Mandate Iraq: Imagining a Nation – By Natalie Bowlus


King Faysal of Iraq

While Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a were hardly on equal footing in 1920, it was not inevitable that the inequality would persist. Failed political and social institutions are to be blamed.

Natalie Bowlus, is a second year masters student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, with concentrations in International Business and Development Economics. She received a BA in Mathematics from Swarthmore College in 2008. She is interested in the Ottoman Empire and state building after World War I.

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There is still–and I say this with a heart full of sorrow–no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate, and refine… The circumstances, being what they are, the immenseness of the efforts needed for this [can be imagined].”[1]

–          King Faysal of Iraq, 1933

Written in 1933, King Faysal’s words seem eerily relevant in 2013. Ten years after the American invasion of Iraq, despite hopes of freedom and democracy, Iraq seems to totter on the brink of complete dissolution. Iraq’s government is divided by sectarian and ethnic conflicts. Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki recently tried, in absentia, the country’s Sunni vice president, and the Kurds continue to jockey for independence, albeit now equipped with their own military, government and oil contracts, to name but a few of the country’s ills. On the surface, Iraqis seem no more unified than when the British awkwardly combined the three Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Mosul and Baghdad into a single mandate in 1920. [2]


It should come as no surprise that the new country created by the British was deeply socially and politically fractured. It had long been considered the “Siberia” of the Ottoman Empire, godforsaken provinces on the periphery where Ottoman administrators were sent as punishment and which they hoped to leave as soon as possible. This, coupled with the fact that rulers were rotated frequently to prevent them from accumulating too much power locally, led to a minimal and ineffective government. The empire’s power was consolidated in major cities and so long as tribes paid their taxes, they were given free reign of the hinterland.[3]

 Additionally, Iraq in 1920 was socially diverse. In broad terms, Northern Iraq was predominantly Sunni and Kurdish, the northeast was generally Sunni and Arab, and the area around Basra was inhabited by Arab Shi’a, who made up more than 50 percent of the population. It was also home to numerous other religious and ethnic minorities, including Turkomens, Yazidi, Assyrians, other Christians and Jews.[4]

Faysal himself was a foreigner who stepped foot in Iraq for the first time in 1920, when the British put him in power. Following the 1920 Iraqi uprising, in which thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in protest of British rule, the British were in need of a monarch strong enough to unify the country and make it more governable, yet pliant enough to accede to British demands. Faysal fit the bill. Originally from the Hejaz, the third son of the Sharif of Mecca had been raised in Istanbul. During the First World War he made common cause with the British and fought beside T. E. Lawrence in what would later be called the Arab Uprising. Faysal was an Arab nationalist. At the Paris Peace Conference, he advocated for the creation of an independent Arab state. Following his failure to achieve this goal through diplomatic means, he returned to the Middle East in hopes of changing the facts on the ground. In 1920 he was proclaimed King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria. Unfortunately, only four months later his dreams were crushed by France’s imperial ambitions and he was forcibly expelled from the country.

Iraq was then a consolation prize for Faysal, but he hoped to bring his dreams of an Arab country to life nonetheless. He brought a retinue of loyal followers with him, most of whom were also transplants from elsewhere in the former Ottoman Empire. These men, known as the Sharifians, had fought beside Faysal in the Hijaz and the Levant. Like him, they were fervent Arab nationalists.

This cadre of loyalists brought all their experience and their prejudice to bear on the problem of creating Iraq. Before joining Faysal (some more eagerly than others), the majority had been officers in the Ottoman army. Of a sample of 55 of the 66 Sharifians, 35 attended Istanbul Military College and another 15 attended other Ottoman institutions of higher learning in the capital.[5] This meant that the majority of men who were in power in mandate Iraq shared a common military education and the experience of serving together in the Ottoman army. Moreover, they had also been influenced by the Young Turk reforms, the rise of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), and increasing Turkish nationalism. Many Arab officers who were prominent in Baghdad were also former members of the nationalist secret society al-‘Ahd, including Yasin al-Hashimi, Nuri al-Sa’id and Ja’far al-‘Askari. Founded in 1913, al-‘Ahd questioned the utility of Turkish rule and began to envision the shape of a pan-Arab state.[6]

Thus, the Sharifians came to Iraq with the belief that Iraq needed to become a nation and could not do so without a common, manufactured Iraqi national identity. Their dream was to accomplish this nationalization process through the educational system and the national military. While both institutions eventually did breed some form of Iraqi nationalism, it did not occur in the way or appear in the form that the founders of Iraq initially imagined. Pan-Arabism eventually came to dominate both the school system and the military.

