Hashemite Dynasty in Iraq

King Faysal of Iraq
King Faysal of Iraq

The San Remo Treaty (1920) following World War I granted Britain control over Iraq as a mandate. Following the bloody Iraqi rebellion against the mandate, the British decided at the 1921 Cairo Conference, attended by Sir Percy Cox as Iraqi high commissioner among others, to provide a semblance of independence by establishing an Iraqi monarchy that would be closely tied to Britain.

A member of the respected Hashemite family, Faysal (also Feisal), Sherif Husayn's son, was approached about becoming king of Iraq. Faysal was a favorite of the British from their relationship with him during the Arab revolt, and the French had recently militarily ousted him as king of Syria.

Faysal reluctantly agreed to accept the position after a plebiscite had been held to confirm his support within Iraq. The plebiscite was held under British supervision, and Faysal was elected king.

Faysal was crowned in the summer of 1921 with Cox remaining as the British high commissioner. The 1922 treaty between Iraq and Britain allowed for direct British administration over defense and domestic security; British advisers also retained veto power in other ministries.

Legally, Faysal ruled under the 1925 constitution, which was written by the British. The constitution provided for a two-house parliament and a cabinet with wide executive powers. Elections were effectively stage-managed by the cabinet, and martial law was periodically implemented to prevent disorder.

The new government faced major domestic and regional problems. Iraq was a complex society of ethnic and religious groups. Kurds, who were Sunni Muslims, dominated the north and had nationalist ambitions for an independent state of their own.

Sunni Muslim Arabs lived mostly in the center around Baghdad, and the population in the south and the main city of Basra was mostly Shi'i Arab. There were also small populations of Assyrian Christians (who were persecuted in the 1930s), other Christians scattered around the nation, and Jews, who resided mostly in Baghdad.

The borders of the new nation were unclear, and it had difficult relations with neighboring Iran. The borders with Iran were not settled until 1937, when Iraq was given sovereignty over the Shatt al'Arab in the south and Iran gained the port of Abadan on the Persian Gulf.

Along its southern border Iraq claimed Kuwait, an impoverished territory but one that had a long coastline along the Persian Gulf, but the claims were rejected by Cox at the 'Uqayr conference of 1922, leaving Iraq practically landlocked. There were also disputes with Turkey over the northern region of Mosul, but the British intervened in Iraq's favor.

The territory, with its oil reserves, remained under Iraqi—and by extension British—control. In the north the British also periodically put down secessionist movements among the Kurds and again used poison gas as they had done during the 1920 rebellion.

The preponderance of Sunnis in key government and economic positions and the underrepresentation of the large Shi'i population also posed problems. Throughout the interwar years Nuri Said, who was notably pro-British, served repeatedly as prime minister.

Economically, the revenues from petroleum helped create an urban middle class and finance some irrigation projects. A pipeline from Iraq to the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean was completed in the 1930s. But the concessions between the petroleum companies and the government favored the companies, and most Iraqis felt that the country did not receive appropriate compensation for its major resource.

Mounting nationalist and anti-British sentiments in the army posed problems for both the monarchy and the British. The nationwide curriculum instituted by Sati al-Husri, a pan-Arabist, stressed Arab history and culture and encouraged the development of national loyalties. This further alienated many Kurds and Shi'i, who felt, correctly, that they were underrepresented.

The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1930 provided for the future full independence of Iraq but also enforced a close alliance with Britain. Under the treaty, which was the model for the 1936 treaty between Britain and Egypt, Britain retained the veto over Iraqi foreign policy and the right to station troops on Iraqi territory. With independence in 1932, Iraq was admitted into the League of Nations.

Faysal died in 1933 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi, who was far more nationalistic and anti-British than his father had been. He increased the size of the army, which played an increasingly important role in Iraqi politics. A number of nationalist clubs and political parties were formed in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the People's Party and the National Party, formed in the 1920s, and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), established in 1934.

Like many other Arab nationalists, Ghazi viewed relations with Nazi Germany as a possible way to decrease British control over the region. As war loomed, Britain and Nuri Said became increasingly worried about the monarch's loyalty. Consequently, when Ghazi died in an automobile crash in 1939, many Iraqis suspected foul play by the British. Because Ghazi's son was too young to rule, his openly pro-British uncle Abdul-Ilah was made regent.

Rashid Ali al-Qaylani, a judge and former cabinet member, became prime minister in the early 1940s. Al-Qaylani and key army officers, known as the Golden Square, looked to the Axis powers to counter the British in Iraq. After al-Qaylani was removed from office in a vote of no confidence, he was returned to power in a military coup d'état in the spring of 1941.

The regent fled to Jordan, which was ruled by Hashemite amir Abdullah, a close relative. To protect their interests the British promptly landed troops from India at Basra. The Iraqis surrounded the key Habbaniyya military base near Baghdad, and the British retaliated by bombing the Iraqi troops.

The Iraqis held out, but with reinforcements from the Arab Legion (Jordanian forces commanded by the British), the British retook the base and ousted al-Qaylani and the Iraqi generals who had supported the coup. They were subsequently imprisoned, executed, or sent into exile. The British held Iraq, with Nuri Said often acting as prime minister, for the duration of World War II.

After the war Iraq joined the Arab League and participated along with other Arab armies in the 1948 ArabIsraeli War. Their loss in that war shocked Iraqis and resulted in mass uprisings, and Jews and Jewish-owned businesses were also attacked.

As pan-Arab nationalism grew in the postwar era, the power and influence of the pro-British monarchy and its supporters eroded. Nuri ignored or underestimated demands for reforms and mounting opposition, and the monarchy was overthrown in a bloody revolution led by the Iraqi army in 1958.