IRAQ AS AN INDEPENDENT MONARCHY
On October 13, 1932, Iraq became a sovereign state, and it was
admitted to the League of Nations. Iraq still was beset by a complex
web of social, economic, ethnic, religious, and ideological conflicts,
all of which retarded the process of state formation. The declaration
of statehood and the imposition of fixed boundaries triggered
an intense competition for power in the new entity. Sunnis and
Shias, cities and tribes, shaykhs and tribesmen, Assyrians and
Kurds, pan-Arabists and Iraqi nationalists--all fought vigorously
for places in the emerging state structure. Ultimately, lacking
legitimacy and unable to establish deep roots, the British-imposed
political system was overwhelmed by these conflicting demands.
The Sunni-Shia conflict, a problem since the beginning of domination
by the Umayyad caliphate in 661, continued to frustrate attempts
to mold Iraq into a political community. The Shia tribes of the
southern Euphrates, along with urban Shias, feared complete Sunni
domination in the government. Their concern was well founded;
a disproportionate number of Sunnis occupied administrative positions.
Favored by the Ottomans, the Sunnis historically had gained much
more administrative experience. The Shias' depressed economic
situation further widened the Sunni- Shia split, and it intensified
Shia efforts to obtain a greater share of the new state's budget.
The arbitrary borders that divided Iraq and the other Arab lands
of the old Ottoman Empire caused severe economic dislocations,
frequent border disputes, and a debilitating ideological conflict.
The cities of Mosul in the north and Basra in the south, separated
from their traditional trading partners in Syria and in Iran,
suffered severe commercial dislocations that led to economic depression.
In the south, the British- created border (drawn through the desert
on the understanding that the region was largely uninhabited)
impeded migration patterns and led to great tribal unrest. Also
in the south, uncertainty surrounding Iraq's new borders with
Kuwait, with Saudi Arabia, and especially with Iran led to frequent
border skirmishes. The new boundaries also contributed to the
growth of competing nationalisms; Iraqi versus pan-Arab loyalties
would severely strain Iraqi politics during the 1950s and the
1960s, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser held emotional
sway over the Iraqi masses.
Ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Assyrians, who had hoped
for their own autonomous states, rebelled against inclusion within
the Iraqi state. The Kurds, the majority of whom lived in the
area around Mosul, had long been noted for their fierce spirit
of independence and separatism. During the 1922 to 1924 period,
the Kurds had engaged in a series of revolts in response to British
encroachment in areas of traditional Kurdish autonomy; moreover,
the Kurds preferred Turkish to Arab rule. When the League of Nations
awarded Mosul to Iraq in 1925, Kurdish hostility thus increased.
The Iraqi government maintained an uneasy peace with the Kurds
in the first year of independence, but Kurdish hostility would
remain an intractable problem for future governments.
From the start, the relationship of the Iraqi government with
the Assyrians was openly hostile. Britain had resettled 20,000
Assyrians in northern Iraq around Zakhu and Dahuk after Turkey
violently quelled a British-inspired Assyrian rebellion in 1918.
As a result, approximately three-fourths of the Assyrians who
had sided with the British during World War I now found themselves
citizens of Iraq. The Assyrians found this situation both objectionable
and dangerous. Thousands of Assyrians had been incorporated into
the Iraqi Levies, a British-paid and British-officered force separate
from the regular Iraqi army. They had been encouraged by the British
to consider themselves superior to the majority of Arab Iraqis
by virtue of their profession of Christianity. The British also
had used them for retaliatory operations against the Kurds, in
whose lands most of the Assyrians had settled. Pro-British, they
had been apprehensive of Iraqi independence.
The Assyrians had hoped to form a nation-state in a region of
their own. When no unoccupied area sufficiently large could be
found, the Assyrians continued to insist that, at the very least,
their patriarch, the Mar Shamun, be given some temporal authority.
This demand was flatly refused by both the British and the Iraqis.
In response, the Assyrians, who had been permitted by the British
to retain their weapons after the dissolution of the Iraq Levies,
flaunted their strength and refused to recognize the government.
