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The best books on The History of Iraq

recommended by Kanan Makiya

The Iraqi democracy and civil rights campaigner says the Iran-Iraq war is one of the single largest unappreciated great events of modern Middle Eastern history. He chooses the best books on Iraqi history.

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Kanan Makiya

Kanan Makiya is an Iraqi democracy and human rights advocate. His 1989 book, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Following the 1991 Iraqi Kurdish uprising, Makiya visited northern Iraq where he organised the collection of captured Iraqi military and security documents. These documents became the basis for an award-winning 1992 documentary, Saddam’s Killing Fields, describing Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds. In June 2003 he founded the Iraq Memory Foundation in Baghdad. He is also a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University.

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Tell me about your first book, Yitzhak Nakash’s The Shi’is of Iraq.

I chose to begin with this because Nakash really breaks new ground in our knowledge of how the modern Shi’i of Iraq were formed and by that I mean the Shi’is of the 19th- and 20th-century Iraq. He shows us that they were formed by essentially a process of settlement by the nomadic tribes of Iraq of the 19th century. Around two thirds of the population were nomadic at that time. They gradually settled as the numbers grew. They were Sunni Arab tribes largely, but as they settled in the south of the country they adopted Shi’ism.

That is a very interesting demographic and sociological development. It is the reason why today we find tribes in Iraq that have both Shi’i members and Sunni members and it shows you the very close organic link between these two communities which are so often portrayed as so different and supposedly so hostile to one another.

The book is very much challenging this belief that Shi’i society and politics in Iraq are a reflection of Iranian Shi’ism. 

Yes absolutely. One of the key things of the book is to show how unique Iraqi Shi’ites are. They retain so many of their Arab tribal characteristics and in this they differ very much from their Iranian Shi’ite counterparts. In fact, the identity of Iraqi Shi’ites is formed in close proximity to their Sunni Arab counterparts. Above all they are, and feel they are, Arabs, and we saw this side of their identity become paramount during the Iraq-Iran war between 1980 and 1988. Having said that, it is important not to forget there always was a Shi’ite tradition in Iraq – it was born in Iraq. But the importance of Nakash’s book is he is telling us that in the 20th century they began to come into their own, and also from his book we learn how resistant the community’s own clerics were as regards any involvement with the new Iraqi state established by the British in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

That leads me to your second book, Hanna Batatu’s The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement in Iraq.

This book is over 1,000 pages and took Batatu over 20 years to write. It is based on primary sources that had never been accessible before. I am not sure how he managed to have such good access but I know when he dined with relatives of mine in the past he spoke of the access he had to police files from the 1950s and 1960s. All of that makes for a truly remarkable book that is, in fact, not one book but many different books rolled into one.

“The escalation of cruelty and violence in Iraqi society during the 1980s is something which we still live with.”

On the one hand The Old Social Classes tells the story of the formation of the landed classes of modern Iraq and in the same process the polarisation and eventual impoverishment of Iraq’s peasantry. As the 20th century moves into the 1940s and 1950s they start to turn to the Iraqi Communist Party. And this is something that we don’t often think about today.

The other side of the story that his book tells is the story of the rise of the Iraqi Communist Party. It is one of the few Communist Parties in the Arab world to become a mass party and it was the main opposition force in the 1940s right through to the 1970s. It never came to power but it did help shape the course of Iraqi politics. The cause of its eventual downfall was the Ba’ath Party which came to power for the second time in 1968 and was not overthrown until US-led military action brought it down in 2003.

In 1968 the Ba’ath Party was very weak. To cement their hold they adopted a policy of divide and rule which resulted in the Communist Party breaking up into various different factions. The Ba’ath Party allied itself with one faction in order to crush the other and then moved their way through the different opposition groups in society. It is a complicated story which Batatu manages to tell in all its intricate details.

The Communist Party was overwhelmingly Shi’ite in its composition. It is the sons and grandchildren of these first generations of communist Iraqi Shi’ites who would turn away from the Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s and move into Islamic politics which is where they are today. I always find it interesting and important to remember that Islamism in Iraq, of the Shi’ite variety anyway, has these roots in the country’s early experiences with Communism.

What about your third book, Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship, by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett?

