Arab nomads shia mosque

Iraq: At The Crossroads Of Empires

Arab nomads shia mosque

Click here for part one of this story.

Chapter five of Robert Fisk’s ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ opens in March, 1917, with a Private Charles Dickens (not the renowned author) newly ensconced in Baghdad.

Dickens had the good fortune to have survived the abortive Gallipoli attack, a campaign spent fighting the Turks across Mesopotamia and then the battle for the Iraqi capital.

Furthermore, he was lucky to have not been one of the soldiers serving under Major-General Charles Townshend, whose surrender to the Turks at Kut al-Amara the previous year....

"…was the most comprehensive of military disasters and ended in a death march to Turkey for those British troops who had not been killed in battle. The graves of 500 of them in the Kut War Cemetery sank into sewage during the period of UN sanctions that followed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait when spare parts for pumps needed to keep sewage from the graves were not supplied to Iraq. Visiting the cemetery in 1998, my colleague at the Independent, Patrick Cockburn, found ‘tombstones … still just visible above the slimy green water. A broken cement cross sticks out of a reed bed … a quagmire in which thousands of little green frogs swarm like cockroaches as they feed on garbage.’ In all, Britain lost 40,000 men in the (whole) Mesopotamian campaign".

10 percent of that, 4,000 men, died during the march after Townsend’s surrender. The Ottoman Turks, however, were still defeated in 1918.

Major General Charles Townshend (image: Internet Archive Book Images)
Major General Charles Townshend (image: Internet Archive Book Images)

Townshend’s replacement, General Maude, summed up the prevailing sentiment by that point:

“Clearly it is our right and duty, if we sacrifice so much for the peace of the world, that we should see to it we have compensation.”

‘Compensation’ meant the right to stay in Iraq to protect and get access to Middle Eastern oil – that already flowing from Iran (through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, APOC, forerunner to BP), as well as future oil extractions that would be coming from Iraq itself. 

What compensation most definitely did not mean was the huge uprising that occurred in 1920.

The British reeled, claiming there were outside agitators in Syria, PM David Lloyd George refusing to leave Iraq in such ‘anarchy’, and the senior foreign official ruling out any diplomatic solution with such ‘extremists’. 

But these ‘few bad apple agitators’ became far more numerous when trouble kicked off in the Shia town of Kufa as well, and when the British besieged Najaf after one of their officials was murdered. 

Fisk states: “The authorities demanded ‘the unconditional surrender of the murderers and others concerned in the plot’.” They tried to kill or capture local sheikh Badr al-Rumaydh while “the leading Shiite divine (in Najaf), Sayed Khadum Yazdi, abstained from supporting the rebellion and shut himself up in his house”.

The British realised too late that they had also alienated a significant political grouping of ex-Ottoman Turkish military officers and government officials, swelling the ranks of the rebels still further.

Fisk then compares all this to the US occupation of Iraq:

"For Syria 1920, read America’s claim that Syria was supporting the insurrection in 2004… For Kufa 1920, read Kufa 2004. For Najaf 1920, read Najaf 2004. For Yazdi in 1920, read Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2004. For Badr in 1920, read Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004. For ‘anarchy and fanaticism’ in 1920, read ‘Saddam remnants’ and al-Qaeda in 2004." 

Yet the really striking thing is not that this roll call of actors and places was repeated almost verbatim more than 80 years apart, but that much of Iraq’s history had been repeating itself for 25 centuries.


When Cyrus the Great fought his way into Babylon from Persia, some claim he was welcomed. 

He may have deserved to be. Noted for relative kindness, he allowed Jews forced into captivity by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II to return to their homeland.

On the other hand, he also began a cycle that would plunge Iraq/Mesopotamia, into turmoil for millennia. Instead of making himself the new king of and settling into Babylon and its existing empire, he kept it as a province in his own. In fairness, it would have been hard not to include it, since by this point his Achaemenid empire stretched from China all the way to Turkey.

Yet by doing this, he established a pattern whereby Iraq would be perpetually caught out by the region’s great power politics.

The Fall of Babylon; Cyrus the Great defeating the Chaldean army by John Martin image from Wellcome Collection
John Martin’s painting depicting Cyrus the Great’s defeat of the Chaldean army at Babylon in 539 BCE (image: from Wellcome Collection)
Cyrus’ relatively modest tomb in Iran (image Hossein Khosravi)
Cyrus’ relatively modest tomb in Iran (image: Hossein Khosravi)

When the grand pendulum swung from other direction in 331 BCE, it came from Greece.

Phillip II of Macedon had come to prominence after his two main rivals, the city states of Athens and Sparta, had fallen into the ‘Thucydides trap’ of the Peloponnesian War. 

Before that, both had fought the Persians, at Marathon in 490 BCE and against Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480 BCE (the battle depicted in the movie ‘300’).

According to Professor John Robertson, author of ‘Iraq: A History’, Thermopylae and the broader struggle it was a part of have left us with a terrible ‘us and them’ legacy: The stereotype of the ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ Greece and its successor, the west, versus the ‘evil’ and ‘dictatorial’/’autocratic’ Persia and the east.

Again though, at first, this huge geopolitical fissure was not felt too harshly in Babylon. When Phillip’s son Alexander the Great incorporated it into his empire, it became a bustling, cosmopolitan beacon. 

Alexander did tear down much of the city’s central feature, the Etemenanki – central ziggurat and possible inspiration for the Bible’s ‘Tower of Babel’ - but he’d always planned to rebuild it.

Upon his premature death at age 32, his realm was split up amongst his generals. The Seleucid empire was the portion that covered Mesopotamia, Persia and much of Anatolia (Turkey).

The Seleucids were then themselves replaced by the Romans, while in the east the Parthians stepped into the role formerly played by Cyrus the Great’s Achaemenid Persians. 

This time, Mesopotamia was divided. 

A frontier line running down the Euphrates river now made it the ancient world’s Cold War Germany, flanked by two humongous regional powers whose rivalries would play out there.

Whilst the Romans got the best of European ‘barbarians’ for centuries, the Parthians gave them a serious run for their money, as Robertson explains:

“Parthian archers were known for their lightning speed and unmatched skill on horseback, and especially for the tactic that came to be known as the ‘Parthian shot,’ in which a Parthian archer would ride toward the enemy line, then wheel his horse about and ride quickly away, controlling his mount with his knees while facing backward to fire arrows at his foe.”

Hephthalite horseman on British Museum bowl 460-479 CE
A horseman of the later Hephthalite empire held at the British Museum shown doing what looks like a Parthian Shot (image: पाटलिपुत्र)

Many of us in the western world have heard of this manoeuvre, though we know it by a different name:

“The ‘Parthian shot’ became so legendary that a corrupted remembrance of it is preserved in the expression ‘parting shot’… the Parthian archers used what is known as the compound bow (which) requires considerable time to make and great strength to bend and shoot. It can send an arrow a great distance (up to two hundred meters) at a deadly velocity that can pierce shields and armor.”

Another Parthian meme also found its way to the west. ‘Cataphracts’ were warriors on horseback decked out in helmets and chain mail, and hauling a lance. The idea eventually became the template for our European knights in their shining armour.

But apparently, this still wasn’t enough of a deterrent: 

“For a Roman politico seeking to boost his political prospects… the Parthian enemy was also an opportunity. In the most famous such quest, in 53 BCE, the wealthy Roman aristocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus – who with Pompey and Julius Caesar was one of Rome’s ‘First Triumvirate’ – invaded Mesopotamia and took on a Parthian army…” 

Poor Crassus soon wished he hadn’t: 

“Withering fire from the Parthian archers followed by the shattering charge of the Parthian heavy cavalry devastated Crassus’ army. The Romans lost twenty thousand dead and perhaps ten thousand captured. Their humiliation was compounded by the disgrace of losing seven of their legions’ eagle standards, the recovery of which required several decades of persistent diplomacy by the Romans.”

