Iraq Under Mandate Again: Eighty Years Later!

Time to Wake Up

At the start of the second period of mandate given by the international community for a foreign power to govern Iraq, this disheartening article is not intended to depress us even further. The aim is simply to show that little has altered in Iraq in over eighty years, and that a change in both style and substance is now overdue if Iraq’s association with failure and submission were to be reversed.

Civil society; in social, political, academic and cultural terms, has not matured to any tangible extent. Iraq, it seems, can only manage to exist in one of two harmful modes: order brought about by sheer dictatorial terror applied by an internal or external power, or chaos when the iron grip is released. Signs of national maturity; flexibility, tolerance, diversity, openness, integrity, self-worth, commonsense, and public-spiritedness are all in short supply. Religious fanaticism simmers barely under the surface. And the country has now regressed to the lowest rungs of the development league.

Iraq does not lack talents and honest persons who are willing to do their utmost to drag the country into the modern age. Nonetheless, potential leaders still dither and argue endlessly. They are obsessed with status, power, and personal gain. Leaders of all nations share these traits, but existing and aspiring leaders in the Arab world, including Iraq, seem to recognise no bounds in pursuing these self-centred aims.

Iraqis have a penchant for avoiding unpleasant facts. Most unappealing, they blame everyone else but themselves, from neo-conservatives to Zionists and global corporations. All of these are malevolent forces to be reckoned with, but wise leaders and mature nations learn to handle such ever-present challenges. It is time Iraqis stopped whining and faced the facts, otherwise Iraq will stay on the same treadmill for another century.

The facts are simple and painful:

  • Iraq had suffered from a brutal regime for over thirty years. It is hurtful to admit, but without American and British efforts (admittedly given for highly questionable motives) that situation could have continued indefinitely.
  • The moment that regime disappeared the country descended into chaos and lawlessness. Iraq has few, if any, civil institutions to provide some stability.
  • The USA and Britain are in  the driving seat. The task for the Iraqi leadership (whoever they might be) is to seek to make the most of a bad job. The aim must be to demonstrate in the shortest possible time that Iraqis could run their own affairs. Squabbling and sulking about the unfairness of life will not help.
  • The USA and Britain are in no hurry to see a legitimate government installed in Iraq. The newly appointed British ‘Ambassador’ expressed the opinion in May 2003 that elections are most unlikely in less than a “year or two”. This simply echoes messages coming from Washington. Prevarication, made easier by the absence of effective local vision and leadership, is what happened in the early twentieth century when Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to ‘help’ Iraq, as described below.
  • The occupying forces will seek to appoint one person to be ‘the leader’. He will be threatened with loss of office unless he complied with their wishes on every issue. As described later the British applied that system effectively in the case of king Faisal in the 1920s.
  • Religious extremism is the last thing Iraq needs at this point, but this is exactly what is emerging. Iraq is being dragged backwards instead of forwards. Contrary to what the international media seem to suggest, Iraq is inhabited by Iraqis and not by Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, or whatever.
  • The intelligentsia  are as usual self-indulgent and good at talking. There is little sign that their thoughts and arguments will be translated into action. Unless they coalesce into recognisable and democratic civil social, political and cultural societies and associations they will continue to be voices in the wilderness.

Now read on !

The Old Familiar Syndrome

Conflict between the European powers came to a head in 1914. The battle was also on to dismember the ailing Ottoman Empire, which had entered the war on the side of Germany. A British force entered Iraq from the south and moved northwards. Indian soldiers helped in that invasion. By the end of World War I Iraq was a British colony. In 2003, an American force invaded Iraq with help from British soldiers.

And again in line with what happened in recent months, a seemingly benevolent American president, Woodrow Wilson, sold Iraqis and other Arabs the idea of a “world to be remade on the basis of self-determination…” (Hourani, 1991: 316). Then, as now, the future looked decidedly democratic but that was a false dawn.

