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Chibli Mallat
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century


As an Ottoman province, Iraq suffered in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the waning of Istanbul's influence and from its geographical position at the center of four major historic confluences: in the south, the desert areas were prone to the raids of Najd tribes at a time when the Wahhābīyah movement was on the rise. To the north and east, Shī῾ī Iran had proved for four centuries to be a major competitor to the Ottomans. The two Islamic powers shared their longest border in Iraq, and war between the Ottoman and Persian Empires was endemic. West and northwest, the Syrian desert and the conglomerate of the Levantine countries that formed Greater Syria constituted a millenarian rival which continued, for much of the twentieth century, the old antagonism between ῾Abbāsid Baghdad and Umayyad Damascus. North and northwest of Baghdad, Kurdish territory straddled the frontier with Turkey, the patron of Baghdad for the better part of four centuries.

This fourfold legacy continued its deep structural work through the domestic Iraqi historical prism since the constitution of Iraq in its present geographical form in 1920. The defeat of the Ottomans during World War I brought the country under British mandate until Iraq joined the League of Nations in 1932. Despite formal independence, British influence remained pervasive until the coup which destroyed the monarchy in the so‐called Revolution of 1958.

The form taken by the legacy of regional neighbors can be sketched as follows. With Turkey, a constant problem of boundaries was increased by a dispute over the sovereignty of the city of Mosul and a recurring Kurdish problem. A similar Kurdish problem arose in the context of the relations with Iran, but the boundaries with Iran, which stretched over 1,200 miles, ranging from mountains peaking at 5,000 meters to the hot seas of the Persian Gulf, brought also a more delicate religious‐confessional legacy which struck at the heart of Iraqi identity: Iranian Shī῾īs looked at the Iraqi holy cities of southern Iraq, Najaf and Karbala, as poles of continuity for their own cultural setup. Despite the absence of a formal census, the Arab Shī῾ī population constitutes a clear majority in late twentieth‐century Iraq (about 55 to 60 percent), against an Arab/Sunnī‐dominated Baghdad (Arab Sunnīs are about 15 to 20 percent, Sunnī Kurds about 20 percent). In such a context, the Iranian neighborliness (Iran is 95 percent Shī῾ī) often turned into an internal factor of disruption among Iraqis.

Greater Syria, whether in the form of its successors (Jordan and Syria), or as the link to the Arab world, dovetailed with Arab—as opposed to Kurdish—Iraq, and the flow of Syrian influences was particularly strong during the time of the first king of Iraq, Fayṣal I (r. 1921–1933). The son of Sharīf Ḥusayn of Mecca, Fayṣal was established as Iraqi monarch by the British after a brief reign of a few days as king of Syria in 1920. With him came a yearning for a united Arab Levant including Iraq, the Hejaz, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. This never materialized, but the seeds of a dominant Arab ideology at the center of the Iraqi state were sown. More significantly for the Iraqi domestic setup, Fayṣal I brought with him a cadre of army officials trained in Ottoman Turkey who were imbued with a sense of Arabism, and Iraq was involved throughout the century with the dreams and squabbles of the search for Arab unity in the Middle East, especially over the question of Palestine.

Finally, the desert nomadic legacy brought to Iraq a contrasted and tribal tradition in which cities did not represent the center of power, and in which boundaries meant little. The transboundary nomadic tradition is inherently irreconcilable with the pattern of a nation‐state. In Iraq, tribal forces fused with international and regional alliances, which coincided with a weak or strong government in Baghdad, to undermine the solidity of arbitrary boundaries: a case in point is the issue of Kuwait, which benefited from the weakness of the Ottomans and the prying of imperial Britain to acquire a distinctiveness in the late nineteenth century which was eventually turned into a formal boundary in 1932, and in independence and sovereignty under British military protection in 1962. When the government in Baghdad became strong after its relative successes in the Iran‐Iraq War (1980–1988), Kuwait was invaded and occupied for six months between August 1990 and February 1991. Iraq was brought back to the internationally recognized border only after the massive military effort undertaken in the second Gulf War. Since 1920, each of three successive Iraqi generations has experienced a serious international crisis over Kuwait.

Together, the contrasting and powerful neighbors mirrored a problem which haunts Iraq to date: the arduous cohesion of a nation‐state. Iraq's internal constituencies share little common allegiance for a nation‐state whose capital has seldom represented them politically. Iraqi ethnic and religious communities are prone to fall under regional and international influences which often lead to weakening their peaceful participation in the state.

