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Foreign Imposition on Iraq: Colonialism to U.S. Foreign Policy

By Jessica Roadman


It is in the face of sociological, economic and environmental disaster that we must pursue alternative approaches and systems as means to the future. The status quo of resource and labor exploitation to benefit the few on the backs of the many will no longer suffice. However, shifting current paradigms requires a critical and holistic analysis of the foundations that created these conditions. This paper explores the intersecting of Western hegemonic forces and global economic disparities, as exemplified by international activity in Iraq beginning in the late nineteenth century. It argues that the governmental and economic structures introduced to Iraq through British colonization successfully undermined the traditional models under which the region had harmoniously existed for thousands of years. This era created an industrialized system that forced Iraq into global dependency, any challenge to which received devastating international intervention in response. Finally, the paper explores the aggressive political and military behavior of the United States in light of the precedents set by British colonialism and the Development Project. By understanding the context in which discourse surrounding Iraq has been predominantly geopolitical, the international community can begin to more deeply analyze and reframe their action in support of the Iraqi civil groups fighting to rebuild their country. 

Keywords: Iraq, U.S., British foreign intervention, colonization, militarization

The period of European imperial exercise is often associated with the rise of global discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries.  As new lands were located, systematic exploitation forced cultures to cede to their foreign oppressors, a pattern which extended through the 18th and early 19th century.  Concurrently, the power structure in Mesopotamia experienced the rise of the Ottoman Empire’s stronghold in the 11th century to its gradual decline.  By the time of British recognition of Mesopotamia’s value in the late 18th century, Ottoman dominance had already begun to degrade.  Although Ottoman Turk rule of the Arabian Peninsula is widely regarded as governance of that region by an external power, "the [domestic] tribes had managed to retain a large measure of independence over the centuries" (Simons, 1994, p. 177).  Local government leaders were encouraged to remain in place and cultures were assimilated rather than forced to submit - a practice which, in part, contributed to the expanse and extent of the Ottoman Empire.  As such, the exploration of colonialism of the Mesopotamian region in this paper commences with the entrance of Britain immediately preceding World War I.  It was this era of colonization that laid the foundation for the devastating imperialism practiced by the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries under the driving forces of several Western development theories.

For the purposes of this paper, the region referred to as "Iraq" represents the area enclosed by the nation-state lines drawn at the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.  Though these lines generally followed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret initiative between the French and the British to divide Mesopotamia between their empires, a vital deviation is the ultimate control of the northern city of Mosul.  Historically, control of Iraq has been attributed to three key cities - Basra in the south, the centrally located Baghdad, and Mosul in the north.  All three fell under the British Mandate in 1920.  This exploration of foreign occupation of Iraq is focused on these key cities, along with land extending from the Persian Gulf, up the Tigris and Euphrates River and between the Arabian and Anatolian peninsulas.  The categorization of the tribes in this region will follow what historian Hala Fattah (2009) states first appeared during the reign of the Assyrians in ninth century B.C.E., which groups those living on the Arabian Peninsula and the area just North as "Arabs."  This paper will refer to these tribes collectively as "Arabs" and those within the borders drawn post-World War I as "Iraqi." 

Colonialism: The British Empire

The concept of centralized power did not first emerge in Iraq with the appearance of the British Mandate.  For centuries, a tribe would exert dominance, assume imperial control and, eventually, give way to the next leading power.  Distinctive of the British era, however, was the restrictive nature of the borders and mentality of the nation-state system.  Whereas previous empires had drawn authority by acquiescing to local retention of tribal norms and customs, the British persisted with the Eurocentric domination perspective established through their previous colonial endeavors.  Most poignantly, the British imposed completely new governmental designations and economic policies, including their environmental implications.

Governmental Impositions

Prior to the defeat of the Axis Powers in World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Britain acknowledged the crucial placement of Mesopotamia with respect to their own establishment in India.  The region not only served as a buffer between continental Europe and India, but also stood as a vital piece of British trade routes.  As early as 1904, Britain had traded their intermittent Iraqi liaison for a fixed military unit stationed at the Tigris (Simons, 1994).  Despite establishing this early protective approach, it was with the discovery of oil that Britain began to assert more outright control.  By obtaining majority shares in Iraqi and Arab oil corporations, the British government slowly infiltrated the commercial and social sectors.  This domination created a system from which the crown's official occupation and self-determined authority with the British Mandate of 1920 flowed naturally.  Although forced to capitulate some direct rule under pressure from U.S. President Wilson's Fourteen Points, which asserted national autonomy, the British viewed Iraqi administrative control as identical to that of India (Fattah & Caso, 2009).  Under the Mandate, Iraqi administrative control became a series of patriarchal hierarchies utilizing British structure and titles (Simons, 1994).  The imposition of this stringently hierarchical structure stripped from the Arab tribes any sense of the self-sufficiency they had held under the Ottomans.  It replaced communal language with the bureaucratic rhetoric of the West.  "Incredibly, the British mirror-imaged...succession used in the British monarch from father to son or from brother to brother instead of being sensitive to the tribal consensus used to select a tribal elder.  By tradition, the tribes convened and through consensus selected a leader who was deemed best qualified to lead" (Al-Wardi, A. &Aboul-Enein, Y.H., 2012, p. 82).  While this blatant divergence from cultural norms was not well received, it set the stage for complacency with the next phase of British occupation.

