Iraq was set up as a “modern state” with a League of Nations’ mandate. To a large extent, it was an imperialist project, but couched in the language of international law. It had this humanitarian language attached to it, saying, “We’re doing this for the Iraqis, for the interests of the Iraqis.” But by and large, it was all set to work with British interests, which was to control Iraq, control the oil, control the strategic region, the air routes to other parts of the empire, etc.
For that reason, there was never a gradual development of indigenous institutions linked to the state; they were imposed top-down from abroad. A monarchy was installed under Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein. He was brought in from outside and became king, even though he had no association with Iraq and had never set foot there before. All of that conspired to make the new state and its institutions tenuous. Iraq’s modern history has revolved around efforts by its elites to make those institutions more palatable and rooted, and ordinary Iraqis’ resisting them, instead making use of familial, tribal, and sectarian ties.
I did this research because at the time of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I became very interested in Iraq. I realized there weren’t many historical works on Iraq, and most of them weren’t based on solid research. I wanted to present a different perspective than what was the media-driven narrative at that time, which was all about the Western perspective and very little about what it actually meant to Iraqis themselves.
The book took me many years to work on off and on. It’s about 600 pages long and covers Iraq’s modern history up until 2019, following the defeat of ISIS and when a new government came in, but we still started to see the same old problems.
There is a complex interplay between historical legacy and the more recent invasion of Iraq. The flawed way that new institutions were attempted to be built also contributed. There was very little planning by the Americans, and their attempts didn’t really work. When they disbanded everything, like the army, security apparatus, and parliament, people were left with a void. They reverted to what they knew: family, tribe, and sect. Groups were quick to fill the void.
People don’t trust their own institutions. Instead, they rely on alternative arrangements like family, extended family, tribes, or religious groups, but never the state. The lack of trust in the state and its institutions makes it difficult to have effective governance.
Over the past ten years, numerous militias have formed, and people have followed various groups and leaders. These groups often perform some functions that the state should be performing, like collecting taxes or providing healthcare.
We need someone to take the lead and be charismatic enough to have a single message that people can sign up to. In the current context, it’s hard to say who that person might be because the sectarian issue has become so ingrained over the past 20 years. If someone from the South who is Shiite has a popular message of change, would they be supported by the Sunni and Kurdish population, or vice versa?
It’s difficult to see anyone who can have a universal appeal in a place like Iraq. Someone can certainly emerge and gain popularity among certain groups, but it’s unlikely anyone can completely unify Iraq, as was the case in the 1958 revolution.
Back then, there were figures like Abdel Karim Qasim who were able to appeal to both Sunnis and Shiites and have a non-sectarian message of change. People at that time were so fed up with the monarchy that they supported him. For a number of years, he was very popular. However, a similar scenario doesn’t exist today because sectarianism has so much poisoned the political situation. But this is what’s needed to unify Iraq once again.
My research was predominantly based on archival research and I found and scrutinised as many sources as possible (found in libraries, bookstores, pamphlets, booklets etc). I tried to find sources in Arabic, English, and other languages to have a balanced and objective approach.
An issue I faced was that there are no surviving governmental archives, so you have to piece everything together and find fragments here and there. Iraq does not have a national archives. One of the problems therefore is that because surviving and accessible sources are British and American, most accounts of Iraqi history have been written from a Western perspective. I was trying to counter that by using as many Arabic and Iraqi sources that I could possibly find and incorporate to balance the narrative.