Iraq – Undemocratic and Turbulent 

The Nation of Iraq has always had a rich and complicated history that has established numerous cultural and ethnic traditions, which all play a great role in where the country is today. The issue of restoring peace in Iraq through democracy cannot in any way happen when looking back at the Iraq’s turbulent history. Various powers from the Persians, the Ottoman Empire, the British, and to the Americans have tried to control the region on way or another directly or indirectly. The role of religion and the way Iraq has been shaped over time have dictated various conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war. Iraq’s history has always been influence by outside involvement of an imperlist power who has kept it in under control by establishing different dictatorship regimes.

Iraq is part of what was anciently known as Mesopotamia, or “the land between two rivers”.1 The region where the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers come together has come to be known as the ‘Cradle of Civilization,’2 and when studied, one can easily understand why the conflicts in modern-day are so complex. First it was the Sumerians who settled Mesopotamia, than it was Akkadians, then the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. By the seventh century AD, the Arab Muslims had emerged as a ruling force and the Abbasid dynasty. From the 12th to the 16th century the land now know as Iraq was ruled either by the Safavid Empire based in Iran, or the Ottoman Empire based in Turkey, depending on who won the numerous conflicts.3 The Safavids were the first the first to declare Shia Islam the official religion of Iran, and their interest in Iraq lay in the Shia holy places in central Iraq in cities of Karbala and Najaf, and also the fact that Baghdad held significant symbolic value as the seat of the ancient Abbasid Empire.4

The Ottoman Empire on the other hand was afraid that Shia Islam would spread to Asia Minor, and thus looked to control Iraq as a Sunni-dominated buffer state.5 During the Ottoman period, the Sunnis were placed in political positions, while the Shias were then shut out of the political process. This divide between the Sunnis and the Shias continued to be more and more of an important element in the Iraqi social structure, and remains an issue even today. It was also during this time period that the Kurdish Baban Dynasty emerged and began to organize resistance to the Ottoman rule in Northern Iraq.6

Then came the First World War and with it the defeat of the German army and their allies, including Turkey. As a result in 1919, Iraq, as well as Palestine, came under the control of Great Britain who proceeded to draw out the borders and establish a government that would best suit them.7 The years which followed were filled with revolutions, jihad, and unrest, as the British sought to maintain control of a nation with which they knew very little about. The Great Iraqi Revolution in 1920 brought the Iraqi people together, although briefly, and was important in developing a nation that could be independent, both politically and economically.8 As a result a king was chosen, Prince Faisal, an indigenous army was formed, and the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was written up between the Iraqi and British government.9 However, the prominent imperialist mentality did not take too kindly as Iraq sought greater independence resulting in Britain finding ways to “grant” them independence while keeping them entirely dependant.

An example of this is how during the reign of King Faisal, one of Britain’s goals was to keep the monarchy stronger than any one of the numerous tribes who had Nationalist attitudes, but weaker than a coalition of tribes, which would thus ensure that King Faisal would depend on the British to help end disputes.10. Throughout the 1920’s the nationalists fought for independence, and on October 13th, 1932 Iraq became a sovereign state and was admitted to the League of Nations.11 As a new nation, Iraq now had to deal with the issues of Pan-Arab movements and how to address border issues brought about by disputes concerning the borders drawn out by the European powers following WWI. In 1936 after the Arab world’s first military coup, the new government signed an agreement with Iran that temporarily settled the border question of the narrow waterway that divided part of the southern country, called the Shatt al Arab.12

