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How Did Iraq Come into Being?

Prof. TRIPP: Iraq was the first of the League of Nations mandate states to become independent in 1932. The British had decided quite early on that there was no need to be an imperial power in a very detailed sense in Iraq, that is administering every aspect of the Iraqi state. Rather, they should exercise what came to be called 'informal empire' in Iraq, that is a influence over the government, military basing rights, but beyond that, largely granting the Iraqis their independence. So after 1932, Iraq was formally independent. There was still, of course, a large measure of British influence and British power there, but it was certainly independent earlier than any of the other Arab states.

GROSS: What happened after Iraq got its independence? How did its own national politics start to take shape?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, one of the things that became apparent quite quickly was the fact that the British had installed a monarchy in Iraq, because that's the way the British at the time thought that you would bring a certain degree of cohesion. And they'd chosen as the monarch a member of the Hashemite family from the Hejaz in Arabia, who had been very instrumental in the Arab revolt.

And King Faisal I, the first king of Iraq, was man of extraordinary authority, and battling against great odds, both against the British and against the Iraqis, managed to forge something like a national sense of loyalty to him. But he died a year after independence, and then you had his much weaker son, and his son died in a car crash a few years later, and then his infant child. So the monarchy was in Iraq, but increasingly troubled, increasingly at odds with various factions of the Iraqi population.

And one of the things that became apparent very quickly in the 1930s was the role of the army in Iraqi politics, that is the importance of the army officers in deciding who should govern the country. And just as Iraq became the first of League of Nations mandates to become independent in 1932, it was also the first of the Arab states to suffer what one came to think of as a classical military coup d'etat in 1936, which led to a whole succession of coups and countercoups up until 1941.

GROSS: And what happened in '41?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, in 1941, the Second World War was raging, and the people who were coming out on top in Iraqi politics increasingly believed that the British Empire was about to be defeated by the Axis of Germany and Italy in Europe and North Africa, and rather unwisely sided with the Axis powers, at the same time seeking to defy British demands to send increasing troops through the Middle East via Iraq. And that led to a brief war with Great Britain in 1941, whereby the British invaded, recaptured Baghdad and reinstated the monarchy.

GROSS: And how long did the monarchy last?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, until 1958, when, again, a military coup d'etat by revolutionary army officers swept aside the monarchy, killing most of the ruling family and establishing the Iraqi republic.

GROSS: And how did the Iraqi republic compare to what had gone before?

Prof. TRIPP: In some ways, the Iraqi republic wasn't very different to the Iraqi monarchy. And I think this is one of the features that one has to take into account when looking at Iraqi history, is that whether under monarchy or under republic, one of the features was the very centralized, authoritarian state, the importance of the army in that state, the lack of truly representative life and the increasing importance of oil income. These are all features of the republic as they were increasingly of the monarchy under the Hashemite monarchs.