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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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Wilson came down hard, ordering aerial bombardments, the machine-gunning of rebels and the destruction of whole towns. “The British overreaction made things much worse,” says Janet Wallach, author of a biography of Bell, Desert Queen. An aghast Bell wrote to her mother, “We have underestimated the fact that this country is really an inchoate mass of tribes which can’t as yet be reduced to any system. The Turks didn’t govern and we have tried to govern—and failed.” Some 6,000 Iraqis and 500 British and Indian soldiers perished before the revolt was finally put down in October. By then, the British press and public had turned against Colonial Office plans to run Iraq. As The Times of London had put it three months earlier, “How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”

 

The following year, a conference in Cairo presided over by Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary for Iraq affairs, determined that a constitutional monarchy was the surest path toward a stable, prosperous Iraq. At first glance, Faisal seemed an unlikely choice as ruler. The 35-year-old prince, son of the Sharif Hussein of Mecca (now part of Saudi Arabia), had never set foot in Iraq and spoke an Arabic dialect that was barely intelligible to many of his future subjects. “He had no knowledge of the Iraqi tribes, no friendships with their sheikhs, no familiarity with the terrain—the marshes in the south, the mountains in the north, the grain fields, the river life—and no sense of connection with its ancient past,” Wallach writes.

 

But Bell and other Arabists in the Colonial Office believed that Faisal, who had fought with Lawrence against the Turks, had the charisma to hold the new country together. Also, he traced his lineage to Muhammad, and to emphasize that claim he set out for his new kingdom from Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet. Along his route, chieftains tried to rally crowds—“For the sake of Allah, cheer!”—but most spectators remained unmoved. In a national referendum on his monarchy, Faisal was officially declared to have won 96 percent of the vote, prompting charges that the election was rigged. Still, a relieved Bell wrote in another letter: “We’ve got our King crowned.”

 

The Oxford-educated Bell served as Faisal’s adviser and confidante. During afternoon teas at the palace, she reeled out her vision of a progressive Iraq that could become a beacon for the Middle East. “When we have made Mesopotamia a model state, there is not an Arab of Syria and Palestine who wouldn’t want to be part of it,” she told the king, adding that she hoped to see Faisal “ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”

 

But Faisal wasn’t looking beyond his borders. Ruling his subjects—divided by ethnicity, religion and geography—was trouble enough. Like the Ottomans before them, the British and Faisal, himself a Sunni, found it expedient to favor the more pro-Western Sunni Arabs of Baghdad and the central region, though they accounted for barely 20 percent of the population. More than half of Iraqis were Shiite Arabs, concentrated in the south. Close to 20 percent were Kurds, living mostly in the north. The remainder included Jews, Assyrians and other minorities. “The British turned to the same educated elite—mostly Sunni—who had been trained and used by the Ottomans,” says historian Marr. “But a number of them soon proved to be ornery and nationalistic.”

 

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