The State of Iraq was the product of the British will to control, after the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of first world war, the rich oil resources of Mesopotamia located in the former Ottoman provinces of Basra in the South and of Mosul in the North. According to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the former was to be put under the control of the United Kingdom together with the province of Baghdad, while the latter was supposed to be under French influence, as Syria. But the “fait accompli” of the British military occupation of Mosul in 1918 obliged France to accept, with some compensations in the field of oil exploitation, the provisions of the Treaties of San Remo and Lausanne and the following decisions by the League of Nations according to which the province of Baghdad with a mix of Sunni-Arab and Shia-Arab population, the province of Mosul with Sunni-Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Jewish (at that time), Christians and others, and the province of Basra, overwhelmingly Shia, were united within the British mandate of Iraq.
With a king of the Hashemite dynasty, the new country became formally independent in 1932 but under the strong influence and military presence of the United Kingdom. British oil companies, already well established in Iran, had thus the upper hand in Iraq, with some room left to French, American and Italian ones. American companies signed contracts with the new neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Saudi dynasty which had evicted some years before the Hashemites from the Holy places of Mecca and Medina. It was discovered that in this country oil reserves were larger than those in Iraq.
During the British mandate and after, the power in Iraq was essentially based on Sunni-Arab tribal leaders, many of them army officers, and on few Shia landlords of the fertile agricultural region around the Southern courses of Tigris and Euphrates.
At the beginning the opposition to British control was essentially from Southern Shias and Kurds, the latter deprived of the statehood promised by the Treaty of Sevres and then definitely excluded by the Treaty of Lausanne. But despite the heterogeneous nature of the country, the Arab component in particular developed a national sentiment which turned against the British presence and control of natural resources, as it was happening in other mainly artificial colonial entities around the world. This sentiment, strong especially in urban elites and army officers, was exploited by the Axis powers which supported an anti-British military coup in 1941 and a short lived proxy government in Baghdad.
After the second world war, amid recurrent disputes with foreign companies on oil revenues, Iraq became a member of CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation or Baghdad Pact) together with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, and therefore of the system of containment of the Soviet Union on its southern flank.
But nationalist and “socialist” feelings which shook the Arab world, starting with the Egyptian army uprising in 1952 and the seizure of power by Nasser in 1954, had an important hotbed in Iraq, where “Nasserist” officers overthrew the monarchy in 1958 with the support of the Communist Party (the strongest in the Middle East), of the rival nationalist Baath Party and of Kurdish movements. In the meantime, after the unfortunate Anglo-French Suez expedition in 1956, the role of major Western power in the area was taken by the United States at the expenses of the two former European colonial powers.
Baathist rule and Saddam Hussein adventurism
After further coups in 1963 and 1968, Baathist officers took power in Iraq. And among them Saddam Hussein took in 1979 the overall control of the party, of the army and of the state. He then followed a foreign policy of shrewd balance between the Soviet Union and Western powers, with a strong anti-Israeli stance.
Baathists launched bloody repressions of opponents which hit in particular Kurds and Shias. The latter not because of their religious affiliation, which at that time, before the Iranian revolution, had little political relevance, but because it was mainly in the Shia south that the communists had their major constituencies, focused on oil and port workers and technicians around Basra, sedentary agricultural labourers in large estates in the fertile areas and in the University of Nasiriya.
As an alternative to republican, nationalist and socialist forces of various kinds which had taken power in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Libya and were spreading in the whole Arab world, support from oil rich Gulf monarchies went to Sunni Islamist movements among which those inspired by the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, the same of the Saudi establishment. This support increased after the Shia Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. The new Islamic Republic of Iran was in turn supporting Shia political movements in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, and it was increasingly perceived as a major threat especially by countries with notable Shia populations.
Saddam Hussein thought that with weapons coming from East and West and the explicit or tacit support from Gulf countries it was the right time to attack Iran in order to solve territorial disputes and affirm Iraqi power in the region. Its adventure failed and the country entered into an increasing economic decline. Making another huge miscalculation, while the Cold War was at the end, he then invaded Kuwait in 1990. It was too much, and a coalition led by the United States including Western and Arab countries re-established the international legality. A weak Iraq under embargo but still ruled by Saddam Hussein as an obstacle to a new political settlement based on the Shia majority and with good relations with Iran was considered an acceptable solution by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, both in geopolitical terms and for their interests as major oil exporters.
The US led intervention and its consequences
The last phase of the Soviet Union brought other developments. The jihadist forces which had been supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan turned against the West. And it was from these groups that emerged Al Qaeda. The response by the Bush Administration to the attack on the United States on the 11th of September 2001 included the occupation of Iraq and the demise of Saddam Hussein, who was not however involved in the attacks. UK and few other countries joined immediately the Americans. Others, like Italy and Japan, responded positively to the request by the United Nations after the fall of Saddam Hussein to support the institutional and security reconstruction of Iraq.
