King Faisal’s Role Period and Building an Iraqi Army

Building an Iraqi Army

After the 1920 insurrection, the growth of an Iraqi army was deemed essential from the British perspective, for not only had the rising demonstrated the folly of putting British troops in harm’s way when local forces could be relied on to do the job themselves, but the Iraqi elite itself clamored for an army as a symbol of independence, however curtailed that independence was in reality. At the Cairo Conference in 1921, it was thought that a strong army could take over from the British in a mere four years; this proved to be a serious miscalculation.

A national army was established only after several years of great perseverance and resolve on the part of Iraq’s fl edgling military elite. Throughout, the focus on conscription proved to be particularly contentious; one side, composed of the adherents of a centralizing state, promoted conscription as a tool to incorporate tribesmen into national service; the other, comprised of representatives of Iraq’s various sects and ethnicities, worried that conscription would be used to further an antiminority agenda.

The British also opposed conscription as “beyond the meager fi nancial resources of the Iraqi government” and feared that tribal rebellions in the provinces would likely draw the RAF into the fray. Many Iraqis viewed British resolve to stay neutral in the matter as a further means of keeping their country dependent on Great Britain (Tripp 2000, 62).

King Faisal’s Role

Other than British colonialist infl uence, the Iraqi nation-state that came into being largely bore King Faisal I’s imprint. Early photographs of him in Arab dress portray a man with aquiline features and a grave demeanor, a man who, for many Iraqis and Westerners alike, came to personify majesty in every sense of the term. Faisal so embodied the characteristics of Arab nobility and tribal valor that he never failed to impress Western writers and observers who met him and came to know him well.

But Faisal impressed Arabs and Iraqis as well, for these and other reasons. Originally a man without a country, he came to exemplify the best that his new country could offer: intelligence, patience, reserve, and steely determination. Even his foibles (he was seen by some early observers as too compliant and self-serving in the face of the British) were later interpreted in a different light by revisionist scholars. An important historian of Iraq, the late Hanna Batatu, claimed that Faisal understood his own limits and that of his adopted country so well that, contrary to fi rst accounts of his rule, he knew when to jab and when to feint, as a result of which he “never danced to British piping” (Batatu 1978, 332).

Faisal’s political balancing act came perilously close to being death defying. He had to contend with many different factors, most of which were at cross-purposes with one another. First was his duty to Iraq, a country so diverse in its social, ethnic, religious, and sectarian composition as to be practically unmanageable. Every community had its demands, and not all of them sat well with neighboring ethnicities or sects.

By and large, Faisal I relied on two broad constituencies—the ex-Sharifi an offi cers (mostly veterans of the 1916 Arab Revolt led by Faisal’s father, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, they were graduates of the Ottoman Military College) and the mostly Shii tribal leaders of the mid-Euphrates—and acted as a mediator between the different interests of both.

While not completely representative of the country he came to govern, those two groups came to be seen as the pillars of the regime and survived Faisal’s death. Finally, other than the satisfaction of internal demands, Faisal had to contend with the British and their imperial pursuits in Iraq. Having no real support base when he arrived in the country, and dependent on the fi nancial largesse of fi rst the British high commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, and then Lieutenant Arnold Wilson, Faisal had to navigate dangerous shoals to bolster his weak position.

The Ex-Sharifi an Offi cers The ex-Sharifi an offi cers on whom Faisal depended were, for the most part, men of lower-middle-class backgrounds who had entered the Ottoman Military College in Istanbul in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the hopes of attaining high rank in the army after their graduation.

Batatu estimates that there were 300 of them and that they could roughly be divided into two elements: those who had joined Sharif Hussein bin Ali in the Arab Revolt of 1916 and those who later on attached themselves to his son, Faisal, when the latter established his fi rst royal court in Damascus (Batatu 1978, 319). Despite this seeming unity, they were not a monolithic group.

The ex-Sharifi an offi cers who became Faisal’s righthand men were only four: Jaafar al-Askari, the fi rst minister of defense; Nuri al-Said, many times prime minister under the monarchy; and Ali Jawdat al-Ayyubi and Jamil al-Madfai, who also became government ministers under Faisal I and his son Ghazi I.

The ex-Sharifi an offi cers were Sunni, but not all of them were Arab. Still, their natural proclivities were to support an Arab and Iraqi nationalism that often ran counter to British policy. This was paradoxical; the ex-Sharifi an offi cers, quite like King Faisal I, owed their positions to the fact that they represented an Iraqi elite that the British could do business with.

In fact, unlike a number of other personalities in the country, the ex-Sharifi an group was essential to British policy because they were considered to have imbibed modern ideas of government and administration and were, by and large, the product of a secular background. This may not have completely been the case with the Shia, who were even less monolithic than the ex-Sharifi ans and represented different trends and philosophies.