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Modern Iraq – A House Divided

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Modern Iraq

A House Divided

What is the origin of the Iraqi people? How did Iraq become the nation it is today? Can the “coalition of the willing” bring peace and stability to this tumultuous land and people?

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Recently, the President of the United States made a daring challenge to the Middle East: Iraq will be a “dramatic and inspiring example” of peace.

As American troops patrol the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, many questions surround Iraq’s future: What will become of this nation and its people? Will America really bring peace to this region? Can foreign occupation bring lasting peace to a land that has known nothing but war, division and strife? How will—or can—the Iraqi people practice democracy? Or is it only a matter of time until another harsh or terrorist regime seizes control of a newly liberated Iraq?

While these are tough questions on the minds of many government and military officials—they can be easily answered!

As Harvard Professor George Santayana stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A brief examination of Iraq’s fractured history—in combination with Bible prophecy—answers these and other looming questions, and helps identify the true nature of the Iraqis.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

In the seventh century, the mainly desert region of Arabia was home to many wandering Arab tribes. These tribes represented the largest unit of political organization in the region, and were often governed by rulers selected from ancient lines of Arab kings. Since natural resources and arable land for farming and grazing were limited in Arabia’s deserts, tribes constantly migrated, and competed with other neighboring tribes for control of these valuable areas. With the need to battle just to survive, young men were required to be warriors, and the impetuous, fighting nature of the Arab people became an integral part of their society.

As years passed, Arabia became a center for trading and trade routes. Among these, one of the most famous was the Hijaz city of Mecca. This city became a great source of wealth for many merchants, neighboring tribes and, most importantly, the city itself.

Pre-Islamic Mecca had also become a center of religious practices. Many western Arabian and African cults traveled to the city’s shrine, which soon became the site for yearly pilgrimages. At these gatherings, all attending tribes would cease from warring, and often settle certain long-standing disputes.

This period was an unusual time for Arab society. Its long-established tribal systems were slowly vanishing, and merchant capitalism was growing in its place. This void of a centralized governing system helped the proliferation of Islam in this region.

The Birth of Islam

In A.D. 610, the single biggest force controlling practically every action in the Middle East was born—the religion of Islam. Within a century, Islam would control an empire far larger than that of Alexander the Great or even Rome.

While most Westerners do not understand much of what occurs in the Islamic world, events in that region directly affect most of the world. The Council on American-Islamic Relations reports that there are 1.3 billion Muslims (also called Moslems) worldwide, accounting for approximately 20% of the world’s population. Once spread almost solely by the sword, Islam is one of the fastest growing religions today, and is the second most popular, with an estimated 135,000 converts per year. During the 1991 Gulf War alone, approximately 3,000 Americans converted to Islam!

Mohammed ibn Abdullah, born in Mecca around A.D. 570, was of the lineage of Kedar, son of Ishmael, and grandson to the patriarch Abraham (Gen. 25:13). He was born of a poor but respectable branch of the Quraysh tribe, the dominant tribe in Mecca.

Mohammed was a husband, a father of four daughters, and, as a merchant trader, was said to have had regular contact with Jewish and Christian traders, learning much about both religions. One night, while in a secluded mountain, an angel—supposedly “Gabriel”—is said to have appeared to Mohammed, imparting to him the knowledge of the Koran. Mohammed further claimed that the archangel stated that he was to be a prophet, and his teachings were to supplant all previous teaching revealed through God’s true servants and prophets.

This event, called “the Night of Power” by most Muslims, represents a shift in the Arab world. This single event would lead to the emergence of organized religion in Arabia—and would help unite a splintered Arab world into a conquering force.

Islam’s Development

For the next 22 years, Mohammed would teach his increasing number of followers the many “revelations” conveyed to him. Mohammed memorized these revelations, which eventually comprised the 144 suras or chapters of the Koran. Claiming these were the exact words of God, Mohammed further taught that they replaced previous revelations, primarily the teaching found in the Bible!

While extremely different from the Bible, the Koran has a number of similarities to it, and even acknowledges the authority of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and even Christ as servants God used to convey His message. However, Muslims deny that Christ was the Son of God, and even attribute certain accounts from Christ’s life to the life experiences of Mohammed!

