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Kenan Makiya Author of "Republic of fear"

Iraqi blog







Iraq occupies one of the most important cultural areas in western Eurasia. It is the site of the Sumerian civilisation, ancient Babylon and a succession of ancient empires and cultures. The land contains many archaeological sites (some of them in danger from heavy military vehicles). It is an area known to have originated the basic observations of subsequent Greek and later astronomy and mathematics, the idea of the western Calendar and much of Greek science. Its literary legacy in found in later cultural texts such as the western Bible and Quran. Thus, along with ancient Egypt, it can be said to be an important source of modern western culture.

The modern state of Iraq was created by Britain as a kingdom for Feisal, one of the two sons of the Sharif of Makkah who had been displaced by the Saud family. The name itself was chosen by the British and is not traditional.

Like many other Middle Eastern states it includes a mixture of cultures. There are three main cultures: In the north there are the Kurds (see Kurdistan). To the south are the Arabs. A majority of the Arabs are Shi'ites, like the Iranians. Two of the shrines of the Shi'ites are in Iraq at Kerbala and Najaf, revered by Shi'ites in other countries. A smaller group of the Arabs are Sunnis. The Kurds are Sunnis. There are also smaller groups of Christians and minority religions such as the Yezidi.

Iraq includes the city of Baghdad which was founded in 762 by the Abbasid Caliphs and was in its time the world's leading city. (But it was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258 and again by Tamerlane in 1401 and from then was only a provincial town). It also includes the sites of Babylon and Ur, some of the earliest sites of human civilization. The Marsh Arabs are the descendants of a very ancient culture (systematically destroyed by Saddam Hussein). Near to Baghdad is the site of Ctesiphon, capital of the Persians.

Following the destruction by the Mongols the area eventually became part of the Ottoman Empire, who organized three main provinces (Vilayets), based on Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

In the period before the first world war the area was of interest to the German state, hoping to gain influence within the Ottoman Empire. Their main project was to build a railway to connect Baghdad to Germany.

Baghdad was captured by the British in 1917. At the end of the first world war the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Peace Conference decided to constitute Iraq from the Ottoman provinces of Mosul (Kurdistan), Baghdad and Basra, thus putting together three peoples who were traditionally hostile to each other - the Kurds, the Sunni Arab Muslims and the Shi'ite Arab Muslims. At first westerners called it Mesopotamia - a Greek derived word for the land between the rivers. The name Iraq is believed to have been proposed by Gertrude Bell, a British explorer and spy, the Oriental secretary of the British military governor, Sir Percy Cox. The India Office wanted to make it into a British colony, but the Foreign Office had to take into account the British promises of independence made to the Arabs (by T.E.Lawrence) when they were fighting the Ottoman Empire.

As a compromise it was made into a League of Nations Mandate to be administered by Britain.

Historians note that the people did not willingly accept the new regime - there was an uprising of the Shia peoples in 1920 against the British and that among the methods used by the British (ordered by Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary) to enforce their power were poison gas shells on rebels - both Arab and Kurd - and bombing of villages, thus creating a precedent for the methods used by subsequent regimes including Saddam's. This was regarded as cheaper than setting up a complete colonial administration.

The elder son of the Sharif of Makkah (or King of the Hejaz), Feisal, was made king of Iraq (partly as a reward for the Arab revolt which defeated the Turks, partly as compensation for losing the Hejaz to the Sauds and Syria to the French). Like an Indian Rajah the British intended him to be the head of a native state. He was accepted in a referendum, generally regarded as rigged by the British (96% in favor, just like Saddam's).

Oil was discovered at Kirkuk (in the Kurdish area) in 1927. Whereas up to that point the British had expected the state to be entirely dependent on them, the oil made possible financial independence.

The Mandate came to an end in 1930 and Iraq was formally independent in 1932 when it joined the League of Nations. It had a nominal parliamentary monarchy. The educated and political class was probably too small to operate such a system which was alien to the mass of the population. Moreover, Britain continued to have considerable influence in the country so that as in Egypt many people regarded the monarchy and parliament merely as veils for continued British rule.

Almost the first act of the independent country was to conduct a massacre against the Assyrian Christian minority on the western side of the country (refugees from other massacres in Syria).

During the second world war in 1941 a group of officers installed a pro-German regime, which was overthrown by British action so that the country could be used as part of the allied war effort. The port of Basra was used to supply the Soviet Union, through Iran. (The author has seen the bridge that carried a railway to connect Basra to Iran.)

