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Posted on Jun 26, 2014 in Front Page Features, War College

Shadows of World War I Continue to Haunt Modern Iraq

Shadows of World War I Continue to Haunt Modern Iraq

By Peter Suciu

The shots that ran out in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and ignited the First World War still echo today. It would have been impossible for early 20th century politicians, who could hardly see how the assassination of Austrian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, would result in a war between the great powers, could possibly have foreseen the impact their decisions would have on events 100 years later.

Yet, as the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is marked this month news media have fixated on a situation— the impending civil war in Iraq—that was created in no small part by decisions made during and immediately after World War I. It is easy for today’s political pundits and news commentators to look back no farther than the US–led 2003 invasion that removed Saddam Hussein from power and see that action as responsible for creating the situation. Yet predictions were made even before Operation Iraqi Freedom was initiated that the nation would likely fall into armed conflict as soon as a power vacuum ensued in the wake of Saddam’s removal. (SeeNew State Department Releases on the ‘Future of Iraq’ Project.”—Editor )


However, to truly understand the situation we must consider the founding of modern Iraq in the aftermath of the Great War—which we today, of course, know as the First World War. While that conflict is remembered for the trench warfare on the Western Front of France and Belgium, it was truly a global conflict or “world war.” Among the many sideshows was the British campaign in Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then known.

For the record, the Arabic name for the region—Iraq—had been in use since the 6th century, but historically it only referred to the plains south of the Hamrin Mountains and did not include the northernmost and westernmost parts of what is today modern Iraq. As with so many post–World War I nations, the modern borders of Iraq seem to have been drawn based on natural boundaries or on what seemed like a fair compromise. In the case of modern-day Iraq, what may have been a compromise created lasting problems.

The Ottomans and Mesopotamia
The British invaded the region we know as Iraq today just after the Ottoman Turks joined the Great War in November 1914. It was the far-flung eastern edge of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the region since conquering it in the 16th century. Even at the outset of the 20th century the area was not under complete Ottoman control. While it was “Ottoman territory” on a map in Constantinople, to those who guarded the towns and villages it was much more like the American “Wild West” of the 19th century where some areas weren’t technically pacified, and none of it was truly Ottoman.

The situation leading up the Great War also needs to be considered to understand Iraq.

The Ottoman Empire had become “the sick man of Europe” and throughout the 19th century it was apparent to the European great powers the once-grand empire wasn’t long for this world. Alliances of Europe shifted—with France allying with Russia and then Great Britain joining that camp—and this changed the dynamics in Central Asia.

Throughout the 19th century Russia and Great Britain took part in what has been kindly dubbed the “Great Game,” in which each tried to outmaneuver the other for control over Afghanistan and influence over Persia. Russia sought to possess a warm-water port in the south, and Russian expansion in that direction made the British fear for the jewel of the crown of their empire, India. By 1907, however, the two adversaries, along with France, had formed an alliance known as the Triple Entente, a result of changes in Europe.  After 1871 a unified Germany presented problems and fears to both France and Russia. They formed a pact later joined by Britain. The Triple Entente, which was meant to counter balance the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy, meant that the Great Game between the Russian bear and the British lion was put on hold.


Map of the Anatolian Railway. Click to enlarge.

This new situation also left the Ottomans—formerly protected by the British and to a lesser degree the French—without an ally in Europe, but they found an unlikely supporter in Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. The German ruler, grandson of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria, had long dreamt of a great empire and had bold visions for what he felt should be the future of Germany.  In his partnership with the Ottomans he looked to build the Baghdad Railway to connect Berlin to the Persian Gulf, a goal that on the surface was similar to the Russian Czar’s goal of also establishing a far-flung port to counterbalance the British in India. German banks and companies helped build the Anatolian Railway that extended from Constantinople (modern Istanbul) to Ankara and Konya. Initially the British supported the building of the railroad, as Britain was a major trading partner with Berlin, and at first there seemed little overlap in interests. However, the railroad came to be seen as a threat to British interests in Persia (modern Iran) after the discovery of oil in the region.

By the outbreak of the war the railroad was still some 600 miles from its final destination, and it had gaps that presented problems for the Turkish garrisons in Mesopotamia, which was invaded by the British in November of 1914.

The British may have expected the campaign in Mesopotamia to be quick. It was anything but. Instead of easily providing a backdoor into the Ottoman Empire it was slow going, with the British enduring a massive defeat at the city of Kut, the most humiliating of its kind in British history until the fall of Singapore in 1942. By the end of the campaign the British and commonwealth forces lost some 92,000 men; Turkish and German casualties are believed to have been well over 100,000. The British struggle in Iraq would not be the last blood to soak the sand there.

