History lessons for Iraq

Basra: the Failed Gulf State, Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq,
Reidar Visser, Muenster (Germany): LiT Verlag, 2005. pp238

According to Reidar Visser, author of Basra: the Failed Gulf State,
Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq, this book has been written
with a single question in mind: why did the oppressed population of
oil-rich southern Iraq refrain from separatist activities for most of the
20th century?

This question is particularly pertinent because since the US-led invasion
of Iraq in 2003, many analysts, particularly within Washington academic
circles, have spoken of a “united states of Iraq,” seeing it as a country
that is disintegrating into three separate states, one in the north for
the Kurds, another in the south for the Iraqi Shias, and a third in the
middle for the Sunnis. Basing their views on an historical analysis that
sees Iraq as having always been a fragile entity put together out of three
former Ottoman provinces by the British in the early 1920s, such analysts
have seen a single Iraqi state as the product of an authoritarian era and
of Ba’ath Party rhetoric.

Visser sets out to challenge this view by examining southern Iraqi
separatism at the beginning of the 20th century even before the state of
Iraq came into existence in the early 1920s, while also searching for the
reasons for the absence of Shia separatism in southern Iraq for much of
the century that followed. In so doing his book offers a fascinating
account of the birth of Iraqi nationalism, and it offers an intriguing
analysis of the cosmopolitan character of Iraq. Indeed, even ideas of
separatism in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, which the book deals with
at length, turn out to be not so much a Shia bid for secession from the
larger Iraqi state but rather a “cosmopolitan form of separatism that
sought to embrace the entire ethno-religious patchwork of Basra Sunnis and
Shia, Christians and Jews, Mandaeans and Sheikhs, Arabs and Indians” then
living in the region.

Throughout the last century there was an inter-play of separatist and
nationalist forces in Iraq, with a single centralised state with Baghdad
as its capital eventually winning out. As Visser notes, after the US-led
invasion of Iraq in 2003 similar patterns could be detected. While many
southern Iraqis still supported Iraqi unity, even when the model of a
centralised state came under pressure following its collapse after the
US-led invasion, many have tended to support a federal state instead, and
there have also been separatist movements along purely sectarian lines.
Before the US-led invasion, there were more Shia and Kurdish residents in
Baghdad than there were in the south or in the Kurdish enclave in the
north of the country, respectively. However, over the past three years,
and with the escalation of sectarian violence, more and more Iraqis have
been forced to relocate to places where they could feel more secure and
unthreatened by violence.

Visser observes that Iraq has historically been analysed in two ways:
either as an expression of the centralisation associated with the Ba’ath
Party, or as the unstable result of frustrated separatist forces favoured
by western political scientists. Perhaps one of the most interesting
points raised in this book is the author’s challenge to the second view,
which tends to see Iraq as an “artifical” construction. Reviewing the
literature on this question, Visser makes no secret of his shock at the
fact that historians have seldom felt obliged to justify their ideas, even
as Hanna Batatu’s milestone work, The Old Social Classes and the
Revolutionary Movements in Iraq (1978), provided the building blocks of a
theory of Iraq’s artificiality by showing how weights and measures and
currencies historically differed in Iraq’s three main urban centres of
Basra, Mosul and Baghdad, and suggesting that the three cities were always
disparate in character. However, the problem with this view is that it too
often goes unexamined, or, as Visser puts it, “once the premise of [the
Iraqi state’s] artificiality is established, inferences about deep-seated
Shi’i separatist proclivities in the south often follow without any
further discussion.”

Even careful historians have been sceptical of the idea that an Iraqi
identity predated the British occupation of Basra beginning in 1914.
Visser, however, sympathises with the view set out by Yitzhak Nakash in
his The Shia of Iraq (1994), in which Nakash explored how Shia clerics as
early as the 1920s adopted a specific geographical concept of Iraq,
concluding that “the frequent contention that ‘Iraq’ did not exist at all
in late Ottoman times is not tenable.”

Based on this conclusion, Visser argues that challenges to the territorial
integrity of the Iraqi state in the south have historically been very
limited, a pattern, the book notes, that has persisted from Iraq’s
independence from Britain in 1932 to the fall of the Ba’ath regime in
2003. Even during the eight years of war between Iraq and Iran in the
1980s, no such project was truly on the cards, even as the Ba’ath regime
in Baghdad sometimes used the threat of “separatism in the south” to
justify its repressive policies.

Visser examines the reasons behind the failure of ideas for southern
separatism, writing that in the early years of the Iraqi state a separate
political entity based in Basra failed to materialise because the
“potential [for it] was not exploited.” This failure was not due to a lack
of material resources, and neither was it caused by repression from the
British who knew of the movement’s pro-British attitudes. Rather, Visser
argues, the main reason for its failure had to do with the strategic
choices made by the southern elites. After launching a movement for the
autonomy of the south, the area’s elites failed to take the initiative and
“trigger public enthusiasm for their conceptualization of Basra’s future
or expand their coalition.”

