When people think of Iraq these days, their thoughts turn to war, occupation, sectarianism and violence. Few remember that this now troubled country , the size of California, is the acknowledged Cradle of Civilization and even fewer realise that during the latter half of the 20th century it was one of the most cultured and sophisticated nations in the Arab world
Iraq was founded as recently as 1932. But the land on which it stands, formerly known as Mesopotamia (Greek for the ‘Land between Rivers’), on the banks of the Euphrates, was where the first cities were built some 5,000 years ago and where the oldest examples of writing were discovered. Who hasn’t heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the mysterious ziggurats and the laws known as Hammurabi’s code, all of which are located in the region?
Mesopotamia was the jewel in the crown of some of the world’s greatest civilizations and was the epicentre of a succession of empires, including the Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hellenistic, Abbasid, Greek, Roman, Umayyad, Mongol and Ottoman empires, until it was invaded by Britain in 1917.
The Sykes-Picot agreement
When the Ottoman Empire was divided-up by the post-World War I Treaty of Sevres in August 1920, the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate to rule Mesopotamia, angering the local population and triggering mass resistance. A three-month-long rebellion, by Sunnis, Shiites and various other tribes, led by the people of Mosul, ensued. It was known as the Great Iraqi Revolution. However by the end of October 1920, the British had crushed the revolt.
Iraq’s first king
In March 1921, Britain rigged an election to install Faisal ibn Hussein (the son of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, a former Sherif of Mecca) as the first monarch of modern-day Iraq. King Faisal was a Hashemite with an impeccable lineage, being a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. The British hoped Faisal would be respected by the Iraqis for his leadership in the 1916 Arab revolt against the Turks, but few Iraqis had heard of his exploits.
In fact he had little real authority. His hands had been tied by the British government and so he resolved to ensure that Iraq would remain militarily, economically and diplomatically dependent on the United Kingdom. However, as soon as the British mandate expired in 1932, he declared the country’s independence and the kingdom of Iraq was swiftly accepted as a member of the League of Nations. But, Iraq’s membership was contingent upon a 25-year Anglo-Iraqi treaty coming into force. This allowed Britain to set up air bases around Iraq and obliged Baghdad to consult with London on all matters of foreign policy.
Ghazi bin Faisal
King Faisal suffered a heart attack while visiting Switzerland in September 1933 and died. His only son Ghazi bin Faisal succeeded him and appointed himself as Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal of the Royal Iraq Army and Marshal of the Royal Iraqi Air Force on the day he was crowned. King Ghazi I was a pan-Arab nationalist who was determined not to become a puppet of the British like his father. He is said to have had Nazi leanings.
In 1936, he supported a military coup, led by Bakr Sidqi a Kurdish general from Kirkuk, who had overthrown Iraq’s civilian government. King Ghazi installed a radio station in one of his palaces to expound his views, which included a belief that Kuwait should be annexed to Iraq. His life was cut short in 1939 by an accident in his sports car and this led to rumours that he had been murdered.
King Faisal II was the last Iraqi monarch. He was just three-years-old when his father was killed; his uncle the Crown Prince Abdullah served as his regent until he came of age in 1953. The boy king spent World War II with his mother in Berkshire, England and attended the prestigious Harrow School where his cousin and close friend King Hussein of Jordan was also a pupil.
On July 14, 1958, renegade units of the Iraqi army marched towards Baghdad where they launched a coup. When the revolutionaries arrived at the palace, they ordered King Faisal and Prince Abdullah to gather their family members and servants in the courtyard. All were told to turn their faces to the wall before being mercilessly gunned down.
‘The Free Officers, led by General Abdel
Karim Qasim were inspired by Egypt’s 1952 overthrow of King Farouk and the pan-Arab ideology of Gamal Abdel Nasser. The then
Director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, told President Eisenhower that Nasser was behind the coup and that he was fearful of a possible chain reaction throughout the region which would threaten the Arab monarchies as well as US interests.