At the end of the second world war Iraq was brought into the anti-communist alliance through membership of the Baghdad Pact (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, the United States and Britain) also known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) which was intended to contain the Soviet Union's southern border. But the Pact collapsed with the Iraqi revolution and Iraq leaving in 1959. (British power in the Middle East evaporated after the 1956 Suez war).

Very briefly there was an attempted union of Iraq and Jordan to be called the Hashemite Union.

Iraqis sometimes claim that real independence began with the revolution against the monarchy in 1958 when the King was killed and also his prime minister Nuri Said. Since then the Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) party - a secular party with some similarities to extreme European racist parties of the 1930s - or the military have controlled the country. Saddam Hussein became president in 1979 but had been powerful before that as deputy leader and head of the secret police since 1968.

Iraq has been involved in two major wars. From 1980 to 1988 there was a war with Iran which began when Iraqi forces invaded Iran's southern provinces. This war then went on for 8 years.

In 1975 Saddam Hussein had made an agreement with the Shah of Iran that the frontier between the two states should pass down the center of the Shatt al Arab, the waterway which carries the waters of two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. He also gave Iran some disputed border territories. In return the Shah had agreed to stop supporting the Kurds who were maintaining their guerrilla war against the Iraqi government and tying down Iraqi troops.

The war with Iran began in 1980 when Saddam Hussein renounced this treaty and invaded the southern province of Khuzistan (which he called Arabistan), hoping to seize the oil wells and refineries while the Iranian government was weak after the fall of the Shah. He also wished to gain complete control of the Shatt al Arab, the outlet of the Tigris and Euphrates into the Gulf. He and his allies, the Gulf Arab monarchies, were afraid of the spread of Shi'ite revolutionary ideas to Iraq and the Gulf. Saddam Hussain was especially afraid that the Shi'ite majority in Iraq might wish to join with the Iranian Shi'ites. By 1993 it was becoming public that he had received extensive secret help from Britain and the US in supplying arms and satellite photographs of Iran.

Instead of a quick victory there was a long war of trenches which lasted until 1988 when both sides were exhausted and induced to cease fire by UN mediation. Probably several million people died on both sides. The Iranians agreed to a ceasefire after poison gas had been used on their armies. After the ceasefire poison gas was used on Kurdish villages within Iraq.

(The author was taken to see the sites of some of these battles in the period after the end of the war witrh Iran.

In these wars arms were acquired from the Soviet Union and western countries. Iraq's large oil reserves allowed them to spend a lot of money on arms (even though civilian investment was neglected). East Germans trained the political and surveillance police.

A second war began in August 1990 when Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait.

In July 1990, with his economy in difficulties and owing $50,000 million to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (money loaned to help pay for the war with Iran) Saddam Hussein demanded that Kuwait cancel the debt, and cede the islands of Bubyan and Warba and the Rumaila oil field. When the Kuwaiti government failed to comply at once he invaded. His troops appeared to be threatening Saudi Arabia as well.

This was met with a UN resolution ordering his withdrawal and authorizing sanctions preventing all trade with Iraq, followed by a resolution authorizing any means to force him to leave Kuwait.

Saddam claimed that Kuwait had been administered from Basra in Ottoman times and therefore was historically part of Iraq. Moreover he argued that the frontiers had been defined by the British Empire and therefore were colonial relics. Many Arabs in other countries appeared to agree with him. However, it is worth noticing that the frontiers of Iraq itself were also part of the colonial settlement. In particular the inclusion of Kurdistan with the Arabic speaking area created a multi-ethnic state. (Click on Borders) The Kurds have been agitating and fighting for autonomy and independence ever since. Some were killed by gassing at Halabja and many other villages and towns in 1989. This act and the use on Iranians was the first open use of gas in war since the first world war (after which it was supposed to be banned), (though the Soviet Union may have used it in Afghanistan, and the United States used defoliating chemicals in Vietnam).