The aim of the US intervention, which produced a rift within NATO and the EU, was to establish a democratic Iraq as the focus of a new order in the Middle East linked to the West. The outcome was quite different. The Arab countries, as well as Turkey, were not comfortable with a regime change imposed by outside powers and considered that an Iraqi government based on majority rule would have been under the control of Shia Islamic parties, in alliance with Kurds, supported by Iran. This was what actually happened. Moreover, an extremely rigid implementation of the de-Baathification brought to the dissolution of the army, of the security structure and of most of the public administration, and therefore to the substantial disenfranchising of a large part of Sunni-Arabs. They joined an armed opposition to foreign occupation led by stay-behind Baathists and jihadists forces. The latter had thus the opportunity to penetrate in Iraq exploiting the Sunni-Arab discontent.
After having boycotted the Constitutional Assembly elections, Islamic Sunni parties took part to the general elections in December 2005 and joined the institutions. But despite having ministers in the government and nominally important posts in other bodies, their participation to the control of resources and security was marginal. In the same situation was a rather consistent gathering of secular forces, from communists to liberals, led by the former Head of the first Provisional Government, Ayad Allawi. The Kurds had obtained an almost full autonomy of their region (KRG-Kurdistan Regional Government). And despite different views among them they established growing economic and political relations with Turkey. The fate of disputed areas with mixed populations around KRG including the rich oil area of Kirkuk and the management of oil revenues remained however a dangerous open issue with the central government.
Iran on one side and Arab countries on the other did not respectively encourage the inclusion of Sunni-Arabs in the real power system and the acceptance that the hegemonic rule of Sunni elites could not be restored.
In 2007 a change in the American policy, implemented on the ground by general Petraeus with an hesitating approval by prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, led to the rejection of Al Qaeda and Baathists by relevant Sunni-Arab tribes with the perspective of the inclusion of their fighters into the army and security forces. At the same time NATO decided to launch a training mission of the National Police conducted by the Italian Carabinieri with positive results. It was at the request of the Iraqi Government which considered positively the multilateral framework of NATO.
The rise and decline of the “Islamic State” and the problems ahead
However, the promise of inclusion was not fulfilled by Maliki in its second mandate, while the role of the coalition forces was progressively reduced according to the expiring limitations of sovereignty and mandates of Security Council Resolutions, up to the total withdrawal at the end of 2011. The prime minister sectarian policies produced increasing tensions with Sunni-Arab and even Kurdish parties.
And the events in Syria, together with the growing discontent of the Sunni population, favoured the establishment and the expansion in relevant areas of both countries, including Mosul, of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS), issued from jihadist groups which had received supports coming in various ways from some Gulf Countries in opposition to Shia militias supported by Iran. The most effective resistance to the horrific expansion of IS came from Shia militias in central Iraq and from Kurdish Peshmergas in the north. Turkey did not put obstacles to their action, considering its good relations with KRG, as instead hampered the PYD Peshmergas in Syria, allegedly linked to PKK. The resistance to IS gave however the opportunity to Iraqi Kurds to occupy disputed areas including Kirkuk.
Western support (logistics, training and air cover) to the reorganized Iraqi army and the Peshmergas, as well as Iranian support to Shia militias have progressively reduced the territory controlled by IS. Arab-Sunni militias are again on the ground and the Iraqi government, with Western advice, is careful in deploying Shia forces in liberating Sunni areas because it wants to avoid retaliatory violence that could jeopardise the re-establishment of peace in the area. Prime Minister Heider Al Abadi, in charge since the resignation of Maliki in 2014 supported by both the United States and Iran, is well aware of the relevance of this point.
But in preparation for the announced final battle for Mosul, the fact that all forces on the ground have their own agenda is a source of concern. An agreement on power sharing based on citizenship without ethnical and sectarian (religious) attempts to dominate others in specific areas is necessary. The rights of all minorities in those areas should be guaranteed in a sustainable and credible way. Particularly critical will be the issue of disputed areas now occupied by Peshmergas, in addition to the divisions among the different components of the Kurdish polity with their complex relations with regional powers and other political forces in Baghdad. The issue of hydrocarbon management will continue to be key. The fact that the parliament has approved in August at least a number of new ministers proposed by Abadi, including the minister of Oil, in order to give more effectiveness and honesty to its cabinet, is a positive sign, but there is still a long way to go.
As it has been the case especially since the demise of Saddam Hussein the role of regional powers will be crucial. It has to be seen if Iran will be ready to accept the full inclusion of Sunni-Arabs and if Saudi Arabia will encourage the latter to cooperate with Shias components for the stabilisation of Iraq, letting this country be again at the top of hydrocarbons producers and exporters. It remains also to be seen if Turkey will accept the KRG expansion in oil rich disputed areas, opposed by Iraqi Arabs, within the framework of its overall Kurdish policy. For economic and geopolitical reasons Turkey should have a strategic interest in the full stabilisation of Iraq. But unfortunately developments in the whole region leave many questions open.
Maurizio Melani – former Ambassador of Italy to Iraq