What’s more:

“Crassus was put to death, allegedly by pouring molten gold down his throat. According to the Roman author Plutarch’s account in Parallel Lives, the Parthians sent Crassus’ head to the royal court. There, as it happened, the Greek tragedian Euripides’ play The Bacchae was being staged. Crassus’ head arrived just in time to be tossed onto the stage to represent the head of the play’s doomed protagonist, the Theban king Pentheus.”

Roman Standard by Ssolbergj
SPQR: ‘Senatus Populusque Romanus’ (the Roman Senate and the People), the standard carried by all Roman legions (image: Ssolbergj)

In the 5th Century CE, players in this grand drama were switched out again and the conflict between them became even more Cold War like. 

That’s because the Sassanids, the Parthians’ successors, now faced off against the Byzantines. (The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east after it had collapsed in the west, the name derived from its capital Constantinople, later Istanbul but formerly Byzantium).  

What both sides brought with them was a heightened commitment to their religious faiths, and thus the conflict between them went beyond the idea of mere territory, and into the territory of ideology.

The Byzantines, continuing the by-then Roman tradition, were Christians. The adoption of the faith by Rome in 380 CE must have made things a lot easier – that is, if they were motivated by a desire to enhance their control of the populace. (Sargon of Akkad, founder of Mesopotamia's first Semitic-speaking empire, had certainly sought to increase his influence through religion).

In any case, the full embrace of Christianity was quite a turnaround from feeding followers of Jesus to lions (not to mention, crucifying Jesus himself). Now the Byzantines would take things a step further, by adding zeal.  

They had very little tolerance for any religious interpretation that fell outside of their strict doctrinal parameters. One person who did was a man named Nestorius, who preached that Christ had two sides to his nature, a human and a divine, and that his mother Mary, being a flesh and blood woman, must have represented the former.

It was his followers, Nestorians, who began trickling into Iraq and his sect of Christianity would become the ‘Church of the East’, the dominant version/community of Christianity in Iraq and Iran, and further east, at that time. 

Chaldean_Catholic_Cathedral_of_Saint_Joseph_in_Ankawa_near_Erbil,_Iraq by Basharh
A Chaldean Catholic cathedral near Erbil, Iraq today (image: Basharh)

Manichaeism was another religious movement (sharing some common features with Christianity) that became active in Mesopotamia during this period. 

Adherents aimed at a two-tiered society in which an elite group (known as ‘the elect’) were fed by the rest, allowing the elite to follow a divine path towards liberating the light within them from the darkness of material world, including their own bodies:

“The Elect led an extremely restricted lifestyle of strict purity, including personal poverty, sexual abstinence, and strict vegetarianism, which was designed to prevent them doing anything that might keep light particles imprisoned. Their lifestyle was also instrumental in liberating light particles. For example, Mani taught that light particles were contained in the plants the Elect ate as food. Their belches helped to release those particles to return to the world of light.”

Byzantine_and_Sassanid_Empires_in_600_CE by Getoryk
The Byzantine and Sassanid Empires as they were around the year 600 (image: Getoryk)

Jews too were being forced into Iraq by Byzantines’ suppression of their brethren in Judea, although, in Iraq, they also ran up against the Sassanids who took issue with rabbis acting as tax collectors, market inspectors and judges.

For their part, the Sassanids’ subscribed to a religion known as Zoroastrianism. It isn’t known if Cyrus and his Achaemenid Persian successors were Zoroastrians, but Robertson tells us they may have been. The religion was certainly mainstream by the time the Sassanids came along.

The ideas of Zoroastrianism are broadly similar to Judaism and Christianity. In this worldview, there is one god (Ahura Mazda), and followers are to resist evil (embodied by a Satan-like being, Ahriman) and do good deeds. When one’s life ends, good and bad deeds will be weighed up and if the person is found to be good they will pass onto a kind of heaven and if bad, a kind of hell. 

Zoroastrians also subscribe to the idea of a kind of ‘end times’, where there will be a final showdown with evil, and the forces of good will be led by a virtuous hero, Saoshyant, who is a kind of Jesus figure.

Persecutions of Jews aside, Zoroastrians are thought ordinarily to have been rather tolerant of other religious beliefs. They, like Jews, were also monotheistic and one imagines the fact that Jews in Babylon would have been presided over by Zoroastrian officials left behind by Cyrus (who they held in high regard) might have aided relations between the two communities.

In essence, then, Iraq was now a melting pot of various religious beliefs as different groups got churned up together by the imperial contests of much larger adjacent powers. The breadth of ideas it hosted would expand further with the arrival of Islam.


Contact between Arabs and those who were living in what is today Iraq had been going on for centuries, including right through the ancient Mesopotamian period. 

Even now, herders and other nomads pay scant attention to modern borders as they drift between countries along their traditional desert highways, which are normally defined by wadis. 

So when Islamic ideas and Arabic people became more prominent in Mesopotamia, their arrival was not entirely sudden.

The full name of the man commonly known today as the Prophet Muhammad was Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Abd al-Muttalib ibn-Hashim. 

Ibn means ‘son of’ or ‘descendant of’ and, in this case, ‘ibn-Hashim’ denotes the clan that Muhammad was a member of - the Hashim, or Hashemites. 

They themselves were part of a larger tribe known as the Quraish, which was dominant in the area of Mecca around 570, when Muhammad is estimated to have been born.

Throughout his early life, Muhammad was a caravan trader whose religious ideas culminated in the Quran and are taken to be the “final, perfect revelation from God as given to Muhammad in the Arabic language”.

Antonino_Leto_-_Arab_sheep_herders by Christie's
Arab sheep herders (image: Christie’s)

Those beliefs have a certain amount in common with Judaism and Christianity but also differ in important ways. All three faiths agree that there is only one god, though whereas Christians believe Jesus was the son of God, neither Muslims nor Jews agree with this. Muslims do accept that Jesus was a great prophet, one of five that ended with Muhammad.

Muslims also believe in the idea of a final day of judgment (though this is not usually noted as one of the most essential beliefs of the faith), in predestination (God’s knowledge of mankind’s ultimate fate) and they believe in angels who carry out God’s (or Allah’s) tasks. 

The principal expression of the Islamic faith is prayer, to be carried out five times daily, at dawn, mid day, mid-afternoon, sunset and in the evening.

Also practised are charity and fasting during the ninth lunar month of the Islamic calendar (Ramadan), which ends with Eid, a feast and celebration day.

Pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, is another tenet of the faith, and those who have completed this journey are dubbed ‘hajji’. Ordinarily, this is a label of distinction though it became derisive when used by US soldiers to refer to Muslims in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Some consider jihad, ‘struggle’, to be a sixth pillar. The main interpretation of this is an inner struggle to be a good person and Muslim; another is the defence of the faith militarily.

Like Christians and Jews, the Islamic faith was also born into trying circumstances: 

“Although a number of Meccans accepted Muhammad’s teachings early on, many of the more powerful elements in Mecca’s society rejected them. Part of their reason for doing so likely had to do with Mecca’s importance as a trading center, where different groups could come in peace and do very profitable business. Mecca’s status as a sanctuary of sorts seems to have been linked to the presence there of the Ka’ba (“cube” – owing to its shape), a stone-built shrine, evidently ancient already in Muhammad’s day, that housed idols of the many deities worshipped by the local tribes. Later, a tradition developed that the Ka’ba had been built by Abraham and his son Ismail (Ishmael). Muhammad’s insistence that there was only one true God obviously threatened the status of the Ka’ba, and therefore the profits of the local elite, who began then to persecute Muhammad’s followers.”

