Middle East Resources

The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Middle East Ravaged by Military Coup d’états

By Bassam Michael Madany

Part III: The Bloody Iraqi Upheavals


It is an exceedingly difficult and complicated task to describe the part that Iraq plays in “The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Middle East”.

In a footnote to my first article on the history of Post-Colonial Middle East regarding Syria, I noted that the arrival of the Assad family made dictatorship certain. They were members of the minority Alawite sect and authoritarians with a vengeance. They believed it necessary to control the majority Sunnis.


Iraq is even more complicated. While the majority of Iraqis are Arabs, there are also Kurds, living in the north, Turcoman in the area around Kirkuk, and the Yazidis (around 500,000) who in recent times suffered tremendously when the ISIS (Khalifate) overran their area. Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Jews always lived in Iraq. The Jewish population numbering around 90,000 was forced to leave in the aftermath of the creation of Israel in 1948.

So, to explain the bloody upheavals that afflicted the country since the middle of the twentieth century, it is instructive to consider the history of Iraq prior to its emergence as a modern state in the 1920’s. Besides these demographic and religious complexities, Iraq (known as Mesopotamia for centuries) shares borders with Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. Its coastline on the Persian Gulf measures 32 miles, making it almost landlocked.

Early in the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluks who had controlled Egypt and the Levant for centuries, thus becoming the major power throughout the Middle East until the early years of the twentieth century. When the Great War began in 1914, the Ottomans joined Germany and Austria in the war against Britain, France, and Russia. 

Britain and France fought the Ottoman Turks on several fronts. In 1917, British forces entered Baghdad, and by 1920, they completed the occupation of Iraq. During the war, Britain had negotiated with Sharif Hussein, the ruler of Hejaz in western Arabia, to join the Allies in the war against the Ottomans, promising independence for the Arabs of the Middle East. At the same time, Britain agreed with the French to divide the area into spheres of influence between themselves.

In October 1918, Emir Faysal, a son the Sharif Hussein, liberated Damascus from Ottoman rule, formed a government, and was proclaimed as King of Syria. Two years later, French forces intervened and expelled him from Syria. Eventually, the League of Nations granted France the Mandate to “guide” Syria and Lebanon into independence. Great Britain received a similar mandate vis-à-vis Palestine and Transjordan.

In 1921, the British named Emir Faysal as Iraq’s first king. He ruled for 12 years under a constitutional monarchy until his death from a heart attack, at age 48. Faysal’s son, Ghazi, succeeded his father in 1933, but died six years later in a car crash in Baghdad. The title of king fell to Faysal II, who was just three years old; his reign began under the regency of his uncle, Crown Prince Abdel-Ilah. Faysal II was educated in Britain at Harrow, along with his cousin, the future King Hussein of Jordan. In 1953, Faysal II took the throne at age 18. His rule was to last for five years!

I’ll never forget the shocking news reports on the 14th of July 1958. The Iraqi Monarchy was overthrown in a predawn coup by General Abd al-Karim Qassim and Colonel Abd al-Salaam Arif. The Revolution met virtually no opposition. King Faysal II and his uncle Abdel-Ilah were executed, as were many others in the royal family. Prime Minister Nuri al-Said was killed after attempting to escape disguised as a veiled woman. King Faisal II was 23 and engaged to marry.

Just as the French Revolution of 1789 was followed by a “Reign of Terror,” so did the Iraqi Revolution; it ushered in decades of instability marked by coups, vendettas between Iraqi Communists and Baathists, savage attacks on Iraqi Kurds, and eight years of warfare between  Iraq and Iran during the 1980s; culminating with the occupation of Kuwait in the 1990s!  

On 8 February 1963, a coup d'état took place led by Abd al-Salam Arif that ended with the removal of Abd al-Karim Qassim from power. The next day, Qasim offered his surrender in return for safe passage out of the country. His request was denied and was executed in midafternoon! 
In April 1966, Arif was killed in a helicopter crash and his brother, Abd al-Rahman Arif, was installed in office. Two years later, he was deposed in a bloodless coup on 17 July 1968, and was exiled to Turkey. 

