Policy Papers

Iraq, past, present and future: a thoroughly-modern mandate?

Beverley Milton-Edwards |

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Executive Summary

  • US policymakers and others would do well when pondering the challenges of post-war reconstruction in Iraq to acknowledge the lessons to be learned from earlier British involvement in the region.
  • In the aftermath of the First World War these provinces of the Ottoman Empire were taken over by Britain in the form of a mandate: that is control by a conqueror of the territory of a people judged incapable of independence.
  • The discovery of oil in the Kurdish areas in the north made Britain particularly keen to maintain control of this artificial creation: as early as 1920 considerable force was used to suppress Kurdish and Shi'a uprisings, and in 1942 Britain effectively invaded Iraq to put down a coup by some of its army officers.
  • But this exercise of control by a foreign power led to endemic popular discontent, chronic political instability and repeated military coups, only brought to an end by the accession to power of Saddam Hussein in 1979.
  • There is little evidence that, in its present-day occupation of Iraq, the United States has any intention of undertaking the expensive and long-term measures that would be required for genuine democratic reconstruction.
  • That would include the sustained accommodation of all the country's diverse interest groups, the fostering of genuine indigenous leadership, the long-term rooting of a new democratic political system and political culture, and the setting of serious benchmarks for eventual US withdrawal.
  • In the absence of these measures, the most probable outcome is the establishment by the US of an updated version of the British mandate arrangements, condemning Iraq and its people to repeat the undemocratic cycle which began in the 1920s and eventually produced the Saddam Hussein regime.


The fertile land between the Tigris and the Euphrates has inspired some of the most important developments in human history including the invention of the wheel, the planting of the first cereal crops and the development of cursive script. Mesopotamia was known as the cradle of civilisation and today's Iraqis are the product of the great civilisations that flourished here: the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and now the Arabs. The territory has always been a mix of ethnic and religious communities, Arabs, Kurds, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and at least from the time of Alexander the Great it has been a constant battlefield. It was a province of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire when the British government first saw its potential in the late-nineteenth century. For the British the potential inherent in control over Mesopotamia was understood as tactical in relation to the imperial outpost of India, and therefore economic as well. By 1914 Basra in the south of the country had been developed by British commercial interests as an important port in the Gulf region with shipping and trade links to the Far East.

Conquerors or liberators?

'Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators ... Your wealth has been stripped of you by unjust men ... The people of Baghdad shall flourish ...' (General Maude, commander of the British forces, on occupying Baghdad in 1917).

When Turkey sided with Germany in the First World War Britain sent in troops to protect its interests, securing the city of Basra in 1914: as Lawrence of Arabia remarked, 'by brute force it marched then into Basra.' With the Turks in disarray Arab leaders saw a chance for independence by allying themselves with the British. The famed Lawrence, working on behalf of the British, had formed a powerful alliance with the Hashemites and in particular Faisal, and with them launched the Arab Revolt.

In helping the British secure victory over the Turks, the Arabs expected their reward which they assumed had already been outlined in secret promises made during the war (the Hussein-McMahon correspondence). Thus the Hashemite Arab leadership believed this contained a British commitment to respect Arab claims to independence that were territorially defined. But when they arrived with Lawrence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 they discovered that the Allies, and the British in particular, were not prepared to share their enthusiasm for independence. In another secret agreement (Sykes-Picot) Britain and France had already carved up the region between them. The right to self-determination for the Iraqi people was sacrificed to western strategic interests. Outwardly the British and French made soothing noises to the Arabs about eventual self-governance. Yet real control remained in the hands of the external powers.

Thus in 1920-21 the old map of the Ottoman Empire was transformed into a patchwork of new states in the Middle East with borders that paid scant regard to traditional tribal, ethnic or religious boundaries. The new state of Iraq was created out of three former Ottoman provinces - Basra, Baghdad and Mosul - and handed to the British as a mandate territory. In London, the period that preceded the new state's formation was characterised by internal tensions between the hawks and doves regarding how Iraq would be ruled. Oriental Secretary Gertrude Bell, a remarkable woman of her time, had already acknowledged, with some prescience, that, 'the real difficulty here is that we don't exactly know what to do and how can we persuade a people to take our side when you are not sure whether you'll be there to take theirs.' Bell, in essence the architect of the state, had initially supported the notion of direct administration by the British. But she eventually took the lead in proposing a constitutional monarchy allowing the opportunity for an Arab to reign in, but not rule over Iraq. The new monarch would be the British ally from the First World War, the Hashemite Prince Faisal. The throne in Iraq would be offered to him as a substitute for losing the throne in Damascus which he had claimed in 1918 but had lost to the French, who secured it under another mandate.

