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  • Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation
  • Eric Davis
Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation, by Adeed Dawisha. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 298 pages. Notes to p. 341. Bibl. to p. 357. $29.95.

Prior to 2003, Iraq was relatively unknown in the West. Those interested in Iraqi politics and society had to turn to Hanna Batatu’s magisterial study, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. However, at over 1,200 pages, only the most intrepid scholars took on the task of reading this important yet difficult work.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, numerous “instant experts” appeared, prognosticating Iraq’s imminent fragmentation and condemning it to permanent ethnosectarian strife. While most have now moved on to the next crisis, we are fortunate to have scholars, such as Adeed Dawisha, who continue [End Page 485] to grapple with Iraq’s political complexities as evidenced by his important new study, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation.

Devoid of social science jargon, Professor Dawisha offers the reader an eminently clear and well-focused study of modern Iraqi politics. Clarity of text is accompanied by a sophisticated conceptual framework built around the notions of state institutions, attitudes towards democracy, and national identity. Each of these three concepts forms the core of distinct, but mutually constitutive processes, which, when taken together, allow us to comprehend Iraq’s political development, both prior to and after 2003. In Professor Dawisha’s view, the failure of state institutions, the weakness of commitments to democracy, and the problem of defining a “coherent national identity” continue to shape Iraqi politics and society.

Despite what appears at first glance to be a rather negative assessment of Iraqi politics, Professor Dawisha argues that applying an “all or nothing” approach to the possibility of democratization in Iraq is highly problematic. While the monarchical period (1921-58) was by no means democratic, there existed a modicum of individual freedoms, political participation, and freedom of expression as seen in a vigorous press, a vibrant civil society, and programmatic political parties. To apply idealized Western notions of democratization to Iraq leads us to the “spurious and patently false conclusion” that there was no difference between the Hashimite monarchy and Saddam Husayn’s Ba‘thist regime (p. 42).

Suggesting parallels with events that would occur almost a century later, Iraqis participated with great vigor in the 1908 Ottoman provincial elections following the seizure of power by the “Young Turks” (the Committee on Union and Progress). During World War I, and prior to the British occupation of Iraq, the residents of al-Najaf ruled themselves for two years. With the outbreak of the 1920 Revolution, Najafis held spontaneous elections, as did Iraqis in many other towns that were able to temporarily rid themselves of British forces. After the promulgation of the Organic Law (constitution) of 1925, Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections until the 1958 Revolution that overthrew the Hashimite monarchy. Thus democracy was not something unknown to Iraqis in 2003.

Professor Dawisha analyzes Arab-Kurdish relations, which all too often are missing from studies of modern Iraqi politics. As he observes, prior to 2003 most Arab leaders viewed the Kurds as a “gross inconvenience” because they interfered with the interests of the (Sunni) Arab political elite (p. 206). This historical legacy suggests that the Kurds will need to be given meaningful power in Baghdad if they are going to develop an enduring loyalty to the new federally-organized Iraqi nation-state.

Iraq: A Political History ends on the same ambiguous note with which it begins. According to Professor Dawisha, Iraq still possesses a political culture that demonstrates a weak commitment to democracy. Iraq’s main ethnic groups — the Sunni Arabs, Shi‘ite Arabs, and Kurds — have yet to agree on the form of the Iraqi nation-state.

Yet since this study was published, elections were held for provincial legislatures in the Arab south in January 2009, for the Kurdish Regional Government Parliament in July 2009, and for the national Parliament in March 2010. In all these elections, sectarian entrepreneurs were dealt a major blow as Iraqis voted in large numbers for political parties, many...


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pp. 485-487
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