All nations are modern inventions, but those fashioned in the Middle East show their scaffolding more than most. Iraq was cobbled together as an odd hybrid of colony and monarchy in 1921 by the British Empire for its own purposes, with no attention to the desires of its inhabitants. Like many states established by colonial powers, Iraq was ethnically diverse, encompassing Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Jews and Christians. The relationship of the Kurdish areas to the central government was particularly troubled. For the most part, Iraq has been ruled by a Sunni Arab strongman, often backed or quietly supported by foreign powers.

The Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein last spring has raised anew, in some minds, not only the question of Iraq’s future but of its past–indeed, of its very identity as a nation-state. Some Iraqis, notably Kurdish leaders and intellectuals like Kanan Makiya, have called for a loose “federalism” in which the Kurds would enjoy considerable autonomy. A number of influential Western observers, such as Leslie Gelb at the Council on Foreign Relations, have gone so far as to suggest that Iraq be divided–by fiat of the Western powers, it seems–into three states. According to advocates of the “three-state solution,” Iraq is an artificial construct and can thus be jettisoned, as if the last eighty-four years in which Iraqis have lived together can simply be ignored, not to mention the desire of most Iraqis to remain in a unitary state.

Two new books take up the question of Iraq’s founding. Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq is a study of the British administration of Iraq, while Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield’s The Future of Iraq assesses the effort to rebuild Iraq after Saddam. Both examine the roots of Iraq’s history of despotism and foreign intervention, and both consider the likely impact of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion on the country’s future.

Iraq’s lopsided polity, as Dodge underscores, can be traced back to the policies of the Ottoman Empire, which captured Baghdad in 1534 and which favored a Sunni elite. After the British conquered Iraq during World War I, they reinforced these oligarchical tendencies. They did so out of necessity. At first, British imperialists like Sir Henry Dobbs envisaged Britain’s civil service ruling Iraq. In contrast, many Iraqis hoped for an independent state, on the model of the one declared by the Hashemite leader Faisal from Damascus. The League of Nations announced a British Mandate in Iraq at San Remo in the spring of 1920.

Some 100,000 disappointed Iraqis, led by Shiite and Sunni clerics, tribal chieftains and small-town notables, united in a massive anti-British revolt. The British brutally put it down from the air, slaughtering 9,000 Iraqis, both insurgents and civilians, and employing poison gas for the first time in Iraq. In the aftermath, London realized that it could not hope to rule the country by fiat, and that it needed a proxy government. Around the same time, Faisal was expelled from Damascus by the invading French (the British had double-booked Syria, promising it both to the Hashemites of Mecca and to Paris). Having a spare king now, the British installed him as monarch in Baghdad in 1921. Faisal, a Sunni Arab from the Hijaz in western Arabia, had no natural constituency in Iraq. He reached out to the old Ottoman-Iraqi Sunni elite to staff the upper reaches of his new government and the officer corps. Although occasionally a Shiite gained a high post, the dominance of the Sunni Arab minority was assured.

In Inventing Iraq, Dodge analyzes what he describes as the failure of British nation-building in the 1920s. He identifies two camps in the British civil administration of the country. One camp–what I call the J.R.R. Tolkien strain of British colonialism–consisted of romantics like Dobbs, who saw the countryside, its “gentry” and the tribes as the repository of all that was noble, and who distrusted the cities and their Westernizing effendis. The other group celebrated the virtues of the rational individual and sought to establish connections between such people and the state. On the whole, the devotees of romantic ruralism won out, seeking to rule Iraq through the tribal sheiks. Dodge, ever attentive to ironies, points out that the British thereby profoundly changed the position of the supposedly “untainted” sheiks and made them conduits of colonial administration. He neglects to mention that changes in Ottoman land-tenure laws and reformed Ottoman administration had already effected substantial changes in the role of the sheiks in the seventy-five years before the British arrived. Nor does he sufficiently underline the ways British policy reversed the Otto-man attempts to sideline the sheiks in favor of rationalized bureaucracy.

