Nuri Nuri on the Wall… - 04.26.2006

Who’s the “realest” strongman of them all?

Saddam Hussein, known almost ubiquitously as Iraq’s most famous strongman, was preceded by another. Jawad Al’Maliki, for all intents and purposes selected Prime Minister of Iraq, reverted to using his birth name today.

His name “Nuri” may not come from Iraq’s original strongman, but it certainly rings reminiscent of Nuri Al’Said. Although I am wise enough not to look for a conspiracy around every corner, I find this “coincidence” very interesting.

When I mentioned it to my friend Angus, he rasied the question of whether it was just a coincidence, or something symbolic that most Iraqis might recognize.

I’m waiting to hear back from friends of mine in Iraq, whether the street is buzzing with any reponse to Maliki’s decision. Until then, perhaps its a good time for a history lesson for my readers.

Nuri Al’Said was Iraq’s Prime Minister during the signing of the controversial Anglo-Iraqi Treaty in 1930. According to Thabit Abdullah, an Iraqi historian, in his book, A Short History of Iraq;

“Under the forceful leadership of Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id, the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 was signed. It was to last 25 years and provided for the independence of Iraq within two years of its ratification.(p136)

Abdullah explains that Nuri al-Sa’id came to prominence due to his relationship with al-’Ahd, or the “Covenant Society.” This was the secret society of Iraqi Arab officers whose direct influence led to the revolt against the Ottomans in the midst of Word War I. Again from Abdullah,

Though its founder was an Egyptian, Iraqi officers, such as Nuri al-Sa’id, Yasin al-Hashimi, Ