We talked a little bit recently about World War I and the British-Hashemite alliance that was forged during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. The whole history of that relationship is a fascinating one, because both parties were dependent on one another while also being perpetually fed up with each other. At one time or another the Hashemites, with British assistance, were the preeminent Arab political power in Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Today we know that the Hashemites barely held on to Jordan, and lost everything else, so clearly they didn’t have a great run in the post-war period.
This is most evident in the post-war British treatment of Sharif Hussein, the head of the Hashemite family and the ruler of the Hijaz. Hussein believed that he was promised a pan-Arab kingdom by Britain, but as the war was ending he saw Syria and Lebanon handed over to the French, Palestine opened up to Jewish immigration, and Britain looking like it really had no intentions of leaving Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq. To be fair, London did allow Hussein to proclaim himself Caliph, and it wasn’t Britain’s fault that hardly anybody else in the Islamic world really believed he was. Hussein complained, bitterly and repeatedly, to London, and was particularly fond of threatening to abdicate if the British weren’t going to make good on their promises to him.
Usually London would do something to pacify Hussein and talk him down from the ledge. But when his position in the Hijaz was seriously threatened by the Saud family ruling the neighboring Nejd (the middle of the Arabian Peninsula), and the British government realized that its interests would be protected no matter who ruled Arabia, his final threats to abdicate were met, circa 1924, with a response that was something like, “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” The Saudis chased him out of Mecca fast enough that the door wasn’t a real concern.
Hussein’s two sons, Abdullah and Faisal, both remained close British pals and were rewarded by being set up as client kings in the Transjordan and Iraq, respectively (Faisal initially tried to set himself up as King of Syria before France upended that plan in 1920). Abdullah’s descendants still rule Jordan, but the July 14, 1958 coup removed Faisal’s grandson, Faisal II, from the throne of Iraq–and from this mortal world, to boot–and put an end to the Hashemite monarchy there.
Faisal II has the somewhat remarkable distinction of having ruled his nation for over 19 years while still dying at the age of 23. I know, right? His father, Ghazi b. Faisal, crashed his race car and died in 1939, when Faisal was just shy of his fourth birthday. There were rumors, and who knows really, that Ghazi was murdered by his prime minister, Nuri al-Said–who isn’t going to get out of this 14 July Revolution alive either, in case you’re wondering. Nuri engineered the young Faisal’s accession under the regency of his cousin/uncle, Abd al-Ilah (who was Ghazi’s cousin and brother in-law), the third person we’ve met in this story who isn’t going to be alive by the end of it. I mention all of this in part to note that Faisal kind of got a raw deal here. Many of the grievances that boiled over to fuel this coup had their roots in World War II, and Faisal was barely 10 by the time that war ended.
We’ve mentioned, in passing, the fact that during World War II Iraq was briefly controlled by a government sympathetic to the Axis, under a prime minister named Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. Gaylani rode a wave of Arab nationalism–an ideology that obviously rejected British dominance of Iraq–to power, and in early May 1941 he drove Abd al-Ilah out of the country and took full control for himself (Faisal II was all of six so he was in no position to object). Britain quickly invaded, and the subsequent Anglo-Iraqi War lasted well into…the end of that same month. But while Gaylani’s efforts went bust, the sentiment of Arab nationalism wasn’t going anywhere.
Once Abd al-Ilah was back in charge, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for the Hashemites to embrace this pan-Arab nationalism and run with it. After all, Sharif Hussein’s decision to declare himself Caliph shortly before the Saudis sent him packing was itself motivated by a kind of pan-Arabism. In fact, the Hashemites did try to adopt pan-Arabism in some ways in the 1940s–there was, for example, some talk about a union with Syria. But in the 1950s, pan-Arabism mostly got folded into Nasserism, and Nasserism was anti-monarch and pro…well, Nasser. This obviously wasn’t the kind of pan-Arabism that an Iraqi monarchy could really abide. But among the Iraqi population the sentiment continued to grow, and a group of Iraqi army officers looked at what Nasser and his fellow Egyptian army officers had done in 1952 and started to get some crazy ideas.
Aside from the rise of Nasserism, the Hashemites’ ability to really champion Arab nationalism was hampered by the fact that they were still mostly taking orders from London. Britain was reluctant to leave Iraq altogether, especially after the Gaylani business, and so it continued to control a big chunk of the Iraqi oil industry as well as virtually the whole of Iraqi foreign policy. Iraqis, as you might imagine, resented the hell out of this, and when, for example, Britain shoved Iraq into the “Baghdad Pact,” a 1955 defense agreement with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, the Iraqi public hated it. Likewise, when the Hashemites rejected the idea of joining Nasser’s United Arab Republic (a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) but proposed instead establishing a Britain-approved union with Hashemite Jordan, Iraqis just got angry.
Two mass uprisings, the 1948 al-Wathbah uprising in Baghdad and the 1952 Iraqi Intifada (which started in Basra but spread nationwide), showed how angry the Iraqi public was with the monarchy, but neither was particularly successful in changing either Iraq’s government or its servile relationship with Britain. It took those aforementioned army officers to pull off the revolution, and they, under the leadership of General Abd al-Karim Qasim (d. 1963) and Colonel Abdul Salim Arif (d. 1966), formed a “Free Officers Movement” (along the lines of the one that had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy in 1952) in order to carry out their plans. They sought material support from Nasser and the UAR before carrying out their coup. They didn’t get it, but it didn’t really matter. On July 14, 1958, Arif marched a brigade of soldiers into Baghdad, took over the radio station there, and proclaimed that Iraq was now a republic, and that was pretty much all it took. Faisal and Abd al-Ilah were killed later that morning, while Nuri al-Said was captured and executed the following day. Days of retributive attacks against supporters of the monarchy all over Baghdad followed, mostly encouraged by Arif.
Qasim set himself up as prime minister and accrued most of the power in the post-revolutionary “republic”–which, for a republic, looked suspiciously like a dictatorship (another thing Qasim adapted from Nasser). Arif, on the other hand, quickly found himself on the outs, because he and Qasim turned out to have some very significant ideological disagreements, or really one: Arif really believed in pan-Arabism, whereas Qasim really did not. He wasn’t exactly opposed to the idea of Arab nationalism, but it didn’t particularly do anything for him and he was extremely wary of its greatest champion at the time, Nasser. Consequently Arif was keen to join Nasser’s UAR while Qasim wanted no part of it. And so Iraq flirted with the UAR but never actually got on board. Arif had the last laugh, though. He and his Arab Socialist Union party joined the Baʿathist-led 1963 Ramadan Revolution, which overthrew Qasim’s government (and executed Qasim himself), and Arif subsequently became the President of Iraq, a job he held until his death.
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