June 19, 2014
The Disintegration of the Iraqi State Has Its Roots in World War I : Created by European powers, the nation of Iraq may be buckling under the pressure of trying to unite three distinct ethnic groups (Scott Anderson, 6/19/14, SMITHSONIAN.COM)
For nearly 400 years prior to World War I, the lands of Iraq existed as three distinct semi-autonomous provinces, or vilayets, within the Ottoman Empire. In each of these vilayets, one of the three religious or ethnic groups that predominated in the region - Shiite, Sunni and Kurd - held sway, with the veneer of Ottoman rule resting atop a complex network of local clan and tribal alliances. This delicate system was undone by the West, and for an all-too-predictable reason: oil.In order to raise an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, who had joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, Great Britain forged a wartime alliance with Emir Hussein of the Hejaz region of Arabia, now the western edge of Saudi Arabia bordered by the Red Sea. The 1915 pact was a mutually advantageous one. Since Hussein was an extremely prominent Islamic religious figure, the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the alliance inoculated the British against the Ottoman accusation that they were coming into the Middle East as Christian Crusaders. In return, Britain's promises to Hussein were extravagant: independence for virtually the entire Arab world.What Hussein didn't know was that, just months after reaching this accord, the British government secretly made a separate - and very much conflicting - pact with their chief ally in World War I, France. Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the future independent Arab nation was to be relegated to the wastelands of the Arabian peninsula, while all the most politically and commercially valuable portions of the Arab world - greater Syria, Mesopotamia - would be carved into British and French imperial spheres.This double-cross was finally laid bare at the postwar Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and solidified at the San Remo Conference in April 1920. Under the terms of these imperial agreements, France was to be given much of greater Syria - essentially the modern-day borders of that country, along with Lebanon - while the British would possession of the vast swath of the Arab world just below, an expanse stretching from Palestine in the west all the way to Iraq.But if history has shown that it's always risky to divide a historical homeland, as the British and French had done in greater Syria, even more perilous is to create an artificial nation - and this is precisely what the British had done in Iraq.
Posted by Orrin Judd at June 19, 2014 4:30 PM