1904-2003: History of Iraq

A short history of Iraq, focusing on foreign intervention, imperialism and attempts by Western powers to control oil and other resources in the country and the rest of the Middle East.

Submitted by Steven. on September 9, 2006

See also our 1900-2000: Iraq timeline

The roots of U.S. intervention in Iraq lie in the aftermath of World War I, before that time it was the European powers that sought control over the region ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The discovery of oil at the end of the nineteenth century meant that greedy Western eyes were being cast in Iraq’s direction.  In 1904, when the British Navy shifted from coal to oil for its fleet, Britain sought direct control of the area.  Britain already supplied 65 per cent of the Mesopotamian market and controlled much of the carrying trade in the area.  In March 1917 the British army took Baghdad with the help of an Arab revolt against the German-allied Turks. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Arab lands were effectively shared out among the Western powers – despite earlier promises of independence after the war. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement the entire Middle East was carved up between France and Britain. France was mandated Syria, Greater Lebanon and some of northern Iraq while Britain took Iraq and Palestine.

There was a dispute between the French and British about who would get Mosul province, the northern area of present-day Iraq.  According to the Sykes-Picot accord, it was part of the French “sphere of influence”.  The British were determined, however, to add Mosul, which was mainly Kurdish in population, to its new Iraq colony.  To back its claim, the British army took up occupation in Mosul four days after the Turkish surrender in Oct. 1918 and never left.  In 1921 the British drew a line across Southern Iraq creating Kuwait in order to prevent Iraqi access to Persian Gulf.

Mass revolts broke out in the Mandated Territories and the British brooked no dissent in their rule. Winston Churchill argued ‘in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ and, in 1925, they did just that when planes dropped poison gas on the Kurdish town of Sulaimaniya in Iraq: the first time that gas was deployed in this way.  In a counter-insurgency war against an emerging independence movement, whole villages were pulverised by artillery, suspected ringleaders shot without trial, and malicious weapons, such as phosphorus bombs, and metal crowsfeet, designed to maim livestock, were introduced.

The United States had entered the First World War on the side of Britain and France with conditions attached.  These included the demand that its economic and political objectives be taken into account in the post-war world.  Among those objectives was access to new sources of raw materials, particularly oil. The importance of Mosul to the big powers was based on its known, but then largely undeveloped, oil resources.

In the face of the British-French domination of the region, the U.S. at first demanded an "Open Door" policy; i.e. that U.S. oil companies should be allowed to freely negotiate contracts with the new puppet monarchy of King Faisal, who was installed on the throne in 1921 by the British.  The result of this was that Iraq's oil was split five ways: 23.75% each to Britain, France, Holland and the U.S., with the remaining 5% going to an oil baron named Caloste Gulbenkian, known as "Mr. Five-Percenter," who helped negotiate the agreement.

In 1927, major oil exploration got underway, with huge deposits discovered in Mosul province.  Two years later, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, comprising of Anglo-Iranian (today British Petroleum), Shell, Mobil and Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon), was set up, and within a few years totally monopolised Iraqi oil production.  During the same period, the al-Saud family, with Washington's backing, conquered much of the neighbouring Arabian Peninsula.  Saudi Arabia came into being in the 1930s as a neo-colony of the U.S. The U.S. embassy in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, was located in the ARAMCO (Arab American Oil Co.) building.

In 1933 King Feisal I died and was succeeded by his son Ghazi I, whose nationalist sympathies made him the target of several attempted coups.  In 1938 General Nuri al-Said seized power, aided by an army faction known as the Seven.  The staunchly pro-British Nuri crushed all political dissent.  In April 1939 Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident (some believe assassinated by the British), and was succeeded by his infant son Feisal II under a regent.  In March 1940 the anti-British agitator Rashid al-Gilani became Prime Minister and saw a German victory in WWII as the way of ridding his country of British domination.  On 28 April 1941 he signed a secret agreement with German and Italian forces in Baghdad.

