National day of the army: A critical history.
Part one covers the birth of the Iraqi Army.
Today the 100th year of the founding of the Iraqi Army is celebrated in Iraq. Currently in Iraq the Army is perceived and framed as a symbol of secular Iraqi nationalism representing sovereignty, unity and most of all neutrality between Iran and the USA. Based on the historical experience of Europe the army was meant to claim the 'Max Weberian' monopoly of violence and prioritize the rule of law. This specific nationalist construct of the Iraqi army is however a recent one and mostly a product of post-ISIS triumphalism, and an attempt to reformulate new pillars of Iraqi identity. We do not need to remind anyone that in 2014 the Army was widely despised for its incompetence, lack of vision and most of all it was framed as the insular and sectarian instrument of the Dawa party then under the rule of Nouri Al Maliki. In reality the role and image of the Army has fluctuated throughout history. It might be useful to gain some historical perspective of this institution.
Foundation of the Iraqi Army under British control
The Iraqi Army was originally founded during the Turkish claim of Mosul province when the British was trying to consolidate its colonization of Iraq in 1921. The British wanted to delegate territorial security of the British acquisition of Iraq to the new Royal Iraqi Army as it was called then. This institution was also meant to repress internal dissent and give the impression that the British are not really in charge but Iraqis are. That latter point was partly an attempt to co-opt anti-colonial rhetoric in Iraq. It was also an attempt to bolster King Faysal’s ascendency as Iraq’s new king.
The British were aware that if Iraq’s army were to become too powerful and successfully gain the monopoly of violence in Iraq, it could threaten British dominance and prematurely decolonize it. To counter the potential power of the Army, the British purposefully underdeveloped it by keeping it underfunded, undertrained and limited in its weaponry capacity. More importantly the British created a paramilitary organization called the ‘’Iraq Levies’’ to balance and limit the power of the Iraqi army. The Iraq Levies were mostly composed by Assyrian refugees settled in Iraq from the 1915 Ottoman genocide against Armenians, Assyrians and Yezidi and were exploited for their vulnerable position to get them to join the Levies. Despite that, in the initial years of the emergence of the Iraqi army and the levies both were unpopular and feared, especially because they were often used for repressing the population in coordination with the British airforce. Refusal to conscript in the Iraqi army or to pay tax were often reasons enough to provoke the British to use the Armed forces for disciplining rebellious Iraqis. Already from its inception the Iraqi Army was never meant to have the monopoly of violence and as we shall see it never will - even after its decolonization in 1958. The power of the Iraqi army was always limited or supplemented by paramilitary organizations such as the Iraq Levies.
A New Patriotic Elite
However during the 1920s and 1930s there was a political tendency among Iraqi ex-Ottoman military elites and the urbanized intelligentsia that the Army was the only ‘’modern’’ institution in Iraq. In a sea of tribal confederations, religious institutions and a manifold of local power bases, it was believed that only the modern army could create an unified nation out of a diverse heterogeneous Iraq. The Army could create a new patriotic elite that could then mold the nation in its example, this would sometimes have very violent manifestations, such as the Simele massacre of 1933.
For many rural Iraqis who had recently become unemployed because of the inequalities that were caused by economic inequalities and crisis at the time. The Army was one of the few opportunities for upward mobility and a stable income. For example the boat making industry that employed many in Tikrit was more or less vanished by the 1930s creating a large segment of unemployed youth who felt attracted by the idea of becoming successful by joining the army. Coupled by widespread nationalist poetry and writings by certain segments of the nationalist intellectuals in Iraq, joining the army started to look like a patriotic duty. It is in this ideological environment that the nationalistic symbolism of the Army was born and started to become part of a repertoire of nationalist political convictions that came and go in Iraq.
In the next part we will discuss the Army under the monarchy and its role in the decolonization of Iraq in 1958.