The Republic of Iraq
The new Iraqi republic was ruled by a revolutionary council made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, with General Qasim as the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence. One of his first steps was to pull Iraq out of the Baghdad Pact – an anti-Soviet security agreement with a number of countries including Britain – so that he could form an alliance with the USSR. In 1963, a second coup brought Colonel Abdul Salam Arif to power. His brother Abdul Rahman Arif assumed the presidency upon his death in 1966.
The Arab Socialist Baath party
The first Baathist president of Iraq was General Ahmed Hasan Al Bakr who had launched a bloodless coup against Abdul Rahman Arif, who was supported by Saddam Hussein and Salah Omar Al Ali. Saddam was only vice-president at the time but he did not enjoy playing second fiddle. In 1979, he ousted President Al Bakr from office and then proceeded to arrest or kill any potential rivals for the leadership. As many as 22 men were executed and many more were imprisoned.
Saddam Hussein Abdel Majid Al Tikriti was the son of a shepherd from the Iraqi town of Tikrit. His father had died before he was born and his 13-year-old elder brother had succumbed to cancer. When his mother remarried he acquired three half-brothers who later became his close confidants and his partners in crime. Saddam studied law for three years while working as a schoolteacher to make ends meet, before joining the Baath Party at the age of 20.
Upon establishing control of Iraq, Saddam’s main focus was the stability of a country plagued by sectarian strife. To achieve this, he wielded a heavy hand and tempered his rule by introducing economic reforms and welfare programmes.
He established a national campaign for the eradication of illiteracy and introduced free schooling and free medical services, which were considered the finest in the Arab world. As a result of these reforms, he earned himself an award from UNESCO. He also gave subsidies to farmers, improved the country’s infrastructure and ensured that the residents of every town and city had access to electricity.
At the same time, he encouraged a cult of his own personality, hoping that Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis would abandon their own sectarian affiliations to rally around him as proud Iraqis. This was an era when Iraqis worked together, worshipped together and freely intermarried.
Saddam was protective of Iraq’s Christian community – then making up approximately seven per cent of the population and including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Greek Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. They were rarely harmed but they were sometimes subjected to relocation programmes to evict them from the oil-rich regions in the country. Iraqi Christians are believed to be amongst the oldest in the world, tracing their ancestry back 2,000 years to Mesopotamia. However, just when Iraq was flourishing, and even admired as a role model for the Middle East, Saddam made his first strategic mistake – he went to war with Iran.
The Iran-Iraq war
The eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war began when Iraq invaded Iran on September 22, 1980. Saddam claimed the aggression had been prompted by a territorial dispute, but that wasn’t the main reason. He feared that Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, might also inspire Iraq’s Shiite communities to revolt. In fact, Saddam ignited the conflict, but Khomeini prolonged it.
Both sides attacked each other’s cities and launched attacks on oil tankers and merchant ships. Throughout the war, the US and its Western allies covertly supported Iraq. Khomeini eventually agreed to a ceasefire however, likening his decision to drinking a cup of poison.
By the time the fighting was over, up to one and a half million Iranians and Iraqis had lost their lives. Saddam was condemned for using chemical weapons against the Iranians and against suspected pro-Iranian Kurds in the town of Halabja.
The Osirak nuclear reactor
Osirak was the name of an Iraqi 40 MW light-water test reactor that had been supplied by France and was constructed in Tuwaitha, 18 kilometres from Baghdad. It was built in 1979 for civilian purposes but the Israelis feared that it would be used to create nuclear weapons. In 1981, Israel launched a surprise air attack code-named ‘Operation Opera’ on the reactor and rendered it useless. Saddam was so enraged that he ordered his top nuclear scientists to make a nuclear bomb that in the end was only ever partially developed.
