Looking at Iraq’s history, it’s amazing what difference one hundred years make in a span of 6000 years. Going back to Sumer, the region of city-states in ancient Mesopotamia, may be asking too much, but 1920, when the three Ottoman Empire Mesopotamian provinces, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, became part of the British “Protectorate”, may be a good starting point. The following is drawn from various sources (Wikipedia, British, French,US journals, personal knowledge).
The Ottomans ruled their Caliphate from Turkish Constantinople for 600 years! The word “Ottoman” is a historical Anglicisation of the name of Osman I, the founder of the Empire in 1299 and of the ruling House of Osman (Oghuz Turks, also known as the Ottoman dynasty). Osman’s name in turn was derived from the Persian form of the name ʿUṯmān (Source: Wikipedia). The Sultan represented the Caliphate.
The Ottomans considered the Mesopotamian territories “backwater”. In 1918, the League of Nations handed them to Britain after the demise of the Ottoman empire, which had sided with the Germans during World War I, with the intention the territories should eventually become independent.
But Mesopotamia consisted of a manifold spectrum of religious sects and tribal sheiks, which became a fundamental problem for the British from the outset to mold Iraq into a functioning state.
All what followed since then until todate, just shows how little the populace of the “West” and the “Middle East” understand each other and how little the various sects in Iraq could collaborate. Every single stage in the evolving history reads like a horror thriller and is the basis for the Iraqi situation today. In hindsight, making a country out of Iraq with artificial borders crossing through sects and different peoples and their tribes (Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds) and various religions conflicting with a majority islamic population (Assyrians, Yazidis, Christians, Jews) never was a viable undertaking.
The British Empire, before it started dwindling down, founded monarchies in the Middle East, including Egypt, starting in 1921, with the common structure of prime ministers, ministers and administrators in ministries. This because the political format of monarchy seemed to work rather well in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Oman, Qatar). Thus, from a “backwater”, Iraq suddenly became a monarchy. Britain elected descendants of the Prophet of Mohammed (the Saudi Hashemite family) to lend it the true image of Arab and Islamic heritage.
The Hashemite dynasty originates in the Hejaz, a region which is now part of Saudi Arabia. It had battled the revolutionary military “Young Turks” of the Ottoman empire of which it was part, with tacit British support.
A secular movement, the Young Turks wanted abolition of absolute monarchies. They sided with Germany in World War I and were responsible for the genocide of the Armenians (Catholics and Protestants), mostly living in eastern Turkey, bordering on Russia, because they were accused of siding with the enemy Russia. They murdered about 1.5 million Armenians in the most abhorrent manner, a genocide Turkey denies till todate, demonstrating the intolerance of Islam toward other religions. A courageous medic took clandestine pictures of it that exposed the horrors of the Turkish genocide.
The Koran is often cited for spurring this violence for all Muslims to fight and kill nonbelievers: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives” (Surah XLVII.4). (Source: Islam Review.com). We are reminded of that again today.
Hashemite King Faisal 1 became King of Iraq in 1921 after a national referendum, and ruled till 1933, supported by British and Saudi administrators, largely foreign to the Iraqi population. In 1932, Iraq became an independent state.
In the same year, the British appointed his brother, Abdullah I, the Emir of Transjordan. When Transjordan was granted independence in 1946, it became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Abdullah became its first King.
The Hashemites, being of Sunni origin, were unpopular with Iraqi Shiites and Kurds, as administrators were mostly Sunni. King Ghazi 1, Faisal’s son, rose to the throne after his father’s death in 1933. A playboyish King, he was accused of Nazi sympathies and a strong supporter of panarab nationalism.
In 1936, he allowed Bakr Sidqi, a Kurd, then Acting Commander of the Iraqi army, to take over government. This is being described as the first Arab coup in the Middle East. Bakr Sidqi, who had acquired solid credentials in the British army, was among others responsible for the massacre of 3000 Assyrians (adherents to the Assyrian Church of the East, a Christian sect dating from 400 AD that wanted autonomy) in Mosul and Simele in 1933.
This is how Mar Shimun, a Catholicos Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East, described it: “Girls were raped and made to march naked before Iraqi commanders. Children were run over by military cars. Pregnant women were bayonetted. Children were flung in the air and pierced on to the points of bayonets. Holy books were used for the burning of the massacred. ” (source: www.assyrianenterprise.com). Think about ISIS today. A never ending cruel humanity
Adoring fast cars, and desiring to annex Kuwait (which the British opposed), King Ghazi 1 died in a car accident in 1939, which was suspected to have been engineered by Nuri as Said, a “repeat” prime minister in Iraqi Governments and sort of an eternal “Rasputin” behind the scenes, who was strongly supportive of relations with Britain. He was the only minister who did not accept Bakr Sidqi’s military overthrow and was exiled to Egypt. His life story, which ended with him being murdered at the end of the monarchy in 1958, reads like a political thriller as well.
