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The British Mandate of Iraq: Part V

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

iraq_flags.gifBy Joe Spring

Click here for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV 

IV. The Threat of Iraqi Nationalism

The revolt of 1920 recognized one of the few times in Iraqi history where Iraqis stood together fighting together as Iraqis.  Public sentiment expressed outrage at the allotment of mandate status attached to the disgust with the lack of Iraqi participation in the administration aided in the beginning of the revolt.  The revolt was a watershed event as it represented the first time in centuries that Shia joined with Sunnis, tribesmen from Baghdad with tribesmen from the Euphrates, and city dwellers with rural peasants to fight the British.  Led by Sharifians, tribesmen, Shia mujtahids and urban ex-civil servants the rebellion began in July of 1920.  Several anti-colonial secret societies came into existence during the years following the war.  Most notably, the secret society Haras al Istiqal (The Guardians of Independence) created a “coalition of Shia merchants, Sunni teachers and civil servants, Sunni and Shia ulama, and Iraqi officers”[1] , a group which never would have existed without the Iraqi nationalistic drive.  Arab flags were also created during the revolt as well as pamphlets which sought to unite tribesmen with urban dwellers under the banner of revolt.  Although Iraq was a foreign construct, the nationalism which swept the nation during those three months of revolt was a momentous product of the times and events of the region.
This event in Iraq’s history represents the closest the nation has ever come to establishing a shared national identity.  Most notably, especially in light of today’s horrific events, Shias and Sunnis began, for a short period, to celebrate alongside one another at religious and political events held at one another’s mosques.  Just as well, they joined one another for patriotic oratory and poetic protest against the British.  The idea of an Iraq united behind the cause of throwing off the English yoke did what today seems impossible.   The march and natural evolution towards a legitimate autonomous Iraqi state and, most importantly, a legitimate Iraqi identity appeared to be inevitable however British action quickly put a halt to these goals and helped establish a national legacy which would be written with the blood of the Iraqi people.
The revolt of 1920 held a very different meaning for the Iraqis and the British.  The revolt was not a true national uprising however it marked the first time when citizens of Iraq (British mandated Iraq) began to see themselves as Iraqis establishing a nationalist legend and consciousness as well as a belief in a true international community.  Iraqi unity frightened the British as they would not be able to manipulate and exploit a united Iraqi people.  The people of the budding Iraq had risen as one to tell the British that their presence was not needed yet the British chose to battle back to establish…. A better Iraqi nation?  Instead the British answered back with a renewed attempt to stratify, divide society, unity posed a threat to British control and economic motives.

The British consciously prevented the establishment of an Iraqi national spirit as to allow for an Iraq which was easily manipulated as without a spirit, it would take any command.   Sir Arthur Hirtzel (Head of the India Office’s Political Department) summed up British policy in Mesopotamia when he stated:

“What we want to have in existence, (he wrote) what we ought to have been creating in this time is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves:  something that won’t cost very much, which Labour can swallow consistent with its principles, but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.” [2]

Indeed, Britain would embrace this policy even when public dissent at home called for Britain to pull out of Mesopotamia. Even when the opportunity arose for the British to lighten their own financial burden the British chose to (according to many Iraqi nationalists), in the early years of the Mandate, delay Iraqi conscription which would have in turn strengthened both Iraq’s army and national unity while providing relief to Britain’s great financial load.  The British were even infamous for attempting to keep in power whoever agreed with them, supporting in 1925 a meeting of separatists who sought to do away with the newly appointed Faisal when his relations weren’t completely compliant with British wishes.  However, Faisal remained weak enough to stay loyal to the British no matter what happened.  Even the association with the British kept Iraqis at odds with one another unable to support or trust an increasingly factionalized nation.

