USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Ottoman Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq

At the conclusion of the First World War, British forces occupied the three Mesopotamian provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul, which had never before constituted a unified state. Many things frightened the British in these years as they attempted to safeguard their vast empire, but nothing approached the collective British fear that another power might threaten its imperial crown-jewel: India. Any push by a foreign power into Mesopotamia constituted, for the British, a potential assault on India. In addition, the value of petroleum and its superiority over coal as an energy source (especially for naval vessels) was just starting to become fully appreciated during and after WWI, and Iraq and Iran were thought (correctly) to be fertile petroleum ground. The Ottoman province of Mosul, initially promised to the French in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, contained the most promising oil grounds. In any case, the British found themselves in 1918 in control of three ethnically and religiously diverse provinces, which together had never before formed a single political entity.

In 1920, the people in the mandate of Iraq revolted against British role, not because they had any nationalist sentiment, but rather because they resented the foreign, western occupation. Britain responded to the growing crisis in a similar way as the French responded in Syria: it ordered a military crackdown and killed, in the process of quelling the revolt, around ten thousand people.

Like in Egypt, the British knew that it would be much better for them not to control the country directly, but to place a pro-British leader at the head of the new Iraqi state and to advance their agenda through him. The British selected a man named Amir Faysal for the job of Iraqi king. Faysal was a British military partner who led, together with the famous Lawrence of Arabia, the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and who by war’s end had occupied Damascus. Though the European powers had crushed his movement in Syria, the British still liked Faysal himself and thought that his history of opposing colonialism in Syria—and his heroic status—would make him an easier pill to swallow for the people in Iraq.
The British supported Faysal in his new role as king. The Iraqi army, which never had existed before, was founded in 1921. Only a legitimate leader, with sovereignty over the use of force, would be able, the British thought, to keep this unlikeliest of nations together. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the British assisted Iraq in its development of national and social infrastructure. In the 1930s, the Iraqi king signed a treaty with England guaranteeing Iraqi independence in exchange for British military support, which really meant in exchange for allowing the British to keep a substantial military presence in Iraq to guarantee its interests. And what were British interests in Iraq? By the 1920s, the vague desire for power on the world’s stage, which had defined much of nineteenth century imperialism, had crystalized into a contest for critical resources. And no resource was more critical than oil. The name of the game in the 1920s was “concessions”—a practice that saw Middle Eastern states granting Western firms long-term leases for oil drilling in return for royalty payments. A seventy-five year concession, granted in 1925 to a Western-owned petroleum company, would begin nearly half a century of Western domination of Iraqi oil fields.

The British plan might have worked if it weren’t for the untimely death of Faysal. The king’s death in 1933 exposed the artificiality of the British-installed Iraqi system. Beneath the calm facade of the monarch, there were the concealed tensions between sectarian elites who represented their own narrower interests. What’s more, among these elites, most had been former elites in the Ottoman Empire and were Sunni Muslims. The Shi’ite population of Iraq, the majority of Muslims, was basically cut out of the political process. After Faysal died, the Sunni military elites launched one coup d’etat after another, though the monarchy managed to survive. Each successive wave seemed only to increase hostility to the British presence. The turmoil continued until the rise of a fascist-style military party, which finally overthrew the king in 1941. The British responded, defeated the rebellion, and re-occupied the country with a force led by the former Prime Minister Rashid Ali. Like with Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, the structural instabilities of Iraqi politics were created by imperial politics in the period between 1918 and 1945. Though these roots are only part of the complex dynamic that forms the contemporary context for Middle East politics, they should not be ignored or forgotten.

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