Iraq's future after the destruction of its modern economy by American bombing in January and February 1991 remains problematical. The army occupying Kuwait was defeated in a brief but violent land battle in February 1991. Most of the surviving conscript soldiers showed that they did not support Saddam Hussein's policy by deserting to the allied side and becoming prisoners of war. The end of the war was followed by a general uprising of Kurds and Shi'ites (apparently encouraged by the American president George Bush the elder, but receiving no help), which was met by the brutality characteristic of the regime from the time the Ba'ath Party had seized power. The regime retained control of part of the army - the Republican Guard which had some similarities with Hitler's SS (Schutz-Staffel). These were used to kill rebels. Saddam Hussein remained in power but with the mass of the population starving and without modern services. The formation of a Kurdish state seemed to be occurring in May 1992. If the Kurds set up a de facto state, Iraq would be truncated to the Arabic-speaking parts. The allies adopted a policy of "no-fly" zones in Kurdistan and in the southern Shi'ite areas in an attempt to discourage Saddam's attacks on these peoples. Thus in practice Iraq was divided into its three constituent parts with Saddam fully in control only of the central part.

At the end of the war Iraq lost territory to Kuwait, including some of the disputed oil field and a naval base at Umm Qasr.

By October 1993 it was clear that Saddam was as much in control as before (except in the Kurdish area). Reported attempted coups failed. The brutality of the regime perhaps grew worse with torture, massacres and genocide, apparently with no interest by outside powers. The attacks on the Marsh Arabs were in breach of UN orders but were not punished.

Sanctions caused starvation and disease in the general population but were evaded by the ruling party which continued to receive arms via Aqaba (Jordan), Lebanon and Cyprus, probably with Israeli assistance (Israel has a policy of balance of power and divide and rule).

Al Qaeda
Was Iraq connected to this terrorist organisation? It is unlikely, as Iraq was a secular (non-religious) dictatorship and Saddam is known to have been one of Osama bin Laden's hate figures.

Nevertheless, the United States seems to be alleging that Saddam Hussein was connected with this network, as a pretext for the war which started 20 March 2003. Getting rid of an obnoxious regime is probably a respectable reason for invasion (though not legal unless backed by a UN resolution). However, it was by no means clear that the Iraqi people would welcome a change at the hands of foreigners.

It is also already clear (20 April 2003) that many of them strongly object to the presence of western armies on their soil. US troops fired on demonstrators in Falluja 28 April and killed several. Was this the equivalent of Northern Ireland's Black Sunday (recruiting material for the Irish Republican Army)? Subsequently, in 2004 US troops destroyed the city, though without killing all the rebels, most of whom are reported to have escaped.

Since the occupation began there have been continual attacks against US troops - though also against British, Polish, Spanish and other "coalition" troops. Several states have withdrawn their troops from the coalition.

After the Congressional elections of 2006 it seems likely that the US government is planning to withdraw as soon as possible.

Following the downfall of Tony Blair in Britain in May 2007 it seems likely his successor Gordon Brown will want to withdraw British troops as soon as possible.

(January 2007)
There is a state of civil war in Iraq with the Shi'ite gangs of death squads controlling much of the police, and massacring Sunnis. The Kurdish region is gradually seceding.

August 2009)
There continue to be explosions of car bombs and suicidalists. How legitimate is the government?. US troops are remaining outside the cities and British troops have almost completely witrhdrawn, except for a few trainers.

United States combat forces left in December 2011. They left a ramshackle government that does not function.




Assyrian (few villages)

Turki (small minority)







Formerly an absolute dictatorship of Saddam Hussein under the form of a single party, the Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Renaissance) Party. This party had some of the characteristics of Stalin's communist party and also of the Nazi party of Germany, both of which Saddam is believed to have studied. This was a classical totalitarian system in which the party and secret police supervise every part of life.

The party was clearly subordinate to the Leader, as he was known to execute people, even cabinet colleagues, who disagreed with him.

The main features of the 20th century one-party state are: One leader whose word is law, and who cannot be contradicted or criticized; a Secret or Political Police which has the power to arrest anyone for any act considered harmful to the leader and the ruling party; no autonomous action, that is no groups may be formed which are not supervised by the party; no restraint on the actions of the government, that is of the leader; total absence of rule of law, that is, no law courts which function without reference to the government; no freedom of information, including suppression of all foreign publications, censorship of telephone and private communications; an irrational philosophical basis; organization for war; diversion of all resources to the state and the military; fear.

The state also had dynastic features, as most of the highest officials came from Saddam Hussein's home town (Tikrit) and were relatives. In this it resembled Ceausescu's Romania. As in Stalin's time there was a cult of personality in which the leader's portrait took the place of advertisements and was constantly seen. The mass media were used to praise the leader (hour long tv programs consisting of songs and poems praising him).

It could have been classified as one of the six worst regimes for human rights at present. (Burma, China, North Korea, Syria, Sudan).

