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date: 13 June 2024

Iraq: Civil-Military Relations from the Monarchy to the Republicslocked

Iraq: Civil-Military Relations from the Monarchy to the Republicslocked

  • Ahmed S. HashimAhmed S. HashimDepartment of Strategic Studies, Deakin University


Iraq is a young state, having been founded in 1921 by a colonial power, Britain. Its army was created several months beforehand, with its nucleus being Iraqi Sunni Arab officers of the former Ottoman army. As the mandate power in Iraq, Britain wanted a small internal security establishment while the officer corps and the monarchy wanted a large army that would act as a nation-building institution to make Iraqis out of the disparate ethnic groups who found themselves reluctant subjects of this new entity. As the strongest institution in the fragile state, the army played an important role in the political process and ultimately launched the first coup in the Arab world in 1936. As the older and more pliant senior officer corps retired, younger, more nationalist officers came to the fore; they were discontented with the overbearing presence of the British, the rampant cronyism and corruption in the royal court and among the ruling elite, and by the backwardness of their country. A small group of militant nationalist officers seized power and fought a brief and unsuccessful war against Britain. The power of the ruling elite was seemingly consolidated in the period after World War II. Both Iraq and the rest of the Middle East were in turmoil as colonial powers found themselves facing a rising tide of movements striving for independence. Leading the way were junior and middle-ranking officers, and in Iraq they launched a bloody coup-revolution in 1958 that destroyed the monarchy and established a republic. The Iraqi republic was unstable, due mostly to the inability of elites to establish solid institutions for governing the country and channeling mass politics effectively. The fragility and lack of legitimacy of governments provided ample opportunity for the military—which was riven by factionalism and ideological differences—to intervene regularly in the political process. The seizure of power by the nationalist and socialist Baath Party under Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein effectively put an end to the military’s political role; the Baath Party implemented a series of stringent “coup-proofing” measures between 1968 and 2003 when it was displaced from power by the U.S. invasion. The Baath Party’s measures did not mean that members of the officer corps did not try their hand at overthrowing the Baath regime; many did, but all failed, often at tremendous costs to themselves and their families. The measures of control had a deleterious effect on the professionalism and combat performance in the conventional wars that it fought between 1980 and 2003. The Americans tried to build a new Iraqi army and sought to professionalize it, but their efforts had little success. The removal of the brutal authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein did not change Iraqi politics for the better. Sunni Arab dominance was replaced by Shia Arab dominance. Post-Baath governments were kleptocratic, corrupt, and characterized by ethno-sectarian favoritism and cronyism. These characteristics pervaded the new military itself but the military’s ability to interfere in the political process has been stymied by its focus on fighting the dangerous jihadist fighters of the Islamic State (Daesh), the proliferation of government security services, and by the emergence of heavily armed and motivated pro-government militias. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


  • World Politics

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