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Comments by YACCS
Monday, September 11, 2006

Iraqi history 101

The Birth of Iraq: 1916-1921

Wed Aug 30, 2006 at 04:16:42 PM PDT

One common lament of Kossacks is that Americans have so little understanding of Iraqis and their heritage. A good example of this is the racist slang that our troops in Iraq use: Hadjis. Hadji means someone who had made the trip to Mecca. In other words - its a good thing to Arabs, even if our troops aren't smart enough to know it. Or maybe they are thinking of the character "Hadji" from the old Johnny Quest episodes. (note: Bandit needed to be strangled)

Nevertheless, I was shocked when I discovered that not one single person at DKos has ever done a diary about the history of Iraq. (correct me if I'm wrong, but I looked hard for one)
I find that extremely disturbing for a relatively enlightened place such as DKos. It was ignorance of the region that led the Bush Administration into invading Iraq and starting this horrible war. It was ignorance of the region that led to the botched job of administering the occupation and gave fuel to the rebellion. It is ignorance of the region that leaves both the politicians and American public without an acceptable exit strategy for Iraq.

Here's a quick test:

One of the first and largest rebel groups in Iraq is called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. If you know what the "1920" refers to then you are already in a very select minority of Americans. If you know the reasons for the 1920 Revolution, how long it lasted, and how it ended then you are in an extremely tiny minority that doesn't need to read this diary any further.
However, if you couldn't answer those questions then you should sit back, relax, and prepare to get a brief, glimpse at The Birth Of Iraq.

"The Pan-Islamic danger is a real and permanent one."
- Sir A. Hirtzel, May 23, 1916

In late January of 2004, Harpers printed a single sentence that summed up America's occupation of Iraq.

Skepticism was growing that the United States will succeed in handing power over to an Iraqi client regime before the presidential election, and the head of the occupying authority's Tribal Affairs Bureau admitted that he had been relying on a 1918 British report in his attempts to make sense of local politics.
While this embarrassing fact was being revealed, news outlets were reporting that the British Military Cemetery in Baghdad was being restored. That cemetary is the final resting place of hundreds of British soldiers who died during the early occupation of Iraq.


The Ottomans ruled Iraq from 1534 to 1917. The area that is now Iraq was divided into three provinces around three city centers:

1) Mosul: Where the Kurds lived

2) Baghdad: Where the Sunnis lived

3) Basra: Where the Shiites lived

The Ottomans were Sunnis.

The British conquest of what is now Iraq was practically accidental.
The original objective of the November, 1914 invasion of Mesopotamia was to protect the British oil fields at nearby Abadan, Iran during WWI. The British weren't really interested in that part of the Ottaman Empire. They quickly learned that the Ottoman's weren't all that interested in southern Iraq either, as the Turks made only token efforts to defend Basra.

Things went so well for the British that they got more ambitious in 1915 and advanced nearly to Baghdad. However, the Turks were interested in Baghdad. The British army was surrounded at Kut, and after a seige of nearly 5 month, the 8,000 man British army surrendered. Only 4,000 survived imprisonment. The British also suffered 23,000 casualties trying to break the seige. It was the biggest Ottoman victory of the war in Mesopotamia, and it followed their victory at
Gallipoli by only four months. It was also their last.

Six months later the British came back with a new general, a new army (from India), and a new attitude. After repeatedly defeating the Turks they marched into Baghdad on March 11, 1917. On that day, General Sir Stanley Maude issued the Proclamation of Baghdad.

"Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories. In order to complete this task, I am charged with absolute and supreme control of all regions in which British troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."
What General Maude may not have know is that the fate of Iraq had been agreed to nearly a year earlier on May 16, 1916. It's also worth noting that Maude didn't actually write the Proclamation of Baghdad. It was written by Sir Mark Sykes.

The Creation of Iraq

At the exact same time that many of the British prisoners from the seige of Kut were being marched to their deaths, French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British diplomat Mark Sykes were hammering out the final details of how post-war Mesopotamia was going to be carved up.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement would later be modified several times, each time at the benefit of the British, but this still remains the origin of the concept of what would later be Iraq.
It's a typical colonial document that concerns itself with customs, tariffs, and railways, but fails to even mention the people living there.


