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Iraq's Dual State: Product of the Past, Very Present

October 22, 2010

A dual state exists in Iraq today – as it did some 100 years ago, during Mesopotamia’s occupation by the British, according to Charles Tripp, a professor at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies. In a talk at the Institute, Tripp pointed to striking parallels between the behavior of the British in the early 20th century and the Americans in the early 21st, and he described Iraqi power structures forged of this past that have persisted to the present.

The lineage of Iraq’s dual state begins in 1920 around the time the League of Nations awarded the United Kingdom a mandate of Mesopotamia, as the former Ottoman Empire was divided following World War I.

With debate raging in Britain about whether to be involved in the region at all, sides were also taken over whether to simply incorporate the region as a full colony, as the UK had done with India, or to use pro-British exiles to establish a new pro-British regime.

Despite divisive arguments most British officials at least agreed that as long as the UK was occupying or administering the territory it needed to maintain control over the territory. The Iraqis did not take kindly the application of British control, which included mass dismissals from the military. Iraqis began forming several secret anti-colonial societies designed to stir popular resistance against British rule. 

Eventually the resistance initiated by these societies exploded into the “Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920,” which had significant consequence despite only temporarily driving British forces out of Iraq.

The first of these consequences was the “driving of the final nail in the coffin” for the idea that Iraq could be incorporated as a directly ruled colony, Tripp said. Though the revolution was not quite successful it cost Britain something over 40 million pounds to put down, demonstrating how costly it could be for Britain to try to maintain direct rule in the region. The second consequence was to convince Britain to place Ottoman administrative officials and military elites – who had been displaced during the revolt – in government.

The logic behind this move was this: The British viewed the Ottomans as having experience “running a modern country” and as likely to be grateful to the British for reestablishing their socio-economic positions. Britain expected this gratefulness to translate into cooperativeness and sensitivity to British interests in the region. Shiites and Kurds were seen as too tribal and mutinous to effectively govern the country in a stable pro-British fashion.

Thus was the modern state of Iraq founded – and successfully, Tripp said, at least from the perspective of establishing some political order and securing British interests. However, this foundation also led to the dual state in Iraq, considered by many to be a pernicious presence that is in many ways still extant today.

Despite the parallels between the 1920s and 2003, Tripp emphasized, “History does not repeat, but political practices do entrench themselves.”

The British dual state – one official and the other a shadow state – consisted of official Iraqi institutions and hidden networks of power and patronage based on allegiance and respect. It was brought about by the British attempt to implement “a revolution from above,” Tripp said. The public rational for the occupation was the creation of a modern, democratic nation state. Ironically, claimed Tripp, it was being run by British officers, who had little stake or faith in democracy.

“The people that fled to administer the British Empire did so in large part because they didn’t like what democracy was becoming in Britain.” They also had a “romantic notion of leadership” and often held deep-seated prejudices against the inhabitants of Brittan’s colonies.
These prejudices were brought clearly to the surface of political discourse when Iraqi citizens began trying to use the law to secure rights for themselves – the same law Britain had been trying to establish. The British dismissed these Iraqis with the smug complaint that “Iraq had become a nation of lawyers.”

Ultimately, Tripp noted, by attempting to “modernize” the state of Iraq, Britain established a culture of patronage and provincial alliances. The British made sure the groups that would help to secure British interests, the Ottomans and eventually the Sunni sheiks, were “included” – that is, provided with power and wealth. Everyone else, especially the Shiites and Kurds, were left “outside” the benefits of the formation of new state. Those groups and individuals put in power followed suit, rewarding those loyal to them and punishing those who even seemed to oppose them. Thus the beginning of the state of Iraq was the assertion of a network where rights were only had by a select few.

Iraqis were well aware that power did not lie with the official state, Tripp emphasized.

Essentially, the Iraqi state became vehicle for the accumulation of wealth, power, and prestige. This naturally excluded whole categories of Iraqis, such as the Kurds who were practically left at the “tender mercies” of the Arab majority. The Shiite clerics, who were learned and had dominated much of higher culture before British rule, were similarly excluded. They were seen as too entrenched in the past to be useful to modern society. Social reformers perhaps had it the worst. These people, who believed that the colonial state was not the only way, were written out of the “dominant narrative” the Iraqi government was trying to construct, almost completely and often violently.