The development of modern Iraq can be seen in the prism of its constituent groups, and the Iraqi scholar ῾Alī al‐Wardī has identified several sociologically distinct areas, interacting over the past two centuries in a way he described as “the continuous war in Iraq”: the mountainous areas, which include essentially Kurdish tribes and small Turkmen, Yezīdī, and Christian minorities; the Diyala area east of Baghdad, with agricultural dwellers; the area of the Jezira, north of Baghdad, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, where bedouin Sunnī tribes live; the desert area in the south and middle of Iraq, inhabited by tribes which espoused Shiism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the marsh areas with “old” dwellers who go back in their habits to the pre‐Islamic era; and the cities, Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Suleymaniyah, Kirkuk, Karbala, and Najaf.

The sociological setup and the various interests of these constitutencies explain how difficult the formation of the nation‐state of Iraq has proved. Among these distinct groups, three poles continued to play a significant political role by the second half of the twentieth century: the Shī῾ī south, the Kurdish north, and Baghdad.

The Shī῾ī South

. Tribes are important in the south of Iraq, but the Shī῾ī factor has become dominant in the second half of the twentieth century in the wake of the rising importance of the cities against the countryside and the ensuing demographic shifts. The void resulting from the suppression of party politics was filled by the century‐old structure of what is known as the marja῾īyah.

The Shī῾ī south is epitomized by Najaf and the marja῾īyah, which is the conglomerate of religious leaders and their elaborate networks. Mostly assembled in periods of crisis, the marja῾īyah has outgrown its original narrow religious mold to impress itself directly on the political sphere. The characteristics of the marja῾īyah in the modern history of Iraq can be found at work in several major instances. In the first instance, the marja῾īyah was the linchpin of the Arab revolt against the British in 1920, when the religious leaders of Najaf and Karbala, the two holy cities in the south of Iraq, took the lead in the uprising against Western occupation. Their defeat at the hands of the British meant the withdrawal of religious leaders from the sphere of politics until the Revolution of 1958. Beginning in 1958, the Shī῾ī opposition directed from the marja῾īyah in Najaf contributed in every major event in the country: opposition to the Communist threat in the early 1960s, focus of anti‐Ba῾thism from 1968 onward, and recurring uprisings culminating in the intifāḋah of March 1991.

As an educational institution, the marja῾īyah was important for the intellectual renewal that took place in Najaf beginning in the 1940s. This effort started with the writings of Muḥammad al‐Ḥusayn Āl Kāshif al‐Ghiṭā' (d. 1954), but its most important innovative figure was Muḥammad Bāqir al‐Ṣadr (1935–1980), who, under the benevolent protection of less‐political older religious leaders, contributed to the firmer grounding in theory of the ideas of political Islam. However, the marja῾īyah was torn after 1958 between a wing which was nonpolitical, whose main representative was Abol‐Qāsem Kho'i (Abū al‐Qāsim al‐Khū'ī, d. 1992), and a political wing, which was encouraged by Muḥsin al‐Ḥakīm (d. 1970) and spearheaded by Ṣadr after him. Until the revolt in the wake of the rout of the Iraqi army in the second Gulf War, these two tendencies were clearly distinct, but Kho'i played a more assertive role for the brief period of two weeks in March 1991 during which Najaf was freed from Ba῾thist rule. [See the biographies of Kho'i and Ḥakīm.]

Another characteristic of the marja῾īyah is its international character, as it also constitutes the center of what can be described as Shī῾ī civil society. This structured sphere of interests and organized groups outside the reach of the state operates around a religious setting whose center is the schools of law in Najaf and Karbala and their ῾ulamā' (scholars). The pilgrimage of Shī῾īs from the whole world to the city of Najaf, where the tomb of the first imam of the tradition is believed to be buried has transformed the south of Iraq into a center of learning for the whole Shī῾ī world. Many of the ideas at work in the Persian Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1912 originated in Najaf. It is from Najaf also that the opposition to British rule was organized; and it is in Najaf that the Lebanese Shī῾ī religious leaders were formed and where Khomeini remained over a period of fourteen years until coming to power in Iran in 1979.

