A Brief Analysis Over the Historical Factors that Affect Today’s Iraq

Tamer Kasikci*

After the invasion of US-led forces Iraq became the focus of the international relations. Many researchers began to write about the invasion and its aftermath. The current situation in Iraq is not suitable to make prediction about the future of the country but from regular people in Iraq streets to top level politicians in the White House everybody is curious about its future. But to understand the current situation and make prediction about future it is a necessity to examine the political development of the country. In this brief text, I am going to discuss the political development of Iraq by giving reference to factors that affect this process.

The history of Iraq goes back to 1920s as a political entity. Before that time the Iraqi region was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. During that time as Hans Boesch mentions in his old article this region has a geography which does not allow a wide population to live a rich life. Because of wide deserts and mountainous areas the population was limited and establishing a state authority over this geography was not easy. This reality is still valid today even though many crowded cities have been established. Obviously the major geographic factor that has Affected the political development of the country is its rich oil industry. Even in 1930s the great power discovered the importance of the oil and this reality made the region one of the most important regions in international relations.

The white House

Besides the geographic conditions which made the region uncontrollable, the population is another factor that affects the political development. The creation of nation-state in Europe ended the period of multinational state formations but in many regions like in Iraq sub-identity creates the biggest challenge against the state-building process. Many authors try to explain the cultural diversification of the country from different perspectives. Some see the major conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Some pay attention to the Kurdish problem while others point the distinction between urban and rural population. In my opinion it is a necessity to define the major sub-groups which have political influence throughout the history. From that perspective there are three groups: the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. At that point it is necessary to warn the reader about this diversification. Because of the complexity of the population some researchers like Liora Lukitz, mistakenly see diversification in a cultural perspective. But we should keep in mind that the Kurds are Sunnis. The major distinction between Kurds and other Sunnis is that the Kurds ethnically are not Arabs. They have different language and different ethnic roots as Michael Gunter explains in detail in his book. This diversification in society has created many problems in the political development of Iraq.

The political development of the country is very complicated process since it was created by an external power. Differently from the nation-building experience of the Westerns, the state was imposed from top to down. This character of the state formation process has been felt in all stages of the Iraqi history. As Reeva Spector Simon mentions in his book the origins of the administrators in the region has played a crucial role in the establishment of an authoritative state. But it is not fair to say that only these origins pave the way of absolute power which create suitable environment for the rise of such a tyrant like Saddam. The state builders could be influenced by German nation-state but what allowed these state-builders to maintain their power is the factors that Charles Tripp mentions in his book: the patron-client relations, the oil incomes and the use of violence. Throughout the Iraqi history, these three factors give the leader to control of the population in an authoritative way.

At that point it is an obligation to explain the structure of the society which allows this authoritative government to manage the country without any opposition. As mentioned above the society is formed by three major groups. While the Shiites is the largest one, always the Sunnis have the political power. Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Sluglett explains this phenomenon by claiming that the Shiites always keep themselves away from political issues and live in cities that are closed to the world. This perspective is not sufficient to understand the issue. The very detailed book of Yitzhak Nakash proves that the Shiites were about to establish a political unit before the British forces took the control of the country. Moreover as Toby Dodge insists in his book the Shiite leaders, Mujtahids, were always seeking political power to unify their cities with the Shiite Iran. But this majority of the population has been controlled by Sunni minority. The best explanation for this phenomenon comes from William Polk. In his book he mentions that throughout the history, by beginning very early times, there has always been a gap between central government and the people in Iraq. This gap strengthens the government’s position against the people.

Another main factor that affects the political development of Iraq is its rich oil reserves as mentioned above. In a country such a reserve would be an amazing chance for economic development but in Iraq, which is created by an external power it is not a chance because it makes the country as a target for major powers. As Abbas Alnasrawi mentions in his book Iraq always has to be careful about using its oil reserves and open its economy to the world. If not, it can be punished by major powers like in the Gulf War, or oil boycott. Another problem that oil reserves caused is that as Alnasrawi insists, focusing of oil industry kills other industries. For that reason if there is a crisis in oil import like during the oil boycott time, the country suffers from the lack of other industries. This happened in Iraq history and crippled the economy.

“Iraq always has to be careful about using its oil reserves and open its economy to the world. If not, it can be punished by major powers like in the Gulf War, or oil boycott.”

Today we are in a different stage of the Iraqi history. Even though the chaos within the country has not been absolutely controlled, elections were held and Iraq began to walk through its democratisation and modernization process. But it is crucial to keep in mind the historical factors that still affect Iraq during this process. Any state building attempt which ignores the historical realities of the country would deepen the chaos and open the way of a more authoritarian regime or disintegration of it.


* Tamer Kasikci is an MA student at the University of San Diego.


1) Boesch, Hans H, “El-‘Iraq”, Source: Economic Geography, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Oct., 1939), pp. 325 -361 Published by: Clark University Stable URL: http:/ / www.jstor.org/ stable/ 141771 Accessed: 04/ 03/ 2009 21:01
2) Gunter, Michael M., The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope, St. Martin Press, New York, 1992,
3) Simon, Reeva Spector, Iraq Between the Two World Wars : The Militarist Origins of Tyranny Columbia University Press, 2004
4) Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cam- bridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000
5) Sluglett, Peter and Farouk -Sluglett, Marion, “Some Reflections on the Sunni/ Shi’i Question in Iraq”, Source: Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 5, No. 2 (1978), pp. 79 -87 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable U R L : h t t p : / / w w w . j s t o r . o r g /s t a b l e / 1 9 4 7 8 9 A c c e s s e d : 05/ 03/ 2009 02:37
6) Nakash, Yitzhak, The Shi’is of Iraq, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1994
7) Dodge, Toby, “Chapther 4: Rural and Urban: The Divided Imagination of Late Colonialism”, Book: Inventing Iraq: the Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied, Columbia University Press, New York, 2003, p.63-81
8) Polk, William R., Understanding Iraq : A Whistlestop Tour from Ancient Babylon to Occupied Baghdad, I.B. Tau- ris & Company Limited, 2000
9) Alnasrawi, Abbas, “ Chapther 7: Iraq’s Economic Development, 1950 – 1990: An Assessment”, Book: The Economy of Iraq: Oil, Wars, Destruction of Development and Prospects 1950 -2010, Greenwood Press, London, 1994, p.127 -149

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