In response to the new administrative system, ideas of revolt slowly trickled through the region.  Iraqi tribes from all backgrounds and religious sects assembled to present a military and social resistance against British rule.  Notably, "in an unprecedented show of solidarity, Sunnis and Shiis prayed at each other's mosques in Baghdad, and nationalist poetry spread like wildfire in both the urban and rural districts" (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 161).  The utter energy behind this uprising, though ultimately defeated by brutal tactics, compelled the British to reevaluate their governance strategies in Iraq.  In an act of compromise, a preeminent Muslim figure and the son of the leader of a previous Arab revolt, was selected by the British and crowned King Faisal of Iraq.  Further diverging from previous tribunal systems, the British set up a bicameral legislature filled with the newly emerging economic elite.


While the establishment of a British-mirrored government structure created strife among the native tribes, it was, perhaps, the subtle shift in economic distribution that caused a more substantial change in Iraq's system.  Ignorant of the historical communally held land system of the Arab tribes, the British installed the first roots of capitalism - private property (Fattah & Caso, 2009).  Tax incentives on the industrialization of land deemed unclaimed resulted in a hyper-individual-focused profit drive and deep economic divides (Abdullah, 2006).  Undermining the ancient Arab communal perspective, the British granted the tribal-leading shaykhs "ownership" of the land previously entrusted to them and encouraged the consumption-based land tax, shifting the economic burden off of the land-holding elite.

The most prominent influence on the redistribution of Iraqi wealth was the profit motivation surrounding the oil industry.  Vacillating between British majority control and Iraqi nationalist claim to oil, the effects of Western capitalism remained constant.  Tax incentives were granted to industrializing “unclaimed land,” resulting in an elite class of ‘pump pashas’ (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 169).  Intimately tied to this economic revolution was the introduction of a new land narrative.  Agriculture, which had previously been a source of domestic sustenance, lost land to the wealthy class looking to extract oil.  Even the land that remained in food production was taken from the tribal individuals for the purpose of converting to specific agrobusiness trades.  Land was now valued for its profit-maximizing capabilities.  Ancient understandings of human relation with nature, as manifested through Iraqi tribes, was undermined through both governmental policies and the introduction of capitalist notions of individual profit-maximization.

Long-lasting Effects

At the root of the political and economic changes that occurred under British occupation lies the assumption that undergirded all colonization of the period – the superiority of Eurocentric doctrines.  Leading up to the era of nominal Iraqi independence, “the ordinary European’s view of the Arab, for the concept of the ‘noble savage’ still held sway among British officialdom” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 168).  The continual condescension of the Western authorities permeated through ordinary society as ancient traditions and constructions were replaced.  Particular to the Middle East, argues Eric Sheppard (2009), is the concept of “orientalism,” which purports “the ‘great civilizations’ of Asia…as having fallen from grace” and, as such, are “less worthy than Western civilization” (p. 59).  These cultures, then, go beyond simply needing “development” and are viewed as “broken,” in need of repair.  One manner by which to ensure this “rebuilding” of infrastructure was through continual British military intervention throughout the pre-colonial and colonial period. Current foreign intervention policies regarding Iraq have adopted this British-established discourse equating militarization with protection and safety.  The subtle disintegration of traditional customs along with the assertion of Western hegemony in government and economy provided the background upon which Western development theories became the vehicle for continued imperialism in Iraq. 

Development Theories

As a result of the chronologically late colonization of Iraq by the British, relative to other regions, certain aspects of development theories were evident prior to the official occupation after World War I.  However, the proliferation of the impacts of marginalization, dependency and state development occurred after the 1932 establishment of the sovereign Iraqi state.

