Why is Iraq So Unstable?
If you’re in search of bad news, you can rely on Iraq. Terrorists, internal conflict, poor government, lethal explosions—these are the all too familiar headlines. If you want uplifting stories of scientific breakthroughs, social progress, Nobel peace prizes, or rescued animals, it’s better to look elsewhere. Iraq’s recent past is sad. Much of its distant past is sad, too.
Why? What did Iraq—or Mesopotamia to use its ancient name—do to deserve all this pain? As we’ll see, the answer is very little. Most of Iraq’s troubles have been caused by outsiders. Iraqis bear the awful consequences of what other people have done to their land.
It wasn’t always this way. Mesopotamia was home to two of the most impressive empires of the ancient world—Assyria and Babylon. Then, twelve hundred years ago, Baghdad became the centre of the Islamic world. Its architecture was stunning. Its colleges and libraries were among the finest in the world—far ahead of anything in Europe at the time. Traders traveled thousands of miles to its bazaars. Baghdad was the setting for Sinbad, Aladdin and the other stories that make up the Arabian Nights. The city was prosperous and peaceful, with Muslims, Christians and Jews living together inside its walls.
The glory days did not last. Baghdad would be destroyed—the first in a series of five disasters that have made Iraq the mess it is today.
Disaster one: the Mongols. They came on horseback from northeast Asia to conquer and destroy. In 1258, it was Baghdad’s turn. The Mongols slaughtered tens of thousands and looted the city. They rolled the Muslim ruler in a carpet and had their horses trample him to death. The Mongols also destroyed the irrigation systems, turning thousands of acres of productive land into the desert it still is today. 150 years later Timur, or Tamerlane, brought his armies and killed thousands more. Baghdad was now more a cemetery than a city.
Disaster two: neglect. After the Mongols left, the two new great powers in the Middle East were the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul, and the Safavid Empire of Persia (now Iran). Iraq was in the middle, and it became a warzone for the two empires. It was a vulnerable borderland, so neither side wanted to invest there. The irrigation was never rebuilt.
Disaster three: Great Britain. The British came to Mesopotamia during the First World War. The territory was then part of the Ottoman Empire, which was on the opposite side from Britain in the war. Britain defeated the Ottoman armies in southern Mesopotamia in 1914. They would stay there long after the war had ended. Why? Because under the sands of Iraq lay millions of barrels of oil, which Britain wanted to fuel its battleships.
After the First World War, Britain and France carved up much of the Middle East between them. They gave Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and other countries the borders they still have today, and shared out the countries between them. Britain took Iraq. If you’ve ever wondered why Iraq is so diverse—Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims, Arabs and Kurds all in the same country—here’s your answer. In particular, Britain wanted the Kurds in the north to be part of the same country as the Arabs in the south because much of the oil they wanted was up north. Iraq still struggles with these borders today.
The British introduced Iraq to the idea of democracy—but poisoned it. Iraq had elections and governments, but Iraqi leaders were puppets controlled by British masters who looked out for Britain’s interests first. It’s no wonder Americans were treated with suspicion when they arrived in Iraq and said they were going to establish a democracy.
Disaster four—and this one was homemade—Saddam Hussein. After Britain left, Iraq experienced a series of coups (illegal seizures of power) and unstable government. Saddam Hussein was part of a group that grabbed power in 1968. He became president in 1979.
If he had retired in 1979, Saddam would have gone down in history as one of the great Iraqis. His biggest success was to nationalize oil production—in other words, to make sure that all the profits from Iraq’s oil went to Iraq and not to foreign oil companies and investors. Saddam accomplished this in 1972, just before the price of oil went through the roof. Oil revenues were $1bn in 1973 and $26bn by 1980. Much of the money went into corrupt pockets but the rest funded schools and hospitals. Women in Iraq had better opportunities than anywhere else in the Arab world, with good schools, good jobs, and even government positions open to them.
But then Saddam blundered into two wars that devastated his country. In 1980, he declared war on Iran. When it ended eight years later, a quarter of a million Iraqis had died—including 4,000 Kurdish civilians who died when Saddam gave the order to use chemical weapons on their town. In 1990, Saddam sent his troops to conquer Kuwait. This would bring American troops to liberate Iraq’s tiny neighbour. However.
Disaster five: the USA. The US is merely the latest great power to take an interest in the land of Iraq. It pushed Saddam’s armies out of Kuwait and then in 2003 invaded Iraq, removed Saddam, and set up a new democratic government in the country.
Why the US did all this is hotly debated. Was it fighting terrorism and spreading democracy? Or were the wars more about securing access to Middle Eastern oil? There’s truth in both. What is clearer is the cost of these conflicts for the people of Iraq. More than a hundred thousand died. Millions fled their homes.
Even the good the US hoped to bring often turned sour. America gave the people of Iraq democracy, but it does not seem they thought very carefully about the conequences. Saddam and his cronies were Sunni Muslim, but the majority of the population has always been Shia Muslim. So democracy brought a Shia government to power in Iraq. This presented a headache to the US as it meant that Iraq now aligned itself with Shia Iran—America’s historic rival in the Middle East.
Worse, the Shia government favoured the Shia people who had voted for them. The Sunni minority became insecure and angry, which led to the emergence of Islamic State as a nasty, Sunni protest movement in western Iraq. At least Islamic State protected the Sunnis against the Shia government, said some. Iraq had far more terrorists a dozen years after the American invasion than before.
Is there hope for Iraq? Maybe. If the world can reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, its great powers will care much less about the Middle East. That, however, is unlikely to happen any time soon. In the meantime, countries like the US and Britain should do what they can to support peace and justice in Iraq. It’s the least we can do.