Iraq's Unruly Century

Ever since Britain carved the nation out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the land long known as Mesopotamia has been wracked by instability

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It was at the start of World War I that Britain first occupied Mesopotamia, then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans had allied with Germany, and Britain justified its 1914 invasion as a move to protect its oil fields in neighboring Iran and its access to Persian Gulf shipping lanes to India. Many Iraqis welcomed the British troops with open arms. The 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks, encouraged by the British military liaison officer T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), raised nationalist Arab expectations in the region. And to court Arabs throughout the Middle East, the British vowed to end three centuries of Ottoman rule, which had grown corrupt, repressive and economically stifling. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators,” proclaimed Gen. Stanley Maude, commander of the British forces, as his troops marched into Baghdad in 1917.


In 1920, the newly formed League of Nations granted Britain a “mandate” over Iraq—a kind of pre-independence trusteeship. It gave Britain the right to raise and spend revenues, to appoint officials and to make and enforce laws. (Britain was also mandated to govern Palestine. Another mandate put Syria and Lebanon under French jurisdiction.) Though the mandate approach was flawed, says historian David Fromkin, it appealed to League members because it gave the Allied powers control over territories without endorsing imperialism outright. “The mandate system responded to people who were idealistic and anti-imperialistic and others who felt it was a useful disguise to maintain the old colonial system in place,” says Fromkin, author of A Peace to End All Peace.


In the end, the boundaries of the new Iraq—a seventh century name meaning “well-rooted country”—largely mirrored the boundaries of three Ottoman provinces, though that was not the original plan. In 1915 the British had wanted the northernmost province around Mosul to go to France, to serve as a buffer between British holdings and possible Russian expansion. But Britain changed its stance in 1918 in part because of growing appreciation for the importance of oil, believed to be abundant in the Mosul area. (So it is. A well first struck oil in Kirkuk in 1927.) As for Kuwait, it had been virtually a separate British protectorate since 1899 and by World War I was already splitting from the Ottoman province of Basra that would become part of Iraq.


By the time of the 1920 mandate, Iraqi nationalism outweighed pro-British feeling. British officials differed over how to deal with the threat. “There were people like Gertrude Bell,” says PhebeMarr, a Washington, D.C.-based historian, “who came to believe in the need for some sort of self-government as soon as possible, and conservatives like Arnold Wilson [Bell’s chief], who thought that the local folk weren’t capable of running their own show and had to be tutored for a long time.”


For a while, Wilson’s arguments held sway—to the frustration of Bell and most Iraqis. When an Iraqi delegation met with Wilson, a forceful imperialist then in his 30s, he brushed them off as “ungrateful politicians.” He proceeded to turn Iraq into a virtual appendage of Britain’s colonial rule in India, bringing troops and administrators over from the subcontinent. Nationalist protests increased, and in the summer of 1920, one leader, Imam Shirazi of Karbala, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that British rule violated Islamic law. He called for a jihad, or holy war, against the British—and for once Sunnis, Shiites and rival sheikhdoms united in a common cause. The armed rebellion spread from Karbala and Najaf, in the center, to the south of the country, with uprisings by Kurds in the north as well.



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