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Sunday, January 12, 2003

A turbulent past
Jan. 12, 2003 Orange County Register column: Nation's long history is filled with conflicts that echo today

Senior editorial writer

Images of Iraq: the Martyr Monument in Baghdad, top; an ancient ziggurat at an archaeological dig in Brosippa, lower left; women rally in support of Hussein last Oct., lower right; a Shi'ite Muslim prays at a shrine in Karbala, lower right corner.
photos by the Associated Press

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 of Iraq.

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 mistakes.

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 times.

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 Iraq.

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 classes.



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 and elsewhere.

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 British-created institution.

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 autocratic strongman.

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


On July 14, 1958, the Hashemite monarchy was overthrown in a swift predawn coup led by officers of the 19th Brigade.

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 send troops.

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

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