Iraq in the Ottoman Empire
Ottoman rule in Iraq began in 1535 and lasted until World War I.
During this time Iraq became a central player in Ottoman religious,
economic, and political developments, as it was important to Ottoman
interests in protecting its lands from the Eastern threats, primarily those
of modern day Iran. Also, Iraq helped the Ottoman’s to increase economic
trade and resist Shiite influence on their own Sunni Muslim population.
Thus it was important to Ottoman ends of political security and protection
from the Persians and future encroachments, which is reflected in the
constant turmoil in the region. It is also noteworthy that the Ottoman’s
at times struggled to administrate Iraq, and although the Mumlaks
encouraged stability, this would not be permanent as the Ottoman
ineffectiveness is reflected in the British influence in the area. As
World War I drew near and the Ottoman’s allied with the Central Powers, it
became clear that the British would be at war with the Ottoman Empire.
Thus Ottoman interest in Iraq was lost through the war and British colonial
interests and military might regain control. But because the Ottoman’s had
not properly addressed control over Iraq and encouraged divisions among
different religious and tribal groups, Iraq continued to maintain a
splintered religious and political society that colonialism did not and
could not cure. The Ottoman’s handed over a territory that could only be
ruled through dictatorships and thus political hardships and the Ottoman’s
rule over Iraq meant that Iraq would be a colonized land in which the
problems of political rule would not be addressed. The progression of
Ottoman influence in Iraq meant that Iraq was not able to develop as its
own political entity resulting in years of political and religious
frustrations that are still manifesting themselves today.
Iraq came under Ottoman rule in the 16th Century as the Ottoman’s
brought all the holiest cities of Islam under their domain from the
Persians. The conflict over Iraq to the Ottomans was that the Ottoman
Empire feared the Persians from East and thus sought to create a Sunni
buffer state in opposition to the Shiite Persians of the East. The
Ottomans had important territories in what would become modern day Turkey
and Syria and Persia posed a direct threat to them. This means that Iraq
had a political purpose for the Ottoman Empire and encouraged the Ottomans
to take control of the area. Creating a buffer state would not only help
with international stability and security, but the political conquest of
Iraq would help to cement Ottoman control over Sunni territory and heighten
Ottoman influence in the Eastern portion of their Empire while securing
their borders from their main Eastern threat.
This political purpose spread to the religious sphere as well, as the
differences between Sunnis and Shiites influenced Ottoman policy towards
Iraq. After Muhammad there was a schism in Iraq, thus causing a split in
Islam into two groups that would become known as Sunnis and Shiites. Iran,
or Persia in the Ottoman days, was the center of the Shiites and the Arabs
were predominately Sunni. While Iraq had a decent sized Shiite population,
it was primarily Shiite. And because the Shiites of Persia were the
enemies of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans feared Shiite influence into
their Sunni lands of modern day Turkey, which was a critical area to the
Empire. Therefore, having Iraq in its position would not only serve as a
political buffer, but a religious buffer whose religious impact spread into
the political sphere.
Furthermore, early Ottoman control of Iraq also meant economic
significance to the Ottoman Empire. Important East-West trade routes
passed through modern day Iraq and encouraged the Sultan of the Ottoman
Empire to control the land and control trade. According to one estimate,
“control of the trade routes passing through the Red Sea and up the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers….. was an important element in the Sultan’s efforts
to ensure that east-west trade would continue to flow through his
territories” (Iraq History Page). This was because there were newly
opened trade routes through Africa that might pose a threat to Ottoman
trade in the East. This shows the economic importance of what would become
modern day Iraq for its inclusion into the Ottoman Empire.
From the early conquest of Iraq by the Ottoman Empire in the 16
century, there would be a continued conflict between the Safavid Empire in
Iran and the Ottomans that would continue to make Iraq an important
religious and political entity to the Ottoman Empire. This was because the
Safavid Empire in Iran declared Iran to be Shiite and had their eyes set on
holy places within Iraq and the prestige from conquering important areas of
Islam and Arab culture, such as Baghdad (Library of Congress 2007). This
meant that the initial Ottoman conquering of Iraq would not be permanently
recognized, but that it was subject to continual threats from Persia such
as that in 1623 when Persia conquered Iraq, but were eventually overthrown.