Ghazi’s son, Faisal II, was 4 years old and Abdul Ilah, the son of Faisal I’s brother, Ali, and brother of Faisal’s mother, Queen Aliya, became regent.
During World War II, Iraq was on the British side, but did not take part in the war. When in 1941, an Iraqi nationalistic military coup sympathetic to the Nazis removed regent Abdul Ilah, a brief Anglo-Iraqi war broke out. Faisal’s mother, Queen Aliya, then divorced from King Ghazi, fled with young Faisal II to Abdullah I in Jordan.
The British restored order with the help of Jordanian forces, and Abdul Ilah was put back in power. Faisal II and his mother returned, but the Queen died in 1950. Faisal II went to school in England, together with his second cousin Hussein of Jordan and they became close friends.
When Faisal II turned 18 in 1953, he became the official ruling King, but Abdul Ilah’s influence, very unpopular in Iraq because of his support of British influence in Iraq and denial of growing panarab socialist sympathies, remained unshaken. Even though under King Faisal II Iraq underwent substantial economic progress, local unrest, influenced by communist sympathizers in politics and the army, kept growing.
King Faisal intrigued me because I was of the same age. He lost his father at four, and his mother when he was just 15. I remember collecting pictures of him at high school and seeing pictures of him on TV, which had just become a new medium, during his visit to Queen Elisabeth in 1956.
In July 1952, The Free Officers Movement of Gamal Abdel Nasser had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy (King Farouk), which had deteriorated into complete decadence, and this was widely supported in Iraq. Nasser became President in 1956.
Interestingly, he also booted out The Brotherhood after they tried to assassinate him. Faisal’s pro-British inclination and the influence of Abdul Ilah in his Iraqi rule, as well as the pro-British position of Prime Minister Nuri al-Said conflicted with Egypt’s popular panarab nationalism.
Prince Abdul Ilah and Nuri as Said
Faisal II chose to support the British -French invasion in Egypt when Nasser nationalized the Suez canal. He and his administrators disregarded the Iraqi people’s support of Egypt’s and Nasser’s panarab nationalism, and broad action of reforms and economic development.
This and the growing local inequalities between landowners, the elite, and poor peasants and workers, led to a popular revolt on July 14, 1958 (seems a favorable month for French and Arab revolutions). As the army had become increasingly supportive of the Arab nationalist movement, despite Faisal’s generous pay, General Abdal-Karim Qasim took power, inspired by Nasser’s July 1952 revolt. Using the request for help from Faisal’s cousin Hussein in Jordan against an escalating crisis of civil war in neighboring Lebanon as a ruse, he took to Baghdad and surrounded the palace with tanks.
Aref and Qasem
Faisal apparently ordered the palatial guard not to resist and hoist the white flag, but the royal family was chased into the palace garden and summarily executed. Faisal, only 23, apparently died in a van on the way to the hospital. Abdul Ilah’s body was mutilated, paraded around and hung on a balcony. Nuri as Said tried to flee as a woman, but got recognized, was shot, and after burial they mutilated his body in the streets. The news and pictures shocked me deeply that time. It was the end of the British dream of holding on to monarchy in Iraq. Faisal II never married, despite several match-making efforts, and at the time of his death was engaged to Princess Sabiha Sultan, the only daughter of Prince Muhammad Ali Ibrahim Beyefendi of Egypt and Princess Zahra Hanzade Sultan. Faisal was buried in a tomb in the Royal Mausoleum at Adamiyah
Interspersed by palatial coups, proving that military rule was no better than the monarchy, several military rulers assumed power of the Republic of Iraq.
In 1979, General Sadam Hussain took the scepter, supported by the Revolutionary Command Council and the socialist-communist Baath party (founded in 1947 by three intellectual Syians, one Christian, one Sunni, and one Alawite!) We all know what happened since then (also see previous blog “Don’t Cry for Me, Iraq”).
Michael Thornton, in an article in Mail Online (August 2008) reports that Saddam was haunted by Faisal’s brutal murder. He would secretly visit Faisal’s tomb to meditate and even upgraded it. He had seen him parading through Baghdad as a young boy and King. Perhaps a feeling of bad foreboding?
