Short History Ottoman Period Of IRAQ
By the turn of the 20th century, the Iraqi provinces had become more closely linked under late Ottoman rule. While the greater incorporation of the provinces into a more tightly centralized and demarcated region brought with it closer identiﬁ cation with the notion of “Iraq” as a common homeland, the country’s population was not uniformly Ottomanized as a corollary of that identiﬁ cation.
Certain elites emerged that recognized their afﬁ liation with the greater empire, but they did so on a vastly different basis than before. The starting point for the reinforced ties between the provinces and the center was now based on a revised interpretation of what it meant to be an Ottoman citizen.
No longer seen as subjects but as full-ﬂ edged members in a pluralistic Islamic empire, some Iraqis took up a wider Ottoman afﬁ liation because it promised a fairer deal between equal citizens in the greater Ottoman realm. The ideology of Ottoman citizenship also tied in to the greater representation of national, ethnic, and religious minorities in the empire, particularly Christians and Jews, a factor that initially may have inhibited the wholesale adoption of an “Osmanli” nationality by its Arab-Muslim adherents.
Although reformist valis had successfully begun to implement ideas that would radically restructure the provinces, those ideas required time to fall into place. Even so, several reforms had begun to impact the country in the latter years of Ottoman rule. First were the military reforms that reorganized the Sixth Army and made it a competent ﬁ ghting force capable not only of defending the country but of instigating well-planned offensives in wartime.
Second, military and civilian schools had begun to cut into the huge illiteracy rate; the most promising military cadets were given scholarships to join the military and administrative colleges in Istanbul. Many of them returned as avowed Turkophiles. Third, with the introduction of the ﬁ rst ofﬁ cial newspaper in Iraq, al-Zawra in 1869, the ﬂoodgates of newspaper and magazine publication were opened wide, bringing in their wake better-informed audiences who sparked lively discussions in coffeeshops and majalis (literary salons presided over by important patrons).
Meanwhile, the private initiative that established literary and cultural clubs catering to Muslims, Christians, and Jews also spawned charitable organizations such as orphanages and small training programs for the poor.By the 1900s, too, the inﬂ uence of the more sharia-minded, literalist religious leadership had waned, even as the more spiritual Suﬁ brotherhoods had strengthened under imperial patronage.
Religious schools that provided the basics of an Islamic education to young boys (and some girls) had lost their appeal; modern Jewish and Christian schools and missions had begun to attract not only children from their own community but, later on, Arab Muslims as well. In the south and center, a great movement of re-Islamization took place incorporating the tribes and urban communities that lived on the peripheries of the Shii shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala.
This movement inculcated the principles of a renewed Shii mission among the roaming, as well as settled, population of greater Basra. In the 1880s, Sultan Abdulhamid II took notice and proposed the dispatch of Sunni preachers and the institution of schools to combat the upsurge of Shii reeducation of both the settled and tribal population. Meanwhile, a large, well-organized, and militant mystic brotherhood, the Naqshbandiya fraternity, emerged out of Kurdistan, eventually spreading into every corner of Islamic Asia.
The latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries are also associated with the institution, by government as well as private agents, of large technological and economic projects such as the establishment of steamship companies, the telegraph, a tramway in Baghdad, and the misnamed Baghdad-Berlin Railway, which actually extended to the Gulf.
The opening of Baghdad’s ﬁ rst “European” artery, later to be called Rasheed Street, was planned in the waning days of the empire; it was the ﬁ rst straight street between north and south and entailed numerous negotiations between Ottoman valis, merchants, British consuls, and shippers before it ﬁ nally materialized. Meanwhile, a more pronounced effort to renovate and streamline the port of Basra so that it would provide more capacity for larger ships was begun but not ﬁ nished by the time of World War I.
Late Ottoman Iraq was a work in progress that would remain unﬁ nished for a variety of factors, some of them being the overall lack of trained administrative personnel, the ready availability of funds, and the wherewithal to put ideas into practice. Good valis had great ideas that they initiated with gusto but that languished when the ﬁ nancing stopped.
Agricultural projects were started, literacy gained pace, streets were widened, and infrastructural schemes were set in motion. But it was too little, too late. Whatever the desires of reformist governors were in theory, in practice the last years of Ottoman Iraq were years of lost opportunities and unfulﬁ lled expectations on the part of the government and the people alike.