Al-Hayat 20/08/ 2003
Hegel says that the present we live is influenced by the past. This is highly applicable on current events in Iraq. Its modern government established in 1921 magically collapsed blowing all the amazing efforts the politicians and administrators made in developing the nation project, into thin air.
Iraq, to which the British arrived during WWI, had nothing to do with the nation that was once the most important civilizations in the world until the invasion of the Mongols in 1258. Hülegü’s destruction of the irrigation system, which goes back to the Sumerian and Assyrian eras, and the absence of a unified central government, helped to gradually transform Iraq from an agricultural land into a desert. With the continuous invasions from Central Asian tribes, diseases and floods, the farmers of the valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates, became extinct. Bedouin Arab tribes who only began to settle in the 18th century replaced them.
When the British arrived in Iraq, its population did not exceed 2.5 million people and its cities were small, civilized oasis ruled by tribes and their Bedouin values. Iraqi intellectuals and military officers, Baghdad, Mosul and Basra, who studied in Istanbul, realized that there is an identity that binds them which is that they lived in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates. This, after the transcendence of the Turkish Nationalist current with the Young Turkey movement in the mid 19th century, and the military coup against Sultan Abdulhamit in 1908.
The British ruled the three cities (Baghdad, Mosul and Basra) as they pleased. At first, the idea of direct rule over this area was widespread among British officials, just like India. However, the 20s revolution, tilted the balance in favor of those who wanted an independent Iraq and the appointment of Faisal bin Sharif of Mecca as its king. Also, Britain succeeded in blocking Turkey’s request to annex Mosul to its territories. Instead, British administrators gathered pieces, in which tribes living under the rule of their heads with lacking enough in economic relations to bring them together.
From the beginning, the project of building an Iraqi state was based on coercion. Since, how could it possible to merge Arab and Kurdish tribes with their own frontiers and laws into a central project exceeding their limits? The European state emerged as a result of economic evolution within its feudalism to form a single political entity. It was the other way around for Iraq; the state was established first, then its elements were welded into one entity.
How successful was this project? Some important studies, like Charles Tripp’s book ‘A History of Iraq,’ reveal the difficulties that faced this project. Not only due to the conflict between the quasi peasant majority with the small cities, but more importantly because the clash between the opposing political elite, who stood against the ruling elite; the latter mostly made up of military men who served in the Ottoman army and later joined the revolution of Al Sharif Al Hussein in Mecca.
Since the establishment of the Iraqi state, a stand was taken against the treaty imposed by Britain on the monarchical Iraqi rule as the sole standard for the political evaluation at the time. In return for its ratification by the Iraqi Parliament, Britain promised not to allow the Turkish state to annex Mosul. If we carefully study that treaty, which the political elite opposed and according to that was branded nationalist, we would discover that it guarantees the interests of both parties (especially that Iraq, as a political entity, was still in its first forming phase). Since it cannot be imagined that the British would come and establish a state over the ruins, compounded over seven and a half centuries, for nothing. According to the first draft of the treaty, Britain controlled matters of defense, foreign policy, monetary policy and internal security through its advisors within the respective cabinet offices. This would take place until Iraq is a member state in the League of Nations. On the other hand, those eager to keep Mosul a part of Iraq were branded as “agents.” This would not stop until the coup of 14 September 1958, which opened the door for the ‘patriotic’ military men to attain power, then banning civilians from any political role. This also opened the door for a small Arabist party to take power via a military coup in February 1963. During the short period in power, which lasted for nine months, the main concern of the new authority was to eliminate another nationalist party, the communist party. The coup of 1963 was a rehearsal for a more dangerous coup, which would lead Iraq into disastrous internal and international wars: the revolution of 17 July 1968, which cleared the way for bloody oppression in its most cruel form, represented by Saddam Hussein.
The latter did not attain power suddenly, but it was through gradual diversion from the primary goal: building the basic conditions for the Iraqi civil community, which the Iraqi government was drowned in, trying to realize it in one way or another, between 1921 and 1958. However, the nationalist opposition kept on rising and increasing. Opposition leaders learned nothing from the history and geography of Iraq. The fact that it is located between the two powerful nations from the East and the North specified its historical characteristics in the past six centuries. Furthermore, Iraq has been at the mercy of these two powers since the Sumerian era: Persia and Central Asia.
However, those branded as “Britain’s agents” and “backward” by the heroes of the nationalist opposition were the ones behind realizing Iraq’s independence in 1932 and its membership in the League of Nations as the first independent Arab country. Prior to that, the ruling elite succeeded in ending the British mandate and reducing the treaty to two air bases and a defense treaty between them.