In response, Muhammad waged war from Yathrib (later Medina) starting in 622, year zero of the Muslim calendar. After his victory, he destroyed the ‘idols’ of the false gods at the Ka’ba and turned it into the supreme site of Islamic worship.

Ka'ba_Mecca by Swerveut
The Ka'ba in Mecca today (image: Swerveut)

The trouble was, the question of lineage for the leadership of this new faith fell immediately into tremendous dispute. 

The reason is that although Muhammad would go on to have 12 wives (13 if you count his first wife who died) and several children by them, none of his sons survived to adulthood. Patriarchy being the norm, this left the question of lineage up for grabs when Muhammad died in 632, at around age 62.

From here came the schism between Sunni and Shia (or Shi’ite) Muslims, the former believing Muhammad's close friend and father-in-law Abu Bakr to be the true heir, and the latter favouring Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law Ali. 

(Today, Arabs are predominantly, though not exclusively, Sunni. Shia Muslims are scattered throughout the Middle East but are most heavily concentrated in Iran where the majority of the population is Persian). 

Arab tribes commonly raided their neighbours during this time but with the Christian Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians warring for centuries, there was eventually an opportunity full-scale Muslim conquest.

The year 636 saw a decisive victory by Muslims over the Sassanids at Qadisiyyah, and by 653 the last Shah of the Sassanids and his empire were dead. Now much of the Middle East, right up to India and China, was in Muslim hands.

The political volatility of this period was no doubt frightening to new subjects in Mesopotamia who had to hope and pray things wouldn’t get worse when one set of imperial masters replaced another.

Yet the point, Robertson reminds us, is that it was not a requirement for them to change the way in which they hoped and prayed. 

These were violent times but early Muslims were not the radical, nihilistic, fascistic death cult that is ISIS. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians who found themselves under new Muslim management were treated relatively fairly. They were not considered equals and had to pay a special tax but they were also not persecuted nor forced to convert. Since many had suffered some form of religious persecution from prior rulers (like the Byzantines), this made the new Muslim overlords look comparatively reasonable, something that did eventually prompt many to convert to Islam willingly. (A lesson ISIS apparently never learnt).

The immediate next question for those converting to Islam though was: Which Islam?

That’s because a civil war soon broke out between Ali and his followers and everyone else. 

When Ali died, assassinated by a secessionist sect who rejected his leadership, most believe his body was buried in Najaf, hence the significance of the city to Shia Muslims in Iraq today. 

Robertson points out the irony that the oft-requested burial site of many Shia, the Wadi-as-Salam (‘Valley of Peace’) graveyard in Najaf, was the location of an intense battle between US forces and those of the Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004.

Al_Askari_Mosque by Toushiro
The Al Askari Mosque – an important Shia site that was bombed by Sunni extremists in 2006 (image: Toushiro)

Despite the internal disagreement, Islam continued its expansion under the Umayyad Caliphate, the second of four to immediately follow Muhammad. (A caliphate was a group of caliphs, 'successors', who ruled an empire). During this phase, northern Africa, Gibraltar and southern Spain were all added to the list of existing Muslim-ruled territories. 

Eventually, the Umayyads would also try and fail to take the Byzantine capital of Constantinople in 717 and 718. 

In Mesopotamia, they succeeded in putting down several uprisings when the new caliph’s right-hand man - Al-Hajjaji ibn Yusuf al-Thaqafi (or al-Hajjaji for short) - sneaked into the mosque at Kufa, a centre of resistance, and burst onto the pulpit. 

Clearly a serious hard man, he declared with relish:

“I see heads before me that are ripe and ready for plucking, and I am the one to pluck them, and I see blood glistening between the turbans and the beards… For a long time you have been swift to sedition; you have lain in the lairs of error and have made a rule of transgression. By God, I shall strip you like bark, I shall truss you like a bundle of twigs, I shall beat you like stray camels… By God, what I promise, I fulfil; what I propose, I accomplish; what I measure, I cut off.”

But it wasn’t all conflict.

There was also an effort at rejuvenation that saw southern Mesopotamia turned into its own state. Its name, Iraq, was presumably drawn from Mesopotamia’s main ancient city - Uruk (though there is still debate about where exactly the name 'Iraq' was derived from).

Trade in the region boomed, netting the rulers four times as much as they were making in Egypt, all made possible by the complex network of canals crisscrossing the Mesopotamian flood plain. The exploits of Sinbad the Sailor, featured in the classic tale ‘Arabian Nights’, took place in this region.

Arabian Nights is actually called ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ in Arabic because the central premise is that the wife-to-be of a vengeful Sassanian king is trying to delay her own execution by telling him a series of interesting stories. 

The initial collection of tales was first put together during the Islamic Golden Age, which came about during the Abbasid Caliphate after the Umayyads were replaced in 750 CE. (The Umayyads fled to Cordoba in Spain where they established another, independent kingdom).

An illustration from the 1915 English-language edition of 'More Tales from Arabian Nights'

This whole period is notable not only for literature but also scientific and economic ideas, all centred around and synthesized in the new capital, Baghdad. This too was the beneficiary of geography (for now), both the canal system and Iraq’s location at the centre of trade routes stretching thousands of miles in both directions.

Robertson quotes a contemporary named al-Ya’qubi as observing:

“…goods and foodstuffs come to it (Baghdad) by land and water with the greatest ease, so that every kind of merchandise is completely available, from east and west, from Muslim and non-Muslim lands. Goods are brought from India, Sind (in Pakistan), China, Tibet, the lands of the Turks, the Daylam, the Khazars, the Ethiopians, and others to such an extent that the products of the countries are more plentiful in Baghdad than in the countries from which they come. They can be procured so readily and so certainly that it is as if all the good things of the world are sent there, all the treasures of the world assembled there, and all the blessings of creation perfected there.”

There was so much wealth accumulating in Baghdad that when Byzantine dignitaries visited Iraq’s Abbasid rulers at the Royal Palace in 917:

“…they were treated to an ostentatious exercise in public relations… designed to impress the ambassadors with the wealth and sophistication of Abbasid court life."

The highlights of the tour included:

“…more than fifty thousand carpets either hung from the walls or laid on the floor, many with gold brocade and images of birds and animals; horses with saddles of gold and silver; a royal zoo with lions and elephants; marvelous gardens and courtyards, including one with an artificial tree; and walls hung with thousands of suits of armor. Finally, overwhelmed –and exhausted –by all the grandeur they had seen, the envoys were brought before the Caliph himself, who, dressed in brocade with a cap embroidered with gold, sat on a throne of ebony and brocade, with strings of precious stones to either side.”

But, as can be typical with vast ostentatious wealth, the Abbasid Caliphate concealed a rotten underbelly. Stories contained in Arabian Nights, and other sources, take us on a very different journey: 

“…(into) a city that, beyond the palace walls, teemed with squalor but offered possibilities of adventure, both rollicking and dangerous. It was studded with taverns, some of the best of them inside Christian convents. If one left one of those taverns too conspicuously incapacitated, one might be waylaid by some of the thieves and con-men (and con-women) who infested the city’s slums. Gangs of young thugs demanded protection money from local establishments in their quarter of the city and fought with gangs from other quarters to defend their turf.”

