Why did they create the new nation of Iraq? UPDATED

Posted by – April 9, 2007

After World War I destroyed the Ottoman Empire, why did the British decide to create the new nation of Iraq out of the 3 different Ottoman provinces?

The British divvied up the Ottoman Empire’s holdings and created Iraq out of the three Ottoman “vilayets” (regions) of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Why would they do this? If we understood why Iraq was formed, we might could answer why Iraq should remain united or break apart into three states.



Iraq today

Clearly the Brits created a lot of rage by drawing colonial borders all over West Asia, but what I’m asking is, “why did they draw Iraq’s borders the way they did?” Was it just, “hey, this is a good shape!” ????

These are the borders proposed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) of new states from the parceling-out of the Ottoman Empire, based on sensibilities Lawrence observed talking to the local populations. This is fascinating to me.

Lawrence has most of Syria and all of Jordan and Saudi Arabia as one state under King Faisal. This makes a lot of sense given tribal patterns.

He has “Irak” defined as the Shi’ite regions of the Mesopotamian Basin, and the Sunni West as a separate state.

It’s entertaining that he puts “?” over central Iraq and a “?” over Kurdistan, lol. He didn’t know what to do with them. The only outright oddity here is a state for Armenians in Southern Turkey. wtf?

But overall Lawrence’s map would make way more sense than the current divisions. Jordan, Syria and Arabia aren’t separated unnecessarily like they are today, Shias in Iraq have their own state, etc.

Lawrence’s proposal was shot down.

My question for historians is this: why were the borders of Iraq we have today chosen vs. Lawrence’s or others? The current boundaries make no sense.

UPDATE: I got a great response from a history professor. This is what she wrote:

Nick — I’m an American historian, but I study empire, so I have some expertise to answer your excellent question. The answer is (and this may strike you as cynical) that the current borders were drawn to create instability that would require sustained British involvement in Iraq. They’d had interests in the area for a long time (Suez Canal was hugely important to the British economy), but had been held in check by the Ottoman Empire. At the end of WWI, with the Ottoman Empire in eclipse, they had the chance to expand influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, etc and control both the geopolitics and the economy. (Hey, they were very successful imperialists. This is what imperialists do!)

Lawrence’s plan was envisioning self-rule, which is something that the British government did not want to bestow. Their plan (see “imposition of empire game plan, version 53.0”) was to “civilize” and “modernize” the Middle East, slowly apprenticing them to the demands of life in the free capitalist Christian global marketplace and constitutional monarchy rather than sheikdoms. During so-called British Mandate period, the Brits imposed a puppet Haashemite monarchy, gave most of the land to the Sunnis, then proceeded to look for oil). Because few Arabs had the money to invest, the prime investments were purchased by the British and the money directed out of Iraq and back to Bristol, Manchester, and London.

There were also other reasons to keep all the three groups together. The plan was a regional one that would keep the warring groups of Iraq weak and focused on their internal divisions rather than going to war with Saudis, etc.

Did it work? No. Both the Shia and the Kurds fought for independence under the Brits and the Brits bombed them with phosphorous bombs (a chemical weapon — only wrong, apparently, when European or American trops are targeted). In 1941, when Iraqi Petroleum (a British corporation and subsidiary to British Petroleum, I think) interests were threatened, the Brits again shot up Iraq with troops from British India and Jordanian mercenaries. (Their own army was somewhat engaged in WWII.) The monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 (after the British were forced to give up the Suez Canal in 1956…the post WWII empire fell apart pretty quickly.)

So…that’s the long and short of it. I’m so glad you asked something that I knew something about, as I’ve been reading you lately and really learning a lot. Nice to have something to give in return.

She is right that the British used WMD against Iraq. Winston Churchill wrote about Iraq: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

What we are coping with today in Iraq are the scars of the British Empire. They set up a fractured amalgam of a country that would, since then, be forced to rely on strongmen to achieve stability. Yet most of the Iraqi bloggers I read want the old (British) borders maintained, they don’t want Iraq redrawn and they don’t want to lose what status they had.

