Monday, February 14, 2011

Iraq Is Not A “Made-Up” Country

As a follow up to the interview with Stephen Donnelly, here is a map of the three Ottoman provinces in 1914 that would eventually become Iraq. Donnelly noted that the widespread belief that Iraq is a “made up” country created by British imperialists after World War I is actually a myth. Iraq, like many other Middle Eastern and North African countries, has its roots in the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire conquered what is present day Iraq in 1534. For the next hundred years, the area became a battleground between the Ottomans and the Safavid Empire in Iran. This was also the beginning of feuds between Sunnis and Shiites. The Safavids declared Shiism the official religion of Persia, and wanted control of the holy sites in Baghdad, Najaf, and Karbala. The Ottomans on the other hand, empowered local Sunnis as a buffer against their rival. By 1638, the Ottomans had largely won control of the territory. They eventually broke the area up into provinces, established districts, implemented land reform, and local administration, and would fluctuate between trying to impose direct rule and reforms with looser control, which local tribes and sheikhs would take advantage of.

The map shows that the Vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra combined together have almost the exact same borders as modern Iraq. The major difference is that the western border of Iraq was not included at that time because it was a desert region. In fact, after Iraqi independence that area would be designated the Northern Desert and Southern Desert until 1990 when they were incorporated into Anbar, Karbala, Najaf, Muthanna, and Basra governorates.

The map also shows that Kuwait was considered an independent area. In 1752, the tribes of the area elected Sheikh Sabah I bin Jabir, Sheikh of Kuwait. He was the first member of the Sabah family that continues to rule the country to this day. In 1899 Kuwait and England signed an agreement that largely passed control of the country’s foreign policy to the British. The deal was made out of fear that the Ottoman Empire and its German allies might try to take part of the kingdom. It’s for that reason that Kuwait is labeled under British control on the map.

This history, which dates back more than 450 years, helped shape modern Iraq making it far more than a made-up state. Its roots go back to the borders created by the Ottomans, and the remnants of the internal administration they imposed are still felt today.


Center for Research and Studies on Kuwait, “Kuwait And Britain A Historic Friendship,” 2007

Library of Congress, “Iraq: Historical Setting,” Library of Congress Country Study

The Royal Ark, “Kuwait, Al-Sabah Dynasty Genealogy”


Maury said...

That's good work Joel. The notion that the Middle East was created willy nilly by the Brits is pretty widespread. Gospel even.

Joel Wing said...

Unfortunately true. Almost every time I look at comments on other people's blogs or newspaper articles the idea of Iraq being a "made-up" country comes up

Steve Donnelly, AICP said...


These essential political administrative boundaries trace directly back to the Persian "satraps" conquered by Alexander the Great and (later) assigned to Perdikkas following the death of Alexander (323 BC), and (still later) occupied as Roman "provinces".

The interesting differences between the older periods in Iraq and (Greece, too) was the emphasis on "places" (cities and the places surrounding them---City-States), while the later periods emphasize "spaces" (colonies, province, districts) contained and controlled within Empires.

Once imperial "spaces" became the dominant paradigm for societal organization in the Mesopotamian Plain (Greek for the "Land Between Two Rivers"), or the Tigris-Euphrates River Plan, the importance of once-heralded City-States, and their respective cities (Babylon, Ctesiphon, Arrapha (Kirkuk), Hatra) wained in importance.

Nonetheless, the deep-rooted City-State tradition, embedded in Iraqi DNA, continues to resurface, whether in the Tikriti (Saddam) Era, or the current issues in Mosul, Irbil, Baghdad, and Basra.

Iraq's peoples know where Iraq is, and was far back into the past, but city-states and regions remain the pronounced differentiation for many internal matters.

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