[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Articles such as this will appear permanently on www.MESPI.org and www.Jadaliyya.com. Email us at info@MESPI.org for any inquiries.]
Iraqi history does not begin with the modern Iraqi state, but my research interests and constraints of time and space force me to restrict my contribution to the modern national era and its immediate antecedents. Given its decades of inaccessibility, it is ironic that Iraq today offers scholars one of the most researcher-friendly environments in the region–at least where political repression and censorship are concerned. For much of the past five decades, Iraq was one of the most restrictive places in which to conduct fieldwork. Archival material was inaccessible, and foreign researchers were generally not welcome unless under strict state supervision. The exception was the Kurdistan region that had secured semi-autonomy in 1991–though stability was to evade its people for a number of years thereafter. Today things have changed and there has been a surge of scholarly work based on ethnographic and qualitative research in Iraq and on research in the archives that were seized by US forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which are now housed at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and at the National Defense University.
Some of the earliest English-language studies of the modern Iraqi state were written by British colonial officials in the 1920s and the 1930s. Most of these are memoirs or letters chronicling these men’s (and one woman’s–Gertrude Bell’s) experiences in Iraq and perceptions towards the country and its people. Not always analytically incisive, these accounts nevertheless provide us with a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of colonial officials and how they imagined Iraq. These range from the patronizing fascination of Orientalist fantasies such as those seen in Bertram Thomas’s Alarms and Excursions in Arabia (London: Allen & Unwin, 1931) to the blunt disdain shown towards Iraqis in Thomas Lyell’s The Ins and Outs of Mesopotamia (London: A.M. Philpot, 1923) or Aylmer Haldane’s The Insurrection in Mesopotamia (London: W. Blackwood & Sons, 1922).
These early memoirs were followed by more nuanced analytical accounts of early Iraqi political development. Of particular note here is Philip W. Ireland’s Iraq: A Study in Political Development (London: Cape, 1937) and Stephen H. Longrigg’s Iraq 1900 to 1950: A Political, Social and Economic History (London: Oxford U.P., 1953). Both were officials who spent time in Iraq, the former an American diplomat, the latter contracted by the Iraqi government in the 1920s and 30s and later employed by the Iraqi Petroleum Company. While dated in some regards, both accounts remain important sources for the early political development of Iraq and particularly as contemporaneous insights into British policy-making in modern Iraq’s earliest years. This generation of books on the Iraqi state-formation and the monarchical era was to be succeeded and superseded by a more sophisticated and broader-scoped collection of scholarly studies. Chief amongst these would be Majid Khadduri’s Independent Iraq, 1932-1958: A Study in Iraqi Politics (London: Oxford U.P., 1951), Ghassan al-Attiyah’s Iraq 1908 to 1921: A Political Study (Beirut: The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973), Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country (London: Ithaca Press, 1976) by the late Peter Sluglett and Toby Dodge’s Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (London: Hurst & Co., 2003). These accounts moved beyond the “imperial gaze” that earlier studies were so dependent on and brought Iraqis back into the story of Iraqi state establishment and Iraqi politics. Likewise, they drew attention to the importance of bottom-up dynamics and Iraq’s Ottoman past, without which Iraq’s early twentieth-century political development can only be partially comprehensible. (One of the best accounts of late Ottoman Iraq remains Gokhan Cetinsaya Ottoman Administration of Iraq 1890-1908 (London: Routledge, 2004)).
More granular studies of the monarchical era help us understand the formation of Iraq’s ruling class and the social changes of those early years of statehood. Amongst these would be David Pool’s excellent article, “From Elite to Class: The Transformation of Iraqi Leadership, 1920-1939,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, (1980). Likewise Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Sluglett provide us with a fascinating account of changing social and class structures during the monarchy in “The transformation of land tenure and rural social structure in central and southern Iraq, 1870-1958,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (1983). These studies tell the story of the early formation of Iraq’s political classes–something that was to have long-lasting effects on Iraq’s political development. The most important such study however is Hanna Batatu’s timeless classic The Old Social Classes and The Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1978). Rich in empirical archival data and incisive in its analysis, Batatu’s seminal work charts, with meticulous detail, the changes that the structures of Iraqi society underwent during the monarchy.
Beyond the sheer depth of analysis in Batatu’s work, the value of his study was also due to it being practically the only work based on Iraqi archival material until (tentatively) the 1990s and more so the post-2003-era. The republican-era and the important surveys of Iraqi history that were published in the latter half of the twentieth century did not benefit from the same access that Batatu had. Nevertheless, these have stood the test of time as indispensable and highly accessible surveys. Chief amongst these would be Phebe Marr’s The Modern History of Iraq (London: Westview, 1985), Marion-Farouk Sluglett’s and Peter Sluglett’s Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship (London: KPI, 1987) and perhaps above all Charles Tripp’s A History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2000)–all of these titles have been updated in more recent editions.