The British used their power to recognize sheiks as a way of rewarding the cooperative, and of punishing those unwilling or unable to keep their clans in line. Where administrators perceived a clan as unruly, they decertified them as tribes and seized their lands, giving them to others. The British were faced then, as the Americans are now, with ruling a huge territory on the cheap because of the disillusionment of the postwar public. To compensate for lack of troops, they relied on air power, conducting bombing raids from the sky against tribes that rebelled or refused to pay taxes. The airplane also allowed a close surveillance of the population in a manner that the supposedly despotic predecessors of the British, the Ottomans, could never have dreamed of achieving. This aspect of British rule in Iraq has long been understood by, among others, the eminent historian of Iraq Peter Sluglett. In his 1976 study, Britain in Iraq, Sluglett quotes Member of Parliament Leopold Amery as saying, “If the writ of King Faisal runs effectively through his kingdom, it is entirely due to the British airplanes.”

Yet, as Dodge points out, the airplane quickly demonstrated its limits, in large part because it depended on raw power and fear rather than on legitimate authority. The British used night bombing and incendiary explosives to destroy villages around Samawah in 1923 as a means of forcing the population to surrender its rifles and submit. While the destruction of six villages and the killing of 100 men, women and children terrified the peasants, they simply dispersed from the area and took their rifles with them. The Royal Air Force high command considered following the fleeing Iraqis, but concluded that further bombing would only be a slaughter. According to Dodge, the high command feared that the British public would discover exactly how they were ruling Iraq. His points about the political limits of air power are well taken, but it should be remembered that after 1923 the number of bombing raids actually increased. At that point, Squadron Leader Arthur Harris (who is not mentioned in Dodge’s index) invented the heavy bombing techniques he later practiced in Hamburg and Dresden.

Though a fine addition to the literature on the technologies of colonial control, Dodge’s book has limitations. He cites no Arabic sources and thus often cannot challenge the accounts of Iraqis found in the British archives. In fairness, the Iraqis themselves are not Dodge’s subject, which is rather the guiding ideologies of British administrators in Iraq. But a better understanding of Iraqi society itself might well have enabled him to understand and critique the colonial apparatus more incisively.

Likewise, Dodge offers few social statistics, so that one takes away from his book no sense of scale. He speaks of airplanes but never says how many were deployed in Iraq. He speaks of land tenure but tells us nothing about the size of the rural population or the changing distribution of landed wealth. The processes he discusses resulted by the late 1950s in a society where 70 percent of cultivable land was in the form of 3,400 large haciendas, 55 percent of which were in the hands of about 2,500 (mainly Sunni) individuals. Much of the rural population was landless by 1957. This highly unjust and unstable social structure owed a great deal to British policy, and helped plunge the country into crisis in 1958.

Although Dodge’s book is largely confined to the British experience of ruling Iraq, it is not out of place to point out one important implication of his account for the Anglo-American invasion and occupation. It is that there are longstanding limits to the use of high-tech weaponry and air power in effectively ruling a conquered population, even in the task of counterinsurgency. As Dodge demonstrates, the British neglected to establish direct links between the state and the Iraqis, resorting instead to an incoherent mixture of high-tech bullying, blandishments and threats directed toward the rural elite. Contemptuous of the urban middle classes and distrustful of educated Iraqis, they favored precisely those social forces least interested in the nation and most interested in cultivating local tribal identities and in preserving unjust concentrations of property.

In a similar fashion, the US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority has attempted to rule Iraq by using communal and religious leaders and corrupt expatriate politicians–the modern analogues of the tribal chieftains of an earlier era. The interim Governing Council appointed by US civil administrator Paul Bremer last July was top-heavy with leaders of fundamentalist or radical Muslim organizations that had fought the Baath Party. Several of these religious figures belonged to revolutionary Shiite parties. Even one of the five Kurdish members is an Islamist, though fundamentalism has little support among the Kurds. Just as British policies reinvigorated tribalism, so the US emphasis on ruling Iraq through male religious and ethnic figures could well exacerbate religious and ethnic tensions down the road. The dangers inherent in rising communal tensions were recently illustrated by the terror bombings of Shiite holy cities, which took the lives of well over a hundred worshipers.

