Iraq: People, History, Politics

By Gunter, Michael M. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Iraq: People, History, Politics


Gunter, Michael M., The Middle East Journal


IRAQ Iraq: People, History, Politics, by Gareth Stansfield. Cambridge, UK, and Maiden, MA: Polity Press, 2007. xv + 208 pages. Notes to p. 220. Chron. to p. 228. Internet links to p. 231. Bibl. to p. 248. Index to p. 262. $22.95 paper.

Reviewed by Michael M. Gunter

Gareth Stansfield has written an easyto-read, relatively short political history of Iraq that packs an enormous amount of information within a heuristic four-part framework that encourages alternative interpretation of the facts. The first part, the artificiality debate, concerns whether Iraq is an artificial state "cobbled together by imperial powers" (p. 28) following World War I and, if so, how its 80-year history may have tempered this artificiality. After all "virtually all states are to some extent, as human constructs, artificial.... The modern state of Iraq has existed for nearly a century and has created its own reality irrespective of its beginnings" (p. 29). Utilizing a multi-layered approach to look at all that has happened concerning the recent wars Iraq has fought, the impact of international sanctions, and US post-Saddam Husayn policies, however, Stansfield concludes, "personally, I do not see how the situation can be engineered in order to allow a return to the situation as it once, maybe was" (p. 204).

The second part, the identity debate, deals with how Iraqis identify themselves and how others identify them. What does it means to be an Iraqi? What is Iraqi nationalism? How do these concepts contrast with Sunni and Shi'ite sectarian and Arab and Kurdish ethnic identity? "It is possible to show examples of a secular civic nationalism existing at one time and place, only then to see the most rampant examples of ethnically based nationalism occurring in another" (p. 74). The identity debate "commences by considering the interplay between Arab [qawmiyya] and Iraqi [wataniyya] nationalisms" (p. 51).

The complex Sunni-Shi'ite divide illustrates how "Iraq's Islamic heritage is rich and complex" (p. 57). Stansfield identifies five major issues that have played a pivotal role in the formation of an agitated Shi'ite community in Iraq: (1) political underrepresentation; (2) economic grievances; (3) cultural encroachment by secular Arab nationalism; (4) citizenship rights equated with Iranian encroachment in Iraqi affairs; and (5) secularization assuming functions previously the responsibility of religious establishments. Yet the majority Shiite population in what later became Iraq did not even exist until the 19th century. As for ethnic identities in Iraq, it is customary to list four groups: Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, and Chaldo-Assyrian.

The third part, the dictator debate, addresses the involvement of the military in political life, the reasons for the rise of an authoritarian government culminating with the regime of Saddam Husayn, and a grandiose rentier system based on oil revenues. The result was "devastating for the development of a civil society ... [and] was to 'atomize' Iraqi society" (p. 97). Was this sequence of events inevitable? Iraq's invasions of Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, as well as the continuing Kurdish problem figure importantly in this analysis.

Stansfield argues that the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) led to significant economic problems and an immense debt that, in the mind of Saddam Husayn, made the attack on Kuwait necessary. "This debt, accumulated over a mere eight years, was 254 per cent of all the oil revenue Iraq had received in the 57 years that it had been an oil producer" (p. 119). "A quick and easy fix was needed to improve Iraq's precarious economic position. That fix would be Kuwait" (p. 122). "The real motives were ... related to the survival of his regime" (p. 126).

The author explains the failure of the ensuing Shi'ite uprising in 1991 in terms of narrow Shi'ite religious goals that were "a questionable tactic . …

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