Early modern Iraq, as historians prefer to designate the entity consisting of four (later reduced to three) provinces of Iraq under Ottoman rule, can be said to have begun in the early 17th century and come to an end in the early 20th century.

In those roughly 300 years, the Iraqi provinces went from a loosely knit collection of towns, villages, farming countryside, and desert oases to as near a centralized state as could be achieved under the circumstances. The provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, while never cohering completely to form a united region fully subject to Ottoman rule, exhibited important elements of an “Ottomanized” culture and administration that tied it to Istanbul and hence to the empire as a whole.

It has been noted that Ottoman control extended only to the towns and was completely disregarded in the tribal areas of Iraq, but that statement is not quite correct. In some periods, especially in the 19th century, even tribal leaders vied for Ottoman recognition, if only to trounce their rivals with important badges of legitimacy. In order to understand the contradictions, as well as the conformities, inherent in the nature of the Ottoman experiment in Iraq, an examination of the changing vision of Iraq’s governors, landholders, religious leaders, traders, artisans, and military men is essential.

Iraq’s society and government was characterized by competing tendencies: Within the provinces localism, autonomy, and the establishment of family rule were important developments that ran counter to the parallel development of a growing centralized imperial bureaucracy, with its attendant structures among local society.

At different times in Iraq’s history, one or the other propensity became more important but never completely won. Strong autonomous structures of rule and governance appeared in the 18th century in various parts of Iraq but never materialized into outright independence, while military and political centralization of the Iraqi provinces became the norm in other periods yet could never quite endure in the face of submerged but ubiquitous localist currents. Sometimes compromise and coexistence was the order of the day; at other times, confl ict and dissension threatened.

The history of Iraq throughout those three Ottoman centuries, then, is the history of these competing trends and the trajectory of Iraqi society from a loose assemblage of tribal principalities built on unstable alliances with transit merchants and holy men to an early state system in which imperial structures and principles emanating from Istanbul were reinterpreted and adapted in the frontier lands of Iraq.

Unity Versus Localism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Iraq in the 17th and 18th centuries exhibited latent social, cultural, and economic unities that were often obscured by the more violent disruptions caused by war, tribal raids, and rebel-led movements.Ottoman-Persian Wars The Ottoman-Persian wars that came to a temporary close with the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab in 1639 and the delimitation of the Ottoman-Persian frontier in Iraq continued to cast a pall over the northern part of the country. Both the provinces of Shahrizor (Iraqi Kurdistan) and Mosul were to suffer continuous blows in the Persian campaigns to regain lost territory, most especially in 1730.

Meanwhile, Nadir Shah (r. 1736–47), an adventurer of Afghan origin who had usurped the throne of Persia in 1736, thus ending the Safavid dynasty, besieged Baghdad in 1743. A treaty in 1746 between the Ottoman Empire and Persia reaffi rmed the 1639 border, but these periods of peace were always short lived and, on the whole, almost inconsequential.

One of the gravest military campaigns against Basra took place in the latter part of the 18th century. In 1776, Persian commander Karim Khan Zand, who had taken control of Persia in 1747 after Nadir Shah’s assassination, took advantage of a civil war in Baghdad to occupy Basra. With Baghdad in the throes of its own internal strife, Zand’s deputy had a free hand to rule the southern province for three long years. He was fi nally forced to evacuate his army after a southern-based tribe of Basra, the Muntafi q, infl icted a severe defeat on his army and chased it out of southern Iraq.

Tribal Campaigns

Besides the military offensives launched by the Ottomans and the Safavids and their successors, all of which took place within Iraq, tribal campaigns seriously disrupted the country. Historians generally agree that as a result of drought, overpopulation, and the struggle over scarce resources, a radical shift occurred among Arab tribes in the peninsula from the 17th century onward. This shift resulted in the migration of large tribal confederations from Arabia to Iraq.

Thus, from about 1640 onward, the large Shammar tribe, a collection of many sections and clans, began its push northward toward more hospitable climes. The Shammar were originally part of a Yemeni tribe, the Tay. The Tay moved north from Yemen in the late second century B.C.E. and settled in the mountainous Najd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, where they became camel herders and horse breeders.

In preIslamic times, the Tay had made incursions into both Iraq and Syria during times of drought. The exact date varies according to the source, but sometime in the 16th century, the tribe began prominently using the name Shammar, for an early tribal leader. The Shammar raided Baghdad in 1690 but also migrated into Iraq during other periods of drought.

The Shammar would become one of the most powerful tribes in Iraq, with its power extending into the 21st century. The Shammar were followed by other notable tribes such as the Anayza (a subsection of which, the Uteiba, founded Kuwait City early in the 18th century, while another branch produced the Sauds) and the Bani Lam. Like the Shammar, the Bani Lam are descended from the more ancient Tay tribe and also migrated into Iraq from Najd. They settled primarily in the region of the Lower Tigris.

Naturally enough, the struggle for power between the new arrivals and the tribes already established in Iraq created chaotic and unstable conditions across the region. From the early 18th century onward, the new governors (commanders of the sipahis, or cavalry corps) of the Iraqi provinces, sent out from Istanbul and educated at palace schools, came to grips with the situation.

Having been charged with a centralizing mission to retake Iraq for the empire, the Baghdad governors Hassan Pasha (r. 1702–24) and his son Ahmad Pasha (r. 1724–47) set about imposing law and order by defeating the tribes, where possible, and co-opting their leaders. The history of this struggle is well documented in the Iraqi chronicles of the period, which are replete with accounts of Ottoman commanders attacking the tribes from Kurdistan to Basra. Occasionally, the Ottomans found the tribes useful and formed brief alliances with them during their wars against the Persians.