For a region that nurtured
the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the modern
state of Iraq is still young and changing.
Iraq was carved out of the collapsing
Ottoman Empire following World War I by a British administration largely focused
on protecting its access to a much larger Indian colony and its growing thirst
for newly discovered oil reserves. It was a process that has left its imprint
on the politics and ethnic quarrels that have wracked the country ever since.
the growing conflagration that was World War I, Britain realized Germany had convinced
the ailing Ottoman Empire to take its side. The British responded by declaring
war on the Ottomans on Nov. 5, 1914 and landed a small army near Kuwait the next
The forces took control of the oil fields that the British would use
to supply their naval forces in the Indian Ocean and then began a march toward
The decision to seize the oil fields was a purely military one, but
the British move toward Basra and then Baghdad, to in effect conquer Mesopotamia,
has been questioned ever since.
Historian and author William Polk contends,
"In diplomatic papers passed between London and Delhi in the years before the
war, the threat of what was then called 'Pan-Islamism' figured prominently. The
Allies -- Britain, France and Russia -- dominated huge Muslim populations in Africa
and Asia. Each feared that its subject Muslims might try to drive them out."
Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was also the Caliph of the Islamic faith. A decision
by him to declare a jihad against the United Kingdom could cause a revolt far
from the battlefields of Europe and Iraq. The British hoped a swift military victory
would make the threat of a Muslim uprising dissipate. They plunged into the heart
of Iraq moving swiftly toward Baghdad.
A Turkish counterattack pinned British
forces in Kut, a city 100 miles southeast of the modern capital, from December
1915 until they surrendered in April 1916. The British military responded by flooding
the region with more forces even as the diplomats were tying the kingdom to the
political future of the region.
Although the military campaign was faltering
in Iraq, Britain was already planning to rule Iraq once the war was over.
the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, France and Britain carved up most of the
Ottoman territory into spheres of influence, with Britain retaining direct control
over most of modern Iraq and having indirect control over the rest of the area,
with the exception of Mosul and Kirkuk, which would operate under French control.
deal would drive both colonial nations' policies in the Middle East following
World War I and essentially draw the future border between Syria (under French
control) and Iraq (under Britain).
Within a year of the defeat at Kut, British
troops had turned the tide in the area, taking control of Baghdad and other key
areas. By the end of World War I, most of what would become Iraq was under British,
French, or Arab control.
The 1919 Paris peace accord and the Sanremo conference
a year later settled control of the Middle East largely along the lines outlined
in the Sykes-Picot deal, but also encouraged the occupying nations to develop
locally autonomous governments in the areas they controlled.
authorities charged with organizing the new state of Iraq, the challenge appeared
daunting. According to one of the first administrators of the post-war region,
Col. Arnold Wilson, some 75 percent of the area was tribal with no tradition of
adhering to any central government. Additionally, the former Ottoman officials
and military leaders that would likely rule the new state were Sunni in an area
"A fundamental problem, as Wilson saw it, was that
almost 2 million Shiite Muslims in Mesopotamia would not accept domination by
[the Sunni], yet 'no form of government has yet been envisaged, which does not
involve Sunni domination,'" David Fromkin wrote in "A Peace to End All Peace."
by the lack of progress made by the British toward promised self-rule, Iraqi religious
and political leaders grew angrier and protests broke out throughout the region
in the late spring and early summer of 1920. The British moved to quash the growing
unrest, arresting scores of tribal and religious leaders. The decision provoked
a full-scale revolt, with Iraqi militias and bandits launching waves of attacks
against the often scattered British outposts.
The rebellion was not universal,
but in the cities of Najaf and Karbala the uprising was serious and bloody. It
would take thousands of British forces four months to fully quell the violence.
In the end, some 6,000 Iraqis and 500 British and Indian troops were dead.
the citizens of the emerging nation, the 1920 uprising stood as one of the few
unifying events. As the Library of Congress concluded, "Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya
al Kubra, or The Great Iraqi Revolution (as the 1920 rebellion is called), was
a watershed event in contemporary Iraqi history. For the first time, Sunnis and
Shias, tribes and cities, were brought together in a common effort."
effect on the British population, still reeling from the devastation wrought by
World War I, was also profound. Within weeks of the uprising, British popular
support appeared to largely evaporate for involvement in the area called Iraq.