Meanwhile, at the top of the society, we see another class stereotype playing out:

“The city’s elite despised the slums’ denizens, many of whom practiced occupations they looked down upon: ‘blacksmiths, butchers, conjurors, policemen, night-watchmen, tanners, makers of women’s shoes, dung collectors, well diggers, bath stokers, masseurs, pigeon racers, and chess players’.” 

Stuffy attitudes aside, court life had its own brand if vibrancy and:  

“…could be full of its own rollicking fun, featuring wine-soaked parties with lots of women, and song, and poets to write about it all. Much of the culture that surrounded the court of the early Abbasids was a robust celebration of poetry and song, lavishly patronized by the caliphs themselves.”

Poets might also be lavishly rewarded. One received “five hundred pieces of gold, a robe of honor, ten slave-girls, and a horse from the Caliph’s own stables”.

Just like Babylon during its golden age, Iraq, and especially Baghdad, was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. 

Philosophers and mathematicians from across the world were studied and their works catalogued. One legacy of this derived from the Indians and Greeks and developed by Abbasid scholars is a form of maths many may know: Al-gebra. 

Also noteworthy are the (mislabelled) ‘Arabic’ numerals later adopted by the west and added to its Phoenician-derived alphabet.

They actually came from India, but whatever their origin, we can all be thankful the Muslim world passed them along to us. 23 + 23 = 46, for example, is a hell of a lot easier than XXIII + XXIII = XLVI, the prior Roman numerical system.

It is from this great peak that the Abbasids declined, the empire fracturing when the caliph Harun ar-Rashid, who is featured in Arabian Nights, died in 809 and his sons squabbled over the spoils. 

In the relative chaos, they contended with street gangs and a slave revolt, and damaged the canal system, leading to further decline when the fields were over farmed, left chocked with minerals and salts. 

Reduced yields impacted trading, reducing taxes and then their ability to retain soldiers – the whole royal edifice was collapsing in on itself.

Concurrently, Shia powers were on the rise on either side of them, in Egypt and Persia. 

The Egyptians were benefitting from an increase of trade in and around the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, which was itself helped along by the rise of the cities Pisa and Venice.

The threat from the east, meanwhile, was military, not economic. The Buyids at first pushed the by-now relatively decrepit Sunni Abbasids aside. 

However, they were partially saved by the arrival of a Turkic group, the Saljuks, who, despite possessing apparently great military prowess, kept the Abbasids in power. The Saljuks had converted to Sunni Islam and saw the Abbasids as their allies:

“In 1055, the Seljuk khan (ruler) Tughrul entered Baghdad, bringing an end to Buyid (Shia) rule and the perceived abomination of Shi’ite political hegemony, and proclaimed the primacy of Sunni Islam and his own fealty to the Caliph – whom Tughrul evidently did not bother to actually meet. The grateful Caliph rewarded Tughrul with the title of sultan, which Tughrul’s successors would bear proudly for years to come.”

The Turkic sultans now became political leaders from their new power centre in Iran whilst the Abbasids stayed on as religious leaders – caliphs - in Baghdad. 

This arrangement seemed to be working just fine until the death of one Seljuk ruler, Sultan Malikshah, caused their empire to fracture internally. 

Bedouin Arabs (a nomadic group of tribes) seized the initiative, then Mosul in the north of Iraq; Turks took everything north of Mosul; and the Abbasid caliphs reasserted themselves at Baghdad, taking much of central and southern Iraq. They were then unsuccessfully besieged by their former allies the Seljuks in Baghdad in 1157.


As well as Iran and parts of Iraq, Seljuk Turks had also taken Jerusalem several years before.

This led, after a plea for assistance from the Byzantine empire to the Pope, to the First Crusade in 1099.

Christian warrior knights hacked their way back into the city, killing any non-Christians they found inside.

This contrasted markedly with the recapture of the city by a man named Saladin who, despite being born in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, would become Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1174.

Saladin brings his brother Turan Shah to the Fatimid Caliphate capital of Cairo with an army, August 1169
Saladin, in red, visits Cairo in August 1169 (image from ‘Saladin’ by David Nicolle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

A highly skilled yet also chivalrous military commander, Saladin let his Christian prisoners go when he retook Jerusalem for Islam in 1187. 

He is also said to have actively helped his adversary, Richard I (‘the Lionheart’), during the Third Crusade. When news reached him that Richard’s horse had died, he sent a new one; and fruit on ice was delivered when there was news that poor Richard was ill.

After resuming the mass stabbing and bone-crunching, the pair eventually brokered a peace treaty that allowed both Muslim and Christian pilgrims into Jerusalem. Muslims would retain control of Jerusalem but Crusader states nearby - Antioch and Tripoli - were left in place.

Saladin would die quietly of fever in 1193, aged 55 or 56; Richard died at 41 after being struck by a crossbow bolt.

Saladin's tomb in Damascus
Saladin’s tomb (right, image: Godfried Warreyn) and the building where it is housed in Damascus (left, image: Heretiq)
Market at Jaffa, 1877 by Gustav Bauernfeind photo by Marterpfahl Verlag
A market in the ancient port city of Jaffa, about 40 miles of Jerusalem, as it looked in 1877, perhaps not that different to how Jerusalem looked at the time of the crusades (image: Marterpfahl Verlag)

The last crusaders were would be expelled (from Ancre) in 1291, but even before that the next round of brutality hit the region. In 1255, Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu rallied his forces and set off for the Middle East, reaching Baghdad in 1258.

The Abbasid caliph arrogantly rejected an overture to submit and the Mongols were soon slaughtering everybody inside his city. Estimates of the number of dead range from 90,000, to 200,000 (Hulegu’s figure) to a jaw-dropping 1,000,000. 

Even though Baghdad was a major, if not the major, metropolis of the Islamic world at that time, this scarcely seems possible as the figure might even exceed the city’s entire population. If there is any validity to it, one must presume that Hulegu’s colossal killing spree also worked its way out into other parts of the country, or that mass starvation followed from the destruction of agriculture. That is, after all, what happened in England after William the Conqueror put down resistance following his invasion.

People resorted to hiding in latrines and sewers to escape (most still didn’t) and much of the city was burnt, its libraries ransacked and their books thrown into the Tigris. This is why so little architecture from the period survives today. Baghdad never recovered its former glory as an Islamic cultural centre.

Mustansiriya Madrasah by Taisir Mahdi
Mustansiriya University in Baghdad by CPT photo
Mustansiriya Madrasah, one of the world’s oldest Islamic universities and one that survived the mongal onslaught (images: Taisir Mahdi and CPT photo)

There is a story, one doubted by historians, in which a vizier (which was a caliph or sultan's top advisor) named al-Alquawsi, betrayed the caliph and reduced the size of the army he sent in for protection. 

Saddam Hussein made use of this episode in 2003, referring to anyone who worked with the Americans during the invasion as being like al-Alquawsi. The fact that the vizier in question was a Shia must have worked even better for his propaganda purposes since Hussein’s regime, though secular, was Sunni affiliated.

Complicit vizier or not, the most appalling aspect of Hulegu’s sacking of the city is obviously the sheer scale of the carnage.

But, in the end, it turns out the Mongols were surprisingly squeamish about the sight of blood – royal blood, that is.

When they caught up with Caliph al-Mustasim, the last of the Abbasid dynasty, it’s likely they got around this by wrapping him in carpet and then stomping him to death, probably with their horses.

Having raped Baghdad, the Mongols would now neglect it:

"For the next five centuries, until the late nineteenth century, the once great metropolis of Baghdad became a backwater – one provincial capital of one of the frontier zones to which Iraq was reduced… Although Hulegu began to rebuild Baghdad not long after he had destroyed much of it, it never regained anything approaching its previous size or status. Baghdad was never again the capital of an empire, nor did it, or Iraq, ever reclaim the central position they had held for so long in the Sunni Muslim world.”

