While Republicans strongly endorse an invasion of Iraq and hawks in the Bush Administration continue to divulge their battle plans and mapping out of a workable (non) Iraq strategy, the history of Iraq, is hardly mentioned, alluded to, or referenced. This is lamentable, because the history of the British mandate in Iraq, the 1941 Rashid Ali Al-Gelani uprising, the inclusion of Mosul into Iraq, and the performance of the Iraqi army in 1948 could provide valuable insight into Iraq, as a nation, and Iraqis as a people.
The most recent evidence of Anglo-American ignorance on Iraq came last week when Western press ridiculed the recent so-called election in Iraq. While such luminaries as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell might find it humorous to engage in anecdotal reference to the 100 percent Iraqi election results, it would do well for “Iraq experts” to study the roots of such an undemocratic form of democracy: the British ‘did it’.
Under the British Mandate, the British created a paradigm of Iraqi political life at the Cairo Conference of 1921. These laws, institutions, and political limitations would remain in effect, and make Iraq a British agent in the Middle East, until the revolution of 1958.
The British saw fit to inject a Hashemite, Faisal, as a monarch of Iraq. This would be a tough sell to the Iraqis, who despite their divisions as Kurd, Turkeman, Shiite, Sunni, Christian, and Jew, were fiercely independent and nationalistic. Nevertheless, the British moved to secure Faisal as the new King of Iraq, seeing in him a Muslim who traced his lineage to the Prophet Mohammad, was remotely an Arab nationalist, and yet was so insecure in his alien presence in Iraq that he would need to heavily rely on the British as advisors, allies, and mentors.
The British moved quickly to quiet any dissent by manipulating a one-question plebiscite for the Iraqi people: “Do you agree to Faisal as King and Leader of Iraq?” Not surprisingly, the result was an astounding 96 percent.
The British were now satisfied that Iraq was secure.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Iraqis did not take to the foreign element at the head of their government. King Faisal was born in Taif, Saudi Arabia. He had proclaimed himself King of Syria, but was quickly ejected by the French, who by 1920, were in charge of the Levant (Syria and Lebanon). Faisal was exiled to Britain where he obediently waited his role to quiet the fervent nationalistic aspirations of the people of Iraq.
Nationalistic aspirations and tribal divisions came to the fore when Faisal died in 1933 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi I. Ghazi, mentored in the West, was inexperienced in the ways of the Iraqis, especially when it came to tribal political power and loyalties. In the eyes of nationalist Iraqis, Ghazi was seen little more than a puppet for the British, brought into their midst to control Iraq.
This boiled over into the first coup d’etat of the Arab world in 1936: General Bakr Sidqi proceeded to implement non-Arab policies geared towards satisfying Turkey and Iran. His policies contributed to his assassination in 1937.
A 1939 ‘mysterious’ fatal car crash ended Ghazi’s life after he had called for the invasion of Kuwait to return it to Iraqi sovereignty. Iraqis saw Ghazi’s passionate call as a pan-Arab nationalistic movement to unite Arabia. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, crashing headfirst into a lamppost, was widely believed to be a British plot.
Ghazi’s, Faisal II, ascended the throne.
“But real power was wielded by Britain’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri as-Said. The US and Britain forced Iraq to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact and sell its oil at give-away prices to the west”. (Iraq’s History is Written in Blood é Eric Margolis, http://middleeastinfo.org/article1318.html)
The 1936 and 1939 Arab revolts in Palestine gave rise to pan-Arabism as a powerful new ideology. Pan-Arabism quickly gained ground in Iraq, where the British role in massacring Arab Palestinians stoked the fires of Iraqi nationalism.
World War II gave these nationalists new power. In 1940, Rashid Ali Al Gelani succeeded Nouri as-Said as prime minister and quickly moved to restrict British movement in Iraq. The British, sensing a threat to their influence, pushed Nouri to initiate a silent coup against Gelani. For his part, Gelani, who was widely popular with the military and Iraqi civilians, ousted Nouri as-Said, who fled to Transjordan (now known as Jordan). The British invaded Iraq and were greeted with fierce resistance from the people who now believed the British were beginning a second phase in the occupation of Iraq. British RAF strafed Iraqi military and civilians alike (a 1917-1920 rebellion by Shiite tribes was quelled by the RAF who used poison gas to kill thousands of Iraqis) and marched towards Baghdad. Gelani and his staff fled to Iran. The monarchy was back in control of a disgruntled Iraq.
Iraqis now secretly talked of revolt and were completely disenfranchised from a monarchy they considered foreign and treacherous. It was perceived that Iraq’s oil wealth was being siphoned off for use by the British for the war effort, and the country’s development was in retardation.
The 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine enraged pan-Arab Iraqis. Faisal II, now King of Iraq, dispatched a poorly equipped and badly funded Iraqi army to fight the Israelis. The Iraqi army suffered humiliation and Iraqis back home blamed Nouri as-Said for deliberately keeping funds from the military. Iraqis believed that it was a British plot to weaken Iraq and keep it under Churchill’s grasp. Nouri as-Said was seen as the agent of this British plot.
Between 1950 and 1955, Nouri as-Said called for greater unity between Britain and Iraq and openly supported a U.S.-influenced coalition to face off the Soviet threat of Communism.
In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup that ended Egypt’s British-influenced monarchy. This helped tip the balance in favour of revolutionaries and pan-Arabists throughout the Arab World.
The growth of Nasser’s popularity threatened the Jordanian monarchy, which moved to quickly call for a federation between Jordan and Iraq. This was too much for Iraqis to bear.
Such was the hatred for British involvement in Iraq and for its puppet monarch that a 1958 revolution, led by General Abdul Karim Kassem, saw the most reviled butchery in Iraqi history. Iraqis marched in the streets calling for the death of the entire royal family. In the ensuing madness of a maniacal Kassem, thousands were killed and hung from lampposts as a sign and lesson for future generations.
There is no escaping the fact that the modern history of Iraq is one baptized in blood, chronicling the chaos and socio-political upheaval of foreign intervention.
The above history of Iraq by no means attempts to digest every coup, rebellion, act of anarchy and dissension in the past 90 years. However, it is noteworthy; Iraq’s history could repeat itself.
In a speech warning against invading Iraq, Arab League members warned that such an act would “open the gates of hell”.
The warning should be heeded. Except for Iran, no other country in the region has seen as bloody a modern history as Iraq.
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.