The purpose of this article is not to prove or disprove the authenticity of the Koran. (God’s Word—the Holy Bible—plainly states that such messages would, in fact, proliferate.) However, Islam’s development helped galvanize the Middle East as we know it today.

Since Mohammed’s teachings forbade the pursuit of physical riches and wealth, and his followers continued to increase within Mecca, the rich merchant tribes ruling Mecca soon saw them as a threat to their way of life. Soon, Mohammed persuaded his followers to move to Medina, where he was offered supreme authority over the city. This pilgrimage to Medina took place in 622, the first year of the Islamic calendar. One of Mohammed’s first actions in Medina was to expel certain Jewish tribes residing in the city, who had rejected his self-proclaimed authority as a prophet.

For the next few years, Mohammed sought to disable Mecca’s financial power, and led repeated strikes against the city’s merchant fleets. As Mohammed’s fame spread, many tribes converted to Islam. In 630, the Quarysh tribe, leaders of Mecca, accepted defeat. For the next two years, most of the remaining Arabian tribes accepted Mohammed’s teachings and converted. In 632, Mohammed died, leaving no male heir to fill his position of leadership. Only one of his daughters, Fatima, survived him.

The cities of Mecca and Medina did not abandon Islam after Mohammed’s death. However, they soon began competing for supremacy. Since there were no male heirs to succeed Mohammed and, since the Koran did not specify what should be done in such circumstances, different interpretations of who should replace Mohammed sprang forth.

There were three common beliefs concerning who the new leader of Islam should be. One group believed that the line should be carried through Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter. Thus, her husband, Ali, should rule. A second group, comprised of recent Meccan Islamic converts (who had until recently fought against Mohammed), hoped to regain power by claiming one of their own as successor. Finally, the third group, those who had been with Mohammed through his initial troubles in Mecca, claimed that one of Islam’s faithful followers, Abu Bakr, should succeed Mohammed.

The other factions eventually gave in to Bakr’s claim to leadership. However, this dispute over Arabia’s leadership sowed the seeds of division that would affect the Islamic world to this day.

Bakr was called “the successor”—or khalif in Arabic. This title, later anglicized to caliph, referred to a political or religious figure in Islamic leadership.

Within 100 years of Mohammed’s death, the Islamic empire, led by the conquering nature of the Arabs, reached from the Indian subcontinent, to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) and across the Pyrenees into France.

Islam’s Division

As the Islamic empire grew, so grew its inability to remain functioning and organized. Caliphate followed caliphate, dynasty followed dynasty, with practically every successor facing opposition from other tribes, each also claiming the right to rulership.

Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate from about the mid-eighth century to 1258. This was a golden age of Islamic power and culture. But it began to slowly decline in the mid-ninth century. The rule of Baghdad was successfully contested by the Qarmatians, a new Muslim sect, and then later by various Bedouin tribes. Completely disunited, numerous petty governments ruled Arabia.

In 945, an Iranian Shia dynasty, the Buwayhids, invaded Baghdad, but allowed the Abbasid dynasty to remain in power. In 1055, a Turkish Sunni clan, the Seljuks, defeated the Buwayhids. Their victory then reestablished Sunni rule in Baghdad.

In 1258, Hulagu, grandson of the great Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, sacked Baghdad, which, for some time, had no further influence over Arabia. Both Hulagu and the next invader, the Turkish conqueror Tamerlane (raided Baghdad in 1401), killed most of the city’s inhabitants upon invasion, and each built a pyramid made of their skulls (Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia). In 1269, Muslim Egyptian princes conquered the region of Mecca.

In the wake of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, various Turkish Islamic tribes began to form what would become the Ottoman Empire. This world power would become a dominant force. At its peak, it was the only empire considered to be both a Middle Eastern and European power. The Ottomans conquered Baghdad in 1517. Control of Baghdad was contested between the Persians and the Ottomans, but, for almost the next three centuries, the land of Iraq was part of the expanding Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Decline—Birth of Iraq

The Ottoman Empire’s effectiveness in uniting many factions in Arabia was noteworthy. Osman, the Turkish chieftain, led his warriors on successful raids that helped spread his realm. In time, as his armies grew, they were all called Osmanlis (Ottomans), after his family name. This stirred his soldiers to feel that they were all in one dynasty, when they were in fact of different tribes.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the Ottomans had extended their rule from southeastern Europe to the birthplace of Islam, all the while waging “holy war” on non-Muslims, adding converts by the edge of the sword.