In ancient times, before modern communications, such a state could last for generations. In modern times it seemed likely that it would collapse eventually. It ended with the American invasion of March 2003.

It is a matter for argument whether it was the philosophical basis which was important; or the desire for power of a psychopath which kept the system going.

The idea of Ba'athism is that the Arabs must regain the power they possessed in the early days of the Arab revolution when Islam came out of the desert to conquer what is now the Arab world. But it emphasizes the uniqueness of the Arab nation rather in the same way that Hitler emphasized the uniqueness of the German nation or the Aryan "race" . The theory seems to advocate that the allegiance to the mythical Arab nation is beyond all moral constraints. This is the justification for the atrocities committed by Ba'athist states. This is an irrational theory, because the actual basis of the historical Arab dominance was Islam, open to all races, whereas Ba'athism is hostile to religion. Moreover, the different Arab countries are linguistically divided by the spoken dialects (even if the educated classes use a common literary dialect).

The Ba'ath party exists, usually in a clandestine form, in several other Arab countries, including Sudan. It is also in power in Syria.

Following the defeat in the Kuwait war the political situation has become uncertain. The surviving forces of Saddam attacked the Kurdish and Shi'ite rebels.

The pro-democratic forces in Iraq apparently had no support from the United States government, perhaps advised by the Saudis who may be afraid of allowing democracy across their own frontier.

October 1995 Saddam held a typical totalitarian election in which he won 99.6% of the vote (no other candidate). In October 2002 he held another in which he received 100% of the vote (though observers noticed few people actually entering the polling stations). This regime has been compared to Hitler's and may actually have been worse and has lasted more than three times as long. (Why therefore did no-one in the western governments propose doing anything about it for so long?)

This regime came to an end by about 11 April 2003. A US civil administrator was appointed, with a British deputy. Unfortunately, he dissolved the army, police and civil service, on orders from Washington (Jay Garner said in a BBC interview from Vice-President Cheney). The result was that the new administrators had no tools to govern the country. He called a conference of Iraqi politicians, many of them from exile. A governing council of Iraqis was appointed, but it was not clear what powers it had. In theory the members had ministerial responsibility. In practice they approved the wishes of the Coalition Authority. The US administrator handed over responsibility to an Iraqi government on 28 June 2004. An Interim government was formed, with the approval of the UN. Elections are promised for January 2005. Is this possible?

How independent is this government? The former occupation forces are still in the country and still move freely. Is the US still the power behind it? This may be the same policy used by the British after the nominal "independence" of Iraq in 1932. For example, some have suggested that the real power will be with the US Ambassador, at first John Negroponte later Dr Zalmay Khalizad - an Afghan American, and his suspiciously large staff. In the British Empire the real ruler of a territory might sometimes have the modest title of Resident. This was known as indirect rule.

Can a state of this nature be democratic? The Kurdish area has a kind of democratic system - though the two parties that sit in its parliament have fought each other, and are in fact tribally based, each with a hereditary leadership.

If this state can only be held together by a dictator would it perhaps be best to divide it into smaller units? Turkey fears the Kurds, but the Kurds might be better off with their own state. The Sunnis fear the Shi'ites and their strong religious expression - and desire to be ruled by Imams.

Elections were held on 30 January 2005.

These were for an assembly that will appoint a president and approve a constitution. It is assumed the constitution will be for a federal republic with three provinces: Kurdistan; Baghdad; and Basra. This will recreate the Ottoman goverorates (Vilayets).

Parliamentary elections were held at the end of November 2005.

By November 2006 it is clear that the central government has little influence over affairs - nor the western invaders either. The police and army created mainly by the western invaders appear to be controlled by the various religious militias and have no cohesion or loyalty to the government, whose ministers seldom come out of the fortified Green Zone.

American forces left the country in December 2011. Within hours the carefully constructed coalition government - between Shi’ites and Sunni parties - fell apart. The vice president was indicted for “terrorism” and fled to the Kurdish province. There are signs that the Kurds wish to secede.

Civil war would seem likely.

Interesting reading

Samir al Khalil (Kanan Makiya) Republic of Fear (Uni.Cal press 1989)

The classic account of Saddam's regime before the US invasion.

Wilfred Thesiger - The Marsh Arabs

The Marsh Arabs (Penguin Classics)
Les Arabes des marais - Tigre et Euphrate
Wüste, Sumpf & Berge: Seine Reiseberichte aus der arabischen Welt
Irving Finkel - Babylon, City of wonders







One of the world's major oil producers. However, the non-oil economy has been based on the Soviet model and has been very inefficient.

