A History of Iraq

Charles Tripp

Cambridge University Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 http://dannyreviews.com/
There has been a spate of books on Iraq recently, but Tripp is a long-time Iraq specialist, not a newcomer to the subject. And, while his narrative runs down to mid-2002, when Saddam Hussein was facing increasing pressure from the United States and war seemed likely, recent events don't receive disproportionate attention: just over a third of A History of Iraq is devoted to the period since 1968.

Tripp's account is chronological, beginning with the three Ottoman provinces (Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul) which became Iraq following the First World War. Then came the British Mandate, the Hashemite monarchy (1932 to 1958), and the Republic (1958 to 1968), before the rise of the Ba'ath and Saddam Hussein.

The focus is on politics and above all on the state. Tripp explores the ways in which the Iraqi state has acted as a centre of gravity, as source of power, dispenser of resources, and propagator of ideologies. Ideas and social structures — nationalism, pan-Arabism, patrimonialism and patronage, tribal affiliations, religious and ethnic divisions, etc. — have been moulded by the state even as they constrained it.

"The principles and structures of patronage have been embedded in a political order that brings important elements of the state and the societies of Iraq into a relationship whereby forms of mutual dependence are created. Paradoxically, the fragmentation associated with this process has tended to reinforce it."
As well as Saddam Hussein, leaders such as Nuri al-Sa`id (premier or power behind the scenes during the Hashemite period), `Abd al-Karim Qasim, `Abd al-Salam `Arif, and Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr (presidents) have a prominent role.

Tripp stays narrowly focused. He makes no excursions into social or economic history; the oil industry features only where politically significant; the war with Iran is covered in so far as it affects Saddam Hussein's options and changes his relationship with the officer corps of the army; and so forth. And peripheral agents — tribal sheikhs, low-ranking army officers, Islamic clerics — remain mostly anonymous, with developments in the Kurdish areas or among the Shi'ite clergy covered only when they present problems or opportunities for the central government.

The limited scope of Tripp's history is occasionally frustrating, but it does provide excellent background for anyone interested in political systems or current Iraqi politics. Saddam Hussein's deft co-option or marginalisation of factions, use of violence, and distribution of resources through webs of patronage all followed earlier patterns. And, as Tripp writes:

"those who are seeking to develop a new narrative for the history of Iraq must recognise the powerful legacies at work in the country if they do not want to succumb to their logic."

October 2003

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Related reviews:
- books about the Middle East + Middle Eastern history
- more modern history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T A History of Iraq
%A Tripp, Charles
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 2002
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 052152900X
%P xviii,324pp