Democracy and independence come from within, rather than by dictates from abroad, but Iraqis expect things to be handed to them on a plate. It is significant that at this present time local entrepreneurs are busy not in setting up their own enterprises but in seeking to represent foreign companies in Iraq. This seems to be the limit of their ambition. A business delegation on a visit to the United Arab Emirates in May 2003 were told a few home truths by the Crown Prince in a polite and roundabout sort of way. He advised them to go back and work together in setting up their own companies to compete against foreign firms for contracts to rebuild Iraq.

In the real world, business and political powers, any powers, seek to promote their own interests and little else. A truism that somehow taxes the comprehension of most Arab political and business leaders to this very day. The past provides good lessons. First there was the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that divided the Arab countries into British and French zones of permanent influence. Boundaries were decided to some extent by the availability of oil resources, as was the case in Kuwait. Then there was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 that set in train the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. And finally, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles promised provisional independence for the Arab countries, at some point in the future but not yet. Some nations, the victors of World War I felt, needed supervision by more advanced states sanctioned by a mandate from the League of Nations.

Article 22 of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles makes interesting reading:

“To those colonies and territories …which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation… The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility, …as Mandatories on behalf of the League…”

A mandate was granted by the League of Nations in 1922 for Britain to be responsible for Iraq’s affairs. By then Britain had installed Faisal as king of Iraq, and he and his ‘government’ became the channel through which British mandatory control was implemented. By accident or design, there was a lengthy period of chaos and insecurity in the run up to the referendum that installed Faisal as king in 1921. Currently, Iraq is experiencing the same turbulence, but that is expected to ease once a ‘leader’ is chosen by the USA.

Three features of the first mandate period must be kept in mind in considering the second mandate now given to the USA to govern Iraq. First, Faisal was threatened at every point with loss of his crown if he did not follow British dictates. Second, several years elapsed between the occupation of Iraq and the installation of a remotely representative government. The delay in holding elections was blamed on the fear that a “national conference would be dominated by nationalists” (Ni’ma, 1988: 73). Third, the first mandate period was associated with pressure on Faisal and his government to conclude long-term treaties that gave Britain wide powers over Iraq. The haggling over treaties went on for many years. There are already some indications that the 2003 mandate powers will adopt the same tactics.

One aspect of the first treaty imposed on Faisal is of special interest as it compelled Iraq to hand over 25 percent of its income to Britain to pay for internal and external security and defence. It is evident that the USA intends to retain a large proportion of Iraq’s revenue to defray its alleged costs in governing Iraq in 2003 and beyond. It was clear from the first treaty that Britain did not wish to allow a local army to be created; it retained responsibility for internal security to combat nationalist ambitions. On the first day of the 2003 mandate the US authorities in Iraq announced the dissolution of the Iraqi army! It has to be said that most Iraqis will not lose much sleep over the loss of their army. However, the writing is on the wall.

The main treaty ‘negotiated’ with Faisal was bad enough, but most of the damage to Iraq’s interests was done through annexes that spelled out the details relating to military, legal, administrative and economic matters. This is a standard procedure in negotiations: a problem that the new Iraqi authority will experience before long.

Will events follow the same course nowadays? Almost certainly, including similar protest and turmoil to that which erupted when the 1922 Treaty was concluded. That Treaty was followed by a new Treaty in 1926 (and another in 1927) scheduled to last for twenty-five years or until Iraq was admitted to the league of Nations. Britain retained most of its powers but promised to support Iraq’s bid to join the League of Nations by 1932 subject to “progress being made and events following a good course”! Protests continued and Al-Askari resigned as prime minister. The British governor of Iraq (not the king!) then contacted Al-Sadoon to form a new cabinet (Faraj Abdulla, 1988: 244). Nonetheless arguments continued between the governor, the prime minister and the king. The British were unwilling to compromise; they held all the cards. The prime minister was under attack from a collection of nationalist forces demanding independence. And the king was terrified of losing his crown. This impossible situation culminated in the suicide of Al-Sadoon in November 1929. Significantly, two points of disagreement between him and the British governor concerned the continued employment of senior British officials in Iraqi ministries (which caused vociferous national protests) and oil concessions!