Would Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds therefore be better off living in separate states? This proposal is advanced in The Future of Iraq, by the British writers Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield. Where Dodge’s book is a work of scholarship, The Future of Iraq is an undisguised work of advocacy. We have seen a number of such books since the buildup to war–notably The New Iraq by Joseph Braude, an Iraqi-American business consultant who was arrested on his way back from Baghdad with stolen artifacts from the Iraqi National Museum–and we can expect more to come. Not that all these books concur with one another. Just as officials of the British Empire clashed over how to rule Iraq, so do American policy-makers today.

Anderson and Stansfield’s narrative of modern Iraqi history casts a glance at the descent of the country after independence in 1932 into military dictatorships that alternated with reactionary civilian governments in the service of the large landlords. Anderson and Stansfield shortchange the brief rule of Brig. Abdel Karim Qassim, who came to power in the 1958 coup that overthrew the monarchy, painting him as a do-nothing leader. In fact, Qassim finally enacted land reform and protected workers’ rights, becoming enormously popular and launching an epochal change in Iraq’s social structure. They do get right the rapid rise of the Communist Party in the 1950s and early ’60s (though they underestimate its numbers) and the challenge it posed to Qassim, who responded by letting party members into his Cabinet.

Unfortunately, Anderson and Stansfield are so focused on internal Iraqi politics that they ignore the evidence, reported over a decade ago by Adel Darwish and Gregory Alexander in their 1991 book, Unholy Babylon, that Washington was extremely alarmed by Qassim and the Communists, and therefore wooed the Baath Party as an alternative. When the Baath briefly came to power in 1963, the CIA passed to Saddam Hussein, probably an agency asset, a list of hundreds of Iraqi Communists, whom the new regime liquidated. The Baath was in the wilderness when the coup collapsed, but came back to stay in 1968. Again, Darwish and Alexander report assertions of US backing for the 1968 coup, confirmed to me by other journalists who have talked to retired CIA and State Department officials. This Great Power context for Iraqi events of the 1960s is not discussed in The Future of Iraq, although Anderson and Stansfield do present a workmanlike survey of Baath rule from 1968: the familiar story of oil wealth, industrialization and rising prosperity in the 1970s, followed by more than two decades of serial disaster under Saddam Hussein’s presidency.

Throughout, they emphasize ethnic tensions rather than social cleavages, such as class conflict or divisions between the city and countryside. This emphasis serves their dubious argument that Iraq would be better off if it were partitioned, a plan that at the least ignores the way the country’s various ethnic and religious groups are intermixed and intermarried. While ethnicity is certainly a burning issue in contemporary Iraq, its importance has been artificially inflated by Baath policies. When the largely Sunni Arab civilian wing of the party came to power in 1968, it distributed the petroleum wealth and other perquisites to Sunni members of the ruling elite, especially those from Saddam’s home base in Tikrit. Shiites filled lower-level posts in the south, but Sunnis dominated the top posts and funneled resources to a Sunni Arab sect-class of rentiers.

Shut out of the circle of patronage, non-Sunni Iraqis had to find bases on which to mobilize. They could not form secular parties that might try to appeal across ethnic cleavages on economic issues. The regime’s relentless surveillance forced them to turn inward, to family, clan and the mosque. As a result, Shiite movements were able to organize clandestinely in ghettos and among settled tribes in the late Saddam period to make preparations for an Islamic state. Likewise, the longstanding yearning of many Kurds for more autonomy from Baghdad was intensified by the Baath regime’s horrifying poison gas attacks in reprisal for the Kurds’ support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). The Kurdish movement for autonomy was reinforced by the no-fly zone established to protect them from Saddam after his troops defeated the 1991 revolt, which the Americans encouraged and shortly afterward abandoned, leaving thousands of rebels to be slaughtered by Saddam’s troops.