"The desert was alive with Arab raiding parties."
- Col. Gerald Leachmen, 1920 (shortly before his untimely death)

"We are now under occupation, and the best treatment for a wound is sometimes fire."
- Najah al Najafi, 1920

After the Fall of Baghdad (v.1), and a military offensive in Fallujah and Samarrah that summer, the fighting in Iraq was mostly over for the war. Now came the task of building small nations where once an empire existed.

In the winter of 1917 the British decided that Baghdad would be governed and reconstructed by a "council" formed partly by British officials "and partly of representative non-official members from among the inhabitants". If this sounds suspiciously like the Interim Governing Council that we set up in 2003, you aren't alone. The arrogance was not subtle.

"The stronger the hold we are able to keep here the better the inhabitants will be pleased... They can't conceive an independent Arab government. Nor, I confess, can I. There is no one here who could run it."

At the end of the war, the Arab leaders met in Damascus on July 2, 1919, "to demand absolute political independence of the area from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates and the Khabur rivers in the east and from the Taurus Range in the north to Aqaba in the south." It largely reflected the promises given to them during their revolt against the Ottomans.
But the British and the French had other plans. Their representatives met in a small Italian town, San Remo, on April 24, 1920, and, while the American Ambassador read his newspaper in the garden, the other two carried out the Sykes-Picot pact, but with Mosul going to the British. It acquired Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. The French got Syria and Lebanon; all under the fig leaf of a League of Nations Mandate. Faisal was made king of Iraq. His brother Abdullah was made king of Transjordan. When the arrangement was made public on April 24, 1920, Arabs rose in revolt in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. In Arab annals, 1920 is referred to as Am al-Nakha (Year of Catastrophe).
the British used India as a model for setting up the new government in Iraq. Civilian administration was set up almost identical to India, with British officials controlling almost every position.
The Commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, saw his duty as bestowing the gifts of British civilisation without ever having to justify their presence. To make it more palatable to the outside world, London planned to install a puppet monarch, but they dithered so long that they finally asked for a plebiscite on the best form of government. Wilson earnestly thought he knew what was best for Iraq and that the people were too ignorant to govern themselves, so he manipulated a series of phoney plebiscites to give the result he wanted. After a puppet government was installed, several hundred British civil servants moved in expecting a very long imperial tenure.
Hmmm. Manipulating elections in Iraq. Where have I heard that before? Oh, yes. It was in the January 2005 election.
As the election neared, the Administration repeatedly sought ways--including covert action--to manipulate the outcome and reduce the religious Shiite influence. Not everything went as planned.
A second senior U.N. official, who was also involved in the Iraqi election, told me that for months before the election he warned the C.P.A. and his superiors that the voting as it was planned would not meet U.N. standards. The lack of security meant that candidates were unwilling to campaign openly, as in a normal election, for fear of becoming targets. Candidates ran as members of party lists, but the parties kept most of the names on their lists secret during the campaign, so voters did not even know who was running. The electorate was left, in most cases, with little basis for a decision beyond ethnic and religious ties. The United Nations official said, "The election was not an election but a referendum on ethnic and religious identity. For the Kurds, voting was about selfdetermination. For the Shiites, voting was about a fatwa issued by Sistani."
Wilson's high-handedness earned him the nickname "The Despot of Mess-Pot". The reason for Iraq's name can be largely attributed to Wilson, who lobbied for the Arab word "Iraq" instead of the Greek word "Mesopotamia". The name change was largely due to that anticipated northern expansion to oil-rich Mosul and Kurdistan.

The Great Iraq Revolution

Contrary to British opinion, the Iraqis were not happy about the idea of being another British colony. Even before the League of Nations finalized to the San Remo Agreement, there were local outbreaks of violence in Iraq. Everyone seemed to know what was coming except for the British who continued to live in a fantasy, much as the Bush Administration has.

