William R. Polk, in Understanding Iraq, subtitles his work as The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation, but the volume focuses upon Iraqi from the early twentieth century. Polk’s aim, as he states it in the preface, is to place present-day events in their historical context in order to illuminate the present. Well qualified for his task, the author first visited Iraq in 1947 and has written several volumes on the Middle East.
Iraq was one of the earliest places where humans made the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. Millennia later, c. 3000 b.c.e., in ancient Mesopotamia, bound by the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the world’s first civilization was created by the Sumerians, who built cities and irrigation projects and invented writing. Because of the lack of geographical barriers, Mesopotamian societies were often the victims of foreign invasions, beginning in the twenty-fourth century b.c.e. About 1100, the Assyrians seized power, ruthlessly relocating the population, a policy Saddam Hussein would later use. The Assyrians were succeeded by the Neo-Babylonians, and then the Persians, who coined the name “Iraq” from the Persian eragh, meaning “the lowlands.” Alexander the Great humbled the Persians, followed by the Macedonian Seleucids, the Parthians and the Romans, and the Persian Sasanian Empire.
Much changed with the coming of Islam. By the time of his death in 632, Muhammad, the Prophet of Allah, had fashioned a religious community or ummah that encompassed most of Arabia. However, the community divided over Muhammad’s successor. Sunnis trace their tradition to Abu Bakr, the first caliph, while Shias look back to Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, who was murdered in 661. His supporters became known as or “Partisans of Ali” (Shias in Arabic).
Under the Abbasid dynasty, Baghdad became one of the world’s great cities. However, Turks from Central Asia captured it in 1055. The city survived and prospered until the arrival of Hulagu, the Mongol grandson of Genghis Khan, who sacked Baghdad in 1258, reportedly killing eight hundred thousand of its inhabitants. Two new Islamic dynasties emerged in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Shia Safavids ruled in Persia, and the Sunni Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, destroying the Byzantine Empire. Iraq was the violent borderland between the two empires, inhibiting economic growth and deepening the divisions between Sunnis and Shias. Iraq was too poor to attract much attention from its Ottoman rulers. For the British, Iraq was of significance only when France or Russia threatened its imperial interests.
World War I and the discovery of oil in Iran changed the geopolitical realities of the region. The war led to the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, allied to defeated Germany, and the creation of many of the modern Middle East nations, including Iraq. During the war, Britain occupied Iraq to protect Iran’s oil, crucial for the British military, but at the cost twenty thousand British casualties. The postwar British occupation of Iraq, sanctioned as a League of Nations’ “mandate,” met with rebellion, and British occupation forces rose to 133,000 troops. Britain opted to work mainly with the Sunni minority. The British selected the Arab Revolt’s Faisal as Iraq’s king, although he was a foreigner, little known in Iraq.
Iraq was an artificial creation, divided under the Ottomans into three provinces. Britain used airplanes and bombs, machine guns, and poison gas to enforce its rule, terminating its mandate in 1932. Iraq joined the League of Nations, but the British continued to rule Iraq indirectly by controlling the monarchy. At the outbreak of World War II, the Iraqi army, becoming the arbiter of Iraqi politics, forced the British-backed regent to flee, but British forces defeated the Iraqi military because of the new government’s pro-German sentiments. Under Nuri Said, who became prime minister in 1941, oil funds were used for economic development, but the Said regime was tainted by what many Iraqis believed to be undue British influence.
Nuri Said was an Iraqi nationalist but not an Arab nationalist. From neighboring Syria came the pan-Arab Baath movement, which took root in the Iraqi army. In July, 1958, Iraqi military elements seized Baghdad, killing the king and Nuri Said. Abdul Karim Qasim became the “Sole Leader,” but in February, 1963, the military executed Qasim. The new Baathist government divided over the issue of pan-Arabism, and Colonel Abdus-Salam Arif seized power in November, 1963, but died in a helicopter crash in 1966. His brother, Abdur-Rahman Arif, took control, but in 1968, while he was out of the country, the army established a dictatorship with General Hassan al-Bakr as president. Saddam Hussein, a cousin of al-Bakr, was appointed vice president, becoming the de facto ruler by the mid-1970’s and president in 1979. Polk argues that Saddam had no particular ideology: All that mattered to him was power. Fearing enemies, and Polk claims that paranoia was endemic in Iraq, a small state with large oil reserves, Saddam, a Sunni, forcibly relocated Shias and Kurds. He also cultivated middle-class support through social programs. By 1980, health and educational opportunities had increased significantly, and Polk gives Saddam credit, but oil made it possible.
The British had established the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). When Qasim attempted to reduce IPC’s profits, he met opposition and in retaliation joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In 1972, Saddam nationalized the IPC, possibly his most popular action, given resentment of foreign domination of Iraq’s oil. Revenues rose rapidly, from one billion dollars in 1973 to twenty-six billion by 1980, but the Iraq-Iran War, begun by Saddam in retaliation for Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini’s urging of Iraq’s Shias to rebel, brought an end to prosperity. Opposition to the war nearly toppled Saddam from power, but he was saved by American money arms. Polk notes that United States aided Saddam although it was known that his regime was engaged in developing nuclear weapons and had used banned chemical weapons. American support was in response to Iran’s Islamic revolution and the fear of upheaval in the Middle East with its oil reserves. A cease-fire was agreed to in 1988, but the war devastated Iraq’s economy.