However, the most important reason for the failure of separatist
tendencies in the south of Iraq were the strong currents of “Iraqi
nationalism” among some Basrawis, who believed in an entity called Iraq
that extended from the Gulf to the northern reaches of the then Ottoman
province of Baghdad. It was particularly these people, whom the book
describes as being mostly lower- and middle-class Sunnis, who managed to
impose their own territorial vision of Iraq on Basra and the south during
the post-war years of transition, thus aborting any separatist project.

In his book Visser sets out the demographic, political and economic
characteristics of Basra in the first decades of the 20th century, also
examining developing ideas of the Iraqi state and what it meant to people
at the time. In places where the state was unable to guarantee public
security other forces came into existence, including local militias.
Unlike many other large Ottoman provinces, Basra did not develop a
Turkish-speaking elite. Indeed, located at the edge of the Ottoman Empire,
Basra was more affected by trends coming in from the outside, including
from Persia, India and Arabia. “Basrawis were aware that outside of the
effective rule of the Ottomans there were alternative ways of political
organization and larger cultural communities with whom they could feel
affinity,” Visser writes.

Although there were few vehicles for the articulation of political
aspirations against Ottoman rule at the time, the Basra elites were
exposed to Persian opposition newspapers debating constitutional reform
and to growing British influence. The latter in particular was feared by
the Ottomans, and such influence soon grew into occupation, the British
capitalising on Ottoman weakness following constitutional changes taking
place at the heart of the empire in 1908 with the advent of the Young
Turks and the break-up of the Ottoman state during the First World War.
Visser’s book is particularly valuable here, because besides tracing the
development of separatist ideas in Basra during the period it also offers
an anatomy of the Ottoman Empire in its dying days and particularly of
declining Ottoman power in the provinces.

Notions of non-Ottoman identity and nationalism entered the discourse of
some of the new political movements in Basra. These movements began to use
words such as baladuna, our country, and a petition for the
decentralisation of power to the provinces drawn up in Basra in 1913 and
sent to the Ottoman authorities demanded that the governor should be “an
Iraqi” and “have complete knowledge of local tribal conditions.” There
were also demands in the newspapers that Arabic should be the official
language, suggesting the development of a consciously Arab and Iraqi

Though there is evidence for the development of a clear conception of
“Iraq” among the southern elites in the period, Visser nevertheless finds
it difficult to trace this consciousness among the population as a whole.
The question becomes even more complicated with the advent of a new force
in regional politics in the shape of the British who invaded the city at
the beginning of the First World War and put an end to centuries of
Ottoman rule. The author describes the scene in a way almost identical to
that in Baghdad on the morning of 21 March 2003 following the US-led
invasion: in 1914, he writes, Basra’s “inhabitants woke up to a political
vacuum where profound uncertainty about the future was the key feature.”

Following the entry of British forces into Basra on 22 November 1914,
there were sporadic outbreaks of resistance in the province, the occupying
forces selecting “friendly sheikhs” as interlocutors in an attempt to
alter the balance of tribal power to their advantage. Much of how the
British administered Basra at this time echoes similar strategies employed
today, the British occupying authorities then “retribalising” Basra in an
attempt to control the city by relying on trusted tribal sheikhs and

The British closed the few existing schools, and they were slow to build
new ones for fear of spreading political activism. However, an uprising in
1920 led by members of the former Ottoman military elite in Syria inspired
the inhabitants of Baghdad to present similar demands for independence.
These demands coincided with increased anti-British agitation from the
Shia ulama of the holy cities and dissatisfaction in several tribal areas.
Partly as a result of pressure in Britain to reduce military obligations
after the end of the First World War, British policy in southern Iraq now
favoured the establishment of a unitary state, ignoring demands for
separate treatment from the inhabitants of Basra and making it the “failed
Gulf state” of Visser’s title.

Many later Iraqi historians have described the separatist movement centred
on Basra in the early decades of the 20th century as being a movement of
the elite, some even portraying it as the brainchild of a “small, greedy
and immoral segment of the rich trapped in the noose of colonialism and
bent on protecting their wealth from any reckless future Arab government.”
However, a change in the writing of the history of the movement came after
the US-led invasion of Iraq, several Basra newspapers returning to events
surrounding the arrival of Feisal, first king of the unified kingdom of
Iraq, in the city in 1921. There have been signs that the movement for
southern Iraqi separatism, or federalism, that did not take off in the
early 1920s is beginning to gain in strength, and Visser’s book sheds
much- needed light on recent debates taking place in Basra about
federalism. He predicts that the success of any future federal Iraq will
depend on the constitutional processes underlying a new democratic system
in the country as a whole.

Finally, this book is not just about Basra, but instead deals with a
crucial period in Iraq’s modern history that witnessed the birth of Iraqi
nationalism. It is also about the operation of British colonial power in
the Middle East as a whole at the time. The author is keen that the story
of southern Iraq in this period be told not just by the British occupiers,
but also by the Iraqis themselves, thereby offering a fascinating account
of this period in Iraq’s history that is reminiscent of much that is
happening in Iraq today.

Nevertheless, while Visser offers an attempt to read the present through
the lens of the past, the uncertainty that still engulfs Iraq makes it
difficult to predict the way things will develop in the future for the
country’s separatist, unionist and federalist movements.

Reviewed by Omayma Abdel-Latif

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