Marginalist & Dependency Theories

With the placement of the British as the central political agent in the early 20th century, Iraq forcefully adopted the model of specialization in the global market outlined in the marginalist theory of development, which focuses on market conditions over asset-based land planning.   By directing industrial efforts at commodities unique to the region, Iraq could enhance its domestic wealth.  As a result, Iraq moved from a nomadic, resource-preserving culture to one where exports exceeded domestic trade (Fattah & Caso, 2009).  This pattern of relying on scarce materials as exports intensified with the extraction of oil. Adhering to the notion that free trade would be the "mechanism" by which global economic distribution could be equalized (Sheppard, 2009), the Iraqi government under King Faisal and his successors supported the capitalist approach to oil exploitation.  Despite changes in political party ideology, and the resulting control of the oil industry, over time, the marginalist theory approach was so ingrained in Iraqi economy, that by 1963, one-third of the country's Gross Domestic Product came from this singular industry (Fattah & Caso, 2009).  The result of positioning export at the forefront of wealth generation created the ideal conditions for dependency.

British and other foreign involvement has been instrumental in the industrialization of the oil market in Iraq since its inception.  Promptly following the first Middle East oil extraction in Persia in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was founded and, less than a decade later, British Petroleum took hold of the majority shares of the Turkish Petroleum Company (Simons, 1994).  The continued utilization of British manufactured goods to draw from Iraqi land exemplifies one of the three forms of dependency described by Brazilian economist Dos Santos: "'industrial-financial,' representing the investment of capital from the core countries into producing primary goods in the periphery" (Sheppard, 2009, p. 88).  The necessity of British material capital to produce the main commodity for export, from which came a great deal of the country's wealth, fostered the cycle of dependency.  As a counter, in 1958 a new Iraqi Republic urged out the British and began the process of nationalization.

Developmental Theory

Between the period of 1958 and the rise of Saddam Hussein in 1979, a series of leaders attempted to consolidate industry and land under Iraqi control.  Although the dominant political view fluctuated between pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalism, all worked to minimize external influence in a variety of spheres.  President Qasim, the first leader of the new Iraqi Republic, instituted land reform that worked to "dismantle completely the huge landed estates that had been the mainstay of tribal as well as urban landlords" (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 193).  First with Faisal and then the subsequent leader, Aref, the majority of industries came under national control.  Identical to the movement of the dependistas in Latin America, "an important political theme [of this time] was the importance of sovereignty and autonomous development" (Sheppard, 2009, p. 89).  The general realignment of priorities towards nationalism caused discord among the global powers that had been accustomed to manipulating Iraqi policy in their favor and prompted more assertive tactics by the United States. 

United States Foreign Policy

The period from Iraq’s 1932 independence until the rise of the Republic witnessed a series of British-interested monarchs.  When, in 1958, Abd al-Karim Qasim, seized power, he implemented a policy of ethno-religious inclusiveness and focused on “country-wide programs tackling poverty, health, and literacy…ethnic and sectarian divisions abolished; and economic development reenergized” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 189).  Oil wealth, previously filtered into the hands of the elite, began to be distributed among the native population and power shifted back to a broader Iraqi base.  Those in favor of a pan-Arab state, the Ba’athists, led by Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr and his compatriot, Saddam Hussein, attempted a violent overthrow of Qasim’s government.  It is in this context that U.S. intervention became overt.  As did British colonialism, U.S. efforts had enduring effects in the governmental arena, economics and militarization.


The role of nationalism in the presidency of Qasim presented an alarming situation for states benefiting from foreign control of oil companies.  Although the Ba’athist challengers promoted a form of socialism and sovereignty, their alliance could prove an advantage, so the U.S. “provided Saddam Hussein with a great deal of money and weapons” (Bovalis & Kouloglou, 2007) to overthrow Qasim.  It soon became clear, however, that the U.S.-covertly-backed regime that successfully gained power under Prime Minister Al-Bakr and the new President Aref would maintain Arab control of resources.  After Aref’s death and the Ba’ath complete seizure of control from his successor, new leaders al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein became central once again to U.S. interests.  Despite diplomatic discussion, Hussein eventually reproached U.S. corporate involvement.  U.S.-based Bechtel presented a proposal to Hussein that would allow the corporation to build an oil pipeline from Iraq to the port of Accaba, Jordan.  This anti-foreign corporate interest stance would be definitive of Hussein’s reign and would be confronted with economic and military recourse from the U.S., including the devastating U.N. sanctions described in later sections.

