- Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History
Almost twenty years ago Saddam Hussein sent his army into Kuwait, setting off a chain of events that absorbed much of the Pentagon’s budget and intellectual energy for the ensuing years. Yet, despite this long adversarial relationship, which includes two major wars, Americans know very little about the Iraqi Army and its historical role in politics and society. As pointed out by Ibrahim Al-Marashi and Sammy Salama, in Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History, this ignorance has consequences. The authors, both scholars of the modern Middle East, have mined a wide range of sources to present the western scholar with a holistic view of this complicated institution.
They trace the development of the Iraqi military through sequential phases of development, beginning with its formation under British direction in 1921, following a series of large revolts in 1920. The purpose of this force, foreshadowing [End Page 1365] the American occupation in 2004 was to safeguard Iraq for British interests. The similarities between these two periods, in which the two Western states tried to impose the creation of a national army on an Islamic tribal society are more than coincidental and, frankly, painful to read. While other authors have discussed the connection between these two eras, Al-Marashi and Salama continue the narrative by describing in detail the progress of the Iraqi military from the mandate period, through a “praetorian” phase beginning in 1936 when the military assumed the role of guardian of the political process and, ultimately, emerged to rule the state. In 1968 the politicians, acting under the mantra of the pan-Arab Baath party, staged a coup and regained power. The next thirty-seven years witnessed a strange relationship between the government, first headed by Ahmed Hasan Al-Baker and, subsequently, by Saddam Hussein and the military officer corps. Marashi and Salama describe a surreal situation as the military is asked to defend the state while shackled to a security apparatus designed to restrict its abilities to stage another revolt.
This situation came to a head in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War when the officer corps challenged Hussein and demanded the right to engage the Iranian hordes as professionals. The resulting application of sound tactics resulted in Iraqi victories, especially at Al Faw in May 1988. The subsequent negotiated peace found the military, and its officer corps, with enhanced prestige and morale. Hussein, basing his actions not on some personal idiosyncrasy but on the evidence of Iraqi history, which had seen over twenty-two actual and attempted military coups since 1936, struck before his rivals. He removed and preemptively executed war heroes he considered a threat, such as his son-in-law General Mahir Abd Al-Rashid.
The story that emerges from this engrossing narrative is a deadly dance of power. Painted against a backdrop of tribal competition, ethnic strife, and confessional mistrust, it is an engrossing story. Unfortunately, as pointed out in the conclusion, L. Paul Bremer would have been well advised to know this institution’s story before directing its abolition in 2003. It is required reading for any scholar or military officer concerned with Iraq’s military and society.
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas