The History of Iraq
by Courtney Hunt
Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. 127 pp. $45.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
The History of Iraq is a Cliff's Notes to Iraq's past that, according to its foreword, seeks to provide "students and interested laypeople with [an] up-to-date, concise, and analytical history."
Hunt, an attorney with no particular expertise in Iraq, indeed presents an easy-to-follow overview of Iraqi history, from the Paleolithic to the present. Most ancient dynasties—Kassite, Medean, Macedonian, Parthian, and Sassanid—merit no more than a couple of paragraphs. The Babylonians receive a few pages. Hunt condenses the first 800 years of Iraq's Islamic history into eleven pages. Four centuries of Ottoman rule pass by in five pages.
The post-World War I British occupation and the early years of independence receive a little more attention. But accuracy takes a back seat to turn of phrase. In history, the devil is always in the details, and too often, Hunt gets the details wrong: Winston Churchill's decision to convert the British navy from coal to oil occurred in 1911, not at "the turn of the century." At any rate, oil was not a major factor at the time. Iraq did not begin exporting oil in earnest until 1934 with the start of production at the Kirkuk oil fields. Nor should problems of Iraq's geography—chief among them lack of ports—be blamed on post-World War I arrangements. Kuwait was created in 1899, not in the wake of World War I. Nor, for that matter, did the British divide the Kurds into Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The Iranian-Ottoman border was the product of a sixteenth century cease-fire between the two gunpowder empires. Blaming colonial powers may be trendy but, in cases such as this, it is counterfactual.
Other factual errors, many made in passing, mar the history. Palestine was not a belligerent power in Israel's war of independence. Any Palestinian hope for post-partition statehood ended with the invasion of Gaza and the West Bank by the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi armies. The Yezidis—a pre-Islamic religious sect populating northern Iraq—do not practice a form of Zoroastrianism. Their belief in a cult of angels is distinct. Likewise, while many Kurds resent Saddam Hussein for Arabization campaigns in Kirkuk and elsewhere (an ethnic cleansing is not mentioned by Hunt), Kurds were not "ideologically aligned" with the Islamic Republic of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Ahmad Chalabi returned to Iraq months before, not in the wake of Saddam's fall.
Omissions also mar the history. Discussion of Iraq's historically important Jewish community—and the pogroms that led to its departure—is nonexistent. The Kurds receive only passing mention. The intellectual origins of the Baath Party are glossed over.
The History of Iraq may provide a bare bones outline of Iraqi history, but its omissions undermine its usefulness, even for the general audience. An encyclopedia article would be no less useful and, given the publisher's inflated pricing, would give more bang for the buck.
Related Topics: History, Iraq | Michael Rubin | Spring 2006 MEQ
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