After over a decade of brutal sanctions and strategic propaganda, the U.S. initiated a campaign to restructure Iraqi politics.  The forceful removal of Hussein, which was accomplished within six weeks, gave way to a UN sponsored transitional government, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under which the U.S. reserved appointment rights.  This governing body held all executive, legislative and judicial command, which “lent credence to charges the United States and United Kingdom were now occupying powers” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p 251).  A new occupation faced the same challenges as the first – Iraqi discontent with removed autonomy.  Once again, the occupiers quickly realized the need to surrender unilateral control and agreed to put in place a puppet regime, which remained in power until the 2014 rising of the Islamic militant state.  According to International Relations scholars Hasan & Momani (2012), bringing democracy to Iraq was not an exclusively foreign aim and is supported by Middle Eastern individuals.  However, for the U.S. “the entrenchment of anti-democratic regimes is largely attributable to the region’s own political culture, while [Arab scholars] place much greater emphasis on the role played by external factors, many of which are related to globalization” (p. 236).  It is within the global economic market to which the Arab scholars allude that U.S. influence had an impact greater than their direct governmental interventions.


Aligning with his initial refusal to sign a Bechtel deal, Hussein’s foreign policy was entrenched with anti-U.S. stances.  As a result, “Iraq was highlighted as a problem due to is volatile behavior and unwillingness to sell its oil to the US on any terms whatsoever” (Ahmed, 2010, p. 166).  One slight aberration to this pattern was the intersection of U.S.-Iraqi behavior towards Iran between 1980 and 1988.  Despite continued lack of clarity regarding the true catalyst, Hussein approved the entrance of Iraq's military into Iran in September 1980, beginning what would come to be known as the Iraq-Iran War (Razoux, 2015).  Whether or not the United States encouraged Iraq's initial action is contested (Brands, 2012), however there is evidence that support was provided to Hussein in the form of advanced-technology arms sales (Jones, 2012).  In spite of this brief period of support, the U.S. justified military opposition when Iraq elected to invade Kuwait in 1990 on the basis of threatened oil interests and, following Iraq's loss, encouraged U.N. Sanctions.  These sanctions were initiated by the U.S. and imposed by the United Nations between 1990 and 2003.  The forced exclusion of Iraq from the global oil market created a humanitarian crisis, resulting in Iraqi child mortality rates increasing from 40 to 103 deaths per 1000 in the first eight years of the sanctions (Pellett, 2000).  Of all of the U.S. impositions, the sanctions were the most devastating to the country’s infrastructure.  The pace with which this poverty extended was exacerbated by the food-for-oil program, to which the Iraqi government eventually conceded.  This program permitted the sale of a certain quantity of oil in exchange for purchasing national supplies and paying 30% to a U.N. Compensation Fund (Fattah & Caso, 2009). 

The official capture of the Iraqi leadership in 2003 ended the U.N. sanctions and ushered in an era of more formal foreign monetary dependency.  Western nations agreed to forgive half of the Hussein-era debt under the agreement to privatize oil production and grant fund disbursement to the Central Provisional Authority.  Disaster capitalism, as explained by Naomi Klein, was thoroughly implemented with the U.S. led destruction of Iraq.  “The fires were still burning in Baghdad when US occupation officials rewrote the investment laws and announced that the country’s state-owned companies would be privatized” (Klein, 2005, p. 10).  The resulting safeguarding of corporate and financial interests from political shifts underscored a “systematic stabilization – that is, the preservation of extant socio-political and economic structures” (Ahmed, 2010, p.185), presently benefiting the U.S.  Reaction by the Iraqi population has been diverse, with advocates suggesting a range of systems from social democracy to participatory socialism; however, the dominant voice has been out of religious sects.  Hasan & Momani (2012) argue that “decline of state services and patronage that ended with structural adjustment, and the continued decline of state legitimacy” (p. 232) have directly led to increased popularity of the religious factions which currently maintain a stronghold on the region.  


Physical remnants provide a sobering reflection on the state of U.S. intervention in Iraq.  Beyond destabilizing political and economic infrastructure, U.S. militarization has made the reality of occupation inescapable.  Following the precedent set by the use of the Royal Air Force to quell dissent during British colonialism, the U.S. began air raids under the auspices of the Kuwait War and continued into the 1990s.  In support of an uprising against Hussein, the U.S. offered assistance to the Iraqi National Congress: “the initial phase of this policy was confined to financial support of the INC and to increasing the air strikes begun during the Clinton administration” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 241).  This regular air activity continued through the official securitization practices put in place in 2003 and beyond.