But the potential for Persian conquest and a threat to the Eastern half of
the Ottoman Empire made Iraq of significance to the Ottoman Empire’s
political, religious, and economic vitality in the Eastern half of its
Also, because the Ottomans were constantly threatened by the
Safavids Persian influence on Iraq, their influence was weakened and they
faced a loss of authority in Iraq.
In the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was weakened, which allowed for
increased independent rule of the Iraqi areas of the Empire. Local Iraqi
tribes succeeded in acquiring power, and one man, Afrasiyab purchased the
governorship of Basra and allowed Western influence to permeate Iraq
through British, Dutch, and Portuguese merchants. This introduction of Red
Sea Trade in Basra by the British perhaps influenced the British in their
future endeavors and eventual colonization of modern day Iraq. It is also
important to note that these local leaders were also responsible for the
Persian conquest of most of Iraq as the Baghdad governor Bark Su Bashi
revolted and joined with the Safavid in order to strengthen his role in
relation to the Ottoman Empire. The result was religious and political
conflict in Baghdad which while allowed for Persian control, the Ottomans
eventually restored their power to Iraq and they would retain control until
modern times by the Treaty of Qasr-i-Shirin which ended the aforementioned
conflict between the Sultan and the Persian Empire. However, there would
be indirect conflict in the 17th century such as for control over Basra as
the Ottoman’s were forced to focus much of their attention and resources to
Europe where they faced warfare and waning influence as a political Empire.
This notion in which the Ottoman Empire became known as the “sick man
of Europe” in which they had lesser political control but significant land
holding also was because of and spread to their territory in Iraq. There
were weak Sultans such as Ibrahim I whose porous policy spread to Iraq and
encouraged the disunity and opposition to Ottoman influence in the region.
This contributed to political and economic problems and furthered the
chance of religious tension between Shiites and Sunnis. This Shiite and
Sunni tension was heightened by the pro-Sunni stance of the Ottomans and
the pro-Shiite stance of the Persians and thus the conflict spread to
create religious cleavages between the two religious groups. The Persians
encouraged the Shiites and the Ottomans the Sunnis and thus when ruled by
one group, the opposition was oppressed. This would influence Iraq far
into the future and into the modern day.
In the 18th Century, Iraq and its relationship within the Ottoman
Empire became more stable. A European model of governing influenced the
Ottomans and this was carried over to Iraq. The key aspect of this period
was that the governor sent to rule Iraq from the Ottomans was Georgian and
he established a Georgian Mamluk authority over the Iraqi province. The
Mamluks became influential in helping to secure Ottoman influence in Iraq
which benefited the Empire and they helped collect tribute which was
beneficially economically to the Ottomans. This meant a period of economic
and political stability for the Ottomans in Iraq that also included
modernizing efforts and military gains (Library of Congress 2007). This
helped cement Iraqi incorporation into the Ottoman Empire and alleviate
Ottoman concern over the region. The Mamluks had a military in the Empire
which made the defense of Iraq not subject to the Ottoman’s European
campaigns and thus trade routes became a source of revenue that was not at
risk. By this time however the Safavid’s lost power in Iran and those who
took power meant a new threat to the Ottoman’s control of Iraq. But
through the influence of the Mamluks, the Ottomans were able to retain
control, but the Mamluk regime retained greater influence than other
regimes prior. During this time the future of Iraq was hinted as the
British East India Company established a post in Basra in 1763.
The end of the 18th and into the 19th century British influence in
Iraq became greater as the British and other European interests began to
penetrate further into Iraq. The last Mamluk governor ruled in the 19th
century as Europe was increasingly asked for advice, military weapons, and
for help to promote trade. The British were the most influential in this
regard which indicates an economic viability to Iraq that the Ottomans were
either unable or uninterested in pursuing. The Ottomans, as a European
Empire, were unable to maintain influence over its own province. After
floods and plagues in 1831, the Ottoman’s sent a new governor to Iraq that
meant “A new era” for Iraq (Iraq History Page). While this was an attempt
to regain influence on the area, many tribal competitions and allegiances
remained, including the Kurdish problem in the region. The Mamluks had
grown increasingly autonomous and the Ottoman’s reasserted their authority,
but this authority was not inherently stable. IN 1690, Midhat Pasha was
appointed governor of Iraq and he attempted to modernize according to a
Western model which helped Iraqis to gain power within their own
government, but this not enforce the Ottoman Land Law of 1858 which meant
that Iraq was now closely tied to the Ottoman central government. The
implications of Ottoman re-asserted control were that Sunnis would hold
influence on important political positions that would remain until after
Ottoman control ended. This means that the Ottomans encouraged the
religious divisions not only between the Sunnis and the Shiites, but the
Kurds as well that would remain as the religious cleavages were not
addressed properly in Ottoman Iraq.