In retaliation the Iraqi authorities held the Mar Shamun under
virtual house arrest in mid-1933, making his release contingent
on his signing a document renouncing forever any claims to temporal
authority. During July about 800 armed Assyrians headed for the
Syrian border. For reasons that have never been explained, they
were repelled by the Syrians. During this time, King Faisal was
outside the country for reasons of health. According to scholarly
sources, Minister of Interior Hikmat Sulayman had adopted a policy
aimed at the elimination of the Assyrians. This policy apparently
was implemented by a Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi, who, after engaging
in several clashes with the Assyrians, permitted his men to kill
about 300 Assyrians, including women and children, at the Assyrian
village of Simel (Sumayyil).
The Assyrian affair marked the military's entrance into Iraqi
politics, setting a precedent that would be followed throughout
the 1950s and the 1960s. It also paved the way for the passage
of a conscription law that strengthened the army and, as increasing
numbers of tribesmen were brought into military service, sapped
strength from the tribal shaykhs. The Assyrian affair also set
the stage for the increased prominence of Bakr Sidqi.
At the time of independence, tribal Iraq was experiencing a destabilizing
realignment characterized by the waning role of the shaykhs in
tribal society. The privatization of property rights, begun with
the tanzimat reforms in the late 1860s, intensified when
the British-supported Lazmah land reform of 1932 dispossessed
even greater numbers of tribesmen. While the British were augmenting
the economic power of the shaykhs, however, the tribal-urban balance
was rapidly shifting in favor of the cities. The accelerated pace
of modernization and the growth of a highly nationalistic intelligentsia,
of a bureaucracy, and of a powerful military, all favored the
cities. Thus, while the economic position of the shaykhs had improved
significantly, their role in tribal society and their status in
relation to the rapidly emerging urban elite had seriously eroded.
These contradictory trends in tribal structure and authority pushed
tribal Iraq into a major social revolution that would last for
the next thirty years.
The ascendancy of the cities and the waning power of the tribes
were most evident in the ease with which the military, led by
Bakr Sidqi, put down tribal unrest. The tribal revolts themselves
were set off by the government's decision in 1934 to allocate
money for the new conscription plan rather than for a new dam,
which would have improved agricultural productivity in the south.
The monarchy's ability to deal with tribal unrest suffered a
major setback in September 1933, when King Faisal died while undergoing
medical treatment in Switzerland. Faisal's death meant the loss
of the main stabilizing personality in Iraqi politics. He was
the one figure with sufficient prestige to draw the politicians
together around a concept of national interest. Faisal was succeeded
by his twenty-one-year-old son, Ghazi (1933- 39), an ardent but
inexperienced Arab nationalist. Unlike his father, Ghazi was a
product of Western education and had little experience with the
complexities of Iraqi tribal life. Ghazi also was unable to balance
nationalist and British pressures within the framework of the
Anglo-Iraqi alliance; increasingly, the nationalist movement saw
the monarchy as a British puppet. Iraqi politics during Ghazi's
reign degenerated into a meaningless competition among narrowly
based tribal shaykhs and urban notables that further eroded the
legitimacy of the state and its constitutional structures.
In 1936 Iraq experienced its first military coup d'etat--the
first coup d'etat in the modern Arab world. The agents of the
coup, General Bakr Sidqi and two politicians (Hikmat Sulayman
and Abu Timman, who were Turkoman and Shia respectively), represented
a minority response to the pan-Arab Sunni government of Yasin
al Hashimi. The eighteen-month Hashimi government was the most
successful and the longest lived of the eight governments that
came and went during the reign of King Ghazi. Hashimi's government
was nationalistic and pan-Arab, but many Iraqis resented its authoritarianism
and its supression of honest dissent. Sulayman, a reformer, sought
to engineer an alliance of other reformers and minority elements
within the army. The reformers included communists, orthodox and
unorthodox socialists, and persons with more moderate positions.