In order to create a fragmented nation, the British had to strike at the deepest point in Iraqi society which lay in their centuries old social structure.  Already laid bare by the introduction of a capitalist economic system, the Iraqi social system was directly assaulted by the British in order to disintegrate Iraqi national fervor while at the same time strengthening the British power base.
The greatest changes in Iraqi social structure occurred during the Period of the Monarchy (1922-1958) as upper landowners and upper crust men of wealth began to rise through the ranks with the disparity between rich and poor becoming greater and greater.  Specific groups were favored by the British and such favoritism in turn created massive strife.  The tribal Sunni sheikhs were one particular favorite of the British within Iraq as Gertrude Bell, a leading policy maker within Iraq, along with the British Mandate Government had seen fit that they should determine leadership instead of the Iraqis themselves stating that:

“I don’t for a moment doubt that the final authority must be in the hands of the Sunnis, in spite of their numerical inferiority; otherwise you will have a…theocratic state, which is the very devil.”[3]

Following the British colonial trend of choosing one specific group to lead their interests within a specific region, the British had chosen the weaker, divisive tribal sheikhs to be their policy makers.  Believed to be void of the corruption caused by the Ottomans within the cities, the tribal sheikhs were seen as pure and thus pliable to British indoctrination.  Thus, the British enriched many tribal sheikhs in order to secure their fealty at the expense of the sheikhs fellow tribesmen, with Mr. Montagu stating in the British House of Commons on the 21st. of July, 1920 that:

“I am informed by the Civil Commissioner that remuneration to recognised Arab and Kurdish tribal chiefs take several forms.  Cash subsidies are given in some cases, the total amount of these is ₤244,000 per year.[4]

Through British economic and military support of the tribal sheikhs, social ties were broken and traditional social positions of trust were destroyed.   Thus, sheikhs simultaneously rose as a social and economic class while crumbling as a traditional Iraqi loyalty group.  In the new capitalistic society, money superseded tradition.  One might conclude that by making the tribal sheikhs powerful, the tribes grew in strength as well however it was quite the opposite.  The growth in monetary power of the individual sheikhs did not correspond with that of their own tribesmen. Although they grew in power, they lost the respect and allegiance of their tribesmen who were left destitute in a new class void of the safety and property which had once been provided by their local sheikh.

Along with encouraged social change came the actual enforcement of social and class change via law which, in particular targeted the divisions between the rural and urban Iraqis.  The British believed the urban populations of Iraq had been corrupted and Ottomanized as they had been closer to Ottoman control whereas the rural Iraqis were clean of Ottoman sentiment, more divided, more malleable and thus they received preferential treatment.  Accompanied by the preference of Sunnis to Shia, dying tribal power in the form of the sheikh was stressed once again and this aided in producing leading rural Sunnis, an action which would later be felt throughout not just Iraq, but the world as well.

The British attempted to stop detribalization by reinstating the eroding power of the tribal chiefs via the rejuvenated empowerment of the sheikhs by means of monetary, political and military support.  The urban elite and intelligentsia posed a threat to the British who wanted pliable, gullible subjects.  Thus, the British aided in the establishment of several laws which would keep Iraqi society reliant on the British.  As Batatu outlines: “The English, anxious to avoid costly maintenance of a large force of occupation saw in the balancing of tribesmen against townsmen the surest guarantee of the continuance of their own power.”[5]    Thus, a new tribal power structure, not even existent under the Ottomans arose, fabricated by the British just like the nation which it would go onto prop up.

Even though integration into the world market had began the process of detribalization, and to some effect, commenced the process of nationalization, the British chose instead to solidify existing dissimilarities by promoting specific tribes as well as officially recognizing customs which had never before existed and deeming them “tribal.”  Before the war had even ended, the British had already started to attempt to stop detribalization.  The British had put into law the Tribal Disputes Regulations (July 27, 1918) which solidified existing cleavages by consolidation and official recognition of the tribal customs.  Along with these came Articles 113 and 114 of the Iraqi Constitution of 1925 which excluded the countryside from national law.  Thus, two separate laws were in place, an urban law tribal law, until the July Revolution of 1958.  Most shocking were the Land Settlement Act allowed tribal leaders to register once communal tribal land in their own name, Tribal Disputes Regulation gave them judiciary rights, Peasants Rights and Duties Act (1933) forced peasants into basic serfdom binding them to their land and making it illegal for them to leave without the permission of their landlord.  Thus, the power of the tribal sheikh as well as the solidification of a constructed tribal society took place at the cost of Iraqi nationalism in order to secure British interests.


1. Metz, 34.

2. Clywd, 3-4.

3. Gertrude Bell.  The Letters of Gertrude Bell: Volume I, ed. Lady Bell (Horace Liveright Publishers: New York, 1927.), 289.

4. Hansard Debates, 21 July 1920.

5. Batatu, 24.


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