But German support never materialised and British troops soon reached Baghdad.  Churchill cabled congratulations and noted that the ‘immediate task is to get a friendly Government set up in Baghdad’.  This remains the aim of Western policy to this day. The U.S. oil companies and their government in Washington weren't satisfied.  They wanted complete control of the Middle East's oil and the opportunity came at the end of a war that left a greatly weakened British Empire both at home and in the loss of key colonies in Asia.  In the latter stages of WWII, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, dominated by big banking, oil and other corporate interests, were determined to restructure the post-war world so as to ensure the dominant position of the United States.  The key elements in their strategy were:

1. U.S. military superiority in nuclear and conventional weaponry;

2. U.S.-dominated corporate globalisation, using the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, created in 1944, and the establishment of the dollar as the world currency; and

3. Control of global resources and particularly oil.

The U.S. leaders were so intent on taking over Iran and Iraq that it set off alarm bells in British ruling circles, but there was nothing the British could do to restrain rising U.S. power.  Within a few years, the British ruling class had adapted to the new reality, and accepted its new role as the U.S.'s junior partner.

In 1948, also the year when Israel was established, a new agreement was signed between Britain and Iraq in Portsmouth, England, but it was almost immediately repudiated by Iraq after riots in Baghdad over Palestinian rights.  Meanwhile the oil industry was flourishing.  Riches from the oil fields were invested in ambitious national projects.  Iraq – like many Third World nations in the Cold War era – was forced to choose between Western powers determined to keep a defence foothold in the area and a Soviet Union trying to develop economic ties with the Middle East.  Martial law was imposed twice: once in November 1952, and then again after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Iraq broke diplomatic ties with Britain and France. 

Meanwhile, the US had made it clear that it would give substantial aid to any Middle Eastern state that would toe the US line. In 1953, following the CIA coup that put the Shah (king), in power, the U.S. took control of Iran.  By the mid-1950s, Iraq was jointly controlled by the U.S. and Britain. Washington set up the Baghdad Pact in 1955, which included their client regimes in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Iraq, along with Britain. The Baghdad Pact, or CENTO-Central Treaty Organisation, had two purposes the main one being, to oppose the rise of National liberation movements in the Middle East and south Asia. The second purpose was to be another in a series of military alliances, mirroring NATO, to oppose the Marxist regimes of Russia and China.

In 1958 King Feisal, his son, and General Nuri Al Said died in a coup led by the Iraqi army.  Brigadier Abd al-Karim Kassem was named Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief.  Twenty thousand U.S. Marines were immediately landed in Lebanon and 6,600 British paratroopers were dropped into Jordan.  While another upheaval that took place just six months later in Cuba is better remembered today, Washington regarded the events in Iraqi as far more threatening to its interests at the time.  In 1963 Kassem himself fell victim to a military coup when he was shot and replaced by General Aref, who in turn was exiled in a bloodless coup in 1968 and replaced by General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.  Open hostilities with the Kurds broke out in 1974, but the US, who provided them with weapons, failed to come to their aid when Iraq unleashed a massive attack.

Then, in July 1979 the Ba'ath Party came to power and Saddam Hussein became President.  The continuing dispute in the south with Iran over the Shatt Al-Arab waterway led to the Iran-Iraq War. The U.S. domination of Iran had been ended by the Islamic revolution of 1979  and both the US and the USSR assisted and armed Iraq.  In reality though, the aim of the U.S. in the Iran-Iraq war was to weaken both countries.  Henry Kissinger revealed the real U.S. attitude about the war when he stated, "I hope they kill each other."  The Americans provided Iraq's air force with satellite photos of Iranian targets.  At the same time, as the Iran-Contra scandal revealed, the U.S. was sending anti-aircraft missiles to Iran.  In a major atrocity Iraq launched a poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which 6,800 Kurds perished.  It has been shown since that, although the U.S. were fully aware that Iraq carried out the attack, they accused the Iranians of being responsible.  More than a million people had died by the time the war ended in July 1988.

Disputes with Kuwait about oil and land issues became increasingly tense, leading to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces and then, despite worldwide resistance, the Gulf War.  In July 1990, US Congress voted to impose sanctions against Iraq.  An alliance of 33 nations launched a six-week long attack in which about 250,000 people died and much of Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed.  Following Iraq’s defeat – helped by a massive mutiny of Iraqi troops - there were uprisings among the Shi’a population in the south and the Kurds in the north, in the vain hope of Western military support.  The Kurds were able to gain a UN-sanctioned ‘safe haven’ from Iraqi forces presided over by a US-enforced no-fly zone.  The Shi’a revolt was brutally suppressed.  In the meantime, sanctions continue.  To 2003, more than a million deaths could be traced to their effects. 

The situation in Iraq more recently, following the war of 2003 and subsequent occupation, is another story...

Edited by libcom from an article by Steve and Ann-Marie