King Faysal and the Sharifians imagined that this crafted pan-Arab identity would create national feeling amongst the Iraqi people and unite the state; however, the expansion of schools and the military proved to be a spectacular failure in this regard. Rather than uniting Iraq’s citizens, pan-Arabism proved singularly divisive, calcifying and enhancing fractures between the privileged Sunni elite and Iraq’s other communities. Thus, when Faysal mourned the lack of an Iraqi people in 1933, he did so after more than ten years’ work, as a broken and disillusioned man.


Sati’ al-Husri is widely considered the “Father of Iraqi Education,” with good reason.[7]  He came to Iraq alongside Faysal and served as Director General of Education in Iraq from 1921 to 1927. Iraq’s public school curriculum and the development of the educational system as a whole in the country’s formational years were largely his brainchild.

Although he did not attend the Istanbul Military College, al-Husri was also the product of the Ottoman educational system. He earned a reputation as one of the premier Ottoman educators while serving in the Balkans in the late nineteenth century, where he was able to observe Europe’s nascent nationalist movements first-hand. Despite remaining loyal to the Ottoman state until the end of the First World War, by the time he had fled the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Faysal’s camp in Damascus he had become a fervent pan-Arabist.

Ottoman influence

Al-Husri viewed the military and the educational system as the two most important means of creating a coherent nation. In his curriculum, he endeavored to “strengthen the feeling of nationalism among the sons of Iraq to spread the belief in the unity of the Arab nation.”[8] Because the primary purpose of the educational system was to create good citizens, nationalistic subjects such as history, geography and civics took up more than half the curriculum, to the exclusion of more practical subjects such as trades or agriculture.[9] The Arabic language–Baghdad Arabic, more specifically–made up the second pillar of al-Husri’s nationalist education.

In addition to dictating the content of the curriculum, al-Husri was adamant that it be standardized throughout Iraq. Since education would be the building block of the Iraqi state and the source of civic feeling among citizens, it followed that all Iraqis should be following the same curriculum. This drive for top-down homogenization of the curriculum was at the root of many later problems. Not only did the material taught in schools perpetuate the marginalization of the Shi’a and the Kurds, but it proved useless to the majority of Iraq’s predominantly rural population. This, combined with the financial troubles that were so widespread in Iraq and the failure to build a significant number of secondary schools which could serve rural populations, meant that the school system failed to integrate the peoples of Iraq.

Under al-Husri, the school system expanded enormously. In 1920 there were 88 primary schools serving 8,000 students. By 1925 this had risen to 213 schools and more than 20,500 students. In 1930, under al-Husri’s successor, there were 314 primary schools with 34,000 students.[10] These schools operated alongside traditional mulla (religious schools) and communally run schools for Christians and Jews which received outside support from foreign charities.[11]

Despite this expansion, schools were not serving the needs of all Iraqis equally. One perpetually under-served group was the Shi’a of Iraq. Despite making up more than half of the population, in 1920 they were virtually absent from the government school system. Under the Ottomans, Shi’a parents had been actively encouraged by religious leaders to boycott schools because they were seen as little more than a tool for indoctrinating children with Sunni beliefs and foreign habits.

Al-Husri and his curriculum exacerbated this divide. He himself was out of place in Iraq, too secular and too Western for most of the population. On a personal level, he clashed frequently with the Minister of Education, the only Shi’a minister in the cabinet. Additionally, al-Husri’s educational curriculum downplayed traditional Shi’a customs and religious beliefs. The Shi’a were viewed as heretics and their loyalty was questioned–just as in Ottoman times, suspicions remained that the Shi’a represented a potential “fifth column” whose loyalties to their coreligionists in Iran would be stronger than their ties to the Iraqi state.  Some Shi’a complained that the curriculum downplayed valuable Shi’a contributions to the state, for example, by failing to use the 1920 uprising as an example of Sunni-Shi’a unity against the British.[12]

Kurds were also alienated by the centralized school system and pushed for more autonomy throughout the mandate. Similar to the Shi’a, the Kurds viewed the push for centralization from Baghdad as an existential threat. They worried that values promoted in school would eat away traditional customs and erode local power.[13] Moreover, Kurds were noticeably excluded from the pan-Arab narrative.