Following a 1941 coup by Rashid Ali, who sought to maintain ties with the Axis powers during World War II, Britain again invaded Iraq by sending in troops from India to overthrow Ali and his military leaders.13 By the end of that year Ali fled to Egypt and the four other generals were executed. In January of 1943 Iraq, in compliance with Great Britain, declared war on the Axis powers and soon thereafter became a founding member in the Arab League and in 1945 became a member of the United Nations.14 Meanwhile the War completely depleted Iraq’s already poor economic state. On July 14th, 1958, the largest Iraqi revolution since 1920 took place when the government was overthrown by yet another military coup. However, altering the old power structure led to some problems as long-suppressed sectarian, tribal, and ethnic conflicts were revived, especially those between the Kurds and the Arabs, and the Sunnis and the Shias.15 In 1959 the government, under Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim, reestablished diplomatic relations with Moscow and the Soviet Union, and an extensive Iraqi-Soviet economic agreement was signed, and arms deliveries began soon after.16 Qasim was not so interested in bring Iraq together as a nation as he was about strengthening his position of power and solidifying his status. Qasim cracked down on the Communist Party fearing that they were growing too powerful.

The same year, 1959, marks a major turning point in the future of Iraq as the Baath party, after being established in Syria during the 1940’s, began to gain support in Iraq.17 The Baath party was primarily made up of Nationalists, their leader being a staunch Nationalist by the name of Fuad Rikabi. Unhappy with Qasim’s attempt to crush all Nationalist support, the Baath decided the only way to overthrow Qasim was to kill him. The hitman chosen for the job was Saddam Hussein, who in his assassination attempt managed to injure Qasim but failed to kill him. Saddam then was forced to flee the country in order to stay alive, and Qasim reacted by ruthlessly suppressing the activities of the Baath and other Nationalist parties. Qasim’s self alienation from both the Communists and the Nationalists, and his desire for a complete monopoly of power earned him the nick-name of the “sole-leader,” and resulted in isolating him from all domestic support so that when the Kurds eventually turned on Qasim and revolted 1961, he had nobody to turn to for support.18 At the same time that all out fighting broke out between Kurdish guerrillas and the Iraqi army, there was an escalating conflict with the shah of Iran who was predominantly supported by the Western powers.

The United States, Great Britain, as well as Iran, feared that communism would take over Iraq. In fact in April of 1959, Allen Dulles, the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), described the situation in Iraq “as the most dangerous in the world.”19 In December of 1959, as a result of Iran’s concern over the Shatt al Arab waterway and how communism would impact their borders, Qasim nullified the 1937 agreement, claimed the Shatt al Arab as Iraq’s, and in to add to it all he claimed the newly independent sate of Kuwait as Iraqi territory.20 The Arab League accepted Kuwait as an independent state so Iraq severed ties with the Arab League and was left completely isolated, just the way Qasim seemed to want it. In 1963 the Baath party organized its forces and overthrew Qasim. The following eight years are marked by numerous political struggles, coup attempts, and foreign relations upheavals. The Baath Party was overthrown after less than a year by Qasim’s partner in the 1958 Revolution, Abd as Salaam Arif. However this was not last, and by July of 1968, the Baath Party had reorganized themselves, gained a much stronger support structure, and capitalized on the weakened political structure by taking control of the government for the second time in five years. 21 In foreign affairs, the Baath Party’s pan-Arab and socialist tendencies alienated it from the pro-Western Arab states in the Gulf, but most importantly from their neighbors to the east, Iran.22

Again, disputes concerning Shatt al Arab arose as Iran claimed Iraq hadn’t fulfilled its obligations under the 1937 treaty, and Iraq refused to honor the Iranian demands. Iran then reacted by sending ships through the waterway without paying the requisite dues to Iraq, as well as occupying three islands in the nearby Gulf that played a key role in the security of the entrance to the Shatt al Arab.23 Saddam continued to gain in power as he systematically eliminated all opposition through whatever means were necessary, however in 1979 the course of Saddam’s role as leader was permanently altered. The 1979 Islamic Revolution brought about the overthrowing of the Iranian shah. Led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian Shia Muslims took control of Iran and threatened to upset the Sunni-Shia balance in Iraq, as well as posing a strong security threat to Iraq position in the Gulf.24 Khomeini repeatedly appealed to the Iraqi people to overthrow “the non Muslim bathist regime” in Iraq; these words of action were supported by prominent Shia clerics in Iraq such as Ayatollah Sadr who wrote to Khomeini saying “Other tyrants have yet to see their day of reckoning”.25 This quote was not only directed at Saddam but also to other Arab states. So the stage of was set, and Saddam saw an opportunity to cement and expand Iraq’s position as a leading Arab nation, as well an opportunity to put down the Shia problem and prevent similar uprisings in Iraq. Having the backing of other Arab states that were under were ruled by monarchs and feared the Shia revolution in Iran would inspire their populations to rise up; Saddam commenced the invasion of Iran.