Saddam Hussein, 31, rode through Baghdad atop a tank in the July 1968 coup. His kinsman, Gen. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, who led the coup became president. Like Bakr, Hussein was from Tikrit, a Sunni town north of Baghdad that historically had fielded a disproportionate share of army officers. Saddam’s ferocity and cunning had impressed President Hassan al-Bakr, who appointed him to run the national security apparatus. In that capacity he set out to eliminate his main rivals, and he placed relatives and fellow Tikritis in positions of power and influence in the Baath Party, the armed forces, and the government. In 1979, Saddam Hussein became president following Bakr’s resignation, and began a series of horrific executions of thousands of Iraqis, including members of the Baath Party and of the Armed Forces.i

On 22 September 1980, Saddam Hussein launched his eight-year war against the Islamic Republic of Iran. It turned out to be very costly in human life for both sides of the conflict. Saddam had counted on a demoralized and weakened Iranian armed forces; but his estimate was wrong. At first, Iraqi army advanced along a broad front into western Iran and captured Khorramshahr; but by the end of the year the Iraqi offensive had bogged down. Iran counterattacked adding the Revolutionary Guards to the regular armed forces who compelled the Iraqis to give ground in 1981. In 1982, Iraq withdrew its forces from all captured Iranian territory and sought a peace agreement with Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini decided to continue the war and launched attacks that included human assault waves of untrained and unarmed young boys who would sacrifice their lives in the mine fields planted by the Iraqis. The number of casualties was great. Estimates range from 1,000,000 to twice that number. The number killed on both sides was perhaps 500,000, with Iran suffering the greatest losses. 
Saddam’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait in August 1990 resulted in the assembling of a coalition several of armies led by the US. The Gulf War began on 17 January 1991 and ended in the eviction of the Iraqi invaders from Kuwait at the end of February 1991.

The next event that confronted Saddam Hussein was the growing suspicion among Western powers that he was engaged in the production of “weapons of mass destruction.” Unconvinced by his denial of such projects, the United States invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. On 9 April, US forces entered Baghdad bringing an end to Saddam’s 24-year dictatorship. He was captured on 14 December 2003. In October 2005, Saddam went on trial before the Iraqi High Tribunal. He was charged with the killing of 148 townspeople in Al-Dujail, a mainly Shiite town, in 1982. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to death by hanging. Days after, an Iraqi court upheld his sentence; in December 2006, Saddam was executed.ii

While the American occupation is too complicated to briefly summarize, I believe something should be said about some of Paul Bremer’s actions as the US Administrator of “A Provisional Coalition Administration of Iraq,” which was to supervise Iraq’s transition to normalcy.                                                                                                                 
One of Bremer’s first acts was to dissolve the entire former Iraqi Army, putting close to half a million former soldiers out of work. Bremer was later heavily criticized for his action. In fact, American commanders at the time were negotiating with senior Iraqi army officers on how to use the Iraqi army for security purposes. Beside Bremer’s action vis-à-vis the army, he fired thousands of schoolteachers and removed Baath Party members from government positions. Bremer’s actions were not helpful to the normalization of political life in Iraq. These actions did much to further destabilize Iraq as it transitioned into what was hoped in the West would be a democratic state. rather, they added to the tensions that have marked the governance of Iraq since 2003! 


By calling my series “The Tragedy of Post-Colonial Middle East,” I don’t imply that it was inevitable that the history of Post-Colonial Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, should have followed the trajectory it did! I don’t approach my historical work from a deterministic motif. Also, my use of the term “Post-Colonial” must be taken as a purely historical marker. 

To understand why Syria, Egypt, and Iraq had gone through their travails, one common factor should be noted. The coups were mounted by adventuresome army officers with no background in civilian governance. They were hungry for power and once obtained power is difficult to surrender to the democratic processes which we in the West hold so dear They turned on their own people, creating societies of fear and manipulation. It is my hope that eventually the Arab countries will enjoy freedom and security under properly ordered and functioning democracies. That would allow them to meet the mounting challenges that impact the lives of the 300 million men, women, and children living in peace, from Morocco on the Atlantic, to Iraq on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers!


iFor details of the murderous deeds of Saddam Hussein, I watched/listened to a series of Interviews conducted by a professional journalist, with Iraqi officials (mostly diplomats) who had served before and after Saddam’s assuming the Presidency. They defected when they were recalled back to Iraq, fearing execution as happened to most of the Baath Party leadership and governments officials.
In assembling materials for this article, I relied on an Arabic language program شاهد على العصر (A Witness on the Epoch) i.e. an eyewitness account of events as archived on YouTube channels. Sessions lasted around 50 minutes.                        

The links listed below relate (in Arabic) extremely painful and shocking events in the modern history of Iraq, such as televised public trials of “conspirators” who had planned to overthrow Saddam Hussein. One by one, they were carried away for execution. An Iraqi author, Kanan Makiya’s book “Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq,” described the horrific atmosphere that hovered over the Iraqi society during the presidency of Saddam Hussein!


ii https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saddam-Hussein