Most of the more moderate reformers were associated with the leftist-leaning
Al Ahali newspaper, from which their group took its name.
The Sidqi coup marked a major turning point in Iraqi history;
it made a crucial breach in the constitution, and it opened the
door to further military involvement in politics. It also temporarily
displaced the elite that had ruled since the state was founded;
the new government contained few Arab Sunnis and not a single
advocate of a pan-Arab cause. This configuration resulted in a
foreign policy oriented toward Turkey and Iran instead of toward
the Arab countries. The new government promptly signed an agreement
with Iran, temporarily settling the question of boundary between
Iraq and Iran in the Shatt al Arab. Iran maintained that it had
agreed under British pressure to the international boundary's
being set at the low water mark on the Iranian side rather than
the usual international practice of the midpoint or thalweg.
After Bakr Sidqi moved against Baghdad, Sulayman formed an Ahali
cabinet. Hashimi and Rashid Ali were banished, and Nuri as Said
fled to Egypt. In the course of the assault on Baghdad, Nuri as
Said's brother-in-law, Minister of Defense Jafar Askari, was killed.
Ghazi sanctioned Sulayman's government even though it had achieved
power unconstitutionally; nevertheless, the coalition of forces
that gained power in 1936 was beset by major contradictions. The
Ahali group was interested in social reform whereas Sidqi and
his supporters in the military were interested in expansion. Sidqi,
moreover, alienated important sectors of the population: the nationalists
in the army resented him because of his Kurdish background and
because he encouraged Kurds to join the army; the Shias abhorred
him because of his brutal suppression of a tribal revolt the previous
year; and Nuri as Said sought revenge for the murder of his brother-in-law.
Eventually, Sidqi's excesses alienated both his civilian and his
military supporters, and he was murdered by a military group in
In April 1939, Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident and
was succeeded by his infant son, Faisal II. Ghazi's first cousin,
Amir Abd al Ilah, was made regent. The death of Ghazi and the
rise of Prince Abd al Ilah and Nuri as Said--the latter one of
the Ottoman-trained officers who had fought with Sharif Husayn
of Mecca--dramatically changed both the goals and the role of
the monarchy. Whereas Faisal and Ghazi had been strong Arab nationalists
and had opposed the British-supported tribal shaykhs, Abd al Ilah
and Nuri as Said were Iraqi nationalists who relied on the tribal
shaykhs as a counterforce against the growing urban nationalist
movement. By the end of the 1930s, pan- Arabism had become a powerful
ideological force in the Iraqi military, especially among younger
officers who hailed from the northern provinces and who had suffered
economically from the partition of the Ottoman Empire. The British
role in quelling the Palestine revolt of 1936 to 1939 further
intensified anti-British sentiments in the military and led a
group of disgruntled officers to form the Free Officers' Movement,
which aimed at overthrowing the monarchy.
As World War II approached, Nazi Germany attempted to capitalize
on the anti-British sentiments in Iraq and to woo Baghdad to the
Axis cause. In 1939 Iraq severed diplomatic relations with Germany--as
it was obliged to do because of treaty obligations with Britain.
In 1940, however, the Iraqi nationalist and ardent anglophobe
Rashid Ali succeeded Nuri as Said as prime minister. The new prime
minister was reluctant to break completely with the Axis powers,
and he proposed restrictions on British troop movements in Iraq.
Abd al Ilah and Nuri as Said both were proponents of close cooperation
with Britain. They opposed Rashid Ali's policies and pressed him
to resign. In response, Rashid Ali and four generals led a military
coup that ousted Nuri as Said and the regent, both of whom escaped
to Transjordan. Shortly after seizing power in 1941, Rashid Ali
appointed an ultranationalist civilian cabinet, which gave only
conditional consent to British requests in April 1941 for troop
landings in Iraq. The British quickly retaliated by landing forces
at Basra, justifying this second occupation of Iraq by citing
Rashid Ali's violation of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Many
Iraqis regarded the move as an attempt to restore British rule.