Finally, al-Husri launched an assault on independently run community schools that served religious minorities. These were seen as a threat to the state for several reasons. First, at the beginning of the mandate there were more non-Muslim than Muslim students, a situation deemed unacceptable. Additionally, these schools had too much freedom in determining their own curriculums. Third, many of these institutions received funding from abroad, namely France, Britain and the United States. Their special status seemed too close to the capitulations Europeans had enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire and their continued presence in Iraq appeared to be just one more way the British tried to maintain control over the country. To reign them in, the Department of Education put controls on their funding, linking their budgets to the number of students and teachers in each school and to the extent to which the school conformed with the official curriculum and students’ performance on state-wide exams.[14]

Closely tied to the issue of minority education was another challenge facing Iraq in its early years: the huge split between rural and urban populations. Iraq’s population was predominantly rural and illiterate. In 1920, only 20 percent of people lived in urban centers but had access to 60 percent of schools.[15] There was some success in improving rural access to schools, and by 1930 50 percent of schools were in rural areas, but urban centers still made up the vast majority. This divide was exacerbated at a secondary level: in 1927, fully 87 percent of secondary school students were from urban areas.[16]

One reason for the under-education of the rural population in general and their exclusion from secondary schools in particular was the physical and financial difficulty involved in traveling from a rural to an urban area. This was true in Ottoman times and continued into the Mandate era. Most of the Iraqis who attended the Ottoman preparatory school in Baghdad were from Baghdad itself. Ali Jawat, an Iraqi from Mosul, , had to travel eight days by raft to reach the city. Jawat was lucky insofar as he had relatives in Baghdad he could live with; in his memoires, he mentions that other friends from Mosul had to work during the day and attend school at night to pay for lodging.[17] Although the increase in the number of schools witnessed in the 1920s reduced this burden somewhat, infrastructure in Iraq remained poor and access to education, especially secondary education, continued to be a problem for inhabitants of rural areas.

Iraqis living in rural areas also had difficulty accessing education because of the deep cultural divides between rural and urban dwellers. As in so many countries, the urban elite were generally more secular and more cosmopolitan than their rural counterparts. A major fear, especially among the Shi’a tribes, was that students would go away to the big city, become corrupted, and not come back.

The greatest problem with Iraq’s educational system, however, was the irrelevance of the curriculum to the needs of rural life. As was mentioned previously, schools were designed first and foremost to create good Iraqi citizens, not to teach useful skills. There was no focus on agricultural or technological training and no thought given to Bedouin education.

Monroe Commission

This argument over rural and minority education was a major point of contention between al-Husri and his successor, Muhammad Fadhil al-Jamali. Al-Jamali, a Shi’a, was very interested in the idea of specialized programs for Bedouin, girls and other underserved minorities. He received a PhD at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University and was fascinated by American ideas of progressive education, which focused more on unlocking individual potential and making education appropriate for local needs.[18] Al-Jamali was also responsible for inviting the Monroe Commission to visit Iraq in 1932.

The Commission, led by Paul Monroe, comprised a group of American educators tasked with evaluating the state of Iraq’s educational system. The report covered all areas of education. Tellingly, however, one section of the report highlights the continuing failure to engage rural Shi’a. The Commission offered three main suggestions for the improvement of the school system: a greater focus on teaching modern agricultural practices, thereby becoming more relevant to tribesmen’s everyday lives, training more teachers who come from rural areas and who are interested in working in those areas, and ensuring that schools are not used to undermine tribal beliefs and that some “native ways and methods” should be incorporated into the curriculum.[19]

Thus, more than ten years into the mandate, Iraqi schools were a two-fold failure. First, by focusing on civic duties rather than practical skills, they failed to give Iraqi citizens the means to improve their country’s weak economy and raise the overall standard of living. Second, schools failed to create a sense of pan-Arab nationalism in Kurds, Shi’a, or other minorities, who made up more than half the population. Instead of increasing loyalty to the central government, the school system perpetuated the idea from Ottoman times that the aim of government institutions was to destroy traditional ways of life and impose Western and Sunni values.