Peace increased the supply of oil but resulted in a fall in the price from $26 per barrel to $11. In desperate need of money, Saddam turned on Kuwait, arguing that Kuwait was a disloyal province of Iraq, a commonly held Iraqi view, and Kuwait, by exceeding OPEC production quotas, had driven down the price of Iraq’s oil. Saddam believed that foreign governments would accept an Iraqi conquest of Kuwait once it was over, but he was detested in the West, not least because of his recent gassing of four thousand Kurds. Also, Polk argues, the neo-conservatives in the George H. W. Bush administration, who were supporters of Israel, advocated a hard line against Iraq because of Saddam’s support of the Palestinians. Saddam did not fear his Arab neighbors, and America’s ambassador to Iraq intimated that the United States did not involve itself in border disputes. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, 1990. The consequence was what Polk calls “American Iraq,” because since 1990 the United States has been the major influence upon Iraq.
Saddam expected that condemnations of his invasion of Kuwait would fade, but they did not, and the reason, Polk argues, was oil more than morality. The Gulf War began on January 17, 1991, but the outgunned Iraqi army was no match for the American-led coalition, and the ground war lasted only three days, from February 24 to 27. Bush ended the conflict without Saddam’s removal from power, justifying his decision because he feared a long American occupation of a hostile Iraq, a statement, Polk points out, that proved to be not only a justification but also a prediction.
However, Saddam’s Republican Guard had not been destroyed, probably to prevent a disintegration of Iraq leading to Iranian hegemony in the region, and with American acquiescence, Shia and Kurdish uprisings were brutally repressed. Iraq was placed under United Nations sanctions, forced to dismantle all weapons of mass destruction, and imports and exports were restricted. In 1995 a “Food for Oil” program was adopted, but the regime diverted most of the aid into the military and Saddam’s personal survival in the face of American demands for “regime change.” Saddam apparently abandoned the quest for weapons of mass destruction in the early 1990’s, although most observers believed the contrary, and the George W. Bush administration later would use the alleged existence of mass destruction weapons to justify a second Iraq war.
Saddam survived the 1990’s. Oil exports were up, and regime change had failed, but the latter became an early goal of the George W. Bush administration. Iraq offered, perhaps sincerely, to allow American troops and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents into Iraq to verify that there were no weapons of mass destruction, but it was too late. The world changed after September 11, 2001, and the administration was committed to regime change. War began on March 20, 2003, and on April 16, Bush declared Iraq liberated. However, there was no peace. Polk faults the administration for the war and also for the subsequent occupation. The senior American officials demobilized Iraq’s army of a half million men, who returned home with little possibility of employment but with their weapons. Food, water, and electricity were in short supply, and looting was prevalent. War was one thing, nation buildingjustified by Bush as bringing democracywas something else. Insurgents attacked coalition troops, blew up United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, and murdered Iraqis who cooperated with the occupation.
The Bush administration blamed the insurgency upon foreign Islamic militants, but Polk doubts that foreigners played a major role, believing the insurgency to be mainly a native Iraqi resistance to the new occupiers, similar to the resistance to the British in the 1920’s. In 2004 it was decided to reconstitute the Iraqi army and police to eventually replace the coalition forces, something Polk doubts will be easily achieved, noting that the French in Algeria, the Russians in Chechnya, and Americans in Vietnam found it impossible to defeat native insurgencies.
In the concluding chapter, “Whose Iraq?” Polk posits several possible futures: a Shia-fundamentalist Iraq, an American-controlled Iraq, a secular-Sunni Iraq, a Saddam-type Iraq under a dictator, a U.N.-mandate Iraq, or possibly two or three Iraqs. After two years of war, Polk claims that most Iraqis view the United States less as a democratic liberator and more as a traditional imperialist, concerned with Iraq’s oil rather than Iraq’s people. Polk argues that the longer the American involvement, the more inevitable will be the emergence of another dictator. If a democratic Iraq does materialize, it will be from internal evolution and not be imposed by outsiders, and it can only grow from the bottom up and not be implemented from the top down.
The author doubts Bush’s claim that Saddam’s Iraq was allied with Osama bin Ladin and al-Qaeda to further international terrorism, given that Saddam’s regime was secular rather than religious, and his primary aim was self-preservation rather than spreading Islamic fundamentalism. If anything, America’s war in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism because Iraq has become a lightning rod for disaffected Muslims. Bush’s commitment to remain in Iraq, to “staying the course,” can only be counterproductive, not only costing billions of dollars and thousands of lives but also subverting America’s democratic ideals. Polk suggests an exit strategy, including a public American commitment to abandon any future domination of the Iraqi economy including oil and an admission that the war cannot be “won” in any accepted sense. American troops should eventually be replaced by multinational United Nations peacekeeping troops, which might give Iraqis the opportunity to develop a true civil society.
Understanding Iraq is less an objective history than an impassioned critique of current American policy, but by adding a historical dimension to the debate over American goals in Iraq and the Middle East, Polk has performed a valuable service, whether one fully agrees with his analysis or not.
Booklist 101, no. 16 (April 15, 2005): 1427.
Foreign Affairs 84, no. 3 (May/June, 2005): 148.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 5 (March 1, 2005): 280.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 12 (March 21, 2005): 47.