Owing to its nature, however, the marja῾īyah is traversed by a high degree of independently minded and financially self‐supporting leaders. Their wealthy background has also, except for extreme cases, as under Ba῾thist rule, encouraged forms of accommodation with the central government. This was patent under the monarchy, but the sectarian bent of the regimes of the two ῾Ārifs (1964–1968), and especially the narrow political basis of the Ba῾th and a ruthless exercise of power have driven the marja῾īyah into an open opposition. In turn, this has led to a rapprochement with the West, including the open espousal of democratic ideas against the theory of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's wilāyat al‐faqīh and his anti‐Western political worldview.

Kurdish Iraq

. Unlike the south of Iraq, the Kurdish struggle is characterized by a breakaway secessionist tendency, which is derived from the scattering of the Kurdish people over four Middle Eastern states, and from the minoritarian position in terms of numbers which differentiates them from the equally disenfranchised Arab Shī῾īs. With the Kurds, the issue with the Arab Sunnīs in power is not “religious,” but the pattern is strikingly similar. Practically, however, the rugged mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, at least until military technology and air power caught up with that advantage in the 1970s, as well as the Kurdish territorial continuity in Iranian and Turkish Kurdistan, offered a major distinctive characteristic to the struggle with Baghdad. Another major difference in comparison with the Najaf‐Baghdad opposition is rooted in the power setup in the Kurdish, as opposed to the Shī῾ī, areas.

In Kurdish Iraq, party politics in the twentieth century was grafted onto Kurdish tribes along geographical patterns. Southern and southeastern Iraqi Kurdistan, where the dialect is Sōrānī, was dominated by the Barzinjī tribes under the leadership of Shaykh Maḥmūd, whose influence was continued with Jalāl Ṭālibānī and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. There is therefore a deep and traditional rivalry with the Kurdish Democratic party, the party of the Barzānī clan, which saw Mas῾ūd succeed his father Mullā Muṣṭafā (himself the brother of Aḥmad, the rival of Maḥmūd of Barzinjah in the south) after the latter's defeat in 1975 and his death in exile. The northern part of Kurdistan is more rugged and more “tribal,” and the dialect, Kirmānjī, is also distinct.

The opposition of the Kurds as a whole to Baghdad has been characterized by a persistent struggle and several revolts, which were successively subdued by the British air force in the 1930s and the Iraqi army after the 1958 revolution. In March 1970, a constitutional agreement was reached between the Ba῾th and the Kurdish leader Muṣṭafā al‐Barzānī, but war resumed soon over the emptying of the agreement's terms by the central government and resulted in the rout of the Kurds in 1975. Low‐level warfare continued until the notorious Anfāl genocidal campaign, which culminated in the use of poison gas in 1987 and emptied the Kurdish countryside of most of its inhabitants.

This secessionist drive, however, is tempered by a readiness to participate actively in Iraqi politics, for which the inclusion of various ministers in government at the end of the monarchy and into the early 1970s was one sign. These two opposite directions of Kurdish politics are a staple of twentieth‐century Iraqi history: when, for the first time, the north of the country was protected from the rule of Baghdad under a “safe haven” (established April 1991), free elections were successfully carried out in May 1992 to create a Kurdish administration. Yet the Kurds are also actively involved, under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress, with other Arab Sunnī and Shī῾ī oppositional groups vying for power in Baghdad.


. It is in Baghdad that the history of Iraq is ultimately decided. The city, like many Third World metropolises, has grown enormously in the twentieth century, and it is estimated that a third of Iraq's 17 million people lives there. The legitimacy of the monarchy's (1921–1958) institutional buildup was eventually undermined by its dependence on Britain, which, especially after the discovery of oil in the 1920s, was keen to retain its control over the economic potential of the country. A series of coups starting in 1936 disrupted the slow but real progress toward a form of constitutional monarchy, and further uncertainty resulted from World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union as an international power in its aftermath. This, together with an uneven distribution of the growing wealth, meant that the pole of change increasingly became the Communist party, which grew in size and influence and came close to power when the coup of 1958 started a radical transformation of the Iraqi political scene.

This revolution heralded a stop to the slow opening up and diversification of the Iraqi political stage by bringing on the scene the more militant factions of Iraqi society into violent confrontations. Several coups and attempted coups followed, until the Ba῾th, with a characteristically small membership of some three thousand individuals, took over in late July 1968. The benefits of oil production allowed the combination of ruthless power and financial assuaging to secure, within the Ba῾th, a reinforcement of a “fittest to survive” mentality. By the end of the 1970s, the Ba῾th strongman Saddam Hussein had succeeded in concentrating in his person all power in the Iraqi state. This developed into an adventurist foreign policy designed to cover up the poor domestic representation of the leadership and was repeated twice over a decade. In the first Gulf War, started on 22 September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. On 2 August 1990, Iraq marched into Kuwait. In both instances, the end of the war saw Iraq back, in terms of territory, where it had started, but the Iraqi leadership had secured a political breathing space of some significance.