They rallied to the support of the Iraqi army, which receiveda
number of aircraft from the Axis powers. The Germans, however,
were preoccupied with campaigns in Crete and with preparations
for the invasion of the Soviet Union, and they could spare little
assistance to Iraq. As the British steadily advanced, Rashid Ali
and his government fled to Egypt. An armis- tice was signed on
May 30. Abd al Ilah returned as regent, and Rashid Ali and the
four generals were tried in absentia and were sentenced to death.
The generals returned to Iraq and were subsequently executed,
but Rashid Ali remained in exile.
The most important aspect of the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 was
Britain's use of Transjordan's Arab Legion against the Iraqis
and their reimposition by force of arms of Abd al Ilah as regent.
Nothing contributed more to nationalist sentiment in Iraq, especially
in the military, than the British invasion of 1941 and the reimposition
of the monarchy. From then on, the monarchy was completely divorced
from the powerful nationalist trend. Widely viewed as an anachronism
that lacked popular legitimacy, the monarchy was perceived to
be aligned with social forces that were retarding the country's
In January 1943, under the terms of the 1930 treaty with Britain,
Iraq declared war on the Axis powers. Iraq cooperated completely
with the British under the successive governments of Nuri as Said
(1941-44) and Hamdi al Pachachi (1944-46). Iraq became a base
for the military occupation of Iran and of the Levant (see Glossary).
In March 1945, Iraq became a founding member of the British-supported
League of Arab States (Arab League), which included Egypt, Transjordan,
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen. Although the Arab League
was ostensibly designed to foster Arab unity, many Arab nationalists
viewed it as a British-dominated alignment of pro-Western Arab
states. In December 1945, Iraq joined the United Nations (UN).
World War II exacerbated Iraq's social and economic problems.
The spiraling prices and shortages brought on by the war increased
the opportunity for exploitation and significantly widened the
gap between rich and poor; thus, while wealthy landowners were
enriching themselves through corruption, the salaried middle class,
including teachers, civil servants, and army officers, saw their
incomes depreciate daily. Even worse off were the peasants, who
lived under the heavy burden of the 1932 land reform that permitted
their landlords (shaykhs) to make huge profits selling cash crops
to the British occupying force. The worsening economic situation
of the mass of Iraqis during the 1950s and the 1960s enabled the
Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) to establish deep roots during this
In addition to its festering socioeconomic problems, post- World
War II Iraq was beset by a leadership crisis. After the 1941 Rashid
Ali coup, Iraqi politics had been dominated by the pro-British
Nuri as Said. The latter's British orientation and autocratic
manner increasingly were at variance with the liberal, reformist
philosophy of Iraq's new nationalists. Even before the end of
the war, nationalists had demanded the restoration of political
activity, which had been banned during the war in the interest
of national security. Not until the government of Tawfiq Suwaidi
(February-March 1946), however, were political parties allowed
to organize. Within a short period, six parties were formed. The
parties soon became so outspoken in their criticism of the government
that the government closed or curtailed the activities of the
more extreme leftist parties.
Accumulated grievances against Nuri as Said and the regent climaxed
in the 1948 Wathbah (uprising). The Wathbah was a protest against
the Portsmouth Treaty of January 1948 and its provision that a
board of Iraqis and British be established to decide on defense
matters of mutual interest. The treaty enraged Iraqi nationalists,
who were still bitter over the Rashid Ali coup of 1941 and the
continued influence of the British in Iraqi affairs. The uprising
also was fueled by widespread popular discontent over rising prices,
by an acute bread shortage, and by the regime's failure to liberalize
the political system.
The Wathbah had three important effects on Iraqi politics. First,
and most directly, it led Nuri as Said and the regent to repudiate
the Portsmouth Treaty. Second, the success of the uprising led
the opposition to intensify its campaign to discredit the regime.
This activity not only weakened the monarchy but also seriously
eroded the legitimacy of the political process. Finally, the uprising
created a schism between Nuri as Said and Abd al Ilah. The former
wanted to tighten political control and to deal harshly with the
opposition; the regent advocated a more tempered approach. In
response, the British increasingly mistrusted the regent and relied
more and more on Nuri as Said.