However, it would be unfair to rest the blame solely on al-Husri’s shoulders: Iraq’s educational system was also constantly beset by financial troubles. In the beginning of the mandate, spending on education made up a minimal proportion of the budget.[20] A lack of cash led the British to introduce small fees for attending school and for school supplies; education had been free under the Ottomans, so this created a significant amount of backlash.

The financial situation was so dire that in 1924 it was cited by Lionel Smith, then an advisor to the Ministry of Education, as a major reason for resignation from his post. He felt that lack of funding both pointed to the lack of commitment on the part of the British to building and educational system and prevented him from enacting any useful or lasting changes.[21]

Unfortunately another victim of financial trouble was a proposed school specifically for the children of shaykhs and urban elites. Faysal had been in favor of this in the early 1920s, although al-Husri reportedly talked him out of it. However, the British colonial administrators, perhaps inspired by their own experiences in Britain’s public educational system, proposed the school in order to homogenize the elite. Ideally, the school would have created bonds between people in tribes and the urban population, which would have facilitated administration and knit the population together. This idea was also favored by the Shi’a, as it would have given them more of a stake in the educational system. Alas, the Iraqi government lacked the funds and the idea was laid to rest.[22]

The British were also reluctant to expand the Iraqi school system too rapidly. The paternalistic reason given was that not enough human resources existed to staff schools, and that an overly-rapid expansion would lead to a decline in quality.[23] More important, however, was the second reason: Iraq lacked jobs. In the 1920s, just as in Ottoman times, Iraqis viewed an education as a one-way ticket to a comfortable government job. This attitude was exemplified in the low rates of attendance at technical and agricultural schools. An agricultural college opened in the 1920s but was forced to close two years later because of low attendance.[24] The government could not hire hundreds of newly educated Iraqis and the British worried (rightly so) that a group of disenchanted, unemployed secondary-school graduates would create a restive and difficult to manage population. Thus, despite the Iraqi intelligentsia’s requests to the contrary, education in general and secondary education in particular grew slowly in Iraq under the Mandate.[25]


The Iraqi military was the other prong of the government’s mass nationalization campaign. Faysal himself stated that the military was the “the spinal column for nation-forming.”[26] It was advocated for by both the British and the Iraqi leadership with several goals in mind: for the British, a “native” army would save money and reaffirm Britain’s commitment to an independent Iraqi state while for Faysal and the Sharifians, the military would create national pride and solidify Faysal’s control of the country. Although ultimately the military was able to inculcate strong nationalist feelings among military commanders, this, like the educational system, did not serve to tie disparate communities to the central government or imbue the masses with pan-Arabism. Instead, power remained concentrated in the same group of Sunnis who had been represented in the Ottoman military before the War.

In 1920, the British maintained two forces in Iraq at a cost of ₤37 million per year: the Royal Air Force and the Levies. The Levies were a force composed predominantly of Assyrian Christians who had been initially recruited by the British during the First World War. They had been instrumental in quelling the 1920 uprising and were considered extremely loyal. Nonetheless, the British decided in 1921 that an indigenous Iraqi army would both defray costs and demonstrate to the international community Britain’s commitment to an independent Iraq. Thus it was decided that Britain would raise and train an all-volunteer Iraqi army of 15,000.[27] As the army grew stronger, Britain could gradually phase out her presence.

In 1921, the Arab army consisted of approximately 3,500 men; by 1932, this had risen to around 12,000, which was still far less than the government thought adequate.[28] The dearth of eager recruits was blamed by both British and Iraqi officials on a lack of “national spirit” among the Iraqi hoi polloi; while this was almost certainly true, it seems more likely that financial factors played a greater role. When Iraqi soldiers’ pay was raised to equal that of the Levies, recruitment increased substantially, and when pay was cut by 25 percent in 1922, recruitment dropped again.[29]

Reliance on rural populations

Army recruitment was successful insofar as it drew heavily from rural populations. In 1924, British officials estimated that as much as 70 percent of the rank and file was composed of “tribal elements.”[30] However, from the beginning the officer corps was dominated by ex-Ottoman and ex-Sharifian officers, and in the intervening ten years there were virtually no opportunities for rural and/or Shi’a Iraqis to penetrate this cadre of leaders. It is interesting to note that, like the rank and file, ex-Ottoman officers joined the new Iraqi army more for economic reasons than a desire to serve the Iraqi state, and more than one threatened to leave and join the French in Syria or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Iraq’s early years, highlighting the fluidity of identity and the lack of any sense of belonging in the new state.[31]