"I imagine," the correspondent for The Times wrote on 23 September 1919, "that the view held by many English people about Mesopotamia is that the local inhabitants will welcome us because we have saved them from the Turks, and that the country only needs developing to repay a large expenditure of English lives and English money. Neither of these ideals will bear much examination... From the political point of view we are asking the Arab to exchange his pride and independence for a little Western civilisation, the profits of which must be largely absorbed by the expenses of administration."
In early May, 1920, a popular Shia mujtahid (religious scholar) died. Shia and Sunnis temporarily put aside their difference, and the memorial service turned into a political rally. Ramadan started later that month and religious leaders "exhorted the people to throw off the bonds of imperialism. Violent demonstrations and strikes followed the British arrest of several leaders."
When news of the League of Nations approving the British mandate reached Iraq in late May, things were reaching a boiling point.
a group of Iraqi delegates met with Wilson and demanded independence. Wilson dismissed them as a "handful of ungrateful politicians." Nationalist political activity was stepped up, and the grand mujtahid of Karbala, Imam Shirazi, and his son, Mirza Muhammad Riza, began to organize the effort in earnest. Arab flags were made and distributed, and pamphlets were handed out urging the tribes to prepare for revolt. Muhammad Riza acted as liaison among insurgents in An Najaf and in Karbala, and the tribal confederations. Shirazi then issued a fatwa (religious ruling), pointing out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims, and he called for a jihad against the British.
By July of 1920, the entire nation of Iraq, from Mosul to Barsa and everywhere in between was in open revolt. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was answering to calls for withdraw, and responding that he would not "abandon Iraq to anarchy and confusion". British officials were blaming the violence on "local political agitation, originated outside Iraq". aka Syria. [Hmmm. That sounds somewhat familiar.]

Najaf was put under seige. There was fighting in the streets of Kufa. Mozul was out of control. Baghdad wasn't safe. The British began to panic.

"The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster."
- T. E. Lawrence, August 22, 1920

The British were simply short of manpower to react to the size of the security crisis. [Hmmm. Where have we heard that before?] So besides shipping troops in from India, they resorted to air power to compensate. Did the British use poison gas against the Iraqis? There is no conclusive proof, but there are plenty of people who claim it to be fact. Air Commodore Lionel Charlton was so appalled at the casualties inflicted on innocent villagers that he resigned his post as Senior Air Staff Officer Iraq because he could no longer "maintain the policy of intimidation by bomb".
A desperate British administration realized that they needed "to complete the façade of the Arab government". And so, with Winston Churchill support, the British gave the throne of Iraq to the Hashemite King Faisal. King Faisal had recently been forced out of Greater Syria by the French military at the battle of Maysalun in July.

By this time the rebellion was fizzling out anyway. The British suffered 2,200 casualties. Iraqi casualties are estimated between 8,400 and 10,000. It simply wasn't organized enough to sustain itself. Plus Faisal was a popular figure in the Arab world. By installing Faisal the British maintained military control of Iraq, but installed a provisional Arab government. The government under Faisal was mostly composed of Sunni Arabs. In fact, the situation created by Faisal would eventually lead to full independence.

The parameters of the Iraqi political structure was hammered out in the Cairo Conference of 1921. This would establish political life in Iraq until 1958.

However, that's another story.

History of Iraq: 1921 - 1933

Sun Sep 10, 2006 at 08:13:27 PM PDT

With Iraq as a country now rapidly approaching its end, I think it becomes even more important to understand the history of that troubled land. I recently created a diary about The Birth of Iraq and those chaotic early years.

Britain had just been bled white by WWI when they almost immediately had to turn around and fight a war against Afghanistan, and then turn around and fight a major revolt in Iraq. Britain was learning that trying to colonize the islamic world was expensive in both money and lives - two things that Britain could no longer afford. So Britain swallowed their pride. They granted Afghanistan full independence, and cut a deal with Iraqis.

The deal at the 1921 Cairo Conference was a compromise that installed Faisal bin Hussein as King of Iraq on Aug. 23, 1921. However, the British betrayed King Faisal the following year in the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922 which left Iraq dependent and subservient to Britain on all foreign policy and domestic fiscal policy matters. The Iraqi politician refused to ratify the treaty until Britain threatened to not end the occupation if they didn't ratify it.

From the very start all serious political debate in Iraq revolved around ending the defacto "British mandate". Two Parlimentary opposition parties were born who's objectives were simply: ending the mandate and winning full independence.

The discovery of oil near Kirkuk in 1927 changed the political dynamics of the Anglo-Iraqi relationship. The oil gusher at Kirkuk was so massive that it destroyed the oil rigs and almost destroyed nearby Kirkuk. Only by quickly building levees was the town saved from being flooded by oil.

The 1922 treaty was renegotiated and signed on June 30, 1930 which granted Iraq much more independence and eventually led Iraq being allowed to enter the League of Nations on Oct. 3, 1932 as an independent nation.
However, the nation of Iraq was disfunctional from the very beginning. And that disfunction found a voice in the name Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji.