The pre-2003 republican-era is understandably overshadowed by the post-68 Ba’th and the Saddam period. However, some earlier essentials include Majid Khadduri’s Republican Iraq (London: Oxford U.P., 1969) which documented the republic’s ever increasing authoritarianism from one revolutionary regime to another over the course of the first turbulent decade of the republic’s existence. The book’s sequel Socialist Iraq (Washington D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1978), while not completely devoid of value, is highly questionable due to the author’s fawning adoration of the Ba’th and of a young Saddam Hussein–whom Khadduri interviews in the book. More useful for this period is a valuable collection of essays edited by Derek Hopwood et al–Iraq: Power and Society (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1993)–that evaluated the structures of power and assessed modern Iraq’s political history and institutional evolution to date.
The inaccessibility of Saddam’s Iraq notwithstanding, there are nevertheless several excellent pre-2003 studies on the Ba’th era. Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (London: Hutchinson, 1989) is perhaps the most influential. Though newer studies have provided necessary correctives to the stark totalitarianism portrayed in Makiya’s account–eg., Achim Rohde State-Society Relations in Ba’thi Iraq(London: Routledge, 2010)–Makiya’s classic has stood the test of time and remains a valuable resource on the post-68 Ba’th. At the time of its publication it was groundbreaking in its thorough usage of Ba’thist party publications, however new material and new sources have emerged since then. Another excellent contemporaneous study is Amatzia Baram’s forensic dissection of the ruling classes from 1968-1987–“The Ruling Political Elite in Ba’thi Iraq: The Changing Features of a Collective Profile,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (1989).
To a lesser extent than 2003, the war of 1990-1991 and the direct confrontation between Iraq and the United States generated unprecedented public interest in Iraq. No less relevant in sustaining this interest was the plight of Iraqis as they struggled to survive under a callous UN sanctions regime and an Iraqi state that cynically saw in popular Iraqi suffering a possible route out of international isolation. The transformative impact of the sanctions regime on Iraqi state and society was more profound that is often appreciated. Indeed it can be argued that the thirteen years of sanctions constitute a more significant rupture in Iraqi political development and social history than the comparatively episodic nature of the invasion of 2003. In that sense what was unleashed in 2003 was the cumulative destruction of thirteen years of sanctions and the socially and politically corrosive effects of those years.
Some journalistic accounts of the sanctions era shone an important light on what was otherwise obscured to most people outside of Iraq–for example, Patrick and Andrew Cockburn’s Out of the Ashes (New York: Harper Collins World, 1999)–likewise NGOs such as Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq provided valuable documentation of the suffering inflicted by the sanctions regime on ordinary Iraqis. One of the most important works from that era is Sarah Graham-Brown’s Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999). It provides a rich account of the transformations inflicted on Iraqi state and society–from the growth of a shadow/illicit economy to rising criminality to the impoverishment of the middle classes to the retribalization of society. Similarly valuable is the section on Iraq in Tim Niblock’s “Pariah States” and Sanctions in the Middle East: Iraq, Libya, Sudan (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2001). In particular this and other accounts draw attention to the way in which the sanctions regime increased the public’s dependence on the Iraqi state.
“Neo-tribalism” in the 1990s was one of the most visible and most long lasting changes to hit Iraqi society in the sanctions era. This subject was masterfully addressed by Amatiza Baram in “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Policies 1991-96,” (1997) and by the late Faleh A. Jabar’s essay in Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East (London: Saqi, 2003). Rather than an essential instinct, tribalism in Iraq (and elsewhere for that matter) is reflective of specific social and political contexts. The idea that tribe and state are in perennial competition is as flawed as the notion that tribal identity is Iraqis’ foundational or “true” identity. The sanctions-era is a very illustrative case study of the malleability and varying utility of tribal categories.
One of the most thoughtful and provocative treatments of the sanctions-era, and particularly of the deliberate US role in causing Iraq’s catastrophe is Joy Gordon’s Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 2012). It outlines the mechanisms of the sanctions regime and how US policy essentially trapped Iraq in an inescapable situation driven by the conflicting aims of containment and regime change. Several of the moral, legal and ethical questions raised by the book are again relevant today as the usual suspects clamour for regime change in Iran and as the questions of reconstruction in Syria and the human cost of punishing “pariah states” become more urgent. However, perhaps the most poignant account of the sanctions-era goes to Iraqi novelist Hassan Blasim’s grim allegorical short story “The Truck to Berlin” in The Madman of Freedom Square, (Manchester: Comma Press, 2009). Set in the sanctions era, it depicts a group of men packed tightly in the back of a truck that is smuggling them into Europe. At one point the driver abandons the vehicle and the passengers remain imprisoned, locked in darkness in the back of the truck that was supposed to deliver them to a better life. Blasim proceeds to paint a picture of rising tension, suffering and psychosis within the truck before climaxing in a ghastly finale. The entire episode can be read as a haunting analogy of the sanctions era if not of modern Iraqi history more broadly.
