The Disintegration of the Iraqi State Has Its Roots in World War I

Created by European powers, the nation of Iraq may be buckling under the pressure of trying to unite three distinct ethnic groups

British soldiers Iraq WWI
British soldiers enter Baghdad in 1919. Photo: © British Bureau Of Information/National Geographic Society/Corbis

When Serbian nationalists conspired to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, they lit the fuse that would, six weeks later, explode into World War I. The fallout from those murders, and the ghastly legacy of the entire war, extend far beyond the time frame of the late 1910s. Nor were they limited to Europe; the war’s effects are as fresh as the grisly stories and images coming out of Iraq today.

For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. This delicate system was undone by the West, and for an all-too-predictable reason: oil.

In order to raise an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who had joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, Great Britain forged a wartime alliance with Emir Hussein of the Hejaz region of Arabia, now the western edge of Saudi Arabia bordered by the Red Sea. The 1915 pact was a mutually advantageous one.  Since Hussein was an extremely prominent Islamic religious figure, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the alliance inoculated the British against the Ottoman accusation that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian Crusaders. In return, Britain’s promises to Hussein were extravagant: independence for virtually the entire Arab world.

What Hussein didn’t know was that, just months after reaching this accord, the British government secretly made a separate – and very much conflicting – pact with their chief ally in World War I, France.  Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of the Arabian peninsula, while all the most politically and commercially valuable portions of the Arab world – greater Syria, Mesopotamia – would be carved into British and French imperial spheres. 

This double-cross was finally laid bare at the postwar Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and solidified at the San Remo Conference in April 1920.  Under the terms of these imperial agreements, France was to be given much of greater Syria – essentially the modern-day borders of that country, along with Lebanon - while the British would possession of the vast swath of the Arab world just below, an expanse stretching from Palestine in the west all the way to Iraq. 

But if history has shown that it’s always risky to divide a historical homeland, as the British and French had done in greater Syria, even more perilous is to create an artificial nation – and this is precisely what the British had done in Iraq. 

In the promises made to Emir Hussein back in 1915 regarding future Arab independence, one of the very few “modifications” the British asked for was in the two southern vilayets of Iraq, where oil had been discovered; here, London suggested, “special administrative arrangements” would have to be made.

By war’s end, however, oil had also been discovered in the vilayet of Mosul, just to the north, and Britain cast its covetous gaze there, as well. Since the promise of Arab independence was already a dead letter, the solution was quite simple: the “nation” of Iraq was created by fusing the three Ottoman provinces into one and put under direct British control.

Naturally, Britain didn’t present this as the land-grab that it truly was. To the contrary, there was much high-minded talk of the altruistic nature of their mission, of how, after a sufficiently civilizing period of Western tutelage, the locals might be allowed to govern themselves. When the ungrateful locals balked at this notion, the British simply dismissed the officials and bureaucrats of the former regime, ignored the tribal leaders, and placed their new vassal state under the direct administration of British civil servants and soldiers.   

To the few Britons who actually had some familiarity with that corner of the Arab world, the signs of impending calamity were unmistakable. Among them was T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” As Lawrence wrote to a newspaper editor in September 1919 in regard to the simmering tensions in Iraq, “if we do not mend our ways, [I] will expect revolt there about March next.”

Lawrence was only off on his timetable, with the revolt actually coming in June 1920. Caught completely off-guard was the local British administration. Within weeks, hundred of their soldiers and civil servants had been killed, with the rebellion only eventually put down by a “surge” of British troops and severe military reprisals, including the dropping of poison gas on tribal insurgents.

In a belated effort to defuse the crises in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East – throughout the region, Arabs seethed at having traded their Ottoman overseers for European ones – the British government hastily appointed Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary in early 1921.  One of the first people Churchill turned to for help was Lawrence the war hero and champion of the Arab independence cause. As a result of the Cairo Conference that March, one of Emir Hussein’s sons, Faisal, was made king of Iraq, while another son, Abdullah, was placed on the throne of the newly-created kingdom of Jordan. 


Faisal and delegates
Emir Hussein's son Faisal at the Versailles peace conference in 1919 with his delegates and advisors: (left to right) his private secretary and fellow delegate Rustem Haidar, Brigadier General Nuri Said of Baghdad, Captain Pisani of France, Col. T. E. Lawrence, and Hassan Kadri. Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS

But whereas the ‘artificial nation’ of Jordan would eventually achieve some degree of political stability and cohesion, the same could never truly be said of its Iraq counterpart.  Instead, its history would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s for very good reason: the disastrous British playbook of 1920 was almost precisely replicated by the United States in 2003. This time, of course, it was to ‘free’ the Iraqi people from the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party, a campaign that, many in the U.S. government agreed, would result in the invading American troops being hailed as “liberators” by a grateful local populace. Just as in Lawrence’s day, the naysayers to this rosy scenario were simply ignored as the occupying mandarins, this time known as the Coalition Provisional Authority, blithely embarked on a “de-Baathification” policy, cashiering the Iraqi military and purging its civilian administration of Baathist loyalists, that all but wiped out the local structure of governance.

To an even greater degree than the British in 1920, it seemed the Americans in 2003 never really considered the role that sectarian and clan and tribal allegiances might assume in the resulting power vacuum – indeed, there is scant evidence they were even aware of them – and within months they had a full-blown insurgency on their hands.

The American misadventure in Iraq has proven to be by far the more ruinous one. At least its British forebear had the unintended consequence of uniting – however briefly – Iraq’s fractured population in opposition to their rule, whereas the more recent occupation spawned sectarian divides that remained  when the U.S. withdrew its forces in 2011.

The result over the past decade has been the gradual dismantling of the Iraqi nation. Long gone, either to their graves or to foreign exile, have been the country’s relatively small communities of Christians and Yazidis, adherents of a religious splinter sect in northern Iraq long derided by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims as “devil worshippers.” Most devastating has been the eruption of the Islamic Shia-Sunni schism into sectarian slaughter. Vast swatches of the Shiite-majority regions of southern Iraq have been “ethnically-cleansed” of their Sunni minorities, while precisely the same fate has befallen the Shiite in Sunni-dominant regions. This purging has extended down to the village, and even city neighborhood, level.  Amidst this quagmire, the Kurds of northern Iraq, who long ago effectively seceded from the rest, are establishing their own government complete with their own military and border controls.  For those who, in 2003, worried that the American mission in Iraq might become an extended exercise in “nation-building” precisely the opposite has proven true. 

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