Iraq is changing, and unfortunately, neither the Iraqis nor the new American “managers” can predict how it will turn out.

Nick


  • bridgett

    Nick — I’m an American historian, but I study empire, so I have some expertise to answer your excellent question. The answer is (and this may strike you as cynical) that the current borders were drawn to create instability that would require sustained British involvement in Iraq. They’d had interests in the area for a long time (Suez Canal was hugely important to the British economy), but had been held in check by the Ottoman Empire. At the end of WWI, with the Ottoman Empire in eclipse, they had the chance to expand influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, etc and control both the geopolitics and the economy. (Hey, they were very successful imperialists. This is what imperialists do!)

    Lawrence’s plan was envisioning self-rule, which is something that the British government did not want to bestow. Their plan (see “imposition of empire game plan, version 53.0”) was to “civilize” and “modernize” the Middle East, slowly apprenticing them to the demands of life in the free capitalist Christian global marketplace and constitutional monarchy rather than sheikdoms. During so-called British Mandate period, the Brits imposed a puppet Haashemite monarchy, gave most of the land to the Sunnis, then proceeded to look for oil). Because few Arabs had the money to invest, the prime investments were purchased by the British and the money directed out of Iraq and back to Bristol, Manchester, and London.

    There were also other reasons to keep all the three groups together. The plan was a regional one that would keep the warring groups of Iraq weak and focused on their internal divisions rather than going to war with Saudis, etc.

    Did it work? No. Both the Shia and the Kurds fought for independence under the Brits and the Brits bombed them with phosphorous bombs (a chemical weapon — only wrong, apparently, when European or American trops are targeted). In 1941, when Iraqi Petroleum (a British corporation and subsidiary to British Petroleum, I think) interests were threatened, the Brits again shot up Iraq with troops from British India and Jordanian mercenaries. (Their own army was somewhat engaged in WWII.) The monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 (after the British were forced to give up the Suez Canal in 1956…the post WWII empire fell apart pretty quickly.)

    So…that’s the long and short of it. I’m so glad you asked something that I knew something about, as I’ve been reading you lately and really learning a lot. Nice to have something to give in return.

  • Anonymous

    hello nick:

    i just came accross your blog, searcing completely something else. Will try to make more frequent visits from now on. i m an enthusiast from istanbul, turkey.

    in the answer to your question, i would go like this:

    the artificial borders that were drawn have now rooted in many senses, that going back to a more intelligent draw, based on etnicity and/or religion, and/or geography.. etc. will now create more instability in the region, than it would have back then. syrians and saudis would be at each other’s throat, turkey would give little chance to a kurdistan, backed by syria and iran, a shiite iraqi land would complete the bridge of sectarian violence from iran to lebanon, so and and so forth.

    things will change one way or the other, either to reach there through tears and blood, or will go back to ottoman style provincial federation (even this will not be accepted anymore based on same reasons above, still creating bloods and tears), or similar to baas style unitarian and totalitarian regime, which if possible is looking as the best solution, peppered with some democracy, and flavored to the end with a touch of autonomy.

    ending the baas regime was the opening of the pandora box, this is how shortsighted the recent engineers were. this last sentence of course is naive.

    the truth of the matter should lie more in parallel with what brigitte said. only replace britain with “usa, and britain”, fueling instability to the region, is helping them gaining a strong (!!) foothold in the politics and economics of the area, and thus history is repeating and will keep so, itself! the conflicts based on ethnic and sectarian differences were kept alive by these very forces for the longest time, allowing them finally to set foot back into the region in less than a century later.

    tears and blood will continue to pour from the victimized people of the region, and will be a surprise of any good will come out during our lifetime.

    metin from istanbul

  • Nick

    Metin, great to have you here. I’m really glad to get a viewpoint from Turkey.

    I agree with all you said totally. I wish we had never invaded.