While the Sunni Ottomans ruled Baghdad until World War I, the Shiite Safavid dynasty contested its rule, and led the majority of the population to embrace Shia.

The history of modern Iraq begins with the last phase of Ottoman rule, during the twentieth century. In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, as an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, entered World War I.

Previously, Britain and Germany had competed over Arabian oil field interests, and Germany had even planned to construct a railroad from Berlin to Baghdad to satisfy its need for oil. To defend key oil fields and refineries in nearby Iran, the British landed an army division to occupy Al Basrah, thus preventing Germany from taking them.

Meanwhile, an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, led by Faisal al-Husein, was taking place. The British government had promised Faisal and other Arab leaders that they would receive their independence from the Ottomans if their revolt was successful.

Through vicious fighting, under the guidance of British General Edmund Allenby and Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame), Faisal (later Faisal I, first king of Iraq) was successful against the Ottoman forces. After their victory in 1918, the British declared their intentions of establishing independent Arab nations in the lands formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

In 1919, Iraq was entrusted to Britain, meaning that the Iraqi Arabs would not gain their independence for some years—until the Allies felt that they could successfully govern themselves. When the Iraqis heard of the mandate, a rebellion quickly rose in the streets of Baghdad, and many battle-hardened Arabs took arms against the British in Iraq.

While these same British soldiers were involved in the victory over the Ottomans, they were now treated as foreign occupants preventing Iraq’s freedom. The British quashed the revolt, but not until 10,000 Iraqi and 450 British soldiers were dead—at a cost of £40 million.

Determining that Iraqi independence should be effective immediately, the British notified its top administrator in Iraq, a British civil commissioner, to draw up a “blueprint” for the new state of Iraq. With pencils in hand, British officials quickly mandated the provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul as Iraqi territories. These provinces were among the most ethnically and religiously diverse in the Arab regions under Ottoman control.

This quickly-assembled British model for an Iraqi nation, which included many different tribes, would prove too difficult for one government to control. What the British actually created was a hurried patchwork of differing tribes, who had no common bonds or interests, beyond their ancestry. A random collection of tribes were to suddenly be amalgamated into one state.

Under British supervision, the first Iraqi election was held. Faisal, who had helped lead the Arab revolt, won 96% of the vote. As British representatives played their coronation anthem, “God Save the King,” he was crowned Iraq’s first king.


Many People—One Nation

Modern Iraq—commonly referred to as the cradle of civilization—has been home to many powerful empires: Assyria, Babylon, Sumer and the Ottoman Empire. As we have seen, it has been a land of turmoil, war and besiegement, with waves of powerful tribes and empires carving their way through the sandy terrain, seeking dominance.

Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt and Israel are just some of the countries within Iraq’s vicinity, which places Iraq in the middle of an entire region engulfed in turmoil.

Amidst this chaos, problems within Islam have further propelled conflicts. Like most religions today, Islam is divided into many fractured groups. Since Mohammed’s sons had all died in infancy, and he left no male heir to succeed him, two major schools of thought were born regarding who should lead the Islamic community. This schism created two main branches of Islam: Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

Shiite Muslims believe that, with the exception of Ali (Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law) and his descendents, all of the caliphs were usurpers, and had claimed a role that was not rightfully theirs. They believe that, in addition to political powers, the Islamic leader also has religious powers over the community. Shiites initially began as a political group known as the Shia (partisans) of Ali, or Shia Muslims, but soon became a sect, upholding their own doctrinal positions.

Some years after Mohammed’s death, a civil war broke out between the supporters of Ali and those who supported Mu’awiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. As Ali’s armies were about to deliver the final blow to Mu’awiyah’s forces, Mu’awiyah’s soldiers placed Korans on the tips of their spears, screaming, “Let God decide!” “Allah,” they declared, “will decide which man is to be caliph.”

Ali agreed to this arbitration. However, it decided nothing, and only alienated a group of Ali’s supporters, the Kharijites, who stated that his agreement to this was a “lack of faith.” In 661, Ali was murdered by the Kharijite, which solidified Mu’awiyah’s claim as caliph. Since the 1970s, Kharijite doctrine has been the foundation of many Islamic militant groups in the Middle East.