“World War I and its aftermath shaped the modern Middle East as we know it today,” said Emran El-Badawi, PhD, assistant professor of Arab Studies at the University of Houston. “The Triple Entente not only defeated the Ottoman Empire, but dismembered its vast territories in accordance with their interests. The Ottoman Empire suffered humiliating defeat and lost virtually overnight its lands in the Middle East and North Africa, which it controlled for over four hundred years.

“Its European adversaries imposed a handful of treaties and agreements along sectarian lines, and created nation states that guaranteed its native populations—Arabs, Kurds, Muslim, Christian, Sunni, Shia, Druze and others—would remain weak and divided.”

The British Mandate of Mesopotamia
When the dust of the First World War settled, tens of millions of people were dead, three dynasties—Germany, Austria and Russia—had ended, and the Ottoman Empire was abolished. Yet new kingdoms were established in the Middle East as a result of the death of Europe’s “sick man.” The Arabs, who had revolted against the Turks with British support including that of one Major (later Colonel) T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), may have expected more, including the formation of a new Arab Empire.

As a way to win Arab support during the war the British, through Lawrence, had promised independence for a united Arab state covering most of the Arab Middle East. That wasn’t to be.

Turkish prisoners behind their own barbed wire at Seddul Bahr. Ca. 1915 Dardanelles Campaign. Click to enlarge. (National Archives)

Turkish prisoners behind their own barbed wire at Seddul Bahr. Ca. 1915 Dardanelles Campaign. Click to enlarge. (National Archives)

The Ottoman Empire’s possessions on the Arabian Peninsula became the Kingdom of Hejaz and Sultanate of Nejd (now parts of Saudi Arabia), as well as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom or Yemen. However, the British and French, via a secret treaty officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement but more commonly known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, provided for spheres of influence following an allied victory in the war.

The negotiation of the treaty, which occurred between November 1915 and March 1916, was conducted by French diplomat François Georges-Picot and Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes. The Russians were a minor part of the agreement, and following the Russian Revolution the Bolsheviks exposed the treaty in October 1917. Peter Mansfield wrote in 1975 for The British Empire magazine that as a result the “British were embarrassed, the Arabs dismayed and the Turks delighted.”

This disclosure of the treaty didn’t change the course of the war, but in the end the Arabs fought and spilled blood while in the aftermath of the war Britain and France gained new territory. Instead of the word “colony” the European powers called these areas of control “mandates.”

One of these was the British Mandate for Mesopotamia, which was proposed following the end of the First World War. In 1920, however, a revolt began in Baghdad led by officers from the former Ottoman army. At the same time another anti-British rebellion began in the northern part of the region by the Kurds, who sought to gain independence.

Somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 British soldiers and pro-British Iraqis were killed, while as many as 10,000 Iraqi rebels were killed in the brief fighting. The fighting was largely contained by the end of 1920, but sporadic fighting continued for two years. The events of 90 years ago seem not that different from the fighting today.

The end result was that the Kingdom of Iraq under British Administration, also known as Mandatory Iraq, was created as a result of the 1922 Anglo-Iraq Treaty. Again, it seemed to have been drawn up by those who failed to understand the complexity of the situation. For one thing, Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashimi was chosen to be the King of Iraq, which is notable in that he was born in Mecca and grew up in Constantinople. He supported the British in the Arab Revolt during the First World War and was made King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920.

He had fostered unity between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam and worked to promote pan-Arabism. His ambitious dreams may have been too much for western powers, notably the French, who had been awarded the mandate for Syria. That led to the Franco-Syrian War, but the British found Faisal to be the ideal candidate for the British Mandate of Iraq—despite the fact that he had never ventured there and few people living in Iraq had ever heard his name. However, with British help he eventually won popular support and was the first king of a dynasty that lasted until 1958 when Faisal’s grandson King Faisal II was murdered during the July 14 Revolution that led to the formation of the Republic of Iraq.

“The British made promises – verbal agreements – to the Hashemite family of Mecca, and imported Faisal and Abdullah as foreign kings to the mandates of – Syria, and later – Iraq and the notably artificial state of Jordan,” said El-Badawi. “Iraq became the consolation prize of King Faisal who, after being promised Syria by the British, was ousted by military force in 1920 by the French, after ruling there for less than one year.”


Postcard image of Prince Faisal’s coronation as King of Iraq, Aug. 23, 1921. Click to enlarge.

Stranger in a Strange Land
While it might seem odd that the British would choose an outsider to rule Iraq to the European an outsider elevated to such a position was not uncommon. Greece, Romania and Belgium, among others, had outsiders become kings. Even Great Britain welcomed an outsider as king in 1714, George Ludwig of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Elector of Hanover. King George I, as he became known, was to the British a better choice because he was Protestant, as opposed to the Catholic James Francis Edward Stuart, son of King James II.