From now on, that central position would be held by Cairo.

An amir at home in Damascus during 15th Century Mamluks
A Mamluk emir at home in Damascus during the 15th Century – the Mamluks were a Sunni empire that came to rule Egypt and Syria (image from ‘Mamluk ‘Askari 1250-1517’ by David Nicolle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Iraq faltered further as nomadic tribes, far more desperate to find grazing lands for their flocks than worry about the broken irrigation systems, did nothing. Then, in the 14th and 15th Centuries, gangs of raiders, disease and starvation plagued the population. 

Then in 1401, the Mongols unleashed another orgy of shocking violence, led this time by a man named Timur-leng (whom the west came to know as Tamerlane).

In his second siege of the city, Timur-leng’s soldiers brought him the heads of men and women from inside which were then ‘fashioned into towers around the city’. 

This time, ‘only’ 90,000 people were brutally murdered. (One has to wonder to just what extent psychopaths must have shaped history). 

In the wake of this, a succession of weak local governments assumed power in Baghdad whilst rural tribes took over the countryside, forcing local towns to pay ‘protection money’.

This trend continued into the 19th Century and largely up to the present day as tribal loyalties were still a prominent feature of Iraqi society in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

Isle of Graia Gulf of Akabah Arabia Petraea by David Roberts image Library of Congress
A trade route near the Red Sea – such routes, along with overland ones through Iran and Turkey, became more prominent with the decline of Iraq and Baghdad (image: Library of Congress)


The next great power to emerge in the region would continue prior trends and become part of a natural pattern that, save a brief interregnum in the 20th Century, has continued right up until this present moment.

That new empire was the Ottomans, the name derived from a Turkic tribal chief named Osman. (Turkic people hail from throughout the Middle East and central Asia and went on to settle in Turkey as well as other places in the region such as Turkmenistan. Turkoman/Turkmen is the term used to describe their descendants who today speak a Turkic language variant and live in Iraq and other countries in the region). 

Just as Muslims had once had the opportunity to establish their empire in the vacuum opened up by Sassanid and Byzantine wars, now the Ottomans would drive right into the gap created by Mongol and Mamluk conflict. (The Mamluks' empire being centred around Egypt and Syria).

Not that their rise went uncontested. In 1401, Timur-leng, who that same year had 90,000 heads assembled into towers outside Baghdad, also captured the Ottoman sultan Bayezid. 

But he didn’t resort to decapitation this time. Instead, Bayezid was dragged off, encaged and forced to watch his favourite wife serve Timur… after she’d been stripped naked. 

The Ottoman tide kept rising though and by 1453 Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople, made it his capital and thus finally ended the Byzantine empire.  

Yeni Cami and Eminönü bazaar, Constantinople, Turkey, ca. 1895 by Library of Congress
Constantinople in 1895, with Byzantine-inspired Ottoman architecture evident (image: Library of Congress)

The years 1512 to 1520 saw Ottoman expansion into Syria and Palestine, and then also into Egypt, all under the reign of Selim I (‘the Grim’).

And in the east, the Safavids were taking over Mongol territory, now playing the role of eastern antagonist to the Ottomans, the position formerly held by the Persian Achaemenid and Sassanid empires and the Parthians, just as the Ottomans were stepping into Byzantine, Roman and before that (post-Alexander the Great) Seleucid shoes.

Yet again, the new powers also fit into existing ideological moulds of Shia-Sunni polarity (or were moulded by them). The Safavids may have started out Sufi but they became Shia because that was the branch of Islam practiced by their Turkomen military allies; and the Ottomans, who were Sunni like the vast majority of their Arab subjects, would assume the role of protectors of the holy cities Mecca and Medina after conquering the Hejaz in western Arabia. 

That also kept Iraq typecast in the role of perpetual frontier battle zone. Under Suleiman I, ‘the Magnificent’ or ‘the Lawgiver’, the Ottomans netted Baghdad and Basra in eastward expansion between 1532 and 1555. 

Suleiman also pushed right into the heart of Europe, reaching the gates of Vienna in 1529, though he failed to capture the city. (The Ottomans would launch a second unsuccessful attack in 1683).

OttomanEmpire in 1683 by Chamboz
Map of the Ottoman Empire in 1683 (image: Chamboz)
Bridge on the Drina, Visegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina by Andrić Branislav
An Ottoman bridge in the Balkans on the Drina river, seen from the Bosnia and Herzegovina side (image: Andrić Branislav)

The Safavids, of course, pushed on Ottoman boundaries from the east.

During the reign of Abbas the Great, between 1587 and 1629, the Safavids reconquered lost territory - the destruction of two great Sunni mosques in Baghdad, not to mention the slaughter of many Sunnis themselves, was what they left in their wake.

15 years later the Ottomans swept back the other way, doing much the same to the Shia.

A boundary was eventually agreed in 1639, one that basically defines Iraq’s border with Iran today, though even now Sunnis there sometimes refer to their Shia countrymen as ‘Safavids’.

And even then, the border may have held but the Ottoman Turks had no intention of sitting idle. 

During the 18th Century, they sought to engineer a demographic shift. Sunni Arab migration into Iraq was greatly encouraged, a new canal being built to facilitate irrigation and entice the new arrivals into settled farming.

It worked on many, but the Ottomans had forgotten that people are essentially malleable. The Arab settlers were soon dealing exclusively with Shia trading partners at Najaf and Karbala, bases for the granaries and markets they needed access to. 

The result was that the nomad-cum-farmers also became Sunni-cum-Shia, tipping Iraq’s population to just over 50 percent Shia by the early decades of the 20th Century.

However, the Ottomans retained tight control of Iraq administratively, leading to a pattern of Sunni-minority rule that would continue right through to Saddam Hussein.

Map of the Safavid empire by Fabienkhan
Map of the Safavid empire (image: Fabienkhan)
Ismail siege of Tabriz by Chingiz Mehbaliyev image Chingiz Mehbaliyev
Ismail I, founder of the Safavid empire, after the 1501 siege of Tabriz in northern Iran, painted by Chingiz Mehbaliyev (image: Chingiz Mehbaliyev)


In the early 1600s, the British and the Dutch both showed up in the Persian Gulf looking for trouble – not with the locals, but with their imperial competitors the Portuguese.

They soon succeeded in their goal of driving them out and established cordial ties with the Safavids in Iran and the Arab governments in what today are Bahrain and the UAE.

Basra became a base for the British East India Company – which was, after all, the whole point. The British were there to ensure their sea routes (or, we might say at that point, tea routes) to India remained open. 

The bulk of their empire, though, lay elsewhere. This is how they, and later the Americans, differed from other great powers in the area. They might get caught up in existing tensions, and even play off both sides in the Shia-Sunni/Iraq-Iran divide against one another by picking a side but they didn’t become a side. Not in the same way indigenous Asian powers had over the last 2,000 years.

Not only that, but for all the trouble the British would cause, their presence was at least initially beneficial, since the trade routes they were there to protect ended up revitalising the Iraqi economy.

In 1869 things got better still, at least for the British, when the Suez Canal opened:

"In 1875, the British took advantage of the financial woes of the Ottoman empire’s viceroy in Egypt (the Khedive Ismail ‘the Magnificent’) to purchase the Egyptian government’s share of the canal at a bargain price of only £4 million. Seven years later, in 1882, Colonel Ahmad Urabi, an Egyptian army officer, led a proto-nationalist uprising against the encroachment on Egyptian sovereignty by Britain and France, whose ‘Dual Control’ had hijacked Egypt’s economy to force the repayment of the massive debt Egypt owed them.”

