Behind the War on Iraq: Research Unit for Political Economy

Monthly Review, May 2003 | Go to article overview

Behind the War on Iraq: Research Unit for Political Economy


Three themes stand out in Iraq's history over the last century, in the light of the present U.S. plans to invade and occupy that country.

First, the attempt by imperialist powers to dominate Iraq in order to grab its vast oil wealth. in this regard there is hardly a dividing line between oil corporations and their home governments, with the governments undertaking to promote, secure, and militarily protect their oil corporations.

Second, the attempt by each imperialist power to exclude others from the prize.

Third, the vibrancy of nationalist opposition among the people of Iraq and indeed the entire region to these designs of imperialism. This is manifested at times in mass upsurges and at other times in popular pressure on whomever is in power to demand better terms from the oil companies or even to expropriate them.

The following account is limited to Iraq, and it provides only the barest sketch.

FROM COLONY TO SEMI-COLONY

Entry of Imperialism

Iraq, the easternmost country of the Arab world, was home to perhaps the world's first great civilization. It was known in classical times as Mesopotamia ("Land between the Rivers"--the Tigris and the Euphrates), and became known as Iraq in the seventh century. For centuries Baghdad was a rich and vibrant city, the intellectual center of the Arab world. From the sixteenth century to 1918, Iraq was a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, divided into three vilayets (provinces): Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the center, and Basra in the south. The first was predominantly Kurdish, the second predominantly Sunni Arab, and the third predominantly Shiite Arab.

As the Ottoman Empire fell into decline, Britain and France began extending their influence into its territories, constructing massive projects such as railroads and the Suez Canal and keeping the Arab countries deep in debt to British and French banks.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain directly ruled Egypt, Sudan, and the Persian Gulf, while France was the dominant power in Lebanon and Syria. Iran was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. The carving up of the Ottoman territories (from Turkey to the Arabian peninsula) was on the agenda of the imperialist powers.

When Germany, a relative latecomer to the imperialist dining table, attempted to extend its influence in the region by obtaining a "concession" to build a railway from Europe to Baghdad, Britain was alarmed. By this time the British government--in particular its navy-had realized the strategic importance of oil, and it was thought that the region might be rich in oil. Britain invested [pounds sterling]2.2 million in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (a fully British firm operating in Iran) to obtain a 51 percent stake in the company. Gulbenkian, an adventurous Armenian entrepreneur, argued that there must be oil in Iraq as well. At his initiative the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) was formed: 50 percent British, 25 percent German, and 25 percent Royal Dutch-Shell (Dutch- and British-owned).

The First World War (1914-1918) underlined for the imperialists the importance of control of oil for military purposes, and hence the urgency of controlling the sources of oil. As soon as war was declared with the Ottomans, Britain landed a force (composed largely of Indian soldiers) in southern Iraq, and eventually took Baghdad in 1917. It took Mosul in November 1918, in violation of the armistice with the Turks a week earlier.

During the war, the British carried on two contradictory sets of secret negotiations. The first was with Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In exchange for Arab revolt against Turkey, the British promised support for Arab independence after the war. However, the British insisted that Baghdad and Basra would be special zones of British interest where "special administrative arrangements" would be necessary to "safeguard our mutual economic interests. …

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