The Kingdom of Kurdistan

"In the steep hill of victory ahead of us, I expect unity from you and sacrifice from myself."
- Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, the King of Kurdistan, 1918

During the war, Colonel Sir Arnold Wilson, the British Civil Commissioner in Iraq, told the encouraged the Kurdish people to rise up against the Ottomans. Wilson also told them that the British intention was to form an independent Kurdish country after the war.

It was the first of countless lies the Kurds would hear from the West.

Under the Treaty of Sevres, there was supposed to be an independent nation of Kurdistan. However, it was rejected by the Turkish republican movement, which put enough pressure on the British (including near open war) that they renegotiated, and ended up with the Treaty of Lausanne. Of course the Kurds were never part of these treaties.

Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji was made the governor of Suleimaniya on behalf of the British in November of 1918. Most Kurdish tribes accepted this. However, when the Kurds approached Wilson a month later asking for certain rights for the Kurdish people they were ignored.

Mahmud took the initiative and declared himself king of an independent Kurdish state in May 1919. He led the first (of many) Kurdish revolt and quickly pushed the small British contingent out of Suleimaniya and its surroundings. Among his many supporters was 16-year old Mustafa Barzani, a future Kurdish revolutionary.

An army of 1,500 Kurds engaged in a fierce battle with British forces in the Baziyan region, near Sulaimaniya. "Shari Darbandi Baziyan" is a national pride in the Kurdish history. Unsurprisingly, Kurdish forces were defeated by the superior numbers and technology of the British force, and `The great Sheikh was injured and arrested; he was then exiled to India.' This treatment of a religious leader was seen as a great insult to the Muslim Kurds, and left a deep mistrust between Kurds and Britain for generations to come.
The Kurds refused to acknowledge their annexation by Iraq and didn't take part in the July 1921 referendum to choose Faisal as monarch of Iraq. The revolt never completely ended despite the British victory.

In 1922 the brother of Mahmoud Barzanji, Sheikh Qadyir, began getting aid from Turkey to fight the British and the fighting began to get serious. The British, afraid that Kurdistan might fall into the hands of the Turks, decided to bring Sheikh Mamoud back from exile and appoint him as governor again. Again Mahmoud Barzanji defied the British and proclaimed himself king on 18 November 1922. In 1923 the British recognized Kurdish autonomy.

Flag of the Kingdom of Kurdistan

However, that didn't stop the war, and in 1924, with the help of the RAF, the British finally defeated the Kurds and Kurdistan was once again annexed into Iraq.

Mahmoud Barzanji escaped with some of his forces into the mountains along the Iranian border where he once again lived in exile. But by 1930 the British troops had long since left and Mahmoud forces crept back into Kurdistan. In September 1930 the third Kurdish revolt began, aided by Mustafa Barzani and his brother Ahmad.

By March of 1931 the RAF was once again bombing Kurdish villages, but this time with a newly formed Iraqi army supporting it. Unable to defend themselves from the aerial bombardment, Barzanji retreated to Persia and surrendered on 13 May 1931. Sheikh Mahmud was captured and sent into prison exile in southern Iraq, the first of many Kurds.

A New Nation

With Iraq now an official independent nation and the Kurdish revolt seemingly solved, it appeared that Iraq could finally fulfill its new destiny. However, nothing is that simple in Iraq.

The Assyrians were a christian minority that were massacred by the tens of thousands under the Ottomans. By the end of the war no significant Assyrian population was left in Turkey or Iran. Only the population around Mosul remained. In the Treaty of Lausanne Assyrian rights were supposed to be protected. As part of the agreement for full Iraqi independence in 1932, minority rights were supposed to be observed. The Assyrians began feeling threatened and appealed for more assurances for their safety.

In the summer of 1933 King Faisal was visiting in europe when the Assyrian situation came to head when Assyrian leaders refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to King Faisal. The opposition party was now in power and they wanted to assert their authority. The situation quickly got out of hand and nearly the entire village of Simele was massacred by Iraqi troops. In all, about 3,000 Assyrians died.

Assyrians to this day mark martyrs day on August 7.

No Iraqi soldiers ever had to answer for this massacre, and Assyrians began leaving Iraq for French controlled Syria.

King Faisal quickly rushed back to find the political leadership in turmoil. His health failing, Faisal left for Switzerland for treatment, where he died September 8, 1933.

posted by Steve @ 2:40:00 AM

2:40:00 AM

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