With this in mind, the British should have understood that religious differences could be a problem half a world away, especially as Iraq was made up of both Sunnis and Shiites—two branches of Islam that could be considered analogous to Catholics and Protestants, at least in the spilling of blood between them.

“The Hashemites were Sunnis, the dominant branch of Islam. The underclass Shiites, who constituted a majority in Iraq, plausibly suspected that the British promoted Faisal to empower their favored minority.” (Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East by Karl E. Meyer & Shareen Blair Bryasc [W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2008] Page182).

The Shiite sympathies in Iraq are now—as they were in the past—supported by Iran/Persia, while the Ottomans were in fact Sunnis. Thus it is fair to note that the Sunni dominance in Iraq certainly preceded the British.

“While this is true, the British did nothing to ameliorate the imbalance. Indeed, by their choice of a Sunni, Faisal, they perpetuated it. While Faisal would make the occasional act of obeisance to his Shiite subjects, he ruled, in effect, through a narrow Sunni Muslim clique.” (Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq by Christopher Catherwood [Barnes & Noble by arrangement with Avalon Publishing, 2004] Page 221).

Though Faisal was a Sunni he certainly no links to the tribal groups of Iraq and were it not for British support it is unlikely he would have been able to rule his new home.

“(He) was little more than a puppet ruler proposed up by the British until 1932 when Iraq gained full independence. It is little surprise that the weak monarchy there survived only another 26 years before a series of military coup d’états, resulting in the authoritarian dictatorship of the Ba’ath party and Saddam Hussein,” El-Badawi wrote.

The Kurdish Issue of Iraq
In addition to the Sunni-Shiite conflict, after the divisions and new boundaries were drawn the Kurds in the north were left without a country. They had initially been given recognition but this was taken away in 1923. Today the Kurds remain a stateless people and have been barely recognized in any country. Moreover, while the British and French may have made promises to the Hasmemites the Kurds were essentially ignored.

Council of Four of the Peace Conference.  Mr. Lloyd George; Signor Orlando; M. Clemenceau; President Woodrow Wilson.  Hotel Crillon, Paris, France.  May 27, 1919.  (National Archives)

Council of Four of the Peace Conference. Mr. Lloyd George; Signor Orlando; M. Clemenceau; President Woodrow Wilson. Hotel Crillon, Paris, France. May 27, 1919. (National Archives)

“No promises were made to the Kurds whose population straddled the new mandates, and whose numbers today – about 20-25 million – make it the single largest ethnic population in the world without a state,” said El-Badawi. “It was a divide and conquer par excellence.”

What is unique now is that as Iraq heads towards civil war the possibility exists that the Kurds could form a state in the north. So far Kurdish forces have taken the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurds have also seized control of a key border crossing and this has the potential to create a greater Kurdish state—a potential Kurdistan. The Kurds in Iraq have already been effectively autonomous since 1991 when the United States established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, but this fell far short of an actual Kurdish state.

What is unique about this situation is that some politicians in Turkey, which also has a sizeable Kurdish population, have expressed feelings that the Kurds in Iraq should have a right to self-determination. This is a major shift in Turkish policy; the Turks have long been a principal opponent of Kurdish independence.

“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the Justice and Development Party, told the Kurdish online news outlet Rudaw earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the rest of Iraq could fall into a sectarian civil war as Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL/ISIS)—the too-radical-even-for-al-Qaeda militant group—battles Iranian-supported Shiite forces for control of the country.  (See Lt. Col., ret., John Antal’s FLASHPOINTS of June 17, 2014, for more on ISIL / ISIS.—Editor)

Much of this likely would not have happened had the victors from the First World War more closely considered the religious and ethnic lines in the region.

“It was Britain and France who deliberately and purposefully introduced the problem of ‘sectarianism’ to the modern Middle East,” El-Badawi noted. “Furthermore, the latest incursions by the terrorist group known as ISIS, which was born out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, explicitly aims to unmake the region’s colonial history.”

Those who drew up the borders in the Mideast some 90 years ago called the Great War a “war to end all wars,” but their failure to consider religious and ethnic differences in that region made future wars all but inevitable .


  1. The majority of problems of the world today trace to the Great War. The arbitrary coupling of regions to form nations resulted the breakup of Yugoslavia into the nations of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina,Montenegro, and Serbia. The first three were independent nations until Austria absorbed them and Montenegro was an ally in the war until being forced into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

  2. What I have not heard discussed in this article and the plethora of other writings by Islamic and Middle East experts is a recognition of the diametrically opposing views of Islam and the West in recognizing a certain amount of freedom in religious practice is one of the crucial requirements for democracies to flourish.

  3. Over the last couple of years, he says he’s discovered it.


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