The above events were outlined to describe the dilemmas that will be faced by an Iraqi leader installed by the USA in 2003. The USA has its own agenda, and most of the conflicts will therefore be virtually impossible to resolve. That situation led to Sadoon’s suicide. Will the appointed leader capitulate or stand firm? This is the basic choice he will face immediately after taking office. There is a conundrum here. It is certain that one person would want to become Iraq’s ‘one and only leader’. This model is favoured by all aspiring leaders in the Arab world: status is all! On the other hand, one leader would be powerless in any negotiations with the US authorities. Would those currently holding discussions with the Americans on the setting up of an interim administration prove to be far-sighted enough to see this danger and to insist on collective leadership? The omens are not promising.

In theory, the mandate was supposed to last until Iraq joined the League of Nations, but in practice British control extended until 1958. Britain agreed to support Iraq’s application to join the League in 1932, but that was linked to the conclusion of a new treaty that gave Britain the same powers as before. Negotiations over that treaty were just as troublesome as previous treaties. However, in the meantime Britain was still enjoying the privileges of an occupying power. And this again will be the ongoing situation facing an incoming administration in 2003.

Iraq is in turmoil nowadays to such a degree that any leadership nominated by the USA would be acceptable as long as it was able to promise a return to some order. Judged by past experience, far from being the end of chaos, the installation of a new administration could easily be the starting point for continual conflict over many years. Will American rule over Iraq last just as long as British control? Sky News suggested (20 May 2003) that the Security Council “resolution, expected to be adopted by Friday, still gives the United States and Britain wide-ranging powers to run Iraq and control its oil industry until a permanent government is established, which could take years.” There is no reason to assume that they will be in a hurry to relinquish control over Iraq and its oil. Basically, the outcome depends on the Iraqis.

The Oil Factor

Oil was a key topic within the British hierarchy, and between Britain and its allies during and after World War I. Churchill reminded members of the British Parliament as early as September 1913 of the significance of oil to any country wishing to stay at the top. The matter became even clearer when Lloyd-George followed Asquith as Prime Minister in November 1916. He promptly highlighted the oil issue as a matter of major concern and declared Britain’s intention to bring the oil producing regions under direct British control. There was at least more openness then!

Britain’s oil policies met with a flood of complaint from the American government and media. Amusingly, the complaints focused on the undue influence that oil corporate interests (such as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) had over the British government. The blurring of the dividing line between business and politics is not a new development, although the process has gathered pace in recent decades. Now, European governments and media are concerned about US oil motives and undue influence of US corporations over the Bush administration.

The Islam Factor

The occupation of Baghdad by British forces in 1917 was accompanied by recriminations and accusations that closely resembled those that characterised the war on Iraq in 2003. Germany declared that Britain’s aim was simply to acquire a strategically placed colony that offered other benefits such as oil. Britain countered by saying that they entered Iraq to liberate it from oppressive Turkish rule which reduced this “cradle of civilisation” to rack and ruin. Balfour informed Parliament in September 1917, that war was undertaken simply to liberate nations rather than to gain colonial possessions. Britain then proceeded to rule Iraq for several decades. Balfour presented an interesting argument when he suggested that self-rule, “a natural and just cause in most cases”, is simply an unknown concept to Eastern people (Ni’ma, 1988: 18-22). These countries had to accept new ideas!

A referendum was held by the British administration to gauge public opinion. Significantly, local political parties were hampered by the same problems that besets the situation after the 2003 war: they were unable to agree on a common policy and they were unwilling to support a collective leadership that could be seen as a credible alternative to foreign rule, which of course served Britain’s purposes admirably. The main organised resistance came from religious leaders centred on the holy cities. The only other channel for political expression came from the tribal factions in mainly rural areas. There were of course many thinkers, and some social and cultural societies, but they were too weak, too ineffectual and too scattered to present a consistent voice. Essentially, the situation in the early twentieth century was not radically different from what exists at present.

The Debt Factor

It is thought that Iraq now has debts amounting to some $135 billion. Costs of rebuilding would have to be added to that figure. Debt provides an ideal opportunity for external interference in the affairs of a country. This is a tried and tested system.

