THE OTTOMAN PERIOD, 1534-1918
From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, the course of
Iraqi history was affected by the continuing conflicts between
the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Ottoman Turks. The Safavids,
who were the first to declare Shia Islam the official religion
of Iran, sought to control Iraq both because of the Shia holy
places at An Najaf and Karbala and because Baghdad, the seat of
the old Abbasid Empire, had great symbolic value. The Ottomans,
fearing that Shia Islam would spread to Anatolia (Asia Minor),
sought to maintain Iraq as a Sunni-controlled buffer state. In
1509 the Safavids, led by Ismail Shah (1502-24), conquered Iraq,
thereby initiating a series of protracted battles with the Ottomans.
In 1514 Sultan Selim the Grim attacked Ismail's forces and in
1535 the Ottomans, led by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-66),
conquered Baghdad from the Safavids. The Safavids reconquered
Baghdad in 1623 under the leadership of Shah Abbas (1587-1629),
but they were expelled in 1638 after a series of brilliant military
maneuvers by the dynamic Ottoman sultan, Murad IV .
The major impact of the Safavid-Ottoman conflict on Iraqi history
was the deepening of the Shia-Sunni rift. Both the Ottomans and
the Safavids used Sunni and Shia Islam respectively to mobilize
domestic support. Thus, Iraq's Sunni population suffered immeasurably
during the brief Safavid reign (1623-38), while Iraq's Shias were
excluded from power altogether during the longer period of Ottoman
supremacy (1638-1916). During the Ottoman period, the Sunnis gained
the administrative experience that would allow them to monopolize
political power in the twentieth century. The Sunnis were able
to take advantage of new economic and educational opportunities
while the Shias, frozen out of the political process, remained
politically impotent and economically depressed. The Shia-Sunni
rift continued as an important element of Iraqi social structure
in the 1980s (see Religious Life , ch. 2).
By the seventeenth century, the frequent conflicts with the Safavids
had sapped the strength of the Ottoman Empire and had weakened
its control over its provinces. In Iraq, tribal authority once
again dominated; the history of nineteenth-century Iraq is a chronicle
of tribal migrations and of conflict. The nomadic population swelled
with the influx of beduins from Najd, in the Arabian Peninsula.
Beduin raids on settled areas became impossible to curb. In the
interior, the large and powerful Muntafiq tribal confederation
took shape under the leadership of the Sunni Saadun family of
Mecca. In the desert southwest, the Shammar--one of the biggest
tribal confederations of the Arabian Peninsula--entered the Syrian
desert and clashed with the Anayzah confederation. On the lower
Tigris near Al Amarah, a new tribal confederation, the Bani Lam,
took root. In the north, the Kurdish Baban Dynasty emerged and
organized Kurdish resistance. The resistance made it impossible
for the Ottomans to maintain even nominal suzerainty over Iraqi
Kurdistan (land of the Kurds). Between 1625 and 1668, and from
1694 to 1701, local shaykhs ruled Al Basrah and the marshlands,
home of the Madan (Marsh Arabs). The powerful shaykhs basically
ignored the Ottoman governor of Baghdad.
The cycle of tribal warfare and of deteriorating urban life that
began in the thirteenth century with the Mongol invasions was
temporarily reversed with the reemergence of the Mamluks. In the
early eighteenth century, the Mamluks began asserting authority
apart from the Ottomans. Extending their rule first over Basra,
the Mamluks eventually controlled the Tigris and Euphrates river
valleys from the Persian Gulf to the foothills of Kurdistan. For
the most part, the Mamluks were able administrators, and their
rule was marked by political stability and by economic revival.
The greatest of the Mamluk leaders, Suleyman the II (1780-1802),
made great strides in imposing the rule of law. The last Mamluk
leader, Daud (1816-31), initiated important modernization programs
that included clearing canals, establishing industries, training
a 20,000-man army, and starting a printing press.
The Mamluk period ended in 1831, when a severe flood and plague
devastated Baghdad, enabling the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, to
reassert Ottoman sovereignty over Iraq. Ottoman rule was unstable;
Baghdad, for example, had more than ten governors between 1831
and 1869. In 1869, however, the Ottomans regained authority when
the reform-minded Midhat Pasha was appointed governor of Baghdad.
Midhat immediately set out to modernize Iraq on the Western model.
The primary objectives of Midhat's reforms, called the tanzimat,
were to reorganize the army, to create codes of criminal and commercial
law, to secularize the school system, and to improve provincial
administration. He created provincial representative assemblies
to assist the governor, and he set up elected municipal councils
in the major cities. Staffed largely by Iraqi notables with no
strong ties to the masses, the new offices nonetheless helped
a group of Iraqis gain administrative experience.
By establishing government agencies in the cities and by attempting
to settle the tribes, Midhat altered the tribal-urban balance
of power, which since the thirteenth century had been largely
in favor of the tribes. The most important element of Midhat's
plan to extend Ottoman authority into the countryside was the
1858 TAPU land law (named after the initials of the government
office issuing it). The new land reform replaced the feudal system
of land holdings and tax farms with legally sanctioned property
rights. It was designed both to induce tribal shaykhs to settle
and to give them a stake in the existing political order. In practice,
the TAPU laws enabled the tribal shaykhs to become large landowners;
tribesmen, fearing that the new law was an attempt to collect
taxes more effectively or to impose conscription, registered community-owned
tribal lands in their shaykhs' names or sold them outright to
urban speculators. As a result, tribal shaykhs gradually were
transformed into profit-seeking landlords while their tribesmen
were relegated to the role of impoverished sharecroppers.