Some new officers were successfully recruited as well, although only 25 percent were Kurds or from the tribal areas. This trend of under-representation continued throughout the interwar period; in 1936, about 80 percent of Iraqi officers had served in the Ottoman army. Only 10 percent of the most senior officers came from rural areas.[32] This was due in large part to ex-Sharifian officers actively recruiting from their hometown networks. Many ex-Ottoman officers came from less affluent backgrounds; to friends and relatives from similarly depressed areas, a military career was an attractive option.[33] This in turn contributed to the increasingly Sunni character of the military academy, which alienated potential recruits from non-Sunni areas who felt like they were not “Arab” enough.[34]

On paper, officers in the Iraqi military were receiving an education identical to that of British officers. The military academy was organized on the British model and their materials were British military manuals translated into Arabic. Especially gifted students were even offered the opportunity to study abroad in India or Britain. However, beginning in the 1930s, certain faculty within the military training college began advocating more vocally for nationalism among officers and military intervention in politics.[35] For example, Tawfiq Husayn, himself a graduate of the Istanbul Military Academy, compared Iraq to Prussia and claimed that a military force might be capable of establishing a “great Arab state which would restore to the Arab nation its past glories and forgotten civilizations.”[36]

Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was clear that the military was failing to fulfill its mandate. Rather than creating a new generation of Iraqis who felt loyal to the government or proud as members of an Iraqi/pan-Arab state, the army served to calcify social divisions. A close-knit Sunni officer corps, many of whom shared the same experience of Ottoman military service, controlled the armed forces while Shi’a and Kurds composed the rank and file.

This divide was exacerbated by the ongoing debate in Parliament on conscription. One vocal advocate was Ja’far Pasha, the Minister of Defense. Like most in power at the time, Ja’far Pasha was very much a product of his own experiences in the Ottoman military. Iraq had had conscription previously, he argued, thus it would not be a burdensome imposition on the population; additionally, in the words of the Iraqi cabinet, it would fulfill the dual aims of “the strengthening of the patriotic forces and the reinforcement of our internal and external security.”[37] By increasing forces the Iraqi army would be better able to cope with internal and external threats. Finally, conscription would be the best way of involving all citizens in the military.

Iraqis faced considerable resistance from the British, who were virulently against conscription for a host of reasons. Some British officers viewed conscription as antithetical to British values. Others noted that a strong Iraqi army would make the country more difficult to control and make it more likely that the British would be thrown out. Additionally, many recognized that conscription would likely divide the country and alienate the tribal shaykhs who were, by and large, staunch British allies.[38]

Conscription did alienate both Iraq’s minority communities and the large Shi’a population. When Ja’far Pasha managed to put a conscription bill before the Parliament in 1927, it was met with massive protests. A Kurdish deputy stated that “the National Defense Bill does not suit our political position… and we believe that this law is useless and would cause… considerable harm,” while the Shi’a Minister of Education went so far as to resign in protest.[39] Although Iraqi politicians tried to assure the Shi’a that tribal areas would be safe and conscription would apply only to towns and settled areas, they remained unconvinced. In a strong statement issued to the parliament in October 1926, Shi’a shaykhs claimed “our sect only is to bear the burden.”[40]

The turning point for the military came in 1933, following the Assyrian massacre. Before that time, the military seemed largely toothless and easily contained by the British and the Iraqi political establishment. Afterwards, it came into its own as a rival center of political power. Despite its gruesome portrayal in the international press, the massacre seemed to Iraqis as symbolic of the triumph of the Iraqi people over pernicious foreign influences. The army became a symbol of national pride and the conscription bill passed effortlessly shortly thereafter. More ominously, the event made clear that the military was predominantly a tool for the government to subdue the state internally, rather than for coping with external threats, thereby reiterating the continued fractiousness of the Iraqi state.

