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Iraq: History of Modern Iraq

by Mitchell G. Bard

At the end of World War I, the British and French controlled the Middle East and now had to decide how to divide it, whether to adhere to their secret agreements with each other, and what, if any, role the Arabs would be given in determining their own fate. The Peace Conference held at San Remo on April 24, 1920, formally endorsed the agreements that the French and British had made and assigned them control over large swaths of territory. The French were given a mandate for Syria, whereas the British were given mandates for Palestine and Iraq. In theory, these new imperial inventions were meant to be temporary; that is, the British and French were to rule only until the residents of those areas were prepared to govern themselves. In practice, the mandatory powers were in charge of making this determination and could delay Arab independence indefinitely on the pretext that they weren’t ready.

Not all the Arabs were prepared to accept this arrangement, and those in Syria demanded immediate independence and had proclaimed Faisal king of Syria even before the mandate was formalized. This did not sit well with the French, who viewed the nationalist movement as a challenge to their rule. In short order, French forces captured the Syrian capital of Damascus and deposed Faisal, who fled to Palestine.

In Iraq, revolutionary forces also rebelled against the imperialist plan for their country and the promise for independence that was being reneged. As in Syria, however, the response was swift and overwhelming, and the British quickly pacified the country. To partially offset Arab anger and to assuage the feelings of Faisal, the British offered the throne in Iraq to the deposed king of Syria.

This created a new problem for the British because Faisal’s older brother, Abdullah, had to be rewarded for his role in the Arab revolt. Because Abdullah had expected to be made ruler of Iraq, he had to be induced to give up his claim in favor of his brother. In return, the British agreed to make him the emir of a new country that they would create for him in the area he occupied east of the Jordan River. Winston Churchill simply lopped off nearly four-fifths of Palestine in 1921 and called it Transjordan.

From Faisal to the United Nations

After putting Faisal on the throne in 1921, the British decided to eschew the route of a mandate and write a treaty instead to assert control over Iraq. The importance of Iraq grew with the production of oil in 1930, but the stability of the relationship with Britain was shaken by Faisal’s death in 1933, a year after being given independence. A series of regimes followed; several of which were brought about as a result of violent coups. So long as the resulting leadership remained favorably disposed toward England and loyal to the treaty, the British didn’t intervene.

The beginning of World War II introduced new concerns for the British as many Arabs began to view the Nazis as possible allies against the Zionists, spurred on by the arrival of the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem. Early British losses also raised fears among Iraqis of being on the wrong side of the war. Rashid Ali executed a coup d’e[as]tat in April 1941 and sought military aid from the Axis and rebelled against the British. The British rushed troops to Iraq and crushed Ali’s forces. The Iraqi government once again returned to its pro-Ally orientation and ultimately declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan and subsequently became the first Arab nation to sign the United Nations Declaration.

Palestine Influences Iraqis

After the war, a surge of nationalism led Iraq’s leaders to seek revisions in the treaty with Britain that would make the country less dependent and reduce the British military presence on Iraqi soil. Attitudes toward Britain and the United States became inflamed in late 1947 after the United Nations decided to partition Palestine. The revised treaty was abandoned, and Iraq sent troops to invade Israel.

Legislation was subsequently adopted making Zionism a capital crime. The 2,500-year-old Jewish community soon found life at best uncomfortable and often dangerous. According to Iraqi law, the Jews had to sell their property and liquidate their businesses before they could leave. Many sold large properties for ridiculous sums so that they could immigrate. By 1952, 130,000 had fled to Israel.

Rise and Fall of the King

Abdul Salam Arif and Abd al-Karim Qasim, the leaders of the 1958 revolution

On May 2, 1953, eighteen-year-old Faisal II became King of Iraq. His government soon began to seek ways to counter the growing influence of Egyptian President Nasser and his Pan-Arab movement, which was viewed as a threat to the monarchy. Iraqi officials met with the Saudi monarch and convinced him that he no longer had to worry about the revenge of the Hashemite family, but should be more concerned about Nasser. King Saud agreed and a new “King’s Alliance” was formed that was later enlarged to include Jordan’s King Hussein. Iraq and Jordan also agreed in 1958 to create a federative state to counter the union of Syria and Egypt.

