|US involvement in Iraq has echoed the turmoil of earlier Western entanglements in the country|
When George Bush, the US president, ordered troops to invade and occupy Iraq, many analysts hoped he had at least reviewed the history of previous western entanglements in the oil-rich, yet troubled Arab country.
The UK, America’s strongest ally in Iraq, had previously occupied the country on two different occasions.
Under their mandate, the British designed a paradigm of Iraqi political life at the Cairo Conference of 1921, which had been established to carve up the territories formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
These laws, institutions, and political limitations would remain in effect, and make Iraq a British proxy in the Middle East, until the revolution of 1958.
The British installed King Faisal, a Hashemite ruler, as monarch of Iraq, after efforts to install him as the ruler of Syria were rejected by the local populace and the French mandate in Damascus.
Could lessons have been learnt
But the British would struggle to impose King Faisal as Iraq’s ruler on the Iraqis, who despite their divisions as Kurd, Turkeman, Shia, Sunni, Christian, and Jew, were fiercely independent and nationalistic.
Nevertheless, the British moved to secure Faisal as the new King of Iraq, seeing in him a Muslim who traced his lineage to the Prophet Muhammad, was an Arab nationalist, and yet was so insecure in his role as a foreigner in Iraq that he would need to heavily rely on the British as advisors, allies, and mentors.
This insecurity led to the signing of the Anglo-Iraqi pact, which effectively ensured that British advisors would be used in the highest level of governance, in particular overseeing economic, financial and military issues.
The British moved quickly to remove any dissent by establishing a one-question plebiscite for the Iraqi people: “Do you agree to Faisal as king and leader of Iraq?” Not surprisingly, the result was an astounding 96 per cent.
The British were now satisfied that Iraq was secure.
First Arab coup
King Faisal was born in Taif, Saudi Arabia. He had proclaimed himself King of Syria, but was quickly removed by the French, who by 1920, were in charge of the Levant (Syria and Lebanon).
Nationalistic aspirations and tribal divisions came to the fore when Faisal died in 1933 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi I. Ghazi, mentored in the West, was inexperienced in the ways of the Iraqis, especially when it came to tribal political power and loyalties.
In the eyes of nationalist Iraqis, Ghazi was seen as little more than a puppet of the British, brought into their midst to control Iraq.
This boiled over into the first coup d’etat of the Arab world in 1936: General Bakr Sidqi, the leader of the Iraqi army, launched a military coup against the government and proceeded to implement non-Arab policies geared towards satisfying Turkey and Iran.
Sidqi lacked political vision and experience. His policies led to chaos, murder and a breakdown in security throughout Iraq, a situation similar to Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.
His policies contributed to his assassination in 1937.
A car crash ended Ghazi’s life in 1939 after he had begun courting Iraqi nationalists and had called for the invasion of Kuwait to return it to Iraqi sovereignty.
Iraqis saw Ghazi’s passionate call as a pan-Arab nationalistic movement to unite Arabia. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, crashing headfirst into a lamppost, were said by some to be a British plot.
Ghazi’s son, Faisal II, ascended to the throne.
“But real power was wielded by Britain’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri as-Said. The US and Britain forced Iraq to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact and sell its oil at give-away prices to the West,” wrote historian and author Eric Margolis in his book Iraq’s History is Written in Blood.
The 1936 and 1939 Arab revolts in Palestine gave rise to pan-Arabism as a powerful new ideology. Pan-Arabism quickly found favour in Iraq, where the British role in repressing Arab Palestinians while the migration of Jews into the region steadily increased stoked the fires of Iraqi nationalism.
World War II gave these nationalists new power. In 1940, Rashid Aali Al Gelani succeeded Nouri as-Said as prime minister and quickly moved to restrict British movement in Iraq.
The British, sensing a threat to their influence, pushed Nouri to initiate a silent coup against Gelani. For his part, Gelani, who was widely popular with the military and Iraqi civilians, ousted as-Said, who fled to Transjordan (now known as Jordan).
The British invaded Iraq and were greeted with fierce resistance from the people who now believed the British were beginning a second phase in the occupation of Iraq.
British Royal Air Force (RAF) strafed Iraqi military and civilians alike (a 1917-1920 rebellion by Iraqi tribes was quelled by the RAF who used poison gas to kill thousands of Iraqis) and marched towards Baghdad.
Gelani and his staff fled to Iran. The monarchy was put back in control of Iraq under Faisal II.
|Abdul Karim Qassim|
Iraqis now secretly talked of revolt and it appeared they were completely disenfranchised from a monarchy they considered foreign and treacherous.
It was perceived that Iraq’s oil wealth was being siphoned off for use by the British for the war effort against the Nazi-led Axis powers, and the country’s development was in decline.
The 1947 UN partition of Palestine enraged pan-Arab Iraqis. Faisal II, now King of Iraq, dispatched a poorly equipped and badly funded Iraqi army to fight the new Israelis.
The army was not defeated on the battleground but a lack of political will to take Tel Aviv disgruntled Iraqis back home who blamed as-Said for deliberately withholding funds from the military. Iraqis believed it was a British plot to weaken Iraq and keep it under Churchill’s grasp. As-Said was seen as the agent of this British plot.
Between 1950 and 1955, as-Said called for greater unity between Britain and Iraq and openly supported a US-influenced coalition to face off the Soviet threat of Communism.
In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup that ended Egypt’s British-influenced monarchy. This helped tip the balance in favour of revolutionaries and pan-Arabists throughout the Arab World.
The growth of Nasser’s popularity threatened the Jordanian monarchy, which moved quickly to call for a federation between Jordan and Iraq. This was too much for Iraqis to bear.
Such was the hatred for British involvement in Iraq and for its puppet monarch that a 1958 revolution, led by General Abdul Karim Qassim, ushered in a bloody new chapter in the country.
As the monarchy was deposed and abolished, chaos ensued;, thousands were killed and hung from lampposts as a sign and lesson for future generations.
In part three of the nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, Al Jazeera examines how the legacy of Iraq’s coups and revolutions played a pivotal role in shaping the destiny of modern Iraq.