The Ottoman Empire provides a perfect illustration. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Ottoman sultans were in need of new money to maintain the lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed. At the same time Europe was replete with money in need of investment. The circumstances in effect were exactly the same as they have been in the last three or four decades. Moreover, European powers were eager to move in on the decaying Ottoman Empire. The stage was set for what is now a familiar operation. The Ottomans acquired debts on a huge scale and on suitably crippling terms; in one instance “of a nominal amount of 256 million Turkish pounds (the Turkish pound was equivalent to £0.9 sterling) [the Ottomans] received only 139 millions, the remainder being discounted.” (Hourani 1991: 282).

The rest of the story followed thoroughly modern lines: by 1875 the Ottoman Empire was unable to meet payments of interest and principal, and by 1881 a Public Debt Administration representing the European powers was set up and promptly imposed its own version of structural stabilisation and adjustment programmes on the Ottomans. These same programmes assumed centre stage in the work of the World Bank and IMF from the late-1970s onwards.

Egypt followed an almost identical path to that suffered by the Ottomans, only more lavishly. The rulers decided to modernise, or more precisely to Europeanise, Egypt by borrowing from Europe. Events after that again followed their normal course leading to complete control of Egypt’s internal affairs by Britain and, to a lesser extent, France. In 1876 an Anglo-French commission, the Caisse de la Dette, moved in, IMF style, to make sure payments were forthcoming, and within one year “over 60 per cent of all Egypt’s revenue went to the servicing of the national debt.” (Vatikiotis 1991: 129).

Nowadays, there is a debate going on about debts owed by Iraq to various parties including France and Russia. There is no doubt whatsoever that Iraq will pay dearly; not only in financial terms but in severe loss of sovereignty. As elsewhere, there is little to show for the debts accumulated over the years by successive regimes. These, so-called odious, debts enrich those in power quickly but then ordinary people repay them painfully and at leisure.

The matter of concern here is the invitation such debts present for all manner of people to step forward and interfere in the affairs of Iraq on the pretext that they are simply safeguarding their investments. Even more worrying, whatever group finally assumes power in Iraq one could say with confidence that they would make a bee line to the World Bank and other lending sources to acquire new loans. The justification is as simple as it is ancient; borrowing is required as a short-term measure to address unusual and difficult circumstances. Naturally, borrowing is also a sure way for leaders to accumulate fortunes rapidly. These are the very considerations that promoted the city-states in ancient Greece to borrow money (that they were unable to repay) from the temple of Delos (UNICEF 1999: 28)!

Could Things Be Different?

Anything is possible, but a different model would take a great deal of effort and considerable maturity that seems in short supply at the moment. However, Iraq is certainly not short on talents and honest people who would want to make a new start, so why am I pessimistic?

Fundamentally, democracy and foreign influence do not mix. More specifically, it is most unlikely that the USA would allow real democracy to emerge in Iraq. First, its corporate interests would not approve. Second, neighbouring states would find this novel departure most disturbing. Recent events have already had a remarkable unsettling effect on Iraq’s fellow Arab states. And third, in the light of unbending US influence and involvement, it is becoming increasingly difficult for unaligned expatriate Iraqis to come forward to put their talents and expertise at the disposal of the authority that will eventually emerge form the current turmoil. This is understandable, but it is also too self-indulgent. Sadly, Iraqis with something to offer must swallow their pride and deal with the realities as they exist. Failure to do so would be exactly what the occupying forces want, as was evident back in the early-twentieth century.


  • Hourani, A. (1991) A History of the Arab People London: Faber and Faber.
  • Ni’ma, K. (1988) King Faisal the First Beirut, Lebanon (Arabic)
  • Faraj Abdulla, L. (1988) Abdul Muhsen Al-Sadoon Baghdad, Iraq (Arabic)
  • UNICEF (1999) The Progress of Nations New York: UNICEF
  • Vatikiotis, P J. (1991) The History of Modern Egypt London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson