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.