‘Force the repayment’ could mean only one thing: 

“Britain dispatched a Royal Navy flotilla to bombard Alexandria and seize the canal. In the aftermath of the revolt, the British stationed troops at the canal. The ensuing howls of protest – both European and Egyptian – led the British government to offer assurances that it would soon withdraw those troops, which they finally did seventy years later in 1956."

But before that, more empire:

"Before long, the British established a protectorate over Egypt, installing their own officials in key ministries in its government. This proved an invaluable military asset when World War I broke out in 1914 and the British went to war against the Ottomans. It also spurred a growing Egyptian resentment of the British that was to play out in the mid-twentieth century, with a lasting impact on Iraq." 

By this point, Britain had already established a more cordial relationship with France when, in 1907, it buried the hatchet with Russia over Afghanistan, dividing Iran in the process. (Russia took the north, Britain the south). 

The figurehead shah (‘king’) was then convinced to sell oil exploration rights at a bargain rate. 

This was important because, at the turn of the 20th Century, Britain was getting the vast majority of its oil from the US. In 1911, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill modernised the Royal Navy so that all its ships could run on oil instead of coal. (Thousands of tons of coal were required to get a large ship across the Atlantic; oil was obviously far more user-friendly). 

The problem was that America’s aims and Britain’s weren’t always aligned. Britain needed a more dependable supplier.

So when war came in 1914, there were three key objectives in the Middle East:

a). To keep the Suez open;

b). To keep sea lanes to India open; and 

c). To keep the oil flowing from Iran.

It was the alliance forged between the Ottomans and the Germans that sent Britain to war in Iraq and Arabia, T E Lawrence tearing up the latter whilst a far larger British force was working its way up through Iraq.

Lawrence was coupled with Faisal I bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, a member of the Hashemite clan that claimed lineage from the Prophet Muhammad, who was promised his own post-war Arab region stretching from the Med to the Iranian border – he could be Britain’s caliph.

The British empire in 1921, which includes Iraq (image: Vadac)
The British empire in 1921, which includes Iraq (image: Vadac)

But after all the deals were done, the grand Arab state instead became five countries: Palestine (and later Transjordan/Jordan, and then Israel), Armenia, Anatolia, Jazirah-Iraq and Syria (and later Lebanon). 

It’s widely acknowledged that these lines on the map were drawn with scant attention paid to realities on the ground. This isn’t quite true – Iraq’s border jerks upwards to incorporate Mosul because the British rushed to take the oil-rich area before the close of the war. First things first and all that.

Almost immediately, Iraqis rose up against the British - 9,000 were killed or wounded. The British got off with 2,000 casualties, thanks to the RAF.

Bombing and strafing were then employed throughout the 20s and 30s to keep the ‘pesky natives’ in line. At one point Churchill even suggested the use of mustard gas and, prompting T E Lawrence to remark sardonically:

“Bombing the houses is a patchy way of getting the women and children, and our infantry always incur losses in shooting down the Arab men. By gas attacks the whole population of offending districts could be wiped out neatly…”

He also said in a more serious tone that:

“The Arabs rebelled against the (Ottoman) Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects…”

The solution was to put their old ally Faisal back on the throne – ‘back’ because he’d been kicked off it by the French in Syria. 

No matter, Faisal’s appointment was confirmed in a jiffy by a ‘referendum’ that saw him win an utterly preposterous 96 percent of the vote. Meanwhile his rival, a respected Basra local, was invited to tea by a British official who then had him arrested and promptly deported to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

But even with Faisal in power the Iraqi problem didn’t go away. He was, after all, just like the Ottomans before him (and Saddam Hussein after), a Sunni ruler presiding over a Shia-majority population. The RAF was a continued necessity. 

As well as hammering the locals with aircraft, Britain also blundered into the property market, or rather, it created a private market where none had formerly existed. 

The tradition was for tribal lands to be allotted communally, but the British made it legal for individual sheikhs (tribal rulers) to own land personally:

"Seldom has such cultural cluelessness birthed greater misery, or had such a massive long-term effect. The sheikhs – as well as enterprising townsmen whose ranks would come to include Baghdad’s government officials and politicians – soon carved out for themselves huge personal estates, especially in the largely Shi‘ite regions of the south. With the possibility of irrigating thousands more acres with newly developed motorized pumps, these new landowners were positioned for a bonanza.”

Madrasah of Baghdad from middle ages by David Stanley
Baghdad today, with the Madrasah of Baghdad dating to the Middle Ages in the foreground and the Central Bank of Iraqi behind (image: David Stanley)

Robertson points out that the “statistics tell the story plainly”:

“Whereas in 1913 only 937,000 acres were under cultivation, in thirty years that acreage had mushroomed to 4,242,000; and by 1958 one percent of the country’s landowners held fifty-five percent of all its private land. As they grew wealthy, many of the sheikhs headed for the attractions of city life, leaving behind thousands of tenants, sharecroppers, and landless laborers upon whom the absentee landlords set hired managers who sucked mercilessly from them the profits of their labor… The need to address their misery has played an immense role in shaping Iraq’s politics and social tensions ever since." 

By now realising what a terrible mess the British had got themselves into, and not trusting Faisal to protect their interests, Churchill now suggested they just leave. But David Lloyd George, Liberal PM from 1916 through 1922, simply countered: 

“If we leave, we may find a year or two after we have that we have handed over to the French and Americans some of the richest oilfields in the world.”

He missed a country - the US, French and the Dutch all remained intensely focused on the region, with the Americans striking a deal in 1933 with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud to give Standard Oil of California a 60-year oil concession. 

The following year, British and American firms got a deal to form the Kuwait Oil Company next door.

Another important concession won by the British in 1930 was the right to keep military forces in Iraq, even after their imperial rule officially ended in 1932. 

This became crucial during the Second World War, what with the Italians and Germans now threatening North Africa and the Middle East. 

The Iraqis though weren’t going to play ball. Things may have been working out just fine for Britain with the anti-military, Anglo-leaning Nuri al-Said in power as PM, but the average Iraqi was alienated by his close association with a foreign power, particularly one that was supporting Jewish settlement building in Palestine. (As well as being angered by his British-inspired love of rich tribal land owners).

The tables turned in 1941 when Nuri was replaced by the anti-British nationalist leader Rashid Ali al-Gailani, who not only sympathised with Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husseini (an anti-Zionist) but also with Hitler.

Britain promptly removed Rashid (with the support of Iraq’s Shias), but the Iraqi army were having none of it and reinstalled him, leading the British to invade Basra. 

They, in turn, reinstalled the monarchy, and Nuri as PM, and a purge of Arab nationalists from the military (and elsewhere) followed. 200 Jews in Baghdad were massacred in a reprisal and their population would soon drop from 117,000 to a few thousand. Robertson laments:

“Thus came to an end the vibrant community of Babylonian Jewry, which for 2,500 years had been a vital component of both Iraq’s history and culture and the development of Judaism.”


In the aftermath of World War 2, Nuri al-Said’s grand ambition was to make Iraq and himself the leader of the Arab world. His adversary was Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, who wanted exactly the same thing for his country, which he aimed to make a beacon of pan-Arab nationalism (this was a movement to reunify Arab countries). 

To have a fighting chance, Nuri had to manage a careful balancing act within his own country between interests represented by two groups – the IPC on one hand, and the ICP on the other.