In principle a mandate meant control by the conqueror of the territories of a defeated enemy judged incapable of national independence, on condition that it was fairly governed. The Colonial Office back in London had quickly to devise a form of government that would satisfy an increasingly restive population. For the prospect of British-imposed rule angered Iraqis. In 1920 both Kurds in the north and Shi'as in the south staged uprisings against their British rulers, which the British put down. Considerable force was employed to quell these rebellions including the deployment of the Royal Air Force in the north of the country and chemical attacks against the rebels. What was lacking at this stage was an acknowledgment that the exclusion of such groups, including the Shi'a majority, was bad politics. Instead pragmatic policies coupled to a strategy of divide and rule ensured that the British administrators sought out the bureaucratic and official elements of the old regime, who happened to be the Sunni urban and educated minority. Thus at the Cairo Conference in 1921 the Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, and his advisors, came up with proposals that would continue to privilege Iraq's Sunni minority over its Shi'a majority by placing them back into the higher echelons of the administration.

Storing up trouble

'His chariots of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form, And dark is his path on the wings of the storm.' (popular English hymn by Sir Robert Grant, 1785-1838).

In favouring the Sunni elite the British were perpetuating a prejudice against the Shi'as which would fester. Additionally the authority of the new constitutional monarchy was constantly challenged by Kurdish demands for self-determination. But the British had discovered an important reason to hold on to Kurdish areas, and that was oil. British companies had discovered oil at a time when the economy was being reoriented to this new fuel. The British compelled the government in Baghdad to hold on to this rebellious region, putting down one attempted revolt after another. Territorial integrity of the new state, despite the demands of ethnic elements, became a mantra of British policy thereby creating an artificiality to the notion of the Iraqi nation.

By the time King Faisal died in 1933 he had guided Iraq to independence and membership of the League of Nations. Independence, however, did not free the country from British shackles. The Anglo-Iraqi treaty gave the British military control and ensured its oil supplies. In this respect Britain retained important back-room control over the country while appearing outwardly to relinquish the power it had previously enjoyed. Britain maintained persuasive influence over Iraq's political establishment and in particular the Hashemites who by now enjoyed power in neighbouring Transjordan. Iraq's ruling elite was still firmly tied to Britain's apron strings but it was out of touch with nationalist sentiment and anti-British feeling that was growing in the country. Consequently, at the outbreak of World War Two Britain moved quickly to secure its oil and strategic positions. In 1942 a group of pro-Nazi Iraqi army officers ousted the British-backed government and forced the royals to flee. When coup leaders tried to restrict British troop movements through Iraq, London successfully responded by landing a force at Basra and then taking Baghdad to put the coup down. The monarchy was restored.

Baghdad after 1945 was a turbulent melting pot of political ideas, influenced by popular demands for Arab independence sweeping through the region. In the palace, however, it was business as usual: oil production still largely in the hands of Western companies and a failure to see the storm clouds coming. Eventually, at dawn on July 14th, 1958, Iraqi troops, led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qassim, entered Baghdad and achieved the surrender of the city. The royal family and the political elite were massacred and the flimsy foundations of the state were undermined. The military had power and would remain in power for many decades to come. Democratic politics was doomed: throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s one coup after another followed, oil was nationalised and social and economic development accelerated in order to buy popular support.

In 1968 a further coup brought the Ba'ath Party in alliance with the military to power. The new President was Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, but the power behind al-Bakr, the man who would pull the strings, was Saddam Hussein. From 1968 to 1979 Saddam was hard at work moulding the Ba'ath party in his image and preparing for his eventual takeover of the country. It is fair to say that by 1979 Saddam Hussein dominated every aspect of Iraqi life. Any trace of democratic politics had disappeared: some of the population had been seduced by his generosity and the rest frightened into submission. Over the next twenty years he pulled his country into two regional conflicts and set himself on a collision course with the rest of the world. For Saddam Hussein could only survive by turning his people against each other and his neighbours. He ruled through fear and tyranny. His foreign misadventures devastated his country and cost the region dearly. Hundreds of thousands died on the battlefield and thousands more in chemical weapons attacks. In addition under the sanctions regime imposed by the UN the country was further impoverished and damaged.