London Times wrote in August 1920, "how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed
in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive
administration which they never asked for and do not want?"
What the revolt
truly triggered was a deep-seated feeling within the British government that it
should limit as much as possible its role in running Iraq. A 1999 Arab interpretation
of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire spelled an even more prescient assessment
of not only the British and Hashemite experience in Iraq, but also the American
experience 80 years later.
"Torn by ethnic, social and religious schisms,
with the dominant Arab population hopelessly polarized between the Shiite and
the Sunni communities, each further split into rival clans -- and with the Kurdish
population of the north implacably opposed to Arab domination yet deeply fragmented
along tribal lines -- Mesopotamia held little appeal for foreign occupiers," Efraim
Karsh and Inari Karsh concluded in their book "Empires of the Sand."
the British, who in the wake of the First World War were focused on limiting the
areas in which its war-weary troops and battle-depleted budget extended, the idea
of staying in Iraq indeed soured.
They turned to someone they hoped had
the popular support and Islamic credentials to come into Iraq to govern -- Prince
Faisal, son of Ali Hussain, the sharif of Mecca, and the leader of the Great Arab
Revolt against the Ottomans during the War.
1921, the British crowned Faisal the first king of Iraq and made his brother Abdullah
king of Jordan. Many analysts have said the Hashemite monarchy begun by Faisal
and which would govern Iraq until a military coup in 1958, was flawed from the
"Despite his Islamic and pan-Arab credentials, Faisal was not an
Iraqi, and, no matter how effectively he ruled, Iraqis saw the monarchy as a British
creation. The continuing inability of the government to gain the confidence of
the people fueled political instability well into the 1970s," according to the
Library of Congress' Country Studies report on Iraq.
But in 1921, the British
were satisfied with an Iraqi government headed by the Sunni Faisal and run largely
by former Ottoman officials who were also Sunni. The issue Wilson had seen of
Shia unrest was never dealt with, and European involvement began to wane in the
The selection of Faisal and the hastily arranged plebiscite among
Iraqis that gave the new king the stated support of 96 percent of the population
set up the basic government, but the map of Iraq was still not complete.
the northern province centered around the city of Mosul, oil had sparked a tug-of-war
between Britain and Turkey over who would control the area and its newly discovered
Under the Sykes-Picot deal the region was supposed to
be controlled by the French, but the British maneuvered it away from them by promising
the French government 25 percent of the oil revenues from the region. Now the
British had to get it away from the new Turkish government, which also laid claim
After lengthy negotiations, the Turks agreed to let the League of
Nations settle the matter, and in 1925 the body ruled that Mosul, with its predominantly
Kurdish population, was part of Iraq.
The League ruled that the Kurds should
be given a level of autonomy to govern their own affairs.
"Many Kurds were
encouraged by the fact that the commission had listened to their fears about domination
both by the Turkish and Iraqi governments," Charles Tripp wrote in "A History
of Iraq." "They had avoided reoccupation by Turkey, but were apprehensive about
what they could expect from an Arab government in Baghdad."
The League deal
also ensured British control of the fledgling nation's oil reserves through the
UK-dominated Iraqi Petroleum Company. Under the deal that built the IPC, the Iraqi
government received a small fraction of the revenues from the oil, with the bulk
going to a consortium of British, French and American companies.
lit another long-burning fuse that would lead to future instability in the region,
according to historian and author William Polk.
"As younger Iraqis were
becoming better educated and were increasingly in contact with European and American
sources of information, they began to be aware of the enormous importance of oil
to their future. They came to believe that in oil policy as in other affairs,
their government was corrupt and even traitorous," Polk wrote in "Understanding
But with the Mosul deal completed and the Faisal government in charge,
the British agreed to grant Iraq full independence in 1932. Iraq joined the League
of Nations and emerged as a new nation -- yet one with numerous deep rifts within
The new Iraq had what many within the country viewed as a foreign king,
the Kurds in the north still strove for independence, the Shiites in the central
and southern region still chafed under a minority Sunni rule. This nation, cobbled
together by the League of Nations and the Colonial Office in London, now faced
its own future.