On Jan. 27 the United Nations inspection team in Iraq
is scheduled to deliver its first full report on "weapons
of mass destruction." So far the inspectors have not
reported caches of such weapons, but there could be
something in the report that will trigger what commentators
have been expecting for months and a large-scale military
build-up in the region suggests - a U.S.-led invasion
If the United States is to go to war with Iraq - and
if, as many suggest is inevitable, the United States
essentially occupies the country for anywhere from 18
months to 30 years - it will be useful to know something
about the history of this country. History may not quite
be destiny, but it strongly influences the present and
the future, and those who don't take the trouble to
understand it usually find themselves making significant
Here is a country whose deepest roots are proud and
shining. This area was the heart of the earliest civilizations;
a leading empire for probably 3,000 years in ancient
The historical facts most relevant to today's impending
conflict have more to do with instability, the on-again,
off-again influences of the West on law and culture,
and ethnic strife. They include the modern creation
of artificial borders for Iraq, the long rivalry between
Shia and Sunni Muslims, both of which have longstanding
roots in Iraq, the historic rivalry between the Arab
world and Persia (modern Iran), and the shifting emphases
of American foreign policy in the region over the years.
The borders of modern Iraq were determined after World
War I, mainly by the British. During World War I the
Ottoman Empire, which had ruled most of the Middle East
from Turkey since the 1500s, sided with Germany. The
British, seeking to protect their lifeline to India
through the Middle East, established a protectorate
over Egypt and supported the Hashemite sharifs, or leaders,
who had ruled Mecca and Medina since Muhammad's time,
in their revolt against the Ottomans (go rent "Lawrence
of Arabia" for a romanticized version of the period
with a teeny bit of context).
The British also sent troops from India to Iraq, not
only to guard the land route to India but to protect
their interests in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. They at
first failed to take Baghdad from the Turks, but finally
succeeded in 1917.
At the end of the war the League of Nations gave Great
Britain a mandate to administer Iraq until an independent
government could be established. The borders were thus
based on British imperial and commercial interests and
the fortunes of war rather than being drawn along traditional
frontiers or historic tribal or ethnic lines. The British-drawn
Iraq also did not include a port on the Persian Gulf,
an important factor for benefiting from oil resources;
Syria has several times cut off pipelines to the Mediterranean.
Thus about 76 percent of the country is Arab, while
19 percent are Kurds, with a few Turkomans, Assyrians,
Armenians and others sprinkled in. The area traditionally
populated by the Kurdish people is divided among Turkey,
Iraq, Syria and Iran, and the Kurds are a source of
discontent in all four countries. Baghdad and surrounding
areas are predominantly Sunni Muslim, and Sunnis dominate
the ruling Ba'ath Party and the government. But the
"Marsh Arabs" in the south are of the Shia persuasion
and Shias make up 60-65 percent of the population.
This is a formula for instability. Stability could
in theory be possible through a federalist system with
considerable local autonomy, but in practice it has
generally been achieved through strong, sometimes brutal
rule by the central government in Baghdad.
Despite its ethnic fractiousness today, modern Iraq
is roughly equivalent to the ancient area of Mesopotamia
(Greek for "between two rivers"), between the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers, which fostered history's first
civilizations and was probably the leading region of
the world for about 3,000 years. The land of Ur, from
which the biblical Abraham migrated, is in present-day
If supplemented by rudimentary (and sometimes sophisticated)
irrigation and storage systems, the rivers provided
enough water to yield food surpluses, which were the
key to the development of cities and trade. The region
was settled (largely by Turkish and Iranian migrants
from the highlands) by about 6000 BC and larger cities
began to be built around 3500 BC.
Being relatively wealthy and flat, Mesopotamia was
attractive to foreign invaders, another factor leading
to the development of cities, which could be fortified
and defended. The early Mesopotamian civilizations developed
mathematics and astronomy, along with impressive art
and architecture. Cuneiform writing led to codified
legal systems and literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The most important ancient civilizations in the region
were probably the Sumerian (3500 BC to 2000 BC), the
Babylonian (18th century BC to 539 BC) and the Assyrian
(1350 BC to 612 BC), with the Hittites, Chaldeans and
Kassites making incursions from time to time. In 539
BC the Persians captured Babylon, holding it until the
Hellenistic Syrian Seleucus conquered it in 312 BC and
introduced Greek culture and economic growth. The Parthians
took over in 250 BC and in 226 BC the Sassanids.
The next great era began in 635 when Mesopotamia was
conquered by Muslim Arabs during the great period of
military expansion during the Prophet Muhammad's life
and shortly after his death. Baghdad was founded in
763, as part of a conscious policy of moving the center
of the Muslim world from Damascus to the Mesopotamian
region. The Muslim Caliphate, the central ruling quasi-secular
institution of Islam, was soon established there, and
Baghdad grew into a beautiful, impressive city.
The area flourished until it was sacked by the Mongols
and Genghis Khan in 1258, after which culture and the
economy declined for several hundred years.
In 1405 Iraq fell under the control of Turkish tribes
from Anatolia. Then in 1508 it was put under the control
of the Safavid dynasty from Iran. This Persian-Turkish
struggle continued for years and still influences modern
Iraq's sense of itself.
In 1299 a Turkish Muslim warrior named Osman began
to lead raids on Christian Byzantine settlements in
western Anatolia (part of modern Turkey) and built power
as the Seljuk Turk dynasty faded. His followers were
called Osmanlilar, which was eventually anglicized
to Ottoman. Members of the House of Osman ruled the
Ottoman state until 1922.
