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...
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