Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

Iraq’s History

Original Publication Date: July 2006


The first settled communities in the Middle East began about 3000 bce in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The area between the Tigris and Euphrates was known as Mesopotamia (Greek for between the rivers). That area is now Iraq.

The first sustained external influence over Iraq occurred in the 7th Century of the Common Era when Arab followers of the new religion of Islam came into the area. These Muslim traders and others took over these established settlements and ruled by a caliph (Iraqi historical map, Age of the Caliphs, Figure 2A). From the mid-8th century to 1258 Baghdād was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Abbasid period was a golden age of Islamic power and culture. During that period Baghdād became the second largest city in the known world, after Constantinople, and the most important center of science and culture. [Iraqi Historical Map: Early Crusades (Figure 2B )] In 1258 Baghdād was conquered and pillaged by Hulagu, grandson of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. He destroyed the elaborate irrigation system that the Abbasids had established. Iraq became a neglected frontier area ruled from the Mongol capital of Tabrīz in Persia. In 1335 the last great Mongol ruler of this region died, and anarchy prevailed. The Turkic conqueror Tamerlane conquered Baghdād in 1401, again massacring many of its inhabitants. Tamerlane’s invasion and conquest marked the end of Baghdād’s golden age as a center of power and cultural activity.[i]


Persia and Turkey struggled over the area we know as Iraq for almost 200 years until 1638 when this region finally came under Ottoman rule. For the next three centuries Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire (Iraqi historical map, Ottoman Empire, Figure 2C). For most people and in terms of daily life, local authorities controlled much more than the foreign rulers did. Local Kurdish dynasties dominated the mountainous north. In the second half of the 18th century the Mamluks (descendants mainly of Turkic peoples from Central Asia who had ruled in Egypt during the Middle Ages) challenged Ottoman rule and established effective control over the territory from Al Başrah to north of Baghdād. The Mamluks imposed central authority and introduced a functioning government. They retained power in some parts of Iraq until the 1830s when floods and disease diminished their control and the Ottomans reasserted their authority.

Local autonomy and absence of complete central authority on the part of the Ottomans solidified the power of the Sunni Arabs. Many Turks were Sunni Muslims and they favored their Iraqi coreligionists in the matter of education and employment. By 1831 the province of Iraq, then subdivided into three vilayets, or administrative districts, Mosul, Baghdād, and Al Başrah, came under direct Ottoman administration. The arbitrary borders that divided Iraq and the other Arab lands of the old Ottoman Empire caused severe economic dislocations, frequent border disputes, and a debilitating ideological conflict. The 19th century brought more direct control by the Ottomans. From 1869 to 1872 Midhat Pasha, a capable Ottoman official, imposed effective central control throughout the region. He modernized Baghdād, in every area, including transportation, sanitation, and education, and he imposed his rule on the tribal countryside. This more efficient administration led to a more direct Ottoman presence, particularly with regard to tax collection. Local resentment of the centralized authority of the empire developed, giving rise to a strong spirit of Arab nationalism.[ii]


As the 19th century came to a close, the nations of Western Europe became increasingly interested in Iraq. In many ways the Europeans simply replicated the patterns of their Ottoman and Islamic predecessors, allowing local autonomy and giving preferential treatment to an elite group within Iraqi society. [Iraqi Historical Map: Colonial Past (Figure 2D)] The British first used Iraq as shortcut to its possessions in Asia, most notably India. In 1861, they established a steamship company for the navigation of the Tigris to the port of Al Başrah. The British government consolidated its position in the Persian Gulf area by concluding treaties of protection with local Arab chieftains. This strategy perpetuated local power as the British bypassed Ottoman officials. Germany, late to empire building, was planning the construction of a railroad in the Middle East—to run “from Berlin to Baghdād”. The other focus which would soon dominate European interest was oil. As a lubricant, petroleum was essential to the industrialization of the 19th century. By the 20th century, fuel for the burgeoning automobile industry became the primary use of Middle Eastern oil. In 1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (eventually renamed British Petroleum) was formed to develop this new industry.


The advent of WWI had an enormous impact on Iraq. Both sides realized the value of Iraq’s geographic and natural resources. After the Ottoman Empire entered the war as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, a British army division landed at Al Fāw, to defend the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s oil fields [link to 1993 Middle East Oil and Gas (Figure 5A)] and refineries nearby in Iran. The British army gradually pushed northward against heavy Ottoman opposition, entering Baghdād in March 1917.

