Since the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), historians, political scientists, economists and pundits have been writing books, articles and papers on Iraq. Liora Lukitz's book differs from many of its predecessors by the obvious degree of care and effort the author has put into her work. It deals with the formative era in the history of Iraq, the period of the monarchy(1921-58). In this period the foundations of the modem Iraqi state were laid, and, as the author demonstrates, many of the problems of that period continue today, although on a lesser scale. Chief among these are relations between the Sunni and Shia communities, Kurdish aspirations for more recognition and autonomy, and a degree of alienation from the central government among Assyrians, Turkmen and other minorities. It is on these problems, rather than the accomplishments of the early state, that the author has chosen to focus.
The author attempts to ascertain whether there is a national identity in Iraq and whether Iraqis collectively constitute a nation. After all, Iraq is a multi-ethnic state composed of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen and other linguistic groupings, and its Muslim population, between 90 and 95 percent of the total, is divided between Sunni and Shia sects. Because of this ethnic and linguistic diversity and the concentration of the population in different areas (Kurds in the north, Shia in the south, Turkmen in the northeast), Iraq's communities have tended to develop particular cultural personalities. It is perhaps this situation that has given Iraq a reputation throughout its history as the most difficult Arab country to govern.
The book deals with the fragility of the Iraqi state, focusing on the sociopolitical tensions among various groups, particularly those in the provinces. The author makes clear that ..this book purports to tell a story,, the story of Iraq's inception as a state as viewed by the inhabitants of the provinces ' (p. 9). Such a choice has its merits, as the majority of the population lived outside the capital during the period under study. It is in these areas where sociopolitical tensions are more obvious, and where little scholarly work has been done.
The book is divided into two main parts, one exploring the north, the other the center and south. The inhabitants of the north and south face two kinds of challenges. The first was the struggle within communities. In the north, intersectarian contention and personal feuds among Kurdish leaders kept the area in continual tension. There were also feuds between the Kurds and Assyrians. In the south there was rivalry among sheikhs (tribal leaders) and between landlords and farmers, with the landlord sheikhs attempting to keep the agricultural laborers under control.The second challenge was the struggle of provincial groups against the central government. Both the north and the south saw continual pressure from this government to bring them under control.
The fundamental thesis of the book is that the challenge to Iraq's national identity springs from British dependence on the Sunni Arab minority to govern under the mandate. The Sunnis comprised mainly Iraqis educated under the Ottomans, generally bureaucrats and army officers who were Arab nationalist in their political orientation. In 1930, when Britain decided to leave Iraq and the country was granted independence, Britain relinquished power to these Sunni Arabs.
Once in power, they aimed at imposing Arabic and an Arab curriculum on the Kurds and Turkmen. And they spread their doctrine of pan-Arab nationalism to Christians and even to the Shia as well. "For nationalist circles, independence meant national assertiveness and the possibility to shape the state institutions and cultural life according to the values of a renascent Arab nation" (p. 22). Successive governments in Baghdad followed policies of intense centralization, crushing revolts aimed at undermining the central power, such as the Assyrian revolt of 1933 and various Kurdish revolts aimed at autonomy. Because the Kurds refused to submit to Arabs despite continual attempts to oblige them to do so, "there was a cultural reaction from the Kurds, as a community with deeply rooted religious, cultural and social character is tics"(p.38).
The most interesting chapter in the book is Chapter 3, in which Lukitz deals with land tenure and state formation in the south. She gives a clear and precise account of the complicated land-tenure system, which, in the monarchical era, contributed to giving the sheikhs and rich landlords (locally called feudals) huge amounts of land and near-absolute power over the farmers. According to Lukitz, the British authorities under the mandate contributed to the creation of these economic and social imbalances by issuing regulations that "brought about the expansion of the sheikh's properties....This approach, intended to slow the process of tribal disintegration, led in fact to the concentration of great powers in the hands of a small group of sheikhs, who became the backbone of the British presence in the area" (p. 53). From independence until the fall of the monarchy in 1958, successive governments did little to correct these imbalances. Thus the poor Shia farmers were virtually helpless, a factor contributing to their alienation.
