It is perfectly reasonable for Iraqi nationalists and patriots to demand that their country be free of foreign interference and patronage. This has been most vocalised in relation to corrupt governance amid increased political influence from neighbouring Iran but also perceptions of Iraq as a client state of the US. While these grievances are understandable, whether it is actually plausible for Iraq to be “free” is another thing altogether. This is so, because uncomfortable as it may sound, since its modern history as a nation-state, Iraq has never really been an independent country.
In fact, one would have to go as far back in pre-modern history to the Abbasid caliphate (750 CE-1258 CE) based in the region corresponding to “Iraq” which was truly autonomous. However, even the Abbasid rulers were eventually reduced to being symbolic powers in name only, with real authority ceding to dominant regional emirs and viziers such as the Persian Buyids and the Seljuk Turks, the consequence of the Abbasid decline starting from the mid-ninth century.
After a series of invasions and dynastic rulers, from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries Iraq and especially Baghdad would change hands between the rival Ottoman and Safavid empires and would in effect serve as a buffer zone between the respective Sunni and Shia powers of the Middle East. When the Ottomans recaptured Baghdad and most of Iraq from the Safavids for the second time in 1638, it would never again be under Persian control, remaining under Ottoman control until it fell under British governance in 1918 during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the First World War. The last century therefore, represented a hiatus from the historical pattern of Turkish and Iranian competition for pre-eminence in Iraq.
— Mohammad Ali Musawi (@malimusawi) November 6, 2019
Faced with revolts across the country against the proposed British Mandate for Mesopotamia in 1920, a Kingdom of Iraq was established a year later under the British-installed foreign King Faisal, with power concentrated on the minority Sunni educated elite, as had been the case under the Ottomans. Yet the supposed “independence” of the kingdom from Britain would occur later in 1932 in the form of the Hashemite Kingdom. This did not mean it was a sovereign nation as Britain, which had intervened during World War II over a pro-Nazi coup in 1941, reinstated King Faisal. The kingdom lasted until the 1958 military coup that violently disposed of the monarchy and cemented Iraq as a republic and marked the end of British influence in the country.
A leader of the 14 July revolution, Colonel Abd Al-Karim Qasim became the republic’s first Prime Minister and was arguably modern Iraq’s first independent leader. Despite becoming authoritarian, he is looked upon nostalgically by many Iraqis to this day over his strong nationalist stance opposing Pan-Arabism, and his social reforms that raised standards of living and encouraged ethnic and religious tolerance.His decision to withdraw from the pro-Western Baghdad Pact in favour of forging closer ties with the Soviet Union and rely heavily on the support of the Iraqi Communist Party, however, soon led to his downfall, spurred on by resentment by pan-Arabists and the outbreak of a Kurdish revolt. None were more concerned than the US, who by now had assumed a greater interest in the region at the height of the Cold War. The CIA plotted to assassinate Qasim, and carried out a failed attempt in 1959, among their assets was a young Saddam Hussein from a group of five other Baathists. Qasim would be toppled and executed in 1963 following the suspected CIA-backed Baathist coup.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein in 1979 witnessed nationalisation of foreign oil interests, developing one of the largest militaries in the world while balancing relations between the US and the Soviets. Crucially, he also formally came to power after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, initiating the Iran-Iraq War the following year. Once again, Iraq served as a buffer zone of sorts, this time, supported by both the West and Gulf sheikhdoms, as a Sunni bulwark against the threat of Iran exporting its revolution in the region. Saddam was once considered an ally of the US, who he believed gave him the green light to invade Kuwait, yet he too would be disposed of in an illegal internationally-backed invasion, in violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. In the first time in its modern history, power shifted towards the Shia-majority, and the government aligned itself with Iran, which both welcomed Saddam’s removal and saw an opportunity to exert its own influence in the country, although domestically it had widened pre-existing sectarian rifts with the Sunni minority this time being marginalised.
“No to Iran, no to America” say signs and chants in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square as crowds start to swell. Protesters say they are fed up of their country being someone else’s battlefield. “We deserve to live in peace,” says 21 year old Zahraa. pic.twitter.com/9lqdvunAwE
— Louisa Loveluck (@leloveluck) January 10, 2020
It is the issue of sovereignty and Iraq’s weakness as a state that has been a persistent feature of the post-2003 era. For instance, Turkey and Iran have frequently carried out air strikes against Kurdish militia in the north with little repercussions. The emergence of, and lingering presence of Daesh, which at its peak controlled 40 per cent of Iraqi territory. That said, it was also due in large part to Iran’s support through the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), that Daesh was territorially defeated and prevented from reaching Baghdad and important Shia shrine cities in the south. There is also the question as to why the US has an embassy compound larger than the Vatican in Baghdad’s Green Zone, the world’s largest.
Recent events show us that Iraq is still not an independent state since gaining independence and is still highly vulnerable to foreign meddling in its affairs, last month’s brazen drone assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is a case in point.
There appears to be some changes on the horizon following the news that the political bloc led by nationalist Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has been declared the winner in October’s disputed parliamentary election. The second largest bloc, consisting of powerful pro-Iran factions had claimed voter fraud after having emerged as the election’s biggest losers. After Al-Sadr’s meeting yesterday with an umbrella of rival Shia parties who contested the results, he indicated on Twitter that the next majority Iraqi government will be free of foreign interference. If this turns out to be true, it would be unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.