The massacre was in some sense a culmination of more than ten years of frustration and resentment. The Assyrian population was composed largely of immigrants who had entered the country after being displaced in the First World War. In 1933, there were approximately 40,000 Assyrians in Iraq. Of these, only about a quarter were indigenous to the country. They inhabited the area around the Turkish-Iraqi boarder and enjoyed good relations with Baghdad.[41]

The rest of the Assyrian population remained aloof. Few took Iraqi citizenship or bothered to learn Arabic. This was reinforced by the British, who adopted the Assyrians as a “pet minority.” The Levies, a security force paid for by Britain and separate from the Iraqi state, was composed entirely of Assyrians by 1927.[42] British officers encouraged a sense of superiority, reminding recruits that they were “good British soldiers, not dirty little Arabs.”[43]

As a result, there existed a minority community that was poorly integrated with the rest of the population. Moreover, because they populated a British-run militia that operated in parallel with the Iraqi military, they were seen as proxies of the British. Tensions were increased in the wake of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty, which set a timeline for British withdrawal and Iraqi entry into the League of Nations. Fearing Iraqi reprisals in the wake of British withdrawal, Assyrians petitioned the League of Nations for the removal en masse of the Assyrian community to Syria or a Western country; this demand was refused. Simultaneously, a former Assyrian officer in the Levies was fomenting unrest in the north. At this time, approximately 10,000 young Assyrian men were armed and had military experience. This community increasingly seemed to pose an existential threat to the unity of the Iraqi state.

Things came to a head in the summer of 1933. On July 21st, more than 600 Assyrians attempted to cross into French Syria and seek asylum. They were denied, given light arms, and told to return to Iraq. A series of skirmishes erupted when they met the Iraqi army and continued throughout the following weeks. On August 11th, amid rumors that armed Assyrians were planning a full-scale rebellion, General Baqr Sidiqi moved the Iraqi army into the northwestern town of Simele and brutally massacred between 300 and 600 Assyrian men.[44]

The British were appalled, but Brigadier General Sidiqi and his troops received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Baghdad. Thousands of men, women and children flooded the streets, casting flowers and rose water on the troops, and pamphlets were distributed reading “Welcome, Protectors of the Fatherland! … Stand up to Your Enemies the Tools and the Creatures of Imperialism!”[45]Despite some continued opposition from tribal leaders, who still viewed it as a means for the central government to weaken their authority, the conscription bill passed easily in early 1934[46].


 By Faysal’s death in 1933 and the end of the mandate, Iraq had become a different country in many ways. The educational system was greatly expanded and the military had become powerful enough to deal independently with internal dissent in the absence of the British. However, as Faysal himself noted, Iraqis were a long way from the unified national group that the Sharifians in power had imagined in the beginning of the mandate.

Part of this failure can certainly be ascribed to British intransigence and a lack of funds–for example, the slow growth of secondary schools and the military were both due to the reluctance of British administrators. The British also pursued policies that were at odds with those that would create a strong state, as when they strengthened the power of the same tribal shaykhs who were frequently at loggerheads with Faysal.

In order to succeed, Faysal’s government would have had to overcome decades of resentment towards the Ottoman government on the part of the Shi’a. Not only did he and his ministers fail to do this, but the very organizations he sought to use to create national feeling among his people only served to reinforce and calcify existing tensions.

Al-Husri’s approach to education alienated the large Kurdish community and the Shi’a. His centralized curriculum failed to integrate tribal culture, thereby enhancing the view that the school system was a monolithic government institution bent on dissolving tribal power structures. Not only did it alienate citizens, but it failed to teach tangible skills that would have improved the lives of Iraq’s predominantly rural population and the Iraqi economy as a whole. It is unclear whether al-Husri managed to create some cadre of young pan-Arabists, as he had hoped. It is clear that the Sunnis continued to hold their monopoly on power throughout the decade.

Similarly, the military reinforced Sunni hegemony. The rank and file was diverse and representative of the Iraqi population at large while the officer corps consisted predominantly of ex-Sharifians and ex-Ottoman officers and their relatives. In September 1936, 50 out of 61 officers had served in the Ottoman army. More than a third of these had joined Faysal during the Arab revolt. Only one officer was a Shi’a and two were Christian.[47]

More important was the army’s evolving role in society. By 1933, it was clear that the army was predominantly used for resolving internal threats and that the central government was too weak to rule the majority of the country and, rather than involving tribes and minorities in the political process, chose to subdue them with force. This created rifts between Iraqis who backed the army as a liberating force and Iraqis who were forcibly subdued.