Midhat also attempted to replace Iraq's clerically run Islamic
school system with a more secular educational system. The new,
secular schools provided a channel of upward social mobility to
children of all classes, and they led slowly to the growth of
an Iraqi intelligentsia. They also introduced students for the
first time to Western languages and disciplines.
The introduction of Western disciplines in the schools accompanied
a greater Western political and economic presence in Iraq. The
British had established a consulate at Baghdad in 1802, and a
French consulate followed shortly thereafter. European interest
in modernizing Iraq to facilitate Western commercial interests
coincided with the Ottoman reforms. Steamboats appeared on the
rivers in 1836, the telegraph was introduced in 1861, and the
Suez Canal was opened in 1869, providing Iraq with greater access
to European markets. The landowning tribal shaykhs began to export
cash crops to the capitalist markets of the West.
In 1908 a new ruling clique, the Young Turks, took power in Istanbul.
The Young Turks aimed at making the Ottoman Empire a unified nation-state
based on Western models. They stressed secular politics and patriotism
over the pan-Islamic ideology preached by Sultan Abd al Hamid.
They reintroduced the 1876 constitution (this Ottoman constitution
set forth the rights of the ruler and the ruled, but it derived
from the ruler and has been called as at best an "attenuated autocracy,"),
held elections throughout the empire, and reopened parliament.
Although the Iraqi delegates represented only the well- established
families of Baghdad, their parliamentary experience in Istanbul
proved to be an important introduction to self- government.
Most important to the history of Iraq, the Young Turks aggressively
pursued a "Turkification" policy that alienated the nascent Iraqi
intelligentsia and set in motion a fledgling Arab nationalist
movement. Encouraged by the Young Turks' Revolution of 1908, nationalists
in Iraq stepped up their political activity. Iraqi nationalists
met in Cairo with the Ottoman Decentralization Party, and some
Iraqis joined the Young Arab Society, which moved to Beirut in
1913. Because of its greater exposure to Westerners who encouraged
the nationalists, Basra became the center from which Iraqi nationalists
began to demand a measure of autonomy. After nearly 400 years
under Ottoman rule, Iraq was ill-prepared to form a nation-state.
The Ottomans had failed to control Iraq's rebellious tribal domains,
and even in the cities their authority was tenuous. The Ottomans'
inability to provide security led to the growth of autonomous,
self- contained communities. As a result, Iraq entered the twentieth
century beset by a complex web of social conflicts that seriously
impeded the process of building a modern state.
The oldest and most deeply ingrained conflict was the competition
between the tribes and the cities for control over the food-producing
flatlands of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The centralization
policies of the Sublime Porte (Ottoman government), especially
in the nineteenth century, constituted a direct threat to the
nomadic structure and the fierce fighting spirit of the tribes.
In addition to tribal-urban conflicts, the tribes fought among
themselves, and there was a fairly rigid hierarchy between the
most powerful tribes, the so-called "people of the camel," and
the weaker tribes that included the "people of the sheep," marshdwellers,
and peasants. The cities also were sharply divided, both according
to occupation and along religious lines. The various guilds resided
in distinct, autonomous areas, and Shia and Sunni Muslims rarely
intermingled. The territory that eventually became the state of
Iraq was beset, furthermore, by regional differences in orientation;
Mosul in the north had historically looked to Syria and to Turkey,
whereas Baghdad and the Shia holy cities had maintained close
ties with Iran and with the people of the western and southwestern
Although Ottoman weakness had allowed Iraq's self-contained communities
to grow stronger, the modernization initiated by the Sublime Porte
tended to break down traditional autonomous groupings and to create
a new social order. Beginning with the tanzimat reforms
in 1869, Iraq's for the most part subsistence economy slowly was
transformed into a market economy based on money and tied to the
world capitalist market. Social status traditionally had been
determined by noble lineage, by fighting prowess, and by knowledge
of religion. With the advent of capitalism, social status increasingly
was determined by property ownership and by the accumulation of
wealth. Most disruptive in this regard was the TAPU land reform
of 1858. Concomitantly, Western social and economic penetration
increased; for example, Iraq's traditional crafts and craftsmen
gradually were displaced by mass-produced British machine-made
The final Ottoman legacy in Iraq is related to the policies of
the Young Turks and to the creation of a small but vocal Iraqi
intelligentsia. Faced with the rapidly encroaching West, the Young
Turks attempted to centralize the empire by imposing upon it the
Turkish language and culture and by clamping down on newly won
political freedoms. These Turkification policies alienated many
of the Ottoman-trained intelligentsia who had originally aligned
themselves with the Young Turks in the hope of obtaining greater
Arab autonomy. Despite its relatively small size, the nascent
Iraqi intelligentsia formed several secret nationalist societies.
The most important of these societies was Al Ahd (the Covenant),
whose membership was drawn almost entirely from Iraqi officers
in the Ottoman army. Membership in Al Ahd spread rapidly in Baghdad
and in Mosul, growing to 4,000 by the outbreak of World War I.
Despite the existence of Al Ahd and of other, smaller, nationalist
societies, Iraqi nationalism was still mainly the concern of educated
Arabs from the upper and the middle classes.
Data as of May 1988