The series of military events succeeding the ousting of Hussein by U.S. forces have been largely reactionary in nature.  Insurgencies countering U.S. influence have arisen “to discredit the U.S. reconstruction efforts” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 256).  Sectarian violence has escalated and anti-Western rhetoric abounds.  Rather than promoting autonomy and self-direction, the U.S. government's perspective is that if their attempts at control “are resisted by local populations then counterinsurgency measures are required to forcibly establish the ‘liberal’ conditions of the market” (Ahmed, 2010, p. 163).  Additionally, although U.S. occupation officially ended in December 2011, the persisting “construction of an exclusionary Islamist ‘other’ as the source of a civilizational threat’” (Ahmed, 2010, p 162), allows fear to drive military expansion and move towards increasingly extreme measures.  The guise of equating militarization with global security justifies the U.S. aggression required to preserve the economic status quo.  

Long-Term Effects

For the Iraqi people, the damage left by the U.S. military is irreparable.  Holy sites were destroyed, centers of learning decimated and cities turned to rubble.  “From the Arab Iraqi perspective, the aftermath has been far worse…Five years after the U.S.-led coalition invasion, Iraq lay in ruins, wrecked by war, terrorism, and sectarian civil war” (Fattah & Caso, 2009, p. 267).  Nearly 16% of the population has been forced to flee as refugees (Fattah & Caso, 2009).  On a global scale, the invasion contributed to foreign perspectives of the U.S. as an aggressor.  It fortifies the understanding of U.S. decision-making policy as solely economically driven and sets a dangerous pattern, like that of British colonialism, of increasing intervention and hostility.  


Despite the violent expulsion of Western hegemony with the rise of the Islamic State, the lasting mentalities and structures of colonization, development and U.S. intervention are creating a greater crisis than under direct occupation.  Under a century of exploitative oil practices and forced dependency, a new type of autonomy “creates a specific challenge for the external/internal dynamics of governance in the Islamic world.  States have to follow the reason of state in order to survive but the reason of Islam in order to maintain their legitimacy” (Tadjbakhsh, 2010, p. 190).  They must defy the discourse of the development models, which, “founded in economic language, institutions and rules” (McMichael, 2012, p. 249) directly contradicts the ancient traditions of the Arab culture.  To support breaking free from the subjugation enforced in the last century, including the promulgation of militarization adopted by the Islamic State, it will be vital for foreign powers and international organizations to authentically respect the richness of Iraqi culture and empower the native voices of autonomy.

One exemplary model of the shift to genuine valuation of local voices is that of the partnership between US-based Madre and the Iraqi Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), led by Yanar Mohammad.  While these organizations move towards the same reality, that of international gender equality and an end to violence against women, both fill specific niches in the present Iraqi context.  Beyond financial support to address immediate needs, Madre provides tools to " enable women to infuse local human rights struggles with the power of international law" (Madre, 2016, How we work).  Access to legal expertise and documentation standards allows OWFI to prepare cases to be presented to an international tribunal against women's rights violators.  Working towards that justice on the ground, OWFI builds shelters for female victims of gender-based violence, recently seen most often in rapes and torture on the part of the Islamic State (IS).  Although forced to remain clandestine due to the government's ban on women's shelters, these spaces remain the only means to escape gender violence and provide creative solutions adapted directly to the needs of the women seeking support.  By tradition, these “unclean” women would have been subject to honor killings, however the recognition of IS brutality, the sheer masses of women in this situation, and OWFI's determination to protect them are undermining cultural norms (CUNY, 2015).   

OWFI's introduction of a new gender relation narrative through Iraqi governmental policies and social advocacy undermines the oppressive militarization and privatization presently being pushed by Western global leaders.  In accordance with this movement, the international community must support over intervene and call upon influential foreign leaders to pressure the Iraqi government to prioritize the voices of civil society over elite interests. That those civil society groups retain functioning under the increasingly oppressive IS regime and with the lack of protection by the official government speaks to the resiliency, power and potential of Iraqi self-organization.  It is to this localized momentum that the international community must turn as the source of attaining stability in Iraq.


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Jessica Roadman headshot

Master of Arts in Community Leadership

San Diego, California

Yoga, piano, guitar, U.S. Foreign Policy.

This topic became personal when my work as a nutritionist at WIC in San Diego took me to an office amidst the large Iraqi refugee population located in that city. Subsequently, I began taking Arabic language courses at the community college. My classmates, predominantly Iraqi refugees taking the course for credit, slowly began sharing the stories of their lost hometowns. The pain in their eyes coupled with the knowledge that I played a role in it as a complacent US citizen enraged me and propelled me into studying this topic and contributing to change. The shift in which I aim to be a part is vital for future US endeavors. The logic behind and carrying out of aggressive militarism that was exhibited in Iraq continues to lead US foreign policy in the Middle East. My goal is to produce a project that compels the American public to engage in a reevaluation of international behavior. Ultimately, my hope is to encourage a collective demand for an international behavior approach that prevents the destruction of lives.