The IPC were the Iraqi Petroleum Company – the British, in other words, whose support Nuri required in order to supply the most up-to-date weaponry to members of his military (many of whom disliked his closeness to us). 

On the other side of the scales was the Iraqi Communist Party (the ICP), which was clamouring for economic development and complaining about the under-exploiting of the oil fields by the IPC/British. 

Inspired by Iran and Venezuela, Nuri had partially nationalised Iraqi oil, and it was his British partners the communists accused of having failed to fully extract oil to meet not just Britain’s commercial needs but Iraq’s development ones - investment in irrigation and infrastructure, food, education and medical provision were all vitally important. Life expectancy for an Iraqi peasant was only 39.

Nuri soon figured out a formula, one that would also prove its use later: Use oil profits to buy off the public, and the technologically upgraded military to eliminate opposition.

But the perception of Nuri as a British lackey eventually caught up with him when, in 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt after Nassar nationalised the Suez canal

Formerly angry Arab nationalists now became positively apoplectic - riots started and martial law was imposed. But nationalist rage had, as mentioned, also been festering for years in the military. 

Iraqi crowds watch a news announcement about the end of King Faisal II’s reign in 1958 (image: Library of Congress)
Iraqi crowds watch a news announcement about the end of King Faisal II’s reign in 1958 (image: Library of Congress)

This culminated, in 1958, with the military overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy. King Faisal II and much of his family were shot and when Nuri was caught trying to escape under women’s clothing he too was killed. 

His body was dragged through the streets and mutilated, one of his fingers later presented to Nasser in Egypt (who is said to have been disgusted by it).

Robertson reflects on the fact that Britain’s involvement in and shaping of the Iraqi monarchy had been a perfect example of (relatively) good intentions having gone awry:

“It had been created in the image of a British model of constitutional government, and its leaders had hoped that it might become an independent, truly self-governing Arab nation-state. But it had been forced to keep itself propped up by its Western patrons, and its aspirations to parliamentary democracy had been kept in thrall to a narrow traditional elite of urban notables and landowners, most of them Sunni Arabs, who were motivated more by greed and the interests of their family or clan than by an impulse to serve the public good or build a nation. In the process, they alienated most of their Shi‘ite and Kurdish fellow citizens. The regime was terminated at the hands of what now became the dominant elements of Iraqi politics: the military, and Arab nationalism."


The military, in this case, meant Brigadier General Abdul Karim Qasim, the new PM and commander-in-chief. 

His tenure didn’t last long.

When he tried to help the rural poor he infuriated landlords; when he tried to advance women’s rights he angered religious leaders. 

His republic also descended into civil war with the Kurds who were, ironically in the light of more recent events, allied at that point with the Baathists – the party of Saddam Hussein, who himself became involved in a failed assassination plot against Qasim. 

The reason was that Baathists opposed his Iraqi-focused nationalism and resulting lack of interest in pan Arabism. (Ironically, Saddam became partially pan-Arab when he was in power).

As mentioned above, there was a struggle on for leadership of the Arab world, and that meant the pan-Arab movement, as well as a struggle within Iraq for the right kind of nationalism:

"Pan-Arabism focused on the ancient greatness of the Arab peoples, with allusions to the nobility, valor, and hardiness of the pre-Islamic Arabs as well as the imperial and cultural heights the Arabs had reached under the Abbasids of Baghdad. Iraq-centrist nationalism… plumbed Iraq’s history more deeply (and emphasized) the greatness of the pre-Arab civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia.”

One aspect of Qasim’s Iraqi nationalism was his claim to a border region of Iran known as Khuzistan. This was also known as ‘Arabistan’ and was to become the imagined nation state desired by the Iranian Embassy hostage-takers shot dead by the SAS in 1980.  

Qasim was also shot dead, eventually overthrown by the Baathists with the assistance of the CIA. According to Robert Fisk:

“Qassim was taken to the radio station in Baghdad and murdered. His bullet-riddled body was then shown on television, propped up on a chair as a soldier laughingly kicked its legs.”

A military dictatorship kept the Baathists out of power until 1968 when they themselves established a dictatorship under Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and his lieutenant, Saddam Hussein.

With some not so subtle arm-twisting, he managed to work his way to the top:

“…when President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Saddam’s cousin, retired (in 1979, there followed an) infamous dinner party at the presidential palace at which Saddam invited his own party cadres to denounce themselves. The execution of his Baathist colleagues began within days.”

He soon found himself an ally of the US, as well as Britain and France. The reason was his going to war with Iran in 1980, a conflict that began as a relatively minor border dispute and then blew up in his face, as Robertson explains:

"The Iran–Iraq War featured tactics and weaponry with which the West had become all too familiar in the two World Wars: ferocious tank and infantry battles, trench warfare, waves of foot soldiers mowed down by machine-gun fire, artillery shelling and aerial bombardment of major population centers, and attacks on merchant shipping. The Iranians countered the Iraqi superiority in weaponry with human-wave attacks that involved unarmed adolescents, carrying keys that they were assured would unlock for them the gates of paradise, who marched into withering Iraqi gunfire, setting off Iraqi land mines and thus blazing a path for the Iranian infantry."

Both sides utilised propaganda – whilst Khoumeini’s had a religious nature Saddam Hussein’s was nationalistic, portraying modern Iraqis as the genetic and cultural heirs of Mesopotamia’s glorious past:

"In 1982, to the dismay of archaeologists across the world, he reconstructed ancient Babylon, rebuilding the palace of Nebuchadnezzar with bricks stamped with the declaration, ‘In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilization and rebuilt Babylon’."

The ruins of ancient Babylon seen from Saddam Hussein’s palace
The ruins of ancient Babylon seen from Saddam Hussein’s palace

He also incorporated an image of an Assyrian winged bull into the Iraqi currency and had himself “depicted in the warlike image of one of the all-conquering Assyrian kings, shooting arrows from the back of a chariot.

As mentioned, the mantle of pan Arabism also fell into Saddam’s lap. 

After he succeeded Nasser in Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat launched a war to retake the Sinai peninsula, lost to Israel in the 1967 war.

He succeeded but was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981 for having then agreed to a peace treaty.

That left Iraq as the primary centre, and by default Saddam Hussein as the primary leader, of anti-Israeli pan Arabism. 

Despite all this, and the Iran-Contra affair aside, recall that the US, Britain and France were supporters of Hussein at this time, largely because he provided a bulwark against Iran:

"During the war, the U.S. provided Iraq with satellite-derived military intelligence, sold Iraq trucks and helicopters, and provided Iraq agricultural credits for food exports, thereby freeing up money to buy more weapons. A British company built Saddam a chemicals-production plant, and the U.S. also provided Iraq with biological agents (including agents for anthrax and botulinum) that could be applied to weapons development."

Naturally, this all makes the WMD rationale for the 2003 war seem a bit hypocritical.

Realpolitik aside, it’s well known that Saddam’s regime was truly awful for the Iraqi people. 

We are reminded just how awful by Robert Fisk, who details the grisly atrocities that were carried out in Saddam’s torture chambers: Electric shocks; the burning off of toes and genitals; the drilling of holes in arms and legs (including bones) as well as slicing them off with an electric saw; and the dissolving of hands and feet, and sometimes an entire person, in acid.