As the British had been allowed increasing influence in Iraq, it
would remain that way after the Ottoman’s lost control in the First World
War. Ottoman ties to Germany meant a threat to British interests in the
area as the Ottoman’s allowed for a German railway. The British, who
became aware that there may be oil interests in Iraq, were now fearful of a
military threat in the area as the German influence was a competition.
Ultimately, the British won out in the ensuing military conflict and thus
Iraq’s domination by the Ottoman’s came to a close, largely because of
their ineffective political influence and allowing for British economic
interests in the region. But as the Ottoman’s lost the war, they also lost
their territory to the victors and the future of Iraq would play out in the
hands of the Western European colonizers, in this case the British.
Thus Ottoman policies ultimately led Iraq into the hands of the
British and the British did little to address the underlying issues in
Iraq. For example, in 1920 there was a “large-scale Shiite insurgency”
meaning that the Shiite and Sunni religious problems existed and would
exist through the 20th century and they do exist today in the 21st century
(Rayburn 2006). The British were ineffective in fixing Iraqi political
problems or granting the Arabs political sovereignty, and it was admitted
that by the end of the 1920s, “the Iraqi government had become the
exclusive domain of the royal Hashemite family and a few hundred Sunni Arab
politicians” (Rayburn 2006). Iraq faced incredible political dilemmas and
religious differences that were not addressed in the years following
Ottoman rule as colonization re-enforced as the British only pursued their
own personal interests in Iraq and, like in the Ottoman years, Iraq was
merely a pawn in the much bigger political and economic landscape and its
own political and religious concerns were not addressed.
According to one study on Iraq, modern day Iraq “as a result of
repeatedly being conquered and occupied by foreign powers, did not progress
in the four centuries” since the original Ottoman invasion (Shagoury 2003).
The Ottoman legacy thus must be seen one as exploitation and failure which
led to British colonization and even more failure and ultimately a system
that could only be dominated by despotism. The results were despotism
after the British left, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and politician and
religious repression and stunted economic growth, and eventually the United
States invasion which has opened the doors to renewed ethnic and religious
conflict and political squabbles. Even the possibility of democracy has
not made possible a change in Iraq as traditional problems now have had
room to become. Since the U.S. led invasion, “without a strongman holding
Iraq together, rising sectarian violence has brought the country to the
brink of civil war” (Roberts 2007). This is an indication of the problems
that have existed in Iraq since its inception as a province conquered by
the Ottomans. The Ottoman’s used Iraq for what it was- a buffer state- and
Iraq was only important for the economic and political security it afforded
the Empire. The religious divisions in Iraq, for example, were only
maintained by the Ottoman Emperor and perhaps encouraged as the Ottomans
were interested in the Sunnis and not the Shiites. This is just one of the
many conflicts within Iraq that have existed to this day as Iraq has
continually been an area of foreign domination and internal disputes that
have not helped Iraq, but have only led to problems that have existed
throughout Iraq’s history until the modern day.
“Iraq’s History Page.” 22 Apr. 2007
Rayburn, Joel. “The Last Exit From Iraq.” Foreign Affairs 85 (2006): 29.
22 Apr. 2007
Roberts, Sam. “How the Middle East Got That Way.” New York Times Upfront
139 (2007): 24. 22 Apr. 2007
Shagoury, Michael. “Four Centuries of Modern Iraq.” The Middle East Journal
57 (2003): 700. 22 Apr. 2007
“The Ottoman Period, 1534-1918.” Iraq: Historical Setting. Library of
Congress Country Study. 22 Apr. 2007
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