When one reflects on the philosophy, which moved a politician like Nouri Al Said, one discovers that the principle behind his decisions was “Iraq first.” This means taking into consideration Iraq’s special historical and geographical relations with Turkey and Iran, and taking political stands based on Iraq’s ethnic and nationalistic reality. In 1935, when he was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nouri Al Said drafted a treaty, which Iran approved of, following its continuous pressures in demanding half of ‘Shatt Al-Arab” (Arab Coast) and the resulting tension between the two countries in the early 1930s. According to this treaty, Iran would take 4 miles from the Coast and Iraq would keep the rest. Arabist officers had their reservations against this treaty, from the basis that it is treason to Arabs within Iran. In spite of this, the following government, imposed on King Ghazi after Bakr Sidqi took control of the army, got parliament to approve it. This was enough for Sidqi’s assassination and to bring down the government and the treaty’s annulment on the hands of the Arabist officers.
With the emergence of the secret communist cells in the 1940s and Arab nationalism, the street became a mean to bring down any government no matter how progressive it is. The communists were aiming to establish a Soviet style communist regime, which only sees dictatorship and bourgeoisie in any democracy, and it calls for the proletariat’s dictatorship – realized by the Party’s dictatorship and ended up in Big Brother’s dictatorship of comrade Stalin. The Arabists did not see a hurdle in Iraq’s geographical, ethnic, nationalistic and ethnic features to dissolve Iraq within an Arab entity that does not take the specifics of this society or the other into consideration. These two powers were added to the “patriotic” front after adding “progressive” to them. On the other hand, “reactionary” was added to the “agent” front.
After the wide reforms realized after WWII; licensing three parties, the division of Iraq into 100 electoral districts instead of three, and holding new two-round elections instead of one. The “revolutionary” forces raged after few years in what was later known as “the leap” objecting to the Portsmouth Treaty, which further limited the previous one. If Prime Minister Saleh Jabr thought that he would receive a hero’s welcome upon his return to Baghdad after signing the treaty, he was dead wrong. He received news that the Iraqi “street” exploded with riots and protests after the incitement of the “progressive” political elite against the treaty, with no knowledge of its content. It ‘s as if this opposing elite thinks that the game of democracy means to use the street to bring down governments. This only led to the declaration of martial law.
Even when Nouri Al Said wanted to separate the Construction Council, established in 1947, from politicians and place into the hands of technocrats and dedicating 70% of the oil returns to it, the opposition blew in his face because of the presence of an American and a British expert among its seven members. The funny thing is that the best report critical of the construction policy at the time was Lord Sattler’s, which demanded to dedicate a larger part from the construction council’s revenues to civil services, such as schools and hospitals, rather than to concentrate on expanding lands suitable for agriculture and irrigation projects.
The last foolish act Nouri Al Said, based on “Iraq first,” was to have a defense alliance with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, by which he was able to annul the treaty with Britain and to guarantee stable relations with Iraq’s two historical neighbors. However, it would prove that this would be the last nail in the coffin of the monarchical regime, since it was considered as an essential reason to spread the “patriotic” front’s resentment for him and provided another pretext to the Free Officers to make their move.
The coup of 14 July 1958 led by the Free Officers Movement was a copy of the coup of 23 July 1952 in Egypt. However, it opened Pandora’s box and released all evil. This military coup opened the door for Iraqi officers to go through the adventure of coups year after year. The Iraqis were not surprised with the coup of 17 July 1968, which opened the door to power in front of Saddam Hussein. For, the infighting among the Free Officers led to the death of their leaders, one after the other and by each others’ hands. Only one remained as the last obstacle in the Baathists’ race for power, Said Salibi, commander of the Republican Guards. However, he had to travel to Britain to undergo an operation, which allowed the conspirators to strike their final blow. This was the last successful coup to take place in Iraq, for Saddam brought with him the secret “gang” concept based on assassinations as a means for ruling. He supervised the “Hanin” organization for assassinations, which restrained the power of the officers in comparison with this secret bold organization. According to the principles of assassinations followed by that organization before Saddam reached power, he was able to set his governing method by eliminating all his companions one by one and later going through a suicidal project from which Iraq needs dozens of years to get out of.
Today, I can’t say that Iraq is being reborn as in 1920, for the tribal entities were dissolved in the labor market, military draft, education, and other factors. Back then, the rate of illiteracy exceeded 90%. Today we live in a country full of people of authority on different subjects, which need a straight political frame in order to excel.
What Iraq needs to create such a frame is to learn from history, for every regime tried to eliminate what preceded it. This went on until we reached an empty memory of the young Iraqi generations who cannot use any historical experiences to chart their future course by. The Iraqis need to know their history and start to get acquainted with their heroes to learn from them. We need to communicate with the world of the dead to reach a consensus, which would bring back the principle of “Iraq first.” Let others say what they may.
* Mr. Abdulilah is an Iraqi writer living in London.