] Lewis, p.56.

[17] Lewis, ibid., p.42.

[18] Ghareeb, op cit., p.79.

[19] Ghareeb, op cit., p79-80.

[20] Ghareeb, op cit., p.87-88.

[21] Ghareeb, op cit., p.101.

[22] Ghareeb, op cit., p.101.

[23] Cleveland, op cit., p.399.

[24] Jennifer R. Ridha, “The Trouble with the Tribunal: Saddam Hussein and the Elusiveness of Justice”, Middle East Report, No. 232 (Autumn, 2004), p. 40-43

[25] Lewis, op cit., p.36.

[26] Lewis, op cit., p.36.

[27] Hourani, op cit., p.461-2

Written by soundaffects

May 20th, 2008 at 5:03 pm

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