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Weathering Iraq's Stormy Romance with the West

With some imagination, you may view Jordan as a success story of European meddling. During World War I, the British instigated the Arab Hashemite Bedouin clan of the Arabian Peninsula to revolt and throw off the yoke of their Ottoman oppressors and fight for independence.When the war ended and the smoke cleared, the Ottomans had been kicked off the peninsula, but so had the Hashemites. The British rewarded one Hashemite brother, Abdullah, with the territory that today is known as Jordan. What follows is the story of the other brother who ended up in Iraq.

The other brother

So now comes the story of Iraq and the other brother: Faisal. Still in the giving spirit, the British rewarded Faisal with Iraq in 1921. Like his brother Abdullah in neighboring Jordan, Faisal became the first king of Iraq. (See Figure 1.) The formation of Iraq involved merging three distinct populations of distinct ethnic or religious backgrounds. The Kurds from the north, who had been promised a Kurdish homeland of their own, were suddenly lumped together with Arabs from the central and southern regions. Shiites making up about 2/3 of the new kingdom were mixed with Sunnis, comprising the final 1/3, and a small percentage of Christians and Jews thrown in for good measure.

The Turks educated King Faisal in Constantinople. Faisal later took a seat in parliament as deputy of Jedda (in Arabia) before World War I. He first fought on the side of the Ottomans at the outbreak of the conflict, but later switched sides and joined the Bedouin revolts. After the war, the Syrians wanted him as their king, but the French, having no part of it, sent him back to the British, who set up house for Faisal in Iraq. Faisal's Iraqi kingdom may have been doomed from the start. He proved to be a weak leader unable to resist British demands for military presence on Iraqi soil and incapable of providing the vision and leadership needed to establish a solid functioning government amid the three diverse populations. Power slipped from the monarchy to more capable and ambitious political and military figures.


Figure 1: Iraq.

Riding through some turbulent years

Restive Iraqis wanted the British out, but with the promise of lucrative oil fields and rumors of a second world war, the British had their own plans. The years leading up to World War II set the stage for future turbulence in Iraq.

  • 1933: Faisal dies. His son Ghazi succeeds him.
  • 1933: An Assyrian Christian revolt leads to a government crackdown and bloodshed — an ugly portent of minority struggles to come.
  • 1934: The first oil exports begin. Oil meant wealth, and promise of wealth meant that opposing forces would struggle for control of that oil.
  • 1936 to 1941: Seven military coups take place.

World War II brought a new generation of political conflicts. Iraq's strategic position in the Near East, matched with its rich oil fields, rendered it a perfect target for external forces wanting to establish themselves in the region. Internal Iraqi elements of discontent saw the window of opportunity open for rebellion against British military occupation. The two forces clashed in 1941:

  • Prime Minister Rashid Ali Gailani sides with the Germans. With the support of the Golden Square (four military generals), he overthrows the pro-British emir Abdullah.
  • Rashid Ali's forces attack a British Royal Air Force base outside Baghdad.
  • Rashid Ali turns to the Germans for help, but the German preoccupation with events in North Africa and Europe delays their response.
  • Joint Indian, Arab, and British troops oust Rashid Ali and replace him with the more palatable Nuri al-Said.
  • Rashid Ali escapes, but the four generals are hanged. Their bodies are displayed on the street outside the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad to discourage future treachery.

For the remainder of the war, Nuri al-Said remained loyal to Britain and its allies. As a result of these conflicts, anti-Western sentiments started to rise — and the feelings would only increase during the next few years.

Reaching the boiling point

Painful memories of the clashes with Britain and its allies were still fresh in the minds of the Iraqi people in the late 1940s. No sooner had World War II ended than Palestinian-Israeli conflicts arose. After the Arabs' loss in the First Arab-Israeli War that ended in 1949, anti-Western bitterness abounded. Events over the next few years only compounded the problem and led to another coup.

  • 1954: Nuri al-Said dissolves all political parties and calls for new parliamentary elections.
  • 1955: The Soviet Union supports Kurdish nationalism in the north.
  • 1955: Iraq signs the Baghdad Pact, allying itself with Britain, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran at the expense of the Soviet Union.
  • 1956: The United States begins providing military aid to Iraq.
  • 1958: Reacting to the union of Syria and Egypt (UAR), Nuri al-Said announces a merger of his own: The Arab Union, made up of Iraq and Jordan.

To certain military leaders and various political opponents, all these events meant that the time was ripe for another coup. On July 14, 1958, a group of military professionals called the Free Officers, led by Abdul Karim Qasim, staged a military coup that changed the face and direction of Iraqi politics.

  • Nuri al-Said eliminated. Caught dressed as a woman and trying to escape, Nuri al-Said is killed. His killers drive over his corpse, bury it, dig it up, chop it into pieces, and parade the butchered chunks through the streets.
  • Monarchy abolished. Qasim declares Iraq a republic, executes the king, and slaughters the entire royal family — including women and children — in the royal courtyard to drive home his point.
  • Arab Union dissolved. Qasim dissolves the Arab Union of Iraq and Jordan that had been formed a few months earlier.
  • Baghdad Pact activities halted. Qasim halts Iraq's activities in the Baghdad Pact, and in 1959 officially pulls Iraq out of the military agreement.
  • Relations with the Soviet Union restored. Now that Iraq has withdrawn from the Baghdad Pack, it restores relations with the Soviets.
  • Sovereignty over Kuwait claimed. Many Iraqis had coveted Kuwait because the region had fallen under the administrative rule of Basra before the British made Kuwait a protectorate in 1899 and because in 1938 oil was discovered in the Al-Burqan oil fields.
  • Claims to part of Iranian territory laid. For more than 20 years there had been disputes over territory bordering Iran and Iraq, including the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

These changes ushered in a new era for Iraq. Not only did Iraqi policy on international affairs shift dramatically, but also the winds of internal political dissent began to signal an impending Baath.

Cleaning up Iraq with a Baath

The Baath political party originated in Syria. In 1954, the Iraqi Baath party had only 208 members. The party played a small role in Qasim's 1958 coup. Nonetheless, 12 of Qasim's 16 cabinet posts went to Baathist members. The Baathist movement at the time envisioned a pan-Arab union formed of various Arab nations, and sought to convince Qasim to join the UAR with Egypt and Syria. Although Qasim had originally entertained such notions, he later backed off the idea and threw his lot in with the communists instead. The years immediately following brought more internal intrigues, violence, and coups.

  • 1958-9: Arrests, trials, imprisonment, and persecution of opponents abound.
  • 1959: A coup fails against Qasim.
  • 1959: Qasim unleashes a violent communist backlash, resulting in rape, pillage, arrests, and persecution of noncommunist opponents.
  • October 1959: An assassination attempt against Qasim fails. His chauffeur dies in the attack, but Qasim winds up in the hospital and later recovers.

This period's chaotic politics led to another coup in 1963 by a group of Baathist officers. More important for Iraqi history is the identity of one of the 1959 attempted assassins: one Saddam Hussein.

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