  • Myassiri

    Modern Iraq was created as a result of British Empire revenge against the Shia Arabs of Iraq!  One cannot readily comprehend this fact unless they go back to the events of the First World War in Iraq.  Before invading Iraq, and soon after the entry in the war of Ottoman Turkey, on the side of Germany, the British and their French allies agreed secretly to divide what they called “Turkish Arabia” between their respective empires and reneging on all the promises they gave to the Arabs to entice them to revolt against Muslim Turkey.  The Sykes-Picot agreement was the result of this secret plan.  In that plan Iraq was to be under the British hegemony and consisted basically of the two Ottoman Vilayates of Baghdad and Basrah starting just from the Kirkuk oil fields in the north and extending all the way to Hassa and Qatif (the present oil rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia), and to include later the Arab Emirate of Ahwaz (the present oil rich region of Khozistan in Iran). That plan would have resulted in an Iraq coprising of more than 90% Shia population. It must be mentioned here that the Vilayet of Mosul was to be part of the French share and the Kurdish area to go to Tzarist Russia which was an ally of the Western Alliance before the eruption of the Bolshevic Revolution in 1917.   The British were certain that the Shia population in these areas would welcome them as liberators as the Ottomans did not recognize Shiism as an Islamic faith and thus deprived the Shia of any rights or privileges.  What happened, however, was a complete surprise to the British when their forces invaded from the south of Iraq.   The shia tribes and religious leaders stood with the Ottoman army “to defend Islam against infidels”!!   The hostility between the British forces and the Shia continued up to the conquest of Baghdad in 1917 and to erupt in violent report in 1920.  The revolt was so serious that Winston Churchill advoctated using poison gases against the towns and villages of the revolting Shias!!   As a consequence, the British took a more serious step against the the Shia and revised their original plan to deprive the Shia from any political influence in the future state by minimizing their numbers as much as possible.  To achieve this objective, the British decided (getting French acceptance) to make Mosul (a Sunni area) as part of Iraq. Also they gave the south of Basrah to their ally Ibn Saud, but kept Kuwait as a separate emirate and gave the latter all the remaining western sea  shore of the Vilayet of Basrah.  Moreover, they abrogated their defence agreement with the Shiite ruler of Ahwaz and allowed the Shah of Iran to incorporate his emirate as an integral part of Iran.  Since all these measures were not enough to reduce the number of the Shia to the required levels, the British reneged on their promise to create a Kurdish state and incorporated the Kurdish area to Iraq to increase the number of Sunnis although the Kurds are not etnically Arab.  Thus, the result was a truncated Iraq which is not ethnically and religiously homogeneous and with no meaningful sea shore,  and the governmnet was entrusted to the Sunni Arabs who never constituted more than 20%, whereas the Shia despite all the above British modifications, constitute more tha 60% of the British “tailored” modern Iraq.  

    This is in short the story of why Iraq has its present borders.  For more information, please refer to the references mentioned below.

    Munaf Yassiri, P.Eng.
    Alberta-Canada

     

    Toby Dodge, the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, ” Inventing Iraq”

    “The British saw the Shia religious establishment in the 1920’s as a
    direct rival for power, so they fled back into the arms of the Sunni elite”
    (Inventing Iraq).

    Christopher Catherwood , Professor of Continuing Education, Universities
    of Cambridge, England and Richmond, Virginia,

    “At the insistence of Faisal, a Sunni Arab and first king of Iraq, the
    British integrated the predominantly Sunni Kurds into Iraq to better balance
    the Shia Muslim majority in Southern Iraq with the Sunni Arabs in the centre”
    (Churchill’s  Folly: How Winston
    Churchill Created Modern Iraq).

    Also, the library of the American Congress says the following regarding the sectarian plan the British followed in Iraq:

    “The British decision at the Cairo Conference to establish an indigenous
    Iraqi army was significant. In Iraq, as in most of the developing world, the
    military establishment has been the best organized institution in an otherwise
    weak political system.  Thus, while Iraq
    body politic crumbled under immense political and economic pressure throughout
    the monarchic period, the military gained increasing power and influence.
    Moreover, because the officers in the new army were by necessity Sunnis who had
    served under the Ottomans, while the lower ranks were predominantly filled by
    Shia tribal elements, Sunni dominance in the military was preserved
    (The U.S. Library of Congress).