The Gulf War
Saddam made his worst political mistake on August 2, 1990 when he launched an Iraqi invasion of neighbouring Kuwait, which he blamed for its over-production of oil and a resultant fall in revenue. A report published in the New York Times suggested that he first received the green light from the US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie who said: “We have no opinion on Arab-Arab conflicts like your border dispute with Kuwait…”
Six months later, the US President George H.W. Bush formed a coalition with Britain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries, involving 540,000 multi-national troops, with the aim of freeing Kuwait. Kuwait was liberated on February 28, 1991. In the process, tens of thousands of retreating Iraqi soldiers were massacred by US pilots on what came to be known as the ‘Highway of death’ –a six-lane highway between Kuwait and Iraq. It was like “shooting fish in a barrel”, said one US pilot.
The aftermath of the war
Peace came at a price. Its economy devastated and its air force destroyed, Iraq was forced to dismantle its nuclear, chemical and biological capabilities and reluctantly open its door to United Nations weapons inspectors. Following a Shiite uprising, brutally quelled by Saddam, the US, the UK, France and Turkey established Iraqi no-fly zones to protect the Shiite and Kurdish populations.
Saddam failed to comply with a number of UN Security Council resolutions and in 1998, President Bill Clinton initiated a four-day bombing campaign on Iraq’s chemical and biological sites, dubbed ‘Operation Desert Fox’. Clinton was later accused of obstructing weapons inspections and of engineering an unnecessary attack to distract public attention from the impeachment proceedings associated with the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Sanctions on Iraq
Just days after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the UN Security Council imposed crippling economic and trade sanctions on the country, which were to remain in place for the next 10 years. They brought Iraq to its knees. This once oil-rich progressive nation could no longer feed its population. Malnutrition was rife, educational standards fell, hospitals lacked medicines and equipment and the infant mortality rate doubled. By some estimates, up to half a million Iraqi children died as a direct result of the sanctions. Hans von Sponeck, who was a UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq described the effects of the sanctions as a “true human tragedy” before resigning from his post in protest.
The US-led invasion
On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq to seek out and destroy Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which the US President George W. Bush maintained were a threat to America’s national security. When no weapons of mass destruction were found, Bush boasted of how he had removed a brutal dictator from Iraq to make way for democracy. The entire Iraqi army was dismantled and Baathists were sacked from the government and the civil service, leaving millions of disgruntled, unemployed Iraqis armed with guns.
Up to one million Iraqis were killed by the coalition who used the occupation as a chance to recruit followers. Millions more were displaced, including Iraq’s Christians who represented just three per cent of the population in 2005 (down from seven per cent before the invasion).
Saddam Hussein was captured, put before a ‘kangaroo’ court and publicly hanged in December 2006 in front of an audience of vulgar heckling officials. In 2010, Iraq’s best-known Christian politician, the former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, was sentenced to be hanged, in spite of objections from world leaders and the Vatican. Many of his fellow Christians left the country in droves shortly afterwards, following a spate of brutal attacks on churches and a series of rapes and beheadings.
Partial withdrawal by the US
On August 19, 2010, combat officially ended with the withdrawal of the US combat troops. Some 50,000 non-combat personnel remain however, acting as advisors and trainers. Not only do US bases still exist there, but the largest and most fortified American embassy in the world is still in operation.
The US President Barack Obama was opposed to the war before assuming office, but has since tried to bill the invasion as a resounding success. But the reality is that as long as Iraq is beset by sectarian violence and led by staunchly pro-Iranian Shiites, the US can hardly pat itself on the back. In fact, some are calling for George W. Bush and his British counterpart Tony Blair, who they say marched their nations to war on a pack of lies, to be tried for war crimes.
Iraq’s future still lies in the balance. Will it eventually split into three separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite states? Will it ally itself with Tehran and turn against the West? Or will freedom and democracy ultimately prevail to give the Iraqis the security, unity and economic benefits they deserve? Iraqis and their neighbours wait anxiously for the answer.