Despite the collapse resulting from the devastation and dead ends occasioned by the two Gulf Wars, the fragmentation of Iraqi oppositional politics remained. Northern and southern opposition were operating with little coordination. Signs of joint oppositional leadership appeared shortly before the second Gulf War, but it was only in June 1992 that several Iraqi groups came together in the Iraqi National Congress on a democratic and federalist program at a meeting in Vienna. This was achieved against significant opposition arising from regional powers. It is against the disunited domestic legacy and the fissiparous legacy of Iraq's neighbors, a combination which has seldom offered stability in Iraq's modern history, that the future of Iraq is being decided between the Ba῾th and the Iraqi National Congress.

See also Ba῾th Parties; Karbala; Najaf; and the biography of Ṣadr.


The most significant scholarship on modern Iraq is by ῾Alī al‐Wardī and Hanna Batatu. See

  • al‐Wardī, Lamaḥāt ijtimā῾īyah min tārīkh al‐῾Irāq al‐Ḥadīth, 8 vols. (Baghdad, 1969–1972), which also covers the Ottoman period, and his shorter Dirāsah fī Ṭabī῾at al‐Mujtama῾ al‐῾Irāqī (Baghdad, 1966). For Batatu, see The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, 1978). On Batatu's work, see Robert A. Fernea and William Roger Louis, eds., The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited (London, 1991).
  • For more general works on Iraq, consult
  • ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐Ḥasanī, Tārīkh al‐Wizārāt al‐῾Irāqīyah, 10 vols. (Sidon, Lebanon, 1953–1961)
  • , which contains a comprehensive chronicle of the Iraqi monarchy.
  • Elie Kedourie's The Chatham House Version and Other Middle‐Eastern Essays, 2d ed. (New York, 1984)
  • , features an excellent chapter on Iraq up to 1958. Three works by
  • Majid Khadduri may be consulted for recent Iraqi politics: Independent Iraq, 1932–1958: A Study in Iraqi Politics, 2d ed. (London, 1960);
  • Republican Iraq: A Study in Iraqi Politics since the Revolution of 1958 (London, 1969); and Socialist Iraq: A Study in Iraqi Politics since 1968 (Washington, D.C., 1978).
  • Other useful works include
  • Stephen Longrigg, Iraq, 1900–1950: A Political, Social, and Economic History (London, 1953);
  • Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder, 1985); and Marion Farouk Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, 2d ed. (London, 1990).
  • Scholarship on Kurdish Iraq includes a comprehensive study by
  • Ferhad Ibrahim, Die Kurdische Nationalbewegung im Irak (Berlin, 1983);
  • Edmund Ghareeb, The Kurdish Question in Iraq (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981);
  • and
  • The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, edited by Philip G. Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl (London, 1992).
  • For southern Iraq, see
  • Pierre‐Jean Luizard, La formation de l'Irak contemporain: Le rôle politique des Ulémas Chiites à la fin de la domination Ottomane et au moment de la construction de l'état irakien (Paris, 1991);
  • and
  • Chibli Mallat, The Renewal of Islamic Law: Muhammad Baqer as‐Sadr, Najaf, and the Shi῾i International (Cambridge, 1993).
  • Recent developments in Iraq are covered in
  • Eberhard Kienle, Ba῾th v. Ba῾th: The Conflict between Syria and Iraq, 1968–1989 (London, 1990);
  • and
  • Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War (Boulder, 1988).
  • For the Gulf War, see
  • Lawrence Freedman and Efraim Karsh, The Gulf Conflict, 1990–1991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order (Princeton, 1993).
  • On the struggle for democracy in Iraq, the reader may consult three articles by the author:
  • The Search for Law and Stability in Iraq, Orient 1 (1994);
  • “Obstacles to Democratization in Iraq: A Reading of Post‐Revolutionary Iraqi History through the Gulf War” and “Voices of Opposition: The International Committee for a Free Iraq,” both in Rules and Rights in the Middle East: Democracy, Law, and Society, edited by Ellis Goldberg et al., pp. 224–247, 174–187 (Seattle, 1993).
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