Needless to say the invasion of 2003 sparked a wave of publishing on Iraq. Much of this was opportunistic or vanity publishing that sought to latch onto a topical issue with little thought given to depth or quality. Another genre and a far more useful one is the American and British officials and soldiers giving their perspective of the chaos at the dawn of the post-2003 era–for example, Mark Etherington’s Revolt on the Tigris (London: Hurst & Co., 2005). A more academic approach is found in the works of scholars embedded with the US military. An early example is Ahmed Hashim’s Insurgency and Counter Insurgency in Iraq (London: Hurst & Co., 2006) which brought a critical eye to what was still a rapidly unfolding insurgency. Hashim’s observations, not just about the insurgency, but about Iraqi society and political culture were incisive and many of his conclusions have stood the test of time. Another study by a scholar embedded with US forces is Nicholas Krohley’s The Death of the Mehdi Army (London: Hurst & Co., 2015). He used his access and position to provide an invaluable, granular analysis of the internal dynamics of an east Baghdad neighbourhood and how it adapted in uncertain times. As for Iraqi voices, one of the best English-language assessments of post-2003 politics (at least until 2007) is former Minister of Defence Ali A. Allawi’s valuable book The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace (New Haven: Yale U.P. 2007). In it we are given behind-the-scenes insight not just into American policy-making or counterinsurgency decision-making but also into the inner workings of Iraq’s freshly minted, but thoroughly rotten, political classes. There have also been several valuable journalistic works over the years–Nir Rosen’s gritty and thoroughly researched Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World (New York: Nation Books, 2010) springs to mind.
Perhaps the most important contributions since 2003 have been those that addressed the pre-2003 republican-era. The stealing/opening of the Ba’th archives allowed for a new generation of cutting edge scholarship that challenged many of our assumptions regarding the Ba’thist period and the nature of state-society relations under Saddam Hussein. Leading the way was Joseph Sassoon with his excellent Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2012). Meticulously researched in the Iraqi archives now housed in the United States, Sassoon’s book gives us a forensic dissection of the architecture and institutional infrastructure of Ba’th party rule. With Sassoon’s work the terrifying scale of the Ba’thi state comes into sharp relief without the caricature of an all-powerful Leviathan that offers no carrots and only knows the stick. Indeed this is a theme that emerges in all of the recent archival histories of the Ba’th era. In another commendable contribution Aaron Faust’s The Ba’thification of Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Totalitarianism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015) charts the way in which the Ba’th permeated every facet of society. In so doing he points out however that, “Ba’thist Iraq was a ‘Republic of Fear’, but it was not only fear of violence. It was also fear of hunger, homelessness… and the loss of respect, honor and opportunity.” Finally, another study based on archival research–and a personal favorite–is Dina Rizk Khoury’s Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom and Remembrance (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2013). Few studies have been as empathetic as this one in considering how ordinary Iraqis perceived the Ba’th era and how they gained, lost, suffered, prospered and coped with the Ba’thist machine and the internal and external violence that it brought to bear. In a way, this book takes the reader into the psychology of survival in a bottom-up look at Ba’thist Iraq. Above all, it compels the reader to consider the weight of historical memory and the trauma of historic violence in a country that has suffered so much for so long with only the briefest moments of respite.
There are of course other titles in this new generation of studies–some that are too recent for me to comment on here, such as Samuel Helfont’s Compulsion in Religion, Saddam Hussein, Islam and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (New York: Oxford U.P., 2018). There are also many subjects that I have not touched upon in this brief outline–all the more reason to mention an excellent collection of essays published in 2012 in Writing the Modern History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges (Hackensack: World Scientific, 2012). Its thirty-two essays cover a vast array of subjects spanning the entirety of modern Iraqi history and tackling everything from violence to state building to gender to art. It is an invaluable collection and one that covers many important areas of inquiry that I have not been able to address here. Another area not covered here is Arabic language material of which there has been an explosion in Iraq since 2003. Constraints of space force me to restrict this brief reading list to (English language) national level studies. This is not to detract from the importance of gender studies, intellectual history, ethnographic studies of various communal groups and geographic areas and the like. Indeed in all of these fields there have been invaluable recent studies (Nadje al-Ali, 2007; Harith Hassan al Qarawee, 2012; Faleh A. Jabar, 2003; Gareth Stansfield 2003; Stansfield & Shareef eds., 2017; Lukitz, 2005, and many more). Ultimately, a shortlist of essential (English-language) readings under a heading as immense and multidimensional as “Iraq” will inevitably be too short particularly at a time when so much rich original scholarship continues to emerge.
The future holds many possibilities for Iraq researchers due to the availability of archival material and due to the relative lack of censorship compared to the rest of the region. However, reliance on archival material is likely to skew the focus to the Ba’th era as it is the Ba’th archives that are most accessible to western students. There is a wealth of largely untapped material sitting in Baghdad in the national archive and in other collections. Security permitting, there are also many opportunities for anthropological research. In many areas there is a dearth of such studies and hence gaps for today’s scholars to fill – for example, no successor springs to mind to Fernea’s classic anthropological study on tribal society in southern Iraq–Shaykh and Effendi: Changing Patterns of Authority Among the El Shabana of Southern Iraq (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1970).