Shiites form the largest of the Muslim sects. Its followers believe that Islamic leadership resides in Mohammed’s line—through Ali’s descendants. The Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia further explains, “These were the first 12 imams, or leaders of the Shia Muslim community. The Shia Muslims believe that Muhammad designated all 12 successors by name and that they inherited a special knowledge of the true meaning of the scripture that was passed from father to son, beginning with the prophet himself…”

To this day, the Shiites are awaiting the return of the Twelfth Imam, who, they claim, was concealed by God eleven centuries ago. Shiite doctrines teach that this powerful Islamic leader is to return to earth before the “Day of Judgment,” bringing peace and justice to the earth.

Sunni Muslims believe that Islamic leadership should be in the hands of the people, and state that the Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties’ claims to the caliphate are legitimate. However, in contrast to Shiites, they believe that the caliphs were mere mortals, having no divine powers. They view the caliph as one who protects the Islamic way of life, and ensures its continuance in the community.

Today, the secular Sunnis make up less than 20% of Iraq’s population, while Shiites comprise more than 60%.

Another major faction in Iraq is comprised of the Kurdish people. The Kurds are mainly Sunni Muslims, residing in northern Iraq. Arabs conquered most of the Kurdish lands in the seventh century. They brought Islam to the region and most Kurds converted.

Following World War I, the Allies provided for a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1919. However, this part of the treaty was never ratified, and the lands were assimilated into Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The Kurdish people have received much attention from Iraqi regimes because they consist of 20-25% of Iraq’s population, and reside in the oil-rich lands. They have long opposed Pan-Arabism, and warn that if Iraq joins an Arab union, they will secede, forming their own Kurdish state. Their expectation of having an autonomous state has been unfulfilled for many years.

Further Division

With Sunni Kurds to the north, Sunni Arabs to the east, and mixed Shiite Arab population throughout, Faisal struggled to satisfy his diverse kingdom. In June 1922, he signed a 20-year treaty of protection with the British, who required that Iraq’s king follow their guidance on issues regarding British interests. Faisal recognized that Iraq’s oil was of great importance to the British, and granted them first rights to it. Britain would in turn provide Iraq with military assistance and aid.

Meanwhile, many Iraqis embraced the rising pan-Arab movement, seeking to join all Arabs into one powerful Islamic state. This movement was seen as a means of unifying the Iraqi people through their common Arab ancestry. On the other side of this mentality, a group called the efendiyya developed and taught anti-British ideology.

As the Iraqi monarchy continued, the people were soon turned against the dynasty’s pro-British agenda. They viewed British support as interest in Iraqi oil. So, in 1958, Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the monarch, and killed King Faisel II and others of his dynasty.

In his coup, he declared Iraq a “republic,” claiming that his revolution was against “tyranny and corruption.” But he himself ruled Iraq with a tyrannical and corrupt regime. In 1963, a factious militant group, led by Colonel Abd al-Salam Arif, toppled Qasim’s regime.

Five years later, yet another coup occurred in Iraq—and the Baath party came into power in 1968, placing Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr as Iraq’s president and prime minister. The Baath Party consisted of Sunni Muslims, and was to remain in power for over 30 years in Iraq.

A Dictator’s Quick Rise To Power

Born fatherless to a peasant family in Tikrit, a town on the Tigris River, Saddam Hussein’s swift rise to power and rule exhibits his powerful cunning and brutality. By the early 1970s, most Iraqis recognized the young Hussein as the real power behind the Iraqi throne.

Iraq’s leader at the time?—Hussein’s relative, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr. A few years earlier, Bakr had arranged to make Hussein the deputy security general of the Baath party. In the next few years, Hussein used his power to ensure his rise to the top—by whatever means necessary. The “justified” executions of members of opposing parties skyrocketed—thus fortifying the Baath party’s rule in Iraq.

In 1972, Hussein became vice president of Iraq, and a few years later, with no military background, proclaimed himself general of Iraq’s army. By 1979, President Bakr resigned due to “health reasons.” Behind the scenes, reports state that he confided to those closest to him, “You know we are doomed. Saddam is in power.”