Alternately foes and allies of the fading Byzantine
empire, the Ottomans extended their power into southeastern
Europe, with one high-water mark a battle with Serbs
in Kosovo in 1389. They also expanded to the east, eventually
coming into rivalry with the Persian Safavids, who were
Shia Muslims, whereas the Ottomans were Sunni. Ottoman
power was also challenged by the Portuguese, who after
Vasco da Gama's circumnavigation of Africa in 1497-98
established the lucrative spice trade with India and
Asia, shutting down some Arabian spice routes.
Selim I (ruled 1512-1520) and Suleyman the Magnificent
(ruled 1520-1566) expanded Ottoman power. Suleyman came
that close to capturing Vienna in 1529, which might
have set the stage for the Islamicization of Europe.
In 1534 the Ottomans conquered Baghdad and instituted
an era of peace and economic development. The Safavids
briefly regained control in 1623 but the Ottomans returned
in 1638 and effectively ruled until 1918 (with an interval
of Mamluk control in the 1700s).
All this meant that Mesopotamia-Iraq was to some extent
defined by the ongoing Shia-Sunni rivalry as bearers
of true Islam.
In 1869 the Ottoman ruler Midhat Pasha came to power
in Baghdad and set out to modernize the region along
Western lines, creating criminal and commercial codes,
reorganizing the army, secularizing the schools and
shifting power from rural sheiks to the cities. He was
reinforced by Western interests (mainly British and
French) who introduced steamboats and the telegraph.
After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 European
markets opened to Iraqi agricultural interests.
When a group of Young Turks took power in Istanbul
in 1908, their westernizing and centralizing agenda
sparked nationalist movements throughout the empire,
including Iraq. A nascent Iraqi intelligentsia, along
with Iraqi officers in the Ottoman army, formed secret
nationalist societies, the most important of which was
Al Ahd (the Covenant), which had some 4,000 members
by the outbreak of World War I. Iraqi nationalist sentiments,
however, were generally confined to the upper and middle
WORLD WAR I
AND BRITISH RULE
By the end of the 19th century European powers had
become increasingly interested in the Ottoman territories.
With the defeat of Germany and the break-up of the Ottoman
Empire in World War I, and the formation of the League
of Nations, they divided the "near east" among them,
with Britain getting the mandate to run Iraq, as well
as Trans-Jordan and Palestine. This disappointed Arab
nationalists who had hoped for independence in Iraq
The Allies also owed something to the Hashemite family
of Hussein ibn Ali, sharif of Mecca, who had broken
with the Ottomans. They installed his son, Prince Faisal,
as king of Syria, but the French, who had the mandate
for Syria, ejected him. So they made him king of Iraq
after a troublesome 1920 rebellion led by Iraqi nationalists.
Despite Faisal's Islamic and pan-Arab credentials, however,
he was not an Iraqi and nationalists viewed the monarchy
itself (Iraq had never had a king) as an illegitimate
During the 1920s Iraqi borders were finalized (including
putting the Kurd-dominated and oil-rich Mosul province
in Iraq after Turkey refused to release its Kurdish
areas for a Kurdish state). Running Iraq proved expensive
and troublesome for the British, despite oil concessions.
In 1929 a newly elected British Labor government promised
independence and in 1932 it was granted, with Faisal
as king and Nuri as-Said as his closest adviser.
The new country was as fractious as ever. The Kurds
and Assyrians had no desire to be included, and the
Sunni-Shia conflict continued to fester. A shift in
power from the rural, nomadic tribes to the cities continued.
King Faisal died in 1933 and was replaced by his 21-year-old
son Ghazi, who was Western-educated and had little experience
with ethnic complexities in Iraq. In 1936 a military
coup led by Gen. Bakr Sidqi, a Kurd, displaced civilian
government and led to a succession of short-lived governments.
Ghazi was killed in an auto accident in 1939 and succeeded
by his infant son Faisal II.
This led to the rise of Nuri as-Said as chief minister,
who was generally pro-British and became an increasingly
He survived a 1948 uprising, but during the 1950s discontent
with the monarchy and Nuri as-Said, economic problems
(increased oil revenues increased corruption instead
of bringing widespread prosperity) and complications
arising from the appeal of Egyptian President Nasser's
pan-Arabist movement made Iraq increasingly unstable.
the 1958 coup
and 'REPUBLICAN' IRAQ
On July 14, 1958, the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown
in a swift predawn coup led by officers of the 19th
The leaders were Brig. Abd al Karim Qasim and Col.
Abd as Salaam Arif. King Faisal was executed and Nuri
as-Said was killed after trying to escape disguised
as a veiled woman.
The revolution destroyed the power of tribal sheiks
and landlords while enhancing urban workers and the
middle class. It also unleashed long-suppressed sectarian
and ethnic conflicts (mainly Arab-Kurd and Shia-Sunni).
Qasim emerged as government leader but his program
was somewhat improvised. He allied himself with an emerging
communist party, which alienated him from the nationalists.
His communist alliances made the United States nervous
(CIA chief Allen Dulles in 1959 described Iraq's situation
as "the most dangerous in the world"). There was conflict
with Iran. Qasim also laid claim to the newly independent
state of Kuwait.
In 1963 Qasim was overthrown by the Ba'ath party, which
proclaimed itself for socialism, freedom and Arab unity.
It didn't have a coherent program or a plan for ruling,
however, and was overthrown later in 1963 by a military
coterie (with some covert CIA help).
Strife with the Kurds continued. There was a crisis
with Syria over oil payments in 1966-67.
By the June 1967 Arab war with Israel, Iraq was in
such turmoil that it couldn't get organized enough to
In 1968 two officers staged a military coup but lacked
organizational backing. The Ba'ath Party outmaneuvered
them and eventually took over the government.
A new era of explicitly secular government, consolidation
of power and efforts to expand Iraq's influence in the
Arab world and beyond began.
Next week: The Rise of Saddam