These lessons resonate today as the viability of multicultural states seems too often in decline in a world in which inter-group violence is common and Balkanization is the norm. This is fed in no small part by media portrayal of conflicts as driven by irreconcilable, intrinsic differences between groups–Serbs and Albanians, Kikuyu and Luos, Arabs and Jews. While the example of mandate Iraq might serve to reinforce these beliefs, it should instead emphasize the importance played by institutions. While Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a were hardly on equal footing in 1920, it was not inevitable that the inequality would persist. Nor was it a foregone conclusion that the Kurds would continue to push for independence even today. Rather, these outcomes were the product of a series of decisions by individual leaders and policymakers whose actions do have ramifications far beyond what they might first imagine.

The views and opinions expressed in articles are strictly the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent those of Al Nakhlah, its Advisory and Editorial Boards, or the Program for Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization (SWAIC) at The Fletcher School.

Works Cited

[1]Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes, 25, quoted from ‘Abd-ur-Razzaq al-Hasani, Tarikh-ul-Wizarat-il-‘Iraqiyyah (The History of Iraqi Cabinets).

[2] A vilayet is an Ottoman administrative district.

[3] Mohammad Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics (Thetford, Norfolk: The Thetford Press Ltd., 1982): 21.

[4] HannaBatatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978): 13-26, 38.

[5] David Pool, “From the Elites to Class: The Formation of Iraqi Leadership, 1920-1939,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 12, no. 3 (1980): 337.

[6] Charles Tripp, A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000): 27-29.

[7] Reeva S. Simon, “The Teaching of History Before the Rashid Ali Coup of 1941,” Middle Eastern Studies 22, no. 1 (1986): 39. Quoted from “Le Développement de l’Éducation Nationale en Iraq.”

[8] Reeva S. Simon, Iraq Between the Two World Wars (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004): 71.

[9] Simon, “Teaching of History”: 38.

[10] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics, 18.

[11] Stephen H. Longrigg, ‘Iraq, 1900 to 1950; A Political, Social, and Economic History, (London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1953): 110.

[12] Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994): 110-113.

[13] Liora Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for National Identity (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1995): 109.

[14] Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for Identity, 113.

[15] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics, 14-16.

[16] Ibid.,  19.

[17] Pool, “The Iraq Ruling Class,” 333.

[18] Simon, “The Teaching of History,” 37.

[19] Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for National Identity: 115-117.

[20] Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, (New York: Columbia University Press, 20007): 198.

[21] Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: 202-204.

[22] Nakash, The Shi’i of Iraq: 112.

[23] Longrigg, ‘Iraq, 1900 to 1950: 169.

[24] Longrigg, ‘Iraq, 1900 to 1950: 205.

[25] Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: 194.

[26] Batatu, The Old Social Classes: 26, from a memorandum March 1933, quoted in ‘Abd-ur-Razzaq al-Hasani, Tarikh-ul-Wizarat-il-‘Iraqiyyah (The History of Iraqi Cabinets).

[27] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 76 – 77.

[28] Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: 183.

[29] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 85.

[30] Ibid.: 16.

[31] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 77.

[32] Ibid.: 78-79.

[33] Ibrahim Al-Marashi and Sammy Salama, Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytic History (London and New York: Routledge, 2008): p.37.

[34] Simon, Iraq Between the Two World Wars: 124.

[35] Ibid.: 123.

[36] Ibrahim and Salama, Iraq’s Armed Forces: 27-28.

[37] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 89, Ibrahim and Salama, Iraq’s Armed Forces: 24-25.

[38] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 88.

[39] Ibid.: 90-92.

[40] Ibid.: 90-92.

[41] Tripp, A History of Iraq: 74-76.

[42] Longrigg, ‘Iraq, 1900 to 1950: 197.

[43] Khaldun S. Husry, “The Assyrian Affair (I),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5, no. 2 (1974): 165 quoting from Gertrude Bell to Burgoyne, p. 318.

[44] For a much more detailed treatment, see R.S. Stafford, The Tragedy of the Assyrians and Khaldun S. Husry, “The Assyrian Affair (I)” and (II).

[45] Khaldun S. Husry, “The Assyrian Affair (II),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5, no. 3 (1974): 352.

[46] Simon, Iraq Between the Two World Wars: 113.

[47] Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics: 79.



  1. I could nott refrain from commenting. Well written!

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