Therefore, in July 1979, Saddam Hussein assumed Iraq’s leadership—and became its grand dictator. Over the years, Hussein had carefully planned his moves, ensuring that he would not only become the most powerful man in Iraq—but that he would be the only powerful man in Iraq!

In 1980, Hussein attacked Iran and, in years to follow, orchestrated countless attacks against his own people. On August 2, 1990, 150,000 Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. Within a few hours, they had taken control of the nation, defeating Kuwait’s mostly inexperienced army. The UN coalition, led by U.S. forces, then swept into Kuwait, liberated the people and defeated the Iraqi troops. But they failed to remove the Iraqi dictator. Shortly after America’s  departure, Hussein slaughtered countless Shiites and Kurds attempting to overthrow his regime.

“We must now pay dearly for our abdication of a decade ago.” These words haunt many on Capitol Hill, even more so to those soldiers today returning to the Gulf to finish the job started over ten years ago.

“Inhumanity” does not begin to describe Hussein’s utter disregard for and brutal treatment of his people, which is well known and documented. Throughout his regime, countless thousands have been slaughtered for reasons ranging from treason to mere suspicions of disloyalty.

What is the result of such cruel dictatorship?

Today, Iraq is in absolute turmoil. Even with Saddam’s murderous regime overthrown, the problems now facing the Iraqi peoples are monumental. These problems have reached such depravity and degeneration that most Iraqis view murders, tribal wars, turbulence, poor sanitation, lack of clean drinking water and insufficient food—even torture by the ruling party—as routine aspects of life!

Tragically, Hussein is merely the most recent in a long line of power-hungry, murderous rulers in the Middle East.

A Peace Unknown

God states, “Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths. The way of peace they know not…” (Isa. 59:7-8).

This scripture, quoted by the apostle Paul (Rom. 3:17), reflects mankind’s existence on earth. It also fitly describes the tumultuous history of the Middle East—a history that, unless radically altered, will be the COMPOSITE history and future of humanity!

This leads to the question asked at the outset of this article: Can a peaceful Iraq truly be a catalyst for peace in the region?

Even as American troops fill Iraq’s cities, the concept of bringing stability to this region and these peoples appears to be a hopeless pipedream. Many dismiss President Bush’s promises of making Iraq a “dramatic and inspiring example” of peace as mere hopeful rhetoric, and that the only product of foreign occupation will be animosity and hate, just as it brought hatred toward the British in the 1900s.

However, regardless of this recent turmoil, and the countless chattering of “experts,” Iraqi citizens WILL be liberated from oppression and their children WILL play safely in the streets of Baghdad. Iraq WILL see peace, and will experience great prosperity and abundance, both of which have been as elusive to this region as rainfall in the desert!

But peace will not come from the efforts of America’s troops.

How Will Peace Come?

The Bible—God’s true source of knowledge—reveals that Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords, will soon establish His kingdom on earth, finally restoring peace to this region—and deserts will bloom like roses at His Return (Isa. 35:1).

These promises are true! God’s word ASSURES there WILL be peace and stability in Iraq! But it will only come after one of the bloodiest battles ever fought ravages the Middle East.

After decades of strife and “holy wars,” these lands will witness the emergence of a united Arab world—perhaps under the banner of being Mohammed’s successor, the “Twelfth Imam.” The rift between Islam and professing Christianity will become full blown as the Catholic-led “king of the north” sweeps through the Mid-East. Scripture shows that this power shall enter the region that includes the glorious land (the country of Israel) “and many countries shall be overthrown” (Dan. 11:41). Next, we find that Egypt and her neighboring countries fall to this superpower sweeping down from the north (vs. 42-43).

This campaign by the king of the north is interrupted by a turn of events in which he turns to engage the threat from the kings of the east (vs. 44). The ensuing attack by the king of the north and counterattack by the kings of the east are both covered in Revelation 9.

As Christ descends to earth, the survivors of these forces will attempt to resist Him. They will be destroyed and Christ will usher in a new age of peace.

Then, and only then, will the Mid-East finally see peace.

Only those faithfully studying God’s Word and obeying Him can claim the promise of protection from these terrifying events, soon to strike the Middle East and the world! Will you hear the warning from the pages of history, and act upon God’s warning?

Much is at stake if you do not!

(To learn more about the subjects discussed here, read our free booklet Are These the Last Days?)

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