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Iraq’s troubled century

Iraq is set to mark its 100th statehood anniversary next month, but for many Iraqis there is little to celebrate, writes Al-Ahram Weekly

Salah Nasrawi , Thursday 15 Jul 2021
Iraq’s troubled century
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On 23 August 1921, Faisal Bin Al-Hussein, son of the sharif of Mecca, was proclaimed king of Iraq, which had been carved by the British colonial power as a state out of the former Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Faisal was chosen by British colonial officials five months earlier at the Cairo Conference based on advice from T E Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, apparently as a reward to his family for its role in helping the allied powers defeat the Ottomans.

The event was marked as the founding date of the Kingdom of Iraq under a British mandate with partial sovereignty until the country was declared fully independent in 1932. 

In other circumstances, the centenary of the founding of modern Iraq next month would have been celebrated as a major national event and an opportune moment to encourage Iraqis to take pride in their recent history.

But no crowds in colourful uniforms are expected to file into Baghdad’s main squares to celebrate the founding anniversary nor are military brass bands expected to play or choirs sing in the festivities.

The ruling political factions in Iraq have even proposed to declare 3 October as Iraq’s national day, marking the day the country was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state.

As Iraq turns 100 and remains trapped in loopholes, there is a pressing question on many people’s minds: is Iraq a state, and, if so, has it achieved anything as a country that makes its centenary worthy of celebration?

This controversy about the Iraqi state did not originate from its undermining by the sectarian oligarchs who seized the government following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. Instead, it has its roots in the shaky political structure built by the post-independence elites formed under the British occupation.

Instead of engaging in state and nation-building in Iraq and in spreading democracy, the country’s colonial rulers were more interested in maintaining British power and in fostering a political class subservient to their rule which lost  the Iraqis’ trust in them.

Part of the problem was Faisal himself. He was handpicked as king of Iraq by the British colonial authorities that were reorganising the administration of British Middle Eastern interests after World War I. 

Faisal, the third son of Hussein, the Hashemite emir of Mecca, had no family ties or historical roots in Iraq, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire. The Iraqis showed no love for a man they viewed as a British puppet.

It was this British-orchestrated alliance between the newly created elites and the monarchy that was a blatant foreign import. It conceived the autocratic structure of the independent state of Iraq and remained an obstacle to its evolution as a functioning entity.

As it stepped out into the world, the new Iraqi state faced daunting challenges when it appeared that its founding fathers had not bothered much to glue its multi-religious, multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic groups together into a unified national identity.

The key problem was when the British colonial power favoured Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs, then about 20 per cent of the population, over the Shia Muslim Arab majority and the ethnic Kurds who had rebelled against British colonial rule.

The political engineering followed by Britain in Iraq not only failed to create a modern democratic state for the nation that the British occupied, but also influenced the post-colonial system and the ruling elite’s attitudes and behaviour.

The Iraqi stooges and sycophants to whom their British colonial masters handed political power did not opt for democracy, but rather converted the declared constitutional system into an autocracy, sometimes seeming little more than a bunch of family retainers.

Over the next four decades, the political and bureaucratic classes became increasingly corrupt and inefficient and fought to maintain the autocratic state in the face of increasing resistance by many in Iraqi society who struggled for a democratic government to replace the post-colonial order.

In 1958, top Iraqi army officers toppled the monarchy, brutally killed the young king, Faisal’s grandson, many other members of the former royal family and top political leaders, and replaced the government with one made up of the military coup-makers.

Regardless of the revolutionary and nationalistic expectations it had aroused, the coup undermined the transition to democracy in Iraq and thus acted as political dynamite that torpedoed Iraq’s modernisation and democratisation.  

Between 1958 and 1968, the country was ruled almost continuously by a factious and disarrayed military caste that created a stagnant political landscape characterised by political volatility and prone to authoritarianism. It was another lost decade in the Iraqis’ quest to take charge of their own history and carve out a viable state.

The Iraqi Baath Party coup in 1968 was a milestone when the clock of Iraq’s political evolution completely stopped and the state began its descent into one-party rule interwoven with an ideological dictatorship. The new regime made pan-Arab nationalism the foremost ideology of the state, thus deepening Iraq’s identity crisis.

When the former dictator Saddam Hussein seized power in a palace coup in 1979, the party became a vital tool to instill loyalty to his ruthless authoritarian rule as well as to help control the state apparatus alongside the military and the pervasive security services.

Like in the regime of his Baath Party counterpart in Syria, former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad, Saddam made efforts to personalise his rule by preparing his two sons Uday and Qusay to succeed him in what many called a “Saddam dynasty” or a “hereditary republic” and turning Iraq’s political clock back to 1921.

The US war on Iraq in 2003 underlined the fact that more than 80 years after it was founded, the Iraqi state was rotten to the core, as it had failed to repel the foreign invasion and the subsequent occupation, descending into a state of national humiliation.

In reality, the Iraqi soldiers and people did not fight the US invaders because they wanted to rid themselves of Saddam and of the regime that had hijacked the state and turned it into a family enterprise.

The state crumbled because it was too weak and exhausted to withstand the divisions and violence triggered by the invasion, and it is this that has continued to reverberate to the present day.

Related to the centenary of the Iraqi state and whether it is worthy of celebration, the question remains of whether the Iraqis still have faith in their state. It is true that the country has not been sold off or disintegrated, but the question of whether it can weather the present storms remains a matter of speculation.

Looking at the series of socio-political changes that have eroded the cohesion of the Iraqi state, it is hard not to conclude that sectarianism, ethnic affiliation and tribalism have become the norms that have undermined national identity and the state’s cohesion. 

Iraq is also mired in economic failure, inefficiency, corruption and political turmoil caused largely by Iran-backed rogue militias that have undermined the government’s sovereignty and set their sights on political power and overtaking the state.

A fundamental factor that underscores the absence of Iraqi sovereignty is Iran’s increasing influence in the country, turning it into a battleground for a fierce struggle over geopolitical interests and regional influence between the Islamic Republic and the United States.   

Today, any euphoria in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Iraqi state has been replaced by the apathy reflected in the widely used catchphrase of the la dawla, or “non-state,” used by Iraqis who view their state as one that does not exist.

Across Iraq, a lack of public authority, violence and disorder are the norm, and a diverse mix of individuals, groups, and religious institutions are involved in policing people’s everyday lives and the spaces in which they live. 

At best, these non-state actors may still mimic the symbols, materials and duties of the state in an attempt to bolster their own claims to public authority. At worst, the Iraqi state may now have run its course and have run out of the space required to start the process of rebuilding.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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