These same southern Shia, although Arab, failed, as the book tells us, to respond positively to the calls for Arab nationalism coming from Baghdad. They considered that ideology a Sunni product. The book also depicts Shia sheikhs and Sunni politicians in Baghdad building alliances and conspiring to make personal gains or to hold onto power rather than working to unify Iraq and create an Iraqi identity. In some cases, collaboration between Sunni politicians and Shiite landlords was for the purpose of revolting against the central government in Baghdad. Indeed, this process of putting most of the fertile land of Iraq in the hands of a few sheikhs, while impoverishing vast numbers of farmers, could be considered one of the indirect causes of the 1958 revolution that put an end to the monarchy. Soon after this revolution, the new republican regime proclaimed agrarian-reform laws that put an end to the feudal system and henceforth limited the size of land holdings.
Lukitz also deals with political developments in Iraq before and after the 1936 coup, known as the Bakr Sidqi coup, and with the failed 1941 Rashid Ali coup. Between the two coups, we are given an image of Iraqi politicians and army officers scrambling among themselves to seize power. Contrary to the book's contention, however, the Iraqi tilt toward Germany in the second half of the 1930s was gradual. Until the last days of the May 1941 coup, the officers and politicians involved thought they could bargain with the British and persuade them to change policy toward the Jews in Palestine in return for their support in the war.
On the whole, the book presents a pessimistic view of Iraq as a country where Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites and other minorities constantly confront each other. The reader unfamiliar with Iraq may well come to the conclusion that the Iraqis hate and mistrust one another and that there is little hope for a future in a unified state. In reality there is much more interaction among communities than is depicted in this book. Both among ethnic and sectarian groups there is intermarriage, trade and commerce, cohabitation in urban areas and neighborhoods, and a high degree of social intercourse and shared history. A sense of Iraqi identity has taken shape, even if it is more weakly felt in the provinces. It is worth noting that substantial urbanization has taken place m Iraq since the period under study: in the 1950s two-thirds of Iraq's population was rural; today three-quarters is urban. It is in cities-Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Irbil, Kirkuk-that ethnic and sectarian intermingling takes place. Modem communications have also contributed to creating more sense of "Iraqism" than in the pre-1958 period. Even the opposition to Saddam's regime today rarely talks of dividing Iraq along ethnic or sectarian lines.
Lukitz also fails to note that the idea of Arab nationalism was not a Sunni Arab monopoly. Among the many Iraqi Shiites who shared this orientation were Muham-Fadhil Jamall, a former Iraqi prime minister; Abd al-Karim al-Uzri, a former minister of finance, and Muhammad Mahdi Kubbah, head of the Istiqlal party. Some urban Christian intellectuals also advocated Arab nationalism, among them Rafael Botti, editor of the daily Al-Bilad, and Majid Khadduri, a noted historian and juridical scholar.
Blaming all of the failures of the modem Iraqi state on the Sunni Arabs is misleading. This attitude on the part of many Westerners has already contributed to alienation and hostility toward the West on the part of the Sunni Arabs, who often remark, "If you do not want to be blamed for the failure of everything in Iraq, be sure you are not an Arab, a Sunni or an Arab nationalist."
The author relies heavily on published and unpublished British documents for her research. Although these documents are recognized as a critical primary source, the fact remains that most of their authors were not scholars. Often they transmitted their information to their superiors without much verification, thus sometimes making factual errors. For example, Khanagin is a city 80 miles from Baghdad, and not on its outskirts (p. 77). The National Democratic party (NDP) of the 1940s was headed by Kamil al-Jadirji, not Muhammad Hadid (p. 132). The editor of al-Yaqdha, a Baghdad daily, was Salman al-Safwani, not Muhammad Sadiq Shanshal (p. 132). The British occupied Basra immediately after the start of World War I in 1914, not in 1916(p.60). In 1936, Sadiq Shanshal was too young (24) to be referred to as a Sunni politician. He did not really reach such status until the 1940s and '50s through his work in the Istiqlal party.
Rich with lively examples, this book is a good piece of scholarship. While not everyone might agree with its conclusions, it is a creditable effort to give Iraqi history a somewhat different interpretation.