A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp. Pub: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2000. Pp: 311. Pbk: £13.95.
Iraq’s history in the twentieth century can be seen as an encapsulation of the recent history of theUmmah. During the first 20 years of the century, the areas which were to become Iraq constituted three key provinces of the Ottoman khilafah, until the Ottomans’ defeat in the First World War and the European powers’ subsequent occupation of the Arab lands. The new nation-state then spent the next 40-odd years under a Hashemite monarchy installed (and, for most of that time, controlled) by the British; since 1958 Iraq has been ruled by nationalist dictators following a western-style secular ideology. It is presently ruled by a leader whose name has justifiably become synonymous with ruthless brutality, and who was one of the West’s closest allies until he turned against them a little over a decade ago. During the last decade, the West has used Iraq to demonstrate the destructive power it is able and willing to turn on its enemies should the need arise, killing millions of Iraqi people in the process, and reducing the country to one of the poorest in the world.
Most people’s understanding of Iraqi history and politics is inevitably shaped by the massive spin against Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime that the West has generated in order to justify its war on Iraq in 1991 and its siege of the country in both military and economic terms since then. Even serious discussions of Iraq have been distorted by this geo-political context, either by focusing on the vilification of Hussein, or on the ruthlessness of the sanctions regime. The greatest achievement of this history of Iraq, by British academic Charles Tripp, a political scientist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, is that it discusses Iraq’s recent history in precisely the same informed, critical, impersonal and analytical style as he applies to the rest of its history.
Tripp provides an analytical overview of the whole of Iraq’s history, with particular emphasis on the evolution of the political order and the development of the state. Iraq was literally created by a decision of the British government in 1920, in a radical break from the political evolution of the region under the Ottoman state. Tripp characterises the effects of this as being the creation of "a new framework for politics" which different parts of Iraqi society approached in different ways, with varying degrees of success. For Tripp, the interaction between the new state and established social groups in Iraqi society has been a dominant feature of modern Iraqi history.
"The state has been captured by distinct groups of Iraqis, but has also played a role in reconstituting social identities through the logic of state power," he tells us. "In neither case has the process been completed. Nor has it always been clear which logic is the dominant one — that of state power, or that of the group which happened to be in the ascendent. It is this very ambiguity in the history of the relationship which is characteristic of the modern history of Iraq."
Tripp traces a number of key features of Iraqi politics through this period back to the earliest days of the new state, under British tutelage, and even further back, to Ottoman times in some cases. The most important of these is the manipulation of sectarian and ethnic divisions by central powers in order to maintain their power. Early in British rule, Tripp tells us, there had been debate within British circles about which of Iraq’s various groups should be promoted, with some favouring the urban nationalists and others tribal and religious groups. Tripp argues that, by promoting different groups at various times — and by systematically excluding others, such as the Shi’a who constitute a majority of the population — the British institutionalised the informal and conflicting social forces that have subsequently dominated Iraqi politics.
Many of these forces predated British rule, but their characteristic relationship to each other and the new state was shaped by British policy. The result was that the state, rather than dominating and defining the political sphere, simply became another public space in which existing political forces contended for power, often through traditional and well-established mechanisms such as patronage and kinship networks.
Nor was the state the only new institution to be defined by older forces. Precisely the same was also true of the Iraqi military, established partly to play an integrative role in the new state, which became a major political factor in Iraqi history, both before and after the fall of the monarchy in 1958. Here Tripp demonstrates that many of the features of Hussein’s rule in the last decades of the century — the centralization of power in the hands of a dominant clan group in society, the use of force to resolve differences, the politicization of the officer corps — can be traced back to earlier Iraqi history, and have their roots in the structures and norms of politics established during the British period.
Tripp’s style is to combine a chronological history with analytical sections drawing out these themes and continuities of Iraq’s history and political evolution. The last section of the book — chapters five and six — focuses on the rise of Saddam Hussein and an analysis of Iraq’s politics under his rule that is cool, impartial and largely free of the shrill, indignant moralizing tone that tends to detract from other accounts. Instead of focusing on Hussein’s brutality and ruthlessness, Tripp shows how his rise to power and his highly personalised conception of the state were based on the traditional elements of Iraqi politics, hence the regime’s strength and stability.
This political analysis apart, many readers will look for Tripp’s analysis of key issues in Iraq’s recent history, such as the invasion of Iran in 1980, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Hussein’s continued defiance of the "international community," and the impact on Iraq of the West’s ongoing war and international sanctions regime. Many are likely to be disappointed that Tripp does not make more of their particular position, whatever it may be; however, he does provide balanced and convincing discussions of Hussein’s positions at each of these key junctures without falling into the easy position of attributing everything to his personality. He demonstrates, for example, why Hussein invaded Iran, why it was convenient for the West and other countries to support him, and prevent his defeat, and how similar factors explain his later invasion of Kuwait and his continued defiance.
Tripp concludes with a sobering discussion of the country’s future prospects, considering that any future challenge to Hussein’s regime is likely to come from within the armed forces that brought Hussein himself to power, and again be based on the same traditional bases of political life in the country. It is a conclusion which, like the rest of the book, is based on a highly convincing reading of Iraq’s history and society. So it offers very few grounds for optimism about Iraq’s future, and it rings all the truer for that seeming lack.