Post-war Iraq

'One is left with the horrible feeling now that war settles nothing; that to win a war is as disastrous as to lose one.' (Agatha Christie 1890-1976, who had a great fondness for Iraq, in her autobiography).

Like Britain nearly a century ago, America is again raising expectations about a possible new start for Iraq. Outwardly the British made the same soothing noises to the Arabs about governance in 1919 as the Pentagon-appointed retired US General Jay Garner made following the US-led occupation in 2003. With a commission to rebuild, and a $2.4 billion budget promised to him, Garner and his team were ostensibly only in charge of Iraq until Iraqis were deemed able to take the nation's reins back.

But while it may be true that America does not wish to engage itself politically in the long-term, it seems unlikely that a rapid military or economic departure from Iraq is on the cards. After all, one need only reflect on neighbouring Saudi Arabia where, despite the invitation to US forces to establish a presence in the country in 1990 following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, American forces maintain a sizeable presence more than a decade later. Additionally America has established a major base in neighbouring Kuwait. Thus the Bush administration has already put together a plan for a post-Saddam-Hussein Iraq that will involve an extended American military presence accompanied by the use of oil money to feed the Iraqi people and rebuild their country.

However, the fairly straightforward Coalition victory on the battlefield may turn out to be the easy part of the war. There are some key terms to bear in mind here: balkanisation, indigenous leadership, pyrrhic victory, exit strategy and imperial over-reach.

Any serious post-Saddam plan would have to address the mosaic nature of Iraq in which some elements have been privileged over others. The circles within circles which define the country at social, ethnic, religious and tribal levels would have to be accommodated fairly in any nation-building project. The Americans are determined to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq, but it is unclear how long it will take to hand over power to an Iraqi civilian government and how such ambitions will work in the light of Kurdish demands alongside the flourishing of the Shi'a political constituency in all its factional hues. The portent of tensions and assassinations in the first instance do not augur well.

Iraqis have already demonstrated their ambivalence and even outright hostility to any form of permanent Western presence in their country. There is a widespread impression that, like the British in the 1920s, the Americans want leaders but not rulers of Iraq to assist them with their post-war settlement. In this respect Pentagon protge Ahmed Chalabi fits the bill but, while it is true that he has urged national unity, his claim to represent the Iraqi body politic is built on shaky foundations.

Moreover, the long-term democratisation of Iraq would require the establishment of a new political system and a new political culture. This would depend on the cooperation and active participation of Iraq's diverse population base over an extended period of time and demand peace-building of generational proportions. Clearly this would considerably raise the costs of involvement in Iraq, require much more of the US and Britain than they have so far envisaged, and be likely to require considerable inputs from the international community.

The danger here is the enormity of the task that lies ahead and the lack of clarity regarding an exit strategy. For real nation-building post-Saddam would also require setting meaningful benchmarks for achievements in such areas as infrastructure and other economic projects, de-militarisation, and the de-Baathification and reform of the state structure.

An absence of the kind of commitment and clarity of goals outlined above will inevitably doom post-Saddam Iraq to future conflict and instability, and the boiling over of ethnic and religious tensions that have been simmering since Britain enforced statehood on the people of Mesopotamia in 1921. This raises the spectre of civil war and the possibility of drawing in other external but regional actors such as Turkey, Iran or Syria.

Hence the huge temptation for the US administration to wittingly or unwittingly propose a framework for governing Iraq that is in effect, in all but name, a modern mandate arrangement. History indicates that this would be disastrous not just for the people of Iraq, but the people of the entire region. For the lessons to be learned from our review of Iraq in the twentieth century should be clear. An externally-imposed settlement backed by military force only led to endemic popular discontent, chronic political instability and eventually the regime of Saddam Hussein. Is this cycle about to begin again? In this respect, the fears of Iraqis are understandable. While America may have no reason to remember the lessons from the imperial adventures of Britain, the people of ancient Mesopotamia have every reason to do so.


The Evolution of the Bush Doctrine, Frontline 2003 [Frontline website]

Should Regime Change Start at Home? Alastair Reid interviewed by Nicholas Martin, Die Gazette, April 2003 [Die Gazette website]

Further Reading

Marion Farouk-Sluglett, Peter Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship (2001, I.B. Tauris. ISBN: 1860646220)

Dilip Hiro, Iraq: A Report from the Inside (2002, Granta Books. ISBN: 1862076278)

Faleh Jabr (editor), Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues: State, Religion and Social Movements in Iraq (2002, Saqi Books. ISBN: 0863569129)

Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (2002, Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 052152900X)

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