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The fall of the Mamluks and the consolidation of British interests



Britain's influence in Iraq had received a major boost in 1798 when Süleyman Pasha gave permission for a permanent British agent to be appointed in Baghdad. This increasing European penetration and the restoration of direct Ottoman rule, accompanied by military, administrative, and other reforms, are the dominant features of 19th-century Iraqi history. The last Mamluk governor of Iraq, Da'ud Pasha (1816-31), turned increasingly to Europe for weapons and advisers to equip and train his military force and endeavoured to improve communications and promote trade; in this respect he resembled his contemporary in Egypt, Muhammad 'Ali Pasha. But, whereas Muhammad 'Ali's Egypt drew closer to France, it was Great Britain that continued to strengthen its position in the Persian Gulf and Iraq.

The fall of Da'ud can be attributed in part to the determination of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) to curtail provincial autonomy and restore the central authority of his government throughout the realm. Da'ud's removal, however, was facilitated by opposition within Iraq to the Mamluk regime and, more immediately, by the floods that devastated Baghdad in 1831 and the plague that decimated its population in the same year. The Mamluks had always been obliged to share power, to one extent or another, with groups of local notables--tribal sheikhs in the countryside and urban-based groups associated with the garrison troops, the bureaucracy, the merchants, or the religious elite. The last of these included not only high-ranking legal officials and scholars but also the heads of Sufi orders, the prominent noble (ashraf) families, and the custodians of the great religious shrines--both Sunnite and Shi'ite. Nor were the Mamluk pashas of Baghdad ever so independent of the sultan's government as it has sometimes been made to appear. Da'ud was not the first to be deposed by force. They usually paid tribute and, through their representatives in the capital, frequently distributed "gifts" to high officials in the palace and at the Sublime Porte who might assist in securing their reappointment.

The arrival of a new Ottoman governor in Baghdad in 1831 signaled the end of the Mamluk period and the beginning of a new era in Iraq. Direct rule was gradually imposed over the region. The Jalilis of Mosul submitted in 1834; the Baban family of As-Sulaymaniyah followed suit in 1850 when Ottoman forces subjugated the Kurdish area; and by the 1850s the independent power of the Shi'ite religious elites of Karbala' and An-Najaf had been curtailed. To exercise some control in the tribal areas, the Ottomans continued to rely upon the traditional methods of intervening in the competition for tribal leadership, making alliances, pitting one tribal group against another, and occasionally using military force. While the Arab and Kurdish tribes remained a problem, the reforms set in motion by the Ottomans did affect the tribal structure of Iraq and alleviate the problem to some extent.


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