Scott Anderson traces the origins of the present crisis in Iraq back to World War I:
For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd – held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. This delicate system was undone by the West, and for an all-too-predictable reason: oil.
In order to raise an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who had joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, Great Britain forged a wartime alliance with Emir Hussein of the Hejaz region of Arabia, now the western edge of Saudi Arabia bordered by the Red Sea. The 1915 pact was a mutually advantageous one. Since Hussein was an extremely prominent Islamic religious figure, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the alliance inoculated the British against the Ottoman accusation that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian Crusaders. In return, Britain’s promises to Hussein were extravagant: independence for virtually the entire Arab world.
But oil was discovered in all three of these vilayets, and so “the ‘nation’ of Iraq was created by fusing the three Ottoman provinces into one and put under direct British control.” Unrest predictably ensued, setting in motion the dynamics we’re still grappling with today:
In a belated effort to defuse the crises in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East – throughout the region, Arabs seethed at having traded their Ottoman overseers for European ones – the British government hastily appointed Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary in early 1921. One of the first people Churchill turned to for help was Lawrence the war hero and champion of the Arab independence cause. As a result of the Cairo Conference that March, one of Emir Hussein’s sons, Faisal, was made king of Iraq, while another son, Abdullah, was placed on the throne of the newly-created kingdom of Jordan.
But whereas the ‘artificial nation’ of Jordan would eventually achieve some degree of political stability and cohesion, the same could never truly be said of its Iraq counterpart. Instead, its history would be marked by a series of violent coups and rebellions, with its political domination by the Sunni minority simply deepening its sectarian fault lines. After repeatedly intervening to defend their fragile creation, the British were finally cast out of Iraq in the late 1950s, their local allies murdered by vengeful mobs.
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s for very good reason: the disastrous British playbook of 1920 was almost precisely replicated by the United States in 2003.
Recent Dish on the First World War’s impact on Middle Eastern politics here.
(Image: British troops entering Baghdad in 1917, via Wikimedia Commons)