Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny

Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny

Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny

Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny


Why did a group from the Iraqi army seize control of the government and wage a disastrous war against Great Britain, rejecting British and liberal values for those of a militaristic Germany? What impact did these actions have on the thirty-year regime of Saddam Hussein?

Departing from previous studies explaining modern Iraqi history in terms of class theory, Reeva Simon shows that cultural and ideological factors played an equal, if not more important, role in shaping events. In 1921 the British created Iraq, and an entourage of ex-Ottoman army officers, the Sharifians, became the new ruling elite. Simon contends that this elite, returning to an Iraq made up of different ethnic, religious, and social groups, had to weld these disparate elements into a nation. Pan-Arabism was to be the new ideological source of unity and loyalty. Schools and the army became the means through which to implant it, and a series of military coups gave the officers the chance to act in its name. The result was an abortive revolt against Britain in 1941. And the legacy of the revolt is still apparent in the next two generations of Iraqi officers that led to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

This updated edition locates the sources of Iraqi nationalism in the experience of these ex-Ottoman army officers who used the emergent pan-Arabism to weld a disparate population into a nation. Simon shows that the relationships forged between Iraqi officers and Germans in Istanbul before WWI left deep legacies that go a long way toward explaining the disastrous war against Great Britain in 1941, the rejection of liberal values, the revolution of 1958 in which the military finally seized power, and the outlook of the leadership recently overthrown by American and British armies.


This is a book of historical interpretation. As such, it seeks to answer the question: Why did a group of army officers, who had seized control of the government of Iraq in 1941, proceed to wage a disastrously futile war against Great Britain? Why did these officers reject the British and liberal democratic values, turning instead to a militaristic Germany, whose political ideology stood at the extreme edge of Romantic nationalism? What was their legacy for the future?

On the surface, the answer seems obvious. As a victor in World War I, although responsible for the creation of the modern state of Iraq, Britain, in consort with France, was instrumental in dividing up the Arab areas of the former Ottoman Empire and of occupying Iraq. The officers, educated in Istanbul and returning to Iraq to play a leading role in the new state, were first and foremost Sunni pan-Arab nationalists, dreaming of the unity of an Arab nation encompassing the Fertile Crescent and Arabia. For them, the situation was intolerable and smacked of betrayal by the same politicians in Whitehall who were ostensibly leading Iraq to full independence. For while the façade of independence and of political democracy existed, the British exerted control in the background—through the Embassy where the British ambassador reigned primus inter pares and via a covey of British advisors who were directly involved in areas from political administration to landholding adjudication and the suppression of tribal revolts. The reality was that Iraq was only nominally independent, so when the opportunity arose and the British Empire seemed about to be overrun by the Axis powers in 1941, the Iraqis turned to Germany. The enemy of the enemy is a friend.

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