Ancient splits, colonial legacy weigh on Iraq
By Charles A. Radin, Globe Staff, 08/20/1990
say with my heart full of sadness that there is not yet in Iraq an Iraqi people."
This was the lament of Faisal I, first king of modern Iraq, in the early 1930s at the dawn of national independence, and both the speaker and his words are highly relevant to understanding what has happened in Iraq in the past half century and why its ruler, Saddam Hussein, is behaving as he is now. Faisal's British backers, who were the dominant force in the country until the Baath Party , currently led by Saddam Hussein, came to power in 1958, created an Iraqi resentment of foreigners. That is apparent to this day, and the internal divisions which the King bemoaned continue to plague the country, according to scholars of Iraq and the Middle East.
"This government rules over a Kurdish group most of which is ignorant and which includes persons with personal ambitions who call upon this group to abandon the government because it is not of their race," Faisal said.
There is "a wide breach" between the new nation's Shiite Moslem masses and its Sunni Moslem elite, Christians are "encouraged to demand different rights, there are also huge blocks of other tribes. . . who want to reject everything related to the government because of their interests and the ambitions of their sheiks."
Today, area specialists point out the following:
- Iraq has a slight Shiite Moslem majority that lacks political clout, 20 percent of the people are Sunni Moslem Arabs, 20 percent are non-Arab Kurds, and there is a smattering of other groups.
"This is a country in which there is no majority," said Roy Mottahedeh, professor of Islamic history at Harvard University. "Everybody in one sense or another is a minority. The solution has been an extremely powerful central party with an overtly secular ideology."
- The British installation of Hashemite family members in Iraq and Jordan decades ago, after they were pushed out of power in Mecca and Medina by the Saudis, continues to influence both the Jordanian-Iraqi relationship and relations with other Arab states.
- The Kurds are not logically part of an Arab Iraq, which itself was not a historic entity. As a result of French-British negotiations, the Kurds were apportioned into Iraq in an effort to even up the percentages of Shiites and Sunnis in the new nation.
Modern-day Iraq was in Old Testament times Mesopotamia; ancient Babylon was about 60 miles south of present-day Baghdad. It encompassed the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with Baghdad at its center and Basra, near where the rivers meet and flow to the Persian Gulf as the Shatt al-Arab, as its port.
The extreme brutality of the early rulers became an important part of the area's political culture, scholars say, and lack of a port on the Mediterranean or Red seas kept Iraq isolated from the moderating influences of other societies.
From 1500 until World War I, present-day Iraq was within the Ottoman Empire, and most of the important actors in the early history of modern Iraq were educated in Istanbul.
Kuwait existed as a distinct entity from the 18th century, and was ruled by the Sabah family which was ousted by Iraq two weeks ago. It also was part of the Ottoman empire, and paid tribute to the Ottoman province that was centered at Basra, but in reality the Ottoman Turks never really established control.
The Great Mubarak Sabah severed Kuwait's tributary relationship with the Ottoman Turks in 1899 by obtaining a secret treaty of protection with Britain, hinting to the British that he would grant a coaling station to the Russians if they did not agree to the treaty. The price of the treaty for Kuwait was to cede increasing control of its foreign affairs to the British crown.
"Iraq always has had claims on Kuwait" based on the tributary relationship, points out Laurie Mylroie, a fellow at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies, and "always has blamed British imperialism for not getting it."
Under a mandate granted the British by the League of Nations following World War I, Iraq was forged from three former provinces of the empire -- the area around Basra in the south, around Baghdad in the center and around Mosul in the north.
The nation gained its independence in 1932, the first Arab state to do so. But it was not so much real independence as a manifestation of a new British policy of indirect rule, according to Liora Lukitz, an Israeli scholar now at Harvard completing a book on the emergence of the Iraqi state.
The policy was worked out at the Cairo Conference of 1921 under the guidance of Winston S. Churchill, who had recently become Britain's colonial secretary.
"The British decided to create Iraq for their own interests after World War I," said Lukitz. "It was part of their air route to India. The policy of indirect rule was conceived to preserve air bases without incurring the cost of troops or a massive presence.
"With the development of nationalism came an anti-British reaction," she said, "and from the mid-1930s on, as fascism became stronger in Europe, there was a strong attraction to it in Iraq as part of the reaction against the British."