Today, Iraq is a crumbling fragile state and the US-imposed democracy after the 2003 invasion is hanging by a thread. Iraq had never known democracy and the Ottoman Empire was far from that. The monarchies were unfit for democratic rule. Democracy grows from within, but Iraq’s sectarian divides, which starkly increased as a result of the 2003 invasion, have made it even more difficult. ISIL saw its chance when it was unchallenged in Syria and found open terrain left by the Allies in Iraq. Caliphates are old but enticing ideas in the Muslim world and the Ottoman Empire was the last. We are seeing a repeat of the past cruelties that we had briefly forgotten about.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II is the last Hashemite King remaining in Power. This beautiful Kingdom has strong Western and moderate Middle-Eastern ties, a strong army and modern leadership, keeping a keen eye on the welfare of its small population (7 million).
King Abdullah II –
Treasury Petra (JS Enchanté)
It is deprived of natural fossil resources but exports phosphates and potash. It has been able to manage energy import wisely. Nonetheless, in the remote desert town Man’an, suffering from poverty and unemployment, ISIS has been able to start unrest. So far, this has been mildly but firmly suppressed by Jordan’s security forces. On the other hand, this trend confirms that the growing ISIS cancer must be stopped now to avoid that the whole area goes up in flames.
Only strong Western and Middle Eastern leadership can eliminate the cancer. Stories on the internet are circulating about secret slaughterhouses in Syria where ISIS rebels systematically behead Christians, Jews and other minorities, and hang their bodies like cattle in a meat factory. Had journalist James Foley and other captured journalists seen too much? Is Assad the bad guy or is it the Islamist terrorists, as he claimed in his interview with Kucinich in September 2013? Why did they agree so quickly to handover WMD? Out of fear that it would fall in the hands of the rebels? Why do we know so little about it all? Maybe James Foley could have told us.
Strategic action is needed soon, including in Syria (finally). Unfortunately for us, nor in the West, nor in the Middle East, do we seem to have strong leadership that appears able to bring it about. Let’s hope they wake up. 9/11 2014 is coming soon. Are we prepared?
Next Time: Iraq, A Frugal Effort of Economic Development and Governance.
On the road to Petra from the Dead Sea, with the shocked French lady still in my mind, I passed through Jordan’s rocky and scarce arable land. Olive trees spotted the deep valleys. We stopped at a scenic overview near Shobak to take pictures. To get the desired background, I stood so close to a ravine that my friends yelled “John, don’t, you’ll fall!” It surely looked like that on the picture:
Arriving in Petra, I quickly checked into the Moewenpick Hotel and walked to the prehistoric Petra site. On the dusty access road, a stunningly beautiful black Arabian horse said “hello” to me. As I am from a family of horseback riders and breeders, I patted the horse and a voice said, “I’m Mike”. A Bedouin boy, wearing a large black cape and red-check keffiyeh came from behind it. It was he who’d had spoken for the horse. Ahmed was his name. His English was minimal and I don’t know Arabic, but he understood my instant silly desire to ride Mike and we agreed on a price in Jordanian Dinars.
Before seeing Petra, I wanted to mount the rocky mountains and see it from above to have some oversight. Climbing the rocks would not be easy, but Ahmed said Mike did that all the time, so I shouldn’t have any problems. This, I should not have done. Midway uphill, the saddle began to shift because the horse’s girth underneath his belly wasn’t tightened enough. With my weight leaning left, Mike could not keep his balance while climbing the rocks and fell on his side, with me lying half under him. Doing this on a 45 degree angle, with hard rocks poking in my left and heavy Mike scurrying his legs in the air on my right, was not an ideal position. Ahmed had stumbled up the hill behind us and reached Mike to help him back on his hoofs. I also struggled back up, dusted off my pants, thinking hard about how to mount a horse on a 45 degree angle. I helped Ahmed fix the girth, looked for a big rock to stand on, and pulled Mike uphill to the rock, and climbed on it to get back in the saddle. I’m still not sure how, but we made it to the top. From there I had a splendid view of the conglomerate of rocks with holes carved into it, where the inhabitants, the Nabateans, used to live.
A women dressed in black garb offered me a welcome warm tea cooked on a stove in a hole in the rocks where she lived with her family. I could not take her picture as “her husband would kill her if I did.”
As I had lost time with the horse ride, it became clear I could not see Petra that same day. We took Mike down the hill, and I galloped to the exit – like the Bedouin riders did – eyed after in awe by tourists – with Ahmed hollering loudly behind me, jumped off and gave Mike a big pat on the neck. I had to get my suitcase out of the car before my friends drove off to Aqaba at the Red Sea where they had a retreat and I was not needed. I barely made it, as the car was about to leave.
The next day I visited Petra starting early in the morning. It was one of the most inspiring historical sites I have ever seen. The Nabatean society, which inhabited this area between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C. must have been a class by themselves. They excavated their buildings, temples, tombs and living quarters from the rocks that remained their natural protection and obtained water from sources through elaborate supply systems that are still in tact today.
This space is too limited to show many pictures but a small selection follows.
Next time: driving ahead of a sand storm.