What would comprise the new world order after “the war to end all wars” concluded? Both the British and the Germans had promised Iraqis autonomy in exchange for their military support. Early in the war, in order to ensure the support of the Arabs in a military uprising against the Ottoman Turks, the British government promised a group of Arab leaders that their people would receive independence if a revolt proved successful. In June 1916 an uprising occurred in Al Ḩijāz (the Hejaz), led by Faisal al-Husein, who would later become Iraq’s first monarch. Under the leadership of British general Edmund Allenby and the tactical direction of British colonel T. E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia), the Arab and British forces defeated the Ottoman army and freed much land from Ottoman control. After signing the armistice with the Ottoman government in 1918, the British and French governments issued a joint declaration stating their intention to assist in establishing independent Arab nations in the areas formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Despite these promises, the Allied powers did not permit any political arrangement that would limit their access to oil.[iii]


At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Allies had to determine the fate the colonial possessions of Germany and the other defeated powers. Geographic position and natural resources made these colonies too valuable to be left to their own possible unstable rule. The Allies established the Mandate System, where one of the victorious nations would supervise the former colonies until they were deemed fit for independence. Britain was given the Iraqi Mandate. The Iraqis, feeling betrayed, began an uprising. The British needed men and material to suppress this rebellion and realized the benefit of controlling the area without having to administer it directly.

The solution most palatable to the British and Iraqi elite was a kingdom, with a government directed by a council of Arab ministers under the supervision of a British high commissioner. Faisal was invited to become the ruler of the new state. In August 1921 a plebiscite elected Faisal king of Iraq; he won 96 percent of the votes cast in the election. Britain provided military assistance and other aid to Iraq. The British also created an Iraqi National Army, which the ruling elite used to dominate tribal leaders. Agitation against the British presence continued, especially as the Iraqis saw it as a tool of the monarchy. Ongoing tribal and ethnic tensions led to a continued need for the British support which in turn enabled Faisal to maintain power.[iv]

Faisal tried to address some of these concerns and did allow for some local autonomy. He won the support of Iraqi-born military officers who had served in the Ottoman army, Sunni Arab businessmen, and religious leaders in Baghdād, Al Başrah, and Mosul. Faisal also had to relinquish some local control to win the support of the Shiite south, the Sunni Arab tribes, and the Kurds. The British encouraged the King to give chieftains control over their tribes, including judicial powers and responsibility for tax collection. Sunni Arab urban leaders and some Kurdish chieftains came to dominate the government and the army.

Ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Assyrians, who had hoped for their own autonomous states, rebelled against inclusion within the Iraqi state. The lower classes had no say in the affairs of the state. Many of these poor peasants as well as the growing class of Western educated urban workers became attracted to the ideas of the pan-Arab movement, which sought to join all the Arab lands into one powerful state. Pan-Arabism was seen as a way of uniting most of the diverse Iraqi population through a common Arab identity. The elite advocated achieving pan-Arabism through diplomacy with British consent, but the disenfranchised frequently advocated a more hostile path.

Iraq had its first military coup d’état in 1936, when the army overthrew the Pan-Arab Sunni government. The coup opened the door to future military involvement in Iraqi politics. The moderate coalition government they put in power was accepted by King Ghazi and remained in office until 1939. In April 1939 King Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident, leaving his three-year-old son, Faisal II, the titular king .


World War II caused many problems for Iraq. Its geographic location and natural resources made it important to both sides. The global nature of the conflict resulted in Iraq being used as a pawn by both sides. In 1942 Iraq became an important supply center for British and United States forces operating in the Middle East, and as a means to ship weapons to their wartime ally, the Soviet Union. After the war, these loyalties ended quickly, and the British, fearing Soviet encroachment on the Iraqi oil fields, moved troops into Iraq.


Other tensions surfaced quickly in the post World War II environment. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 proved to be a source of ongoing conflict. Iraq, along with other Arab nations, objected to the1947 partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. They invaded the new state of Israel, and in subsequent regional hostilities in 1956, 1967 and 1973. In 1956, Iraq supported Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, which had been controlled by France and Britain. In the ensuing Suez Crisis, Egypt was invaded by Israel, Britain, and France in October 1956. Within a week, however, the United Nations, at the urging of both the USSR and the United States, demanded a cease-fire, forcing Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw from the lands they had captured. Besides Israel, Kuwait also drew Iraqi attention. When the British protectorate over the emirate of Kuwait ended in 1960, Iraq claimed the area, asserting that Kuwait had been part of the Iraqi state at the time of its formation. British forces entered Kuwait in July and the UN Security Council did not order their withdrawal.