There was psychological torture, endured by one woman with a son, daughter and baby:

“…an officer came and told the woman: ‘Tell me where your husband is –very bad things can happen’. She said: ‘Look, my husband takes great pride in the honour of his woman. If he knew I was here, he would have turned himself in’. The officer took out his pistol and held the daughter up by the braids of her hair and put a bullet into her head. The woman didn’t know what was happening. Then he put a bullet into the boy’s head. The woman was going crazy. He took the youngest boy by the legs and smashed the baby’s brain on a wall. You can imagine the woman. The officer told the young prisoner to bring the rubbish trolley and put the three children in it, on top of the garbage, and ordered the woman to sit on the bodies. He took the trolley out and left it. The officer had got into the habit of getting rid of people who were worthless.”

Depressingly, Fisk’s descriptions of torture under Iran’s Shah (who was brought to power by a British-CIA coup) aren’t all that different.

As well his western supporters, Iraq also received assistance from adjacent Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. His Baathists may have been secular, but they were still Arab and Sunni affiliated, and if they were fighting the ‘hated Shia Persians’ in Iran that was good enough for OPEC to open the floodgates on oil production.

The result of this was that Iran’s economy was hammered. This also affected the Gulf States, but Iran was at war and isolated – Iraq, given loans by the likes of Saudi Arabia, was able to ride out the storm. (Though counter-intuitively, Iraq ended up in debt post conflict whilst Iran did not).

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of what had occurred in the 1970s. Following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, OPEC had placed an embargo on the supply of oil in anger at US support of Israel. Nationalisation of oil fields within OPEC countries also meant they could charge enough to fund national development. This allowed for rapid modernisation and caused a huge exodus to the cities, where the jobs and development were centred. 

Ruined villages Saudi Arabia 1
Ruin village Saudi Arabia 2
A rural village abandoned in the 1970s when people were drawn to the cities; I saw the ruins whilst teaching English in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia - like Iraq, the KSA had rapid development when oil prices went up (images: writer’s collection)

The 80s witnessed the opposite phenomenon. Plunging prices vastly aided western economies. A barrel of oil dropped from a high of over $35 per barrel in 1980 ($104 in 2008 money) to a lowest point of less than $10 in 1986 ($22 in 2008).


Plunging oil prices may have helped Iraq during the 1980-88 war with Iran, but they soon hurt it afterwards. 

Saddam Hussein was expecting his creditors – including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – to forgive his debt. It was only fair, he reasoned, in order to demonstrate their gratitude for his having beaten down the Iranian threat to the passage of their oil onto world markets. They may have propped him up with money but with weak militaries it wasn’t as if they could have held off Iran themselves.

Their collective refusal angered him greatly.

His ire became focused on Kuwait in particular for two reasons.

Firstly, he accused the country of exceeding its OPEC quota for oil production. This would continue to depress the price of oil and make it harder for Iraq to recover economically from the war with Iran. 

Secondly, he charged that they were ‘slant’ drilling – extracting oil diagonally from under Iraq’s border.

The New York Times reported at the time that slant drilling charge could not be proven, though Saddam was right about one thing: Kuwait was exceeding its OPEC quota.

When he finally invaded Kuwait in 1990, a former British protectorate he felt was justly Iraq’s anyway, there was reason to be confident. He apparently thought the US would not stop him, and had even acquiesced: 

"That April, a visiting Congressional delegation had assured Saddam of the U.S.’s goodwill. Indeed, one senator blamed Saddam’s public-relations troubles on the ‘spoiled and conceited’ media in the West. In late July, as his troops were massing at the border with Kuwait, Saddam met with the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, who assured him of President George H. W. Bush’s friendship and informed him that the United States had no opinion concerning inter-Arab issues. America had sided with him against Iran and professed a desire for closer relations with Iraq."

NPR has reported that this is denied by former president Bush and the ambassador.

Naturally, the war was a disaster for Iraq. As well as the thousands that were killed, following uprisings in the south, up to 2 million were driven into the countryside. (Iraq’s population at the time was only around 16,000,000). 

Whilst those who had found themselves in the marshes of what was ancient Sumer were nurtured by the region’s water supply, in 1991 Saddam built canals to divert water away from the area, creating huge numbers of refugees. So much for rekindling the greatness of Mesopotamia.

The Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad, built to commemorate Saddam’s ‘victory’ in the Gulf War
The Umm al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad, built to commemorate Saddam’s ‘victory’ in the Gulf War
American F-16 and F-15 jets during Operation Desert Storm
American F-16 and F-15 jets during Operation Desert Storm

Likewise, Kurdish victims of reprisal faced much the same in the north of the country. 

No-fly zones were established to prevent further harm, and efforts were made to get food and tents to the refugees.

The US also sought to contain Iraq by placing troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. This intrusion of foreign ‘infidels’ on the soil of the ‘holy land’ was one of the grievances behind the 9-11 attacks.

Another issue with containment was sanctions. As it turns out, ‘Operation Desert Fox’ in 1998 largely crippled Iraq’s weapons programs – and far more effectively than was realised at the time. But the blunt instrument of sanctions might still have been used to justify at least some level of military intervention (or, at the very least, a diplomatic rethink). 

That’s because sanctions were a slow-motion catastrophe for the Iraq people, as Robertson makes clear:

"As Iraq’s water, sanitation, power-generation, and medical systems became increasingly dilapidated and dysfunctional, disease and malnutrition felled thousands of Iraqis, including, by some estimates, 880,000 Iraqi children under five years of age."

Putting this in wider perspective, he says:

"Between the onset of Iraq’s war with Iran in 1980 and the departure of the last American combat troops at the end of 2011, Iraq was devastated. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed or maimed, millions more were forced into external exile or refugee status inside their country, and most of those still living in the country were reduced to a Third World standard of living. As of 2010, to cite the British journalist Patrick Cockburn, Iraq was “recovering from 30 years of dictatorship, war and sanctions, and the recovery is grindingly slow and incomplete because the impact of the multiple disasters to strike Iraq after 1980 was so great…Iraq has never recovered from these catastrophes.”

And an even broader summation might be this: That, for the first 7,000 years of its existence, Mesopotamia’s geography proved advantageous. It birthed not only multiple internal empires but civilisation itself. 

Then, for the last 2,500 years, it has been betrayed by that same geography and ended up in a kind of on-going historical crossfire – always the frontier and battleground between and within external empires. One can only hope that this curse will be lifted one day. (Unfortunately, as the video below strongly suggests, this probably won’t happen any time soon).

If the west wishes to avoid subjecting the country to any further unnecessary turmoil, we must also be better attuned to Iraq’s present.

The perceived threat of WMDs was obviously pivotal in launching the 2003 war. Given present circumstances, it’s clear that, at the very least, it should have been delayed and thought through far more carefully, or avoided altogether. 

Yet, that ‘threat’ proved to be unnecessarily catalytic: 

"Unsurprisingly, Saddam’s government did not welcome… intrusive (weapons) inspections, nor was their credibility bolstered when it was discovered that the U.S. had planted C.I.A. agents in the inspection teams. Saddam had in fact decided to destroy these weapons stocks, as well as dismantle his embryonic nuclear weapons program, shortly after the (Gulf) war had ended.”

And here was our error: 

“But, fearful that Iran’s leaders might vengefully take advantage of Iraq’s weakened state, he chose not to publicize this. Saddam’s silence was to have almost apocalyptic consequences for his country eleven years later."

Article produced with the kind assistance of Professor John Robertson

For more, read ‘Iraq: A History’ by John Robertson, ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ by Robert Fisk or ‘Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilzation’ by Paul Kriwaczek for a look at Iraq’s ancient past.

Visit Osprey Publishing for illustrated military histories and read ‘Mamluk ‘Askari 1250-1517’ and ‘Saladin’, both by David Nicolle, for more on specific topics mentioned in this article.

How Iraq continues to be caught between conflicting neighbouring powers today

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