The Monarchy from 1932 to 1958 in Iraq

The Monarchy from 1932 to 1958

By 1929, two things were evident regarding Iraq’s political situation: The dual system of a mandated government was not going to work, and Iraqi nationalists would never be satisfi ed with the treaty as it stood. In fact, the Iraqis had had their fi ll of treaties with Great Britain. Yet another one, more favorable but still short of the nationalists’ demands of independence, had been presented to Iraq’s assembly in December 1927. It was never ratifi ed by the Iraqi government, which in 1929 was led by Nuri al-Said as prime minister.

Furthermore, public opinion in Britain was beginning to sour on the whole idea of the mandate. Subsequently, the British sought to remedy the circumstances with yet another treaty. Signed on June 30, 1930, this treaty acknowledged an independent Iraq with complete sovereignty over its internal affairs. As it was a treaty (as opposed to a capitulation), Great Britain was to remain a close ally and “support” Iraq in case of the threat of foreign aggression.

Because of that provision, Britain was allowed to maintain military bases near Basra and west of the Euphrates River. The terms of the treaty were to last for 25 years and go into effect as soon as Iraq became a member of the League of Nations as an independent state. That occurred on October 3, 1932.Despite treaty terms that sounded as though Iraq and Great Britain were in alliance as full partners, the issue of British military bases in Iraq would fester in the post-mandate era.

The first treaty signed by the new Iraqi government in 1922 provided for Iraqi control of defense matters within the space of four years but tacked on a military clause that required Britain to continue to train and equip the Iraqi military, as well as retain its military bases throughout the country. That treaty was succeeded by two others, also regulating Iraqi-British affairs, mostly to British advantage; it was the third treaty signed at Portsmouth in 1948 that led to fi erce nationalist, socialist, and populist agitation in the country and became the prelude to the rejection of British military tutelage once and for all.

While the monarchy cultivated local allies from every ethnic, sectarian, and economic group that it could and all of Iraq’s kings tried to remain on very good terms with the principal families, tribes, and religious aristocracies of the kingdom, Iraq was not fully a representative state. Perhaps the one monarch who really tried to bridge the sectarian, ethnic, and political divisions in the early years was Faisal I.

According to Batatu, Faisal went out of his way to associate the Shia with the new state and to ease their admission into government service; among other things, he put promising young Shii members through an accelerated program of training and afforded them the chance to rise rapidly to positions of responsibility. He also saw to it that the Kurds received an appropriate quota of public appointments (Batatu 1978, 26).

Later on, under Faisal’s successors, Ghazi I and Faisal II (the latter was too young to rule, except through his uncle, the regent Abdulillah), the monarchy paid lip service to the policy of pluralism and inclusion, but Iraq’s minorities and its aggrieved Shii majority were not often brought into consultations with the government.

This became clearer after Faisal I’s demise, when the underrepresentation of the Shia in parliament as well as in the judiciary and the push to pass the National Defense Bill in 1934 creating a strong national army, aroused fears both among the Shia and the Kurds that the slight window of opportunity afforded them in the embryonic state of the 1920s was fast shutting down.

Even before that came about, the Shia and Kurds had had reason to fear the new government. One of Iraq’s minorities, the Assyrian Christians, was the fi rst to test the strength of the new regime and feel the backlash of its power. Living in and around Mosul, the Assyrians had felt a measure of security during the period of British mandatory rule, but once that was eliminated, they sought new guarantees of protection.

During summer 1933, with Faisal I in Europe and the Assyrians clamoring for autonomy, and following deadly clashes between the former Assyrian levies (whom the British had not disarmed) and the Iraqi army, the government unleashed the army, which massacred approximately 300 Assyrians. In this, they were assisted by the Kurds, who also looted Assyrian villages.

The king, who was ill with heart problems and seeking treatment in Europe, returned to Iraq, but it was too late to do anything but assuage the concerns of the League of Nations and the British. After the incident, Faisal returned to Switzerland to seek medical treatment but died of a heart attack in Berne on September 8, 1933, less than a year after Iraq had gained independence.

The new country’s fl edgling institutions—a professional army, a bicameral parliament, political parties, and a moderately free press—survived until the end of the monarchical period but in fl awed form.

Save for the elite, institutions of representative government never really took root in the country. Quite to the contrary, for many national groups, loyalty to the Iraqi state was cultivated on the level of personalized ties, and relations between the emergent state and its constituents were shaped fi rst and foremost by the growth of political patronage.

Much later on, in the 1970s and 1980s, the state assumed impersonal and bureaucratic features that marked its gargantuan hold on the ordinary Iraqi citizen. But even then, personal networks of power managed to circumvent weak state institutions.

King Ghazi I, Regent Prince Abdulillah, and the Growing Instability of the Iraqi State

After King Faisal’s death, the institutions of state power, grafted a decade before under British occupation, were redeveloped and began to take on forms of their own. As with many newly formed nation-states in the 1920s to 1960s, the trappings of power in Iraq were “indigenized” and developed local momentum. Among the chief formative institutions of the country was the army. The policy of conscription gradually gave rise to an army that grew from 12,000 in 1932 to 43,000 men in 1941 (Tripp 2000, 78).

The seeds for a powerful and politicized offi cer corps were planted during that time period, the rise of which would play an enormous role in Iraq’s future state building. Although Faisal I had promoted the idea of a national army as a counterweight to divisive tribal tendencies, the pan-Arab platform that army offi cers espoused created problems with those minorities and sects at odds with that particular philosophy. Instituted by Faisal I as a force for unity, the army gradually became an ideological instrument that alienated important forces in the country.

Moreover, Iraq from the 1930s to the 1950s exhibited certain fault lines that were only to grow in severity as the years wore on. First, as has been noted, was the preponderance of a propertied tribal strata in the National Assembly, promoting its interests over all others. The various tribal laws enacted on the shaykhs’ behalf, fi rst by the British and, later on, by the independent monarchy, only served to buttress them in power, while reserving the most wretched future for the masses of landless, impoverished tribesmen and peasants who suffered under the shaykhs’ whims.

Second, the fabled prize for which the British had occupied Iraq from north to south—oil—did not generate large profi ts until the late 1950s, and those profi ts, when they arrived, largely went to insulate the state from popular pressures. As a result of the economic disparities and social inequalities characteristic of Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s, widespread discontent against the state and its representatives increased during this period, spawning large nationalist and socialist or communist movements that grew explosive with time.

King Ghazi’s brief reign (r. 1933–39) and the period of the regency (1939–58, during which Prince Abdulillah ruled as regent for Faisal II) saw several important developments. Chief among them was the consolidation of various strongmen in power, the most important of them being King Faisal I’s boon companion, the many-times prime minister Nuri al-Said.

The latter quickly developed into the most forceful politician of his age, seating and unseating parliaments and planning Iraq’s foreign policy in the face of Arab nationalist pressure, Iranian and Turkish designs and subterfuge, and sometimes obdurate British policy. Meanwhile, a continuously expanding Iraqi army, staffed by nationalist generals, held to its own vision of Iraq’s future. The confl icting visions of the civilian leadership of Iraq and that of the army generals eventually created an unstable political atmosphere and a ripe climate for coups d’état, the fi rst in 1936, the second in 1941, and the third, and most tragic of all, in 1958.