The political economy only exacerbated the situation, being one of hierarchy and order. Most of the Iraqi economy was based on land ownership and oil, and revenues from both agriculture and oil were used to “cement privilege and secure oligarchies.” So the “development of Iraq” was really the development of a hierarchical order and of patrimonialism, which both “corrode the language of rights,” Tripp noted.

The system of government established then by the British recognized multiple oligarchs. It did not however recognize or provide space for several ways of being an Iraqi. “There was only one-way: fit into an oligarchy.”

This lack of pluralism only extended the politics of violence. “Violence became the language of politics and demonstrative cruelty.”

Despite being 20th century history, Tripp claimed, all of this has a very contemporary ring.

Since 1920 the elites have shifted, but the oligarchic, unitary system seems to just self-reinforce. By the time of the Baathist regime it seemed to be enforced consciously. Tripp provided an example of an ambiguous law prohibiting the use of tribal and or provincial names.  On one hand it could be read as a law meant to rid the country of patrimonialism. If provincial names could not be used people would not be as able to base their politics on provincial or tribal allegiances. However, the other way to look at it, Tripp pointed out, was that after that law passed “you could no longer look at the revolutionary command and note that 80 percent of them were from the same tribe.”

Even later, the same basic structures of power prevailed. “The irony of the 2003 invasion was that the liberal solution of international sanctions, established well before, didn’t weaken the state of Iraq it simply undermined the official state,” Tripp claimed. It actually strengthened the shadow state. This pushed people closer to Saddam Hussein who was at the time alive and active on a provincial level.

Today, Tripp noted, the occupation is having similar effects, which explains the sentiments of one Iraqi who claimed, “America got rid of Saddam Hussein but left us with 50 little ones.”

Britain and America both lost patience with Iraqi politics, but found hope for order in local politics, Tripp noted. Both tried to “do deals with local leaders. … Both tried to find local leaders that would be better for occupancy.” This left the domestic politics of Iraq much like a table with eight seats for dozens of people who are “all trying to kill each other because in the middle of the table were prizes, namely oil revenues and power.” 

While the world watched what it thought was the disintegration of Iraq it was actually watching the establishment of a new order, Tripp said.

To give these generalizations more substantive content, Tripp pointed to the career of Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, current prime minister of Iraq. Maliki pushed opposition out of the ministry of defense and effectively established a shadow state. He took the title of “commander in chief” very seriously, according to Tripp, wanting the armed forces to be a vehicle of his power. Furthermore he created networks of power within the army to make sure they did not turn on him – effectively doing what the British and Ottomans did in 1920 and what the US did in 2003, only slightly less violently. 

In 2008 he used these loyal forces to “conquer provincial Iraq,” Tripp said.

Maliki also has three intelligence offices, which he manipulated in the same fashion as the armed forces, perhaps even more so, Tripp said. One of these offices is known for being almost exclusively composed of people from his hometown.

There are nonetheless two things to think about, said Tripp. There is a schizophrenia in the Iraqi army core. They seem to realize they should not be operating in this parochial fashion, but they feel they have to in order to survive. They are attempting to be professional but ultimately thwarted by the politics of networks – the politics of the most recent incarnation of the shadow state.

There is also a question of the political dynamics in the nation as a whole. Which state are they enforcing, public or shadow?

Some optimists would say there has been some progress beyond the shadow state structure, saying “you have to take some notion of Kurdish autonomy seriously,” Tripp noted. However, he said, there is some evidence that the Kurds run their politics in exactly the same way as the rest of Iraq. Thus, their autonomy might not be a blow against the shadow state. Unfortunately, according to Tripp, the whole of Iraq seems to be more focused on the question, “how do I make this system work for me?” rather than “how do I change the system as a whole?”

Ultimately then it seems the shadow state is still an integral part of the Iraqi state. Domestically, it has the power to seduce and promote, to lead to power and wealth. Internationally, it has the potential to deliver the oil-based prosperity that most outside countries would desire.

“So it’s not surprising that the lineage of the shadow state continues,” Tripp concluded.

Tripp's talk was part of the Peter Green Lectures on the Modern Middle East.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Joseph Bendaña ‘11