The oil money has been spent on military activity rather than the general economy so that the personal income per capita is low.

Member of OPEC.

Almost all the infrastructure is believed to have been destroyed by bombing during the second Gulf war. This is believed to have reduced the country to a 19th century condition in which electricity, water supply, oil refineries and telecommunications have been destroyed. As long as world economic sanctions continued Iraq could not sell oil to provide the money to pay for reconstruction and for reparations to Kuwait. UN allowed sales for humanitarian supplies and to pay reparations. Saddam refused to sell. However there was clearly a good deal of smuggling going on, mainly through the Kurdish area to Turkey.

Following Saddam's invasion of Kurdistan, September 1996, an agreement to allow more oil sales was suspended and sanctions renewed. These left the economy in a condition of poverty for most people (but the ruling party seemed unaffected).

Since then, the money from official oil sales was administered by the UN and was supposed to be used for food and basic medical supplies. The money from unofficial sales - oil smuggled out of the country via Kurdistan and Jordan - went to Saddam, with a rake off to the Kurds and other smugglers.

After Saddam
Suppose the country breaks up into the three historic parts: Kurdistan; Baghdad; and Basra. Each part would have oil fields. Would the ownership be transferred to foreign interests? At present ownership is is by the State in the form of the Iraq National Oil Company. Possibly in a post-Saddam Iraq the revenues could go to the benefit of the people as a whole.

After the 2003 war, who will control the economy? UN sanctions ended. Oil production may be increasing but the pipelines are continually attacked. Some politicians perhaps hoped the world price of oil would drop as a result. (But OPEC reduced its output quotas and prices doubled.) Does the interim government have power over the oil industry? Or must it refer everything to the US Ambassador?

It is clear that the US intended the privatisation of the oil industry, as shown by the Oil Bill that has been introduced into the Iraq Parliament by the Iraqi government, after strong lobbying by the US, that would give foreign oil companies access to the oil nominally still owned by the Iraqi state, and the right to extract what profits they wish, reducing Iraqis to poverty. However, in reality it seems unlikely that anyone can control the oil as the state disintegrates. This Bill has not been passed, and probably won't be before the US forces leave. It seems unlikely that any government with genuine popular support could support this Bill that gives the resources of the country to foreigners.

Since the western invasion the economy has largely collapsed as the threat of random killings has made almost all work difficult. Electricity and water continue to be unavailable. Most of the educated people are leaving the country or being killed by religious fanatics.







The water of the Tigris and Euphrates is being siphoned off by Turkey leaving Iraq short of water. This could be a cause of conflict.

During the Gulf War the nuclear and chemical weapons facilities were destroyed. It is unknown as yet how much radioactive pollution was released as a result of the bombing. In both wars serious military pollution occurred with the release of depleted uranium, believed to cause cancers and other health problems.

The greatest ecological damage occurred in the Marshes where an ancient culture (at least 5000 years old) was being suppressed by poisoning the water, building a huge dike and canal to dry out the marshes and military attacks. Thus ecocide is added to genocide of the crimes of Saddam Hussein.

The UN has held a conference to discuss how to restore this land.

After the recent war, the marshes are flooding again as the dykes have been broken. Can they be restored to their previous condition? Probably not, as there is less water coming down the rivers, after Turkey has built dams inside its own territory.

Iraq could be an important producer of energy from solar power.

In 2009 the Euphrates is almost drying up, the result of poor rainfall in Iraq, but also of dams built in Turkey and Syria.






Human Rights

During the Saddam period Iraq was one of the six worst countries for human rights abuse along with:
Burma China North Korea Sudan Syria

Government torture, imprisonment without trial, execution without trial for offenses not recognized by international law. Complete absence of the rule of law. No freedom of the press or assembly, genocide of the Kurds and Marsh Arabs.

Following the US invasion press freedom occurred, but insecurity meant that there was still no rule of law. Torture was practiced by US forces in Abu Ghraib prison (the same place where Saddam tortured and killed his opponents). Not a lot seems to have changed. In November 2005 it was revealed that torture was going on in the basement of the Interior ministry of the new government.

The basic human right of freedom from fear of being killed at random in the streets is absent. The Shi'ite death squads are behaving at least as badly as Saddam's regime. This time it is the Sunni minority that is suffering.

Climate effects

The general tendency will be (even) higher temperatures and less water from the rivers.

Last revised 1/01/12

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