On September 22, 1980, Iraqi fighter jets attacked, by surprise, Iranian air bases in hopes of destroying the Iranian air force while it was still on the ground. At the very same moment six Iraqi army divisions entered Iran and drove five miles across the Iranian border on three fronts occupying 1000 square kilometers of Iranian territory.26 However, the Iraqi air strike failed to knock out Iran’s air force and within hours the Iranian fighter jets had retaliated by hitting strategically important targets close to major Iraqi cities. War had broken out and would go on for eight long years of atrocious fighting and high casualty counts. The Iran-Iraq War became an international war after about four years of ruthless fighting on both sides of the border. Both sides were inexperienced and untrained in the high-tech fighting equipment, and in many cases were forced to leave perfectly good equipment behind because they were unable to perform minor repairs.27.

However, as the war waged on and money began to be scarce, they looked to the Gulf both as a way to make money through oil exports, as well as cripple the other side by eliminating their exporting power. The “tanker war” as it came to be known as, seemed likely to precipitate an international issue for two reasons. One, seventy percent of Japanese, fifty percent of European, and seven percent of American oil imports came from the Persian Gulf in the eighties.28 Secondly, the attacks on tankers involved neutral ships, in addition to tankers belonging to the fighting sides. The War finally ended in 1988 in a stalemate after, Iran accepted the UN Security Council Resolution for ending the war. Both Iranian and Iraqi economies were practically crippled; both sides had lost massive numbers of soldiers and civilians. As a result Saddam struggled to pull Iraq out of the economic depression, leading him to later invade Kuwait. The Iran-Iraq War during the 1980’s may have permanently altered the course of progress in Iran and Iraq; the war also altered the resulting permanent involvement of the rest of the world in the middle-east, most notably the United States. The Iran-Iraq war can be seen as a pretext to the first Gulf war of 1990. With Kuwait feeling threatened during the brutal Iran- Iraq war it sided with the United States in order for the U.S to protect its oil tankers. The invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein was as a consequence of outstanding loans owed to Kuwait by Iraq.

Hussein owed the Kuwaiti’s around 1.4 billion dollars it had borrowed to finance its war, Kuwait refused to clear the debt creating new hostilities between the two nations.29 Adding fuel to the fire, Kuwait refused to decrease its petroleum output. This action was seen as a sign of aggression by Iraq since the Iraqis had tried to raise oil prices through Opecs oil production costs.30 The Kuwait’s had raised their petroleum output on insistence of the United States whose economy was also dependent on Arabian oil. The Kuwaiti government had willingly cooperated as the United States had protected its oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraq launched the invasion of Kuwait and briefly occupied it before being driven out by an UN backed force led by the United States. Surprisingly, Saddam Hussein stayed in power as the UN backed force did not invade all the way into Iraq. The United States purposely refrained from invading Iraq in order to become the new imperialist power in the Middle East in order to keep Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Arab states fearful of Saddam. In creating this fear, the United States was able to keep troops in the oil rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and various Gulf States.

By tracing Iraq’s history it is evident both religion and the way the Middle East has been drawn up greatly influenced different situations both internally and externally. Iraq’s different ethnic divisions of the Shia and Sunni faith plus the intervention of imperialist powers creates an unstable country where democracy cannot be achieved.