Thursday, December 7, 2023

Review The Struggle For Kirkuk, The Rise Of Hussein, Oil, And The Death Of Tolerance In Iraq

Astarjian, Henry, The Struggle For Kirkuk, The Rise Of Hussein, Oil, And The Death Of Tolerance In Iraq, Westport London: Praeger Security International, 2007


The title of this book is very misleading. It would have you believe it’s about Saddam Hussein, sectarianism and Kirkuk when it is actually about the life of the author Henry Astarjian growing up as an Armenian in Kirkuk and Baghdad under the Iraqi monarchy and General Qasim government. The author mixes his personal recollections of his family, friends and where he lived along with the history of the times such as the 1958 coup that ended the monarchy. It’s good to see another Iraqi voice published in English doubly so since it’s from an Armenian perspective, a group you hardly hear about.  


The first half of The Struggle For Kirkuk is about Astarjian’s Armenian background and growing up in Kirkuk. His family came to Iraq after the 1915 Ottoman massacre of Armenians and settled in Kirkuk. The author would often talk about that tragic event and how much he hated the Turks as a result. It also created a strong sense of Armenian nationalism which the author explains with a history of the community.


Kirkuk proved to be an ideal place for his family because of the diversity of the area where there were Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Jews. Astarjian talks about friends he had in each community but he singled out the Turkmen for scorn because they were of Turkish origin.


The politics of the time are included as well such as a discussion of the spread of communism. The Soviets appealed to Armenians by talking about the long connections between the two. Astarjian had several friends join the party and he went to some meeting but he became an opponent because of its authoritarianism. The Iraqi Communist Party became the largest in the country during the 1940s-50s. Astarjian was much more interested in British and American politics having fallen in love with them by listening to the radio during World War II.


The second part of the book is mostly about the 1958 coup that brought General Qasim to power. The author was in Baghdad when it happened and saw all the crowds pour out into the streets praising the new regime. He also witnessed the mutilation and dismemberment of the Regent of Iraq. It filled the author with fear and uncertainty as he was appalled by the killing of the royal family. In 1959 a military officer attempted a revolt against Qasim which led Astarjian, who was then an army doctor to be arrested and accused of being part of the plot. He was held for 3 months and tortured several times before he was released. 5000 people ended up being killed in the aftermath of the revolt. He blamed the Communists who were the main supporters of the general for the accusations and abuse he faced along with the killings. It re-enforced his belief that the Communists were an anti-democratic force.


The Struggle For Kirkuk makes for a good autobiography of Henry Astarjian’s life. There’s plenty of stories about his family, friends and his career as a doctor. That’s interspersed with history as he was witness to some important events. Many times he had conspiracy theories for why they happened which is all too common amongst Iraqis. Most importantly it gives some personal insights into the Armenian community in Iraq a minority that is rarely talked about.


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