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 left to Faisal to deal with the Iraqi nationalists. The British-designed constitution gave him the power to select the prime minister, dissolve parliament and issue decrees when parliament wasn’t in session. And no law could be passed without his assent. But Faisal struggled to balance British and Iraqi demands. One moment, he was beseeching British officials not to withdraw from Iraq. Days later, he was refusing to suppress anti-British demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra. “There’s always this problem of needing the support of the West and at the same time bowing to the will of the people for independence,” says Wallach.


The most insistent issue that the king faced was a new Anglo-Iraq treaty, which would provide for the maintenance of British military bases, give British officials a veto over legislation and perpetuate British influence over financial and international matters for 20 years. Faisal equivocated. In private, he assured Bell that he favored the treaty. But in public speeches, he criticized it for stopping short of removing the mandate. “Gertrude was livid at his double-dealing,” Wallach writes. A special Iraqi assembly ratified the treaty in 1924, with Faisal’s tacit support. But he had demonstrated that the British could not take him for granted.


Faisal ruled long enough to see the mandate end, in 1932, when Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state. (Though Britain’s direct participation in local government ended in 1930, pro-British elements would exercise influence until 1958.) Faisal died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1933 while seeing physicians in Switzerland. “He made himself a buffer between Iraqi nationalists and the British,” says Tripp, the British historian. “Before he died, he reached out beyond that small Sunni circle he had inherited from the Ottomans and built ties with the Shiites and Kurds.”


Today, scholars debate the extent of British influence on Iraq after the mandate. “If Faisal had lived ten more years, the history of Iraq would have been very different,” says Ed mund Ghareeb, an Iraq-born historian at GeorgetownUniversity. “After his death, the British were able to undermine the government and the monarchy by constantly putting pressure on them to serve Britain’s interests—involving oil, foreign affairs in the gulf region and other issues.”


But Reeva S. Simon, a ColumbiaUniversity historian, says Iraq achieved a measure of independence: “It joined the League of Nations. It had a press that was open and critical of the British. In foreign policy, it did not simply follow the British lead but showed itself to be increasingly pro-German during the 1930s, and invited to Baghdad people who opposed British rule in the Middle East.”



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