Iraq: Changing face of a land with a history of turbulence

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IT IS hardly surprising that the committee drafting Iraq’s constitution is having difficulty reaching agreement: for almost all its long history, Iraq has been held together only by force. In the past 400 years it has arguably known only 13 years, from 1945 to 1958, when it was independent, democratic and unified.

Mesopotamia has been settled for at least 12,000 years. Between the 10th and 12th centuries Baghdad was capital of the Muslim world. The city’s destruction and the ravaging of the countryside by the Mongols was followed by slow decline. The arrival of the Ottomans in Baghdad in the 16th century halted the rivalries between Shias and Sunnis and established the triumph of Sunnism. They governed what is present-day Iraq as five provinces, consolidating them to three, with governorships based in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

There were tribal revolts, incursions from Arabia and attempts at administrative reform. Yet the Turks kept a tight grip on the provinces, challenged only at the start of the First World War when an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force occupied Basra.

The British did not reach Baghdad until 1917; Mosul, in the north, was in Turkish hands until the armistice. Under a secret Anglo-French agreement (Sykes-Picot), Iraq became a British mandate, and the three provinces were merged into a single political entity with Faisal, the son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, established as King in 1921. The borders were defined partly by the orientalist Gertrude Bell, but Britain had only shaky political control.

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