History of Iraq

16 February 2014

Iraq’s modern history has been a turbulent one, reflecting its creation in 1920 from the remnants of the Babylonian and Mesopotamian outposts of the Ottoman Empire

Under British control, Iraq was made a kingdom headed by King Faisal I. The monarchy lasted until 1958, when a coup on 14 July led by General Abdul Karim Kassem seized control of Baghdad and proclaimed a republic. 

Within five years, Kassem’s regime was itself overthrown by the Arab nationalist Baath Party, which installed Colonel Abdul Salam Arif as president, heralding a period of uncertainty while a series of coups took place. By 1968, a semblance of stability returned, when Major General Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr became president and purged his opponents. His young deputy, Saddam Hussein, soon emerged as a powerful figure at the heart of government.

As the insurgency intensified, Iraq descended into a civil war waged between Sunni and Shia

In 1979, Saddam assumed full control of the government, ousting Al-Bakr and further centralising power in a regime that was largely based on a cult of personality. Provincial powers were constrained and Kurdish demands for autonomy were ruthlessly suppressed. The Baathist state tolerated no political dissent, and soon started looking beyond its borders for new enemies.

Saddam embarked on a fateful military assault on Iran in 1980, which mired Iraq in eight years of war, and the country spent much of its substantial economic bounty, founded on its large oil reserves. Iraq was forced to solicit donor funds from Arab countries fearful of a newly powerful Islamic Republic of Iran.

Throughout this period, Saddam quelled domestic opposition and hollowed out remaining political institutions. By the time an exhausted regime signed a peace agreement with Tehran in 1988, Iraq was a war-ravaged state, with an undercurrent of anti-regime violence centered in the Shia and Kurdish communities. This drew a predictably harsh response from Saddam, culminating in the genocidal Anfal campaigns against the Kurds, that resulted in at least 50,000 deaths.

The invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 proved to be a fateful act of hubris for Saddam, after the humiliating retreat from the neighbouring state in March 1991, although his survival instinct ensured his embattled regime continued for another 12 years under intense international sanctions. The Kurdish region, insulated from Saddam’s violence by a UN-imposed no-fly zone, created the foundations for an autonomous mini-state in the north. The rebellious southern Shia communities were afforded no such protection.

The Bush administration’s exercise in regime change in March 2003 finally put an end to 40 years of Baathist rule, but failed to craft a viable alternative. Fatal decisions, such as the disbanding of the Iraqi army, were seen to have undermined Iraq’s stability, fostering the creation of a violent and effective insurgency.

In May 2003, President George W Bush appointed Ambassador Paul Bremer to head a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), recognised by the UN as an occupation authority. In June 2004, an interim Iraqi government was appointed and a roadmap for elections was set out.

The first free elections were held on 30 January 2005, for the 275-seat Council of Representatives and provincial councils covering all 18 provinces, as well as a Kurdistan regional assembly with 111 seats. A permanent constitution was passed in October 2005 by a national referendum, with 78 per cent in favour. However, the Sunni boycott of the political process meant the new political structures struggled for legitimacy from the outset. Iraqis largely voted along ethnic or sectarian lines, hampering attempts to forge truly national institutions.

As the insurgency intensified, Iraq descended into a civil war waged between Sunni and Shia. Worse was to come in February 2006 when the bombing of a shrine in Samarra revered by Shia Iraqis triggered an upsurge in violence. The next two years saw the body count rise enough to prompt the US military, under General David Petraeus, to reconfigure strategy with a 30,000-strong “surge” that – in concert with the Iraqis’ own efforts to coopt Sunni tribal leaders – finally succeeded in reducing violence.

By 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was becoming an increasingly confident figure, and he began to confront the Kurdish leadership over the management of oil and gas resources. However, national elections in April 2010 failed to deliver a decisive victory to Al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated State of Law coalition, in competition with the Western/Sunni-backed Iraqiyya block led by Iyad Allawi.

Though Al-Maliki eventually mustered enough support among MPs to form a new government with himself as prime minister, Sunni Iraqis continued to resist his rule. An upsurge in violence in 2013 led to the town of Fallujah falling into the hands of jihadi militants associated with Al-Qaeda, an example of the Syria conflict spilling over into Iraq. How this conflict is resolved will go a long way to determining Baghdad’s chances of making progress in 2014 and beyond.

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