With regard to the Iraqi Kurds, Anderson and Stansfield regrettably fall into the trap of primordialist thinking. That is, they assume that ethnicity (and its political saliency) is a given, rather than something actively fashioned by society. There is, of course, no denying that the Kurds have suffered grievously; they have as much right to imagine themselves into a nation as anyone else. But they did not start out as a nation, just as no one else did. The major dialects of Kurdish (an Indo-European language) are not mutually comprehensible. Many Iraqi Kurds are bilingual in Arabic, and many live in mixed provinces and intermarry with other Iraqis. If Iraq remains a multiethnic state, it would hardly be alone in the world–or even in the region (think of Iran, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Pakistan and Algeria, among others). Of course, some of those who favor breaking up Iraq into its constituent “ethnic” components also favor an ethnically pure Israel, cleansed of Palestinians.

Anderson and Stansfield believe that a long US occupation has a better chance of resulting in democracy, and a short occupation is more likely to produce authoritarianism or ethnic conflict. They are deeply skeptical that the US public will put up with a long occupation that would involve a constant stream of body bags coming back to the States. The best hope for both a reasonably quick US exit and a viable democracy, they believe, lies in a partition of the country, either into an independent Kurdistan and an Arab “Mesopotamia,” or into three states, along the Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab ethnic lines. Iraq, they argue, is an artificial nation, and the three states would reflect a more “natural” division of the territory.

Iraq’s problems during the past eighty-four years cannot, however, be explained by calling it an artificial nation, and for all their divisions, most Iraqis are deeply opposed to partition, particularly one imposed by the US Army. Even if it were not the case that all nations are, in some sense, artificial, it is hard to see how “naturalness” or the lack thereof has driven any major political movements. Nor is Iraq’s modern history particularly short compared with its neighbors, which achieved their independence from the 1920s to the 1940s. The argument may refer to the coexistence of Kurds and Arabs in the same state, but then most countries are multicultural, myths of national unity notwithstanding. Iraq’s problems have for the most part derived from the extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a succession of minority cliques–a state of affairs that the Americans may be in the process of fostering once again by their extreme economic liberalization policies.

Unfortunately, Anderson and Stansfield do not survey the full range of implications of their proposal. No major indigenous Iraqi political party or actor favors partition. Even the Kurds want a loose federalism. Turkey has threatened to go to war to prevent the emergence of an oil-rich independent Kurdistan, which its leaders fear might entice the Turkish Kurds of eastern Anatolia into a separatism that would fragment Turkey. The Iranians less truculently maintain a similar view, because of sensitivities about their own Kurdish minority.

It is not even clear that an independent Kurdistan in the rugged north is economically viable, assuming that the rest of Iraq does not quietly yield to them Kirkuk’s petroleum wellheads or, indeed, the city of Kirkuk itself, which does not have a Kurdish majority. Those wellheads are, in any case, old and being depleted, and the future of Iraqi petroleum lies in the south. An independent Kurdistan could well be doomed as a poor, landlocked country with declining oil revenues.

Likewise, the Saudis are terrified of an Arab Shiite state in southern Iraq, given that they have a significant Shiite majority in their nearby Eastern Province. This province, al-Hasa, is where the Saudi petroleum is, and the Shiites provide many of the workers on the oil rigs. The Wahhabi Saudis, hyper-Sunnis, largely despise Shiites and do not want theirs becoming uppity. A partition opposed to the death by Iraq’s three wealthiest and most powerful neighbors seems destined to fail. Moreover, it probably would not be good for Iraqis to be reduced to a set of small, weak and in some cases poor countries. Nor is it clear that Iraqi democracy would be served by partition, as Anderson and Stansfield argue. The corporate solidarity along religious and ethnic lines visible in Sunni Arab Falluja or in Shiite Basra, which sometimes turns coercive or violent, is a less promising basis for democracy than a federal Iraq where parties will over time prosper best if they can find ways of appealing across ethnic boundaries.

The real danger facing working-class Iraqis, the vast majority of the country, is not that they will be forced to coexist with those who pray differently or speak different first languages. The most pressing threat is that the Bush Administration’s economic shock therapy and other policies will create a new, small clique of robber barons who monopolize most of the country’s resources. That is where we came in.