This is a political as opposed to a social economic history of Iraq in the wake of the fall of the monarchy and the overthrow of the old parliamentary system established by the British in the 1920s. The leading force of the overthrow is the army. They are the third institution created by the British who then overthrew the other two and took control of the new republic that replaced the monarchy in 1958.

The army would go on to waltz in and out of power in a variety of coups and counter-coups but it is the force shaping politics between 1958 to 1968 – until the Ba’aths come to power in 1968 for the second time. Then they worked hard at depoliticising the army, and turning Iraq into a classic police state.

The authors tell that story and the story of the brutality of the new Ba’ath regime and the manner in which it went about destroying the power of the Communist Party.

Your fourth book takes us away from Iraq to a country which has had a huge amount of influence over it. This is Roy Mottahedeh’s The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran.

Yes, although this is not a book about Iraq it is still deeply relevant to later Iraqi history of the 1980s and 90s. It tells the story of the Iranian revolution which changed the whole path of the modern Middle East, not least of all Iraq. The very important event which follows the revolution is the eight-year-long war between Iran and Iraq that began in 1980. That war is one of the single largest unappreciated great events of modern Middle Eastern history. Iraq was transformed beyond recognition socially and in lots of other ways. It was certainly the bloodiest war in the Middle East’s recent history. You could take all the Arab-Israeli wars and roll them up into one and all the various civil wars and intifadas and acts of genocide or mass murder committed in the modern Middle East and still you wouldn’t even come close to the number of Iraqis and Iranians who were killed during that time.

The escalation of cruelty and violence in Iraqi society during the 1980s is something which we still live with. So this is something people need to know about if they are to understand the violence which followed the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003. There was the genocide against the Kurds and the use of weapons of mass destruction against them and so on. There were levels of brutalisation against ordinary people which are part of the terrible legacy that remains to haunt us in Iraq today. The lid of repression was lifted on a whole society that had been abused, and abuse of this kind does not just melt away after the removal of the regime causing it; it persists in people’s minds and sense of who they are.

Your final book is The Forever War by Dexter Filkins. 

This is a completely different type of book. It is Dexter Filkins’s remarkable first-hand on-the-ground account of post 2003 in Iraq. The thing I love about Filkins’s reportage is that it is an extremely closely observed and beautifully written account from the frontline of the civil wars that rocked Iraq following the American-led war.

From the little vignettes which the book is made up of you get a very clear picture of what people were like. These accounts were personally witnessed, often at great danger to himself, by Filkins who was a reporter for The New York Times, and they expose all the different contradictions which my other four books have mentioned.

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So you find Sunni members of a given Iraqi tribe who join the insurgency and join al Qaeda, essentially. They are Iraqi members who are against the American-led occupation. But then, when a Shi’ite uncle of one of the Sunni insurgents is killed by non-Iraqi al Qaeda members, the Iraqi insurgence turns against al Qaeda.

To understand the original roots of that particular story, of course, you have to go way back and look at the history leading up to it, to, for instance, the book by Nakash on the formation of Iraqi Shi’ism. It is so complicated and nothing is ever as simple as media accounts want us to believe. Iraq is a country with a particularly violent history of formation. In this book you capture a flavour of some of the human complexity that history left behind.

As someone who was so hopeful for the fall of Saddam Hussein – and what would happen after – how do you feel now about Iraq and its future?

Iraq’s future is still very uncertain; it is a fragile country, hanging on to hope by its fingernails. I worry a great deal. The terrible legacy of the past, the accumulated pain, and the politics of victimhood that arose post-2003 – these are destructive forces which have not played themselves out yet in spite of the recent elections. We have seen them playing themselves out in the politics of the new Iraqi elite which has formed.

But, we also see a population which is evolving in very interesting ways. I don’t think anyone can predict what will happen in Iraq say in five years from now. One can but hope for the best. Perhaps Iraq’s biggest problem is the very poor quality of the élite who have assumed power since 2003. So I do worry about the future of Iraq.

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Kanan Makiya

Kanan Makiya is an Iraqi democracy and human rights advocate. His 1989 book, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Following the 1991 Iraqi Kurdish uprising, Makiya visited northern Iraq where he organised the collection of captured Iraqi military and security documents. These documents became the basis for an award-winning 1992 documentary, Saddam’s Killing Fields, describing Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds. In June 2003 he founded the Iraq Memory Foundation in Baghdad. He is also a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University.