There were a series of rapid turnovers in domestic politics in the years after World War II. The result was control by the military and the rise of the secular Baath Party. Central to their rule was elite control, exploitation of anti-western sentiment, and the use of increasing oil revenues to solidify their power. On July 14, 1958, in a sudden coup d’état led by the Iraqi general Abdul Karim Kassem, the country was proclaimed a republic. King Faisal II, the crown prince, and Said were among those killed in the uprising. On February 8, 1963, Kassem was overthrown by a group of officers, most of them members of the Baath Party. Abdul Salam Arif became president, and relations with the West improved. In April 1966 Arif was killed in a helicopter crash and was succeeded by his brother, General Abdul Rahman Arif. In July 1968 Baath Party officers overthrew General Arif’s government. Major General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, a former prime minister, was appointed head of the newly established Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the country’s supreme executive, legislative, and judicial body. From 1972 to 1975 Iraq fully nationalized the foreign oil companies operating in Iraq. The country enjoyed a massive increase in oil revenues starting in late 1973 when international petroleum prices began a steep rise. The discovery of major oil deposits in the vicinity of Baghdād was announced publicly in 1975. When al-Barkr retired, Saddam Hussein succeeded him. Hussein conducted a series of violent purges of party members to ensure total loyalty to his absolute rule.


In 1979 Islamic revolutionaries in Iran succeeded in overthrowing the country’s secular government and established an Islamic republic. Tension between the Iraqi government and Iran’s new Islamic regime increased when unrest among Iranian Kurds spread to Iraq. In addition, Saddam Hussein feared that the Iranian Revolution would prompt Iraqi Shiites to rebel. Using a border dispute as a pretext, Hussein invaded southwestern Iran in September 1980.   Iraq quickly overran a large part of the Arab-populated province of Khūzestān (Khuzistan) in Iran and destroyed the Ābādān refinery. In June 1981, Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq.

The war was costly and resulted in very little real change for either side. In 1988, the two countries accepted a UN resolution calling for a cease-fire. The war also took its toll on the Iraqi economy and on Hussein’s popularity. At the same time, Iraq also had to deal with the Kurdish insurgency. In 1988 the Iraqi military used a variety of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in the Iraqi town of Halabjah, killing approximately 5,000 people. During the late 1980s Iraq rebuilt its military machine, in part through bank credits and technology obtained from Western Europe and the United States.


In 1990 Hussein revived Iraq’s long-standing territorial dispute with Kuwait, its ally during the war with Iran. He also claimed that Kuwait was hurting Iraq’s economy by lowering the price of crude oil. Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait on August 2 and rapidly took over the country. The UN Security Council issued a series of resolutions that condemned the occupation, imposed a broad trade embargo on Iraq, and demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait unconditionally by January 15, 1991.When Iraq failed to comply, an international coalition led by the United States launched an air attack against Iraq. After a brief ground war, the coalition defeated Iraqi forces by the end of February, 1991. In April, Iraq agreed to UN terms for a permanent cease-fire. Coalition troops withdrew from southern Iraq and a UN peacekeeping force moved in to police the Iraq-Kuwait border. Fearing regional instability, the coalition did not attempt to remove Hussein from power. In November 1994 Hussein signed a decree formally accepting Kuwait’s sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity. The decree effectively ended Iraq’s claim to Kuwait as a province.

The defeat for Iraq lasted much longer than the military campaign. Much of the nation’s infrastructure, such as nuclear and chemical weapons facilities, was severely damaged. Its relationship with its neighbors also suffered as many Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and the smaller Persian Gulf states, lent military support to the coalition that defeated Iraq.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER RESEARCH AND DISCUSSION                                                                                

  1. How has history repeated itself in Iraq?
  2. Iraq history fluctuates between times with strong central leaders and eras where local authorities have more influence. During which model does the nation seem to flourish?
  3. To what extent did the Ottomans, the British, the Iraqi monarchy and the Americans follow the same method of rule?
  4. Why did Europeans British, the Iraqi monarchy and the Americans follow the same method of rule?
  5. Which has shaped Iraqi history more—tensions within the nation or pressures from outside of it?


BBC News:World:Country

Profiles: Iraq /

Country Report:

Information Please

Library of Congress: Especially for Researchers: Federal Research Division: Country Studies: Iraq

[i] www.msn.encarta: Iraq: History: Arab Islamic Conquest

www.msn.encarta: Iraq: History: Mongol and Persian Rule

[ii] Iraq: History: The Ottoman Period

[iii] Iraq: History: World War One and the British Mandate

[iv] Iraq: History: Iraq as an Independent Monarchy