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History, Ottoman Supremacy

vilayets, Al Basrah, Anglo-Persian Oil Company, armistice agreement, Mamluks

The history of modern Iraq begins with the last phase of Ottoman rule, during the 19th century. Until the 1830s Ottoman rule in Iraq was tenuous, and real power shifted between powerful tribal chieftains and local Mamluk rulers. Many of the nomadic Arab tribes were never fully brought under Ottoman control. Local Kurdish dynasties held sway over the mountainous north. In the second half of the 18th century the Mamluks established effective control over the territory from Al Basrah to north of Baghdad. The Mamluks imposed central authority and introduced a functioning government. In 1831 the province of Iraq, then subdivided into the three vilayets, or administrative districts, of Mosul, Baghdad, and Al Basrah, came under direct Ottoman administration. From 1831 to 1869 a series of governors came and went in rapid succession.

From 1869 to 1872 Midhat Pasha, one of the Ottoman Empire’s ablest and most scrupulous officials, at long last imposed effective central control throughout the region. He modernized Baghdad, in everything from transportation to sanitation to education, and he imposed his rule on the tribal countryside. The Arabs began to experience the burdens of the new and more efficient methods of Ottoman administration, particularly with regard to tax collection. Local resentment of the centralized authority of the empire developed, giving rise to a strong spirit of Arab nationalism.

In the latter part of the 19th century Britain and Germany became rivals in the commercial development of the Mesopotamian area. The British first became interested in Iraq as a direct overland route to India. In 1861 they established a steamship company for the navigation of the Tigris to the port of Al Basrah. Meanwhile, Germany was planning the construction of a railroad in the Middle East—to run “from Berlin to Baghdad”—and, overcoming British opposition, obtained a concession from the Ottoman government to build a railroad from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. Despite this defeat, the British government managed to consolidate its position in the Persian Gulf area by concluding treaties of protection with local Arab chieftains. British financiers were also successful in obtaining a concession in 1901 to exploit the oil fields of Iran. In 1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) was formed to develop this new industry.

In November 1914, after the Ottoman Empire entered World War I (1914-1918) as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, a British army division landed at Al Faw, near Iraq’s southern tip, and quickly occupied Al Basrah. The main reason for the landing was Britain’s need to defend the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s oil fields and refineries nearby in Iran. The British army gradually pushed northward against heavy Ottoman opposition, entering Baghdad in March 1917. The British and the Ottoman Turks signed an armistice agreement in October 1918, but the British army continued to move north until it captured Mosul in early November. With the capture of Mosul, Britain exerted its control over nearly all of Iraq.

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