Iraq bitterly objected to the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine
and sent several hundred recruits to the Palestine front when
hostilities broke out on May 15, 1948. Iraq sent an additional
8,000 to 10,000 troops of the regular army during the course of
the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; these troops were withdrawn in April
1949. The Iraqis had arrived at the Palestine front poorly equipped
and undertrained because of the drastic reduction in defense expenditures
imposed by Nuri as Said following the 1941 Rashid Ali coup. As
a result, they fared very poorly in the fighting and returned
to Iraq even more alienated from the regime. The war also had
a negative impact on the Iraqi economy. The government allocated
40 percent of available funds for the army and for Palestinian
refugees. Oil royalties paid to Iraq were halved when the pipeline
to Haifa was cut off in 1948. The war and the hanging of a Jewish
businessman led, moreover, to the departure of most of Iraq's
prosperous Jewish community; about 120,000 Iraqi Jews emigrated
to Israel between 1948 and 1952.
In 1952 the depressed economic situation, which had been exacerbated
by a bad harvest and by the government's refusal to hold direct
elections, triggered large-scale antiregime protests; the protests
turned especially violent in Baghdad. In response, the government
declared martial law, banned all political parties, suspended
a number of newspapers, and imposed a curfew. The immense size
of the protests showed how widespread dissatisfaction with the
regime had become. The middle class, which had grown considerably
as a result of the monarchy's expanded education system, had become
increasingly alienated from the regime, in large part because
they were unable to earn an income commensurate with their status.
Nuri as Said's autocratic manner, his intolerance of dissent,
and his heavy-handed treatment of the political opposition had
further alienated the middle class, especially the army. Forced
underground, the opposition had become more revolutionary.
By the early 1950s, government revenues began to improve with
the growth of the oil industry. New pipelines were built to Tripoli,
Lebanon, in 1949 and to Baniyas, Syria, in 1952. A new oil agreement,
concluded in 1952, netted the government 50 percent of oil company
profits before taxes. As a result, government oil revenues increased
almost four-fold, from US$32 million in 1951 to US$112 million
in 1952. The increased oil payments, however, did little for the
masses. Corruption among high government officials increased;
oil companies employed relatively few Iraqis; and the oil boom
also had a severe inflationary effect on the economy. Inflation
hurt in particular a growing number of urban poor and the salaried
middle class. The increased economic power of the state further
isolated Nuri as Said and the regent from Iraqi society and obscured
from their view the tenuous nature of the monarchy's hold on power.
In the mid-1950s, the monarchy was embroiled in a series of foreign
policy blunders that ultimately contributed to its overthrow.
Following a 1949 military coup in Syria that brought to power
Adib Shishakli, a military strongman who opposed union with Iraq,
a split developed between Abd al Ilah, who had called for a Syrian-Iraqi
union, and Nuri as Said, who opposed the union plan. Although
Shishakli was overthrown with Iraqi help in 1954, the union plan
never came to fruition. Instead, the schism between Nuri as Said
and the regent widened. Sensing the regime's weakness, the opposition
intensified its antiregime activity.
The monarchy's major foreign policy mistake occurred in 1955,
when Nuri as Said announced that Iraq was joining a British- supported
mutual defense pact with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. The Baghdad
Pact constituted a direct challenge to Egyptian president Gamal
Abdul Nasser. In response, Nasser launched a vituperative media
campaign that challenged the legitimacy of the Iraqi monarchy
and called on the officer corps to overthrow it. The 1956 British-French-Israeli
attack on Sinai further alienated Nuri as Said's regime from the
growing ranks of the opposition. In 1958 King Hussein of Jordan
and Abd al Ilah proposed a union of Hashimite monarchies to counter
the recently formed Egyptian- Syrian union. At this point, the
monarchy found itself completely isolated. Nuri as Said was able
to contain the rising discontent only by resorting to even greater
oppression and to tighter control over the political process.
Data as of May 1988