The Iraqi leadership remained sympathetic to the Western powers and became part of their Cold War fight against communism. This led to growing isolation within the Arab world. At the same time, oil production was becoming a more important part of the economy and a source of substantial revenues.

The country’s increased wealth and perceived subservience to Western imperialism alienated growing numbers of Iraqis, including members of the military. On July 14, 1958, Brigadier-General Abdul Karim Kasem staged a coup and executed the king and the other members of the royal family, putting an end to the monarchy. The new revolutionary government declared its commitment to the Arab and Muslim nations and gradually moved toward a neutral policy toward the East and West, though with a tilt toward the Communists.

Iraq Takes a Baath

Iraq’s relations with fellow Arab states remained tense, especially with Egypt, which was impatient with any country that did not see the wisdom of joining its Pan-Arab club under Nasser’s leadership. Kassem’s regime became particularly unpopular in 1961 after Britain granted Kuwait its independence and, six days later, Kassem declared that the territory belonged to Iraq. When the rest of the Arab League came to Kuwait’s defense, Iraq was isolated. In 1963, he was killed in a coup.

The new Iraqi regime was associated with the socialist Baath party.* A month later, the Syrian branch of the party seized control in that country. Both were also committed to Arab unity and moved toward a merger with Egypt, but abandoned the idea when it became clear Nasser meant to dominate the unified entity.

Iraq remained part of the Arab coalition seeking to destroy Israel. In June 1967, Iraq sent a token force to the Jordanian front. After the war, the Soviets replaced weapons destroyed by Israel and offered the Iraqis financial aid, which helped establish Iraq as a military power.

The humiliation by the Israelis, however, intensified internal opposition to the government and the military executed a coup in 1968. Under the leadership of General Hassan el-Bakr, Iraq became an even more repressive dictatorship.

Iraq took an increasingly harsh line toward Israel and, although it again sent only a token contingent to fight in 1973, became one of the most outspoken Arab governments in its commitment to liberate Palestine. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, Iraq emerged as the leader of the rejectionist front opposing the agreement.

Then Came Saddam

In 1979, al-Bakr resigned, or was forced out, by the number two person in the government, Saddam Hussein. Over the next several months and years, Hussein firmly established his control over the government by executing anyone who represented a real or imagined challenge and making clear through his ruthlessness that no dissent would be tolerated.

Hussein's efforts to expand his influence led to two costly wars, first with Iraq and then with the U.S.-led coalition forces. Although Hussein survived, his people suffered. After the Gulf War, the United Nations imposed trade sanctions that were only to be lifted after Iraq destroyed its chemical and biological weapons, terminated its nuclear weapons programs, and accepted international inspections to see that these conditions were met. The sanctions restricted oil sales, but this was later modified to allow Iraq to sell limited amounts of oil for food. The sanctions were further relaxed in 2002 to allow more humanitarian aid into the country.

The U.S. Congress provided funding for Iraqi opposition forces in the hope that they might topple Saddam. Those efforts were widely criticized as ineffective and insufficient to do the job.

U.S. and British war planes to patrol the skies over the parts of northern and southern Iraq (declared to be no-fly zones to protect the Kurdish and Shia populations), occasionally drawing fire from Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries, which would provoke retaliatory attacks on the Iraqi positions by the Allied planes.

Hussein continued to sponsor terrorist organizations and offered $25,000 to the families of Palestinian terrorists.

In 2003, the Bush administration announced it would seek a change of regime in Iraq and believed the progress Hussein had made toward building a nonconventional arsenal made Iraq a threat to the United States. On March 19, 2003, the United States led a coalition of forces in a war to liberate Iraq. Combat ended on May 1, 2003, with U.S. forces occupying most of the country and working toward the establishment of a new Iraqi government. To read the declassified CIA document that supposedly provided the justification for the Iraq invasion, click here.

*The Baath party was founded in 1943 in Damascus by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar. It advocates the creation of a single Arab socialist nation.

Source: Mitchell G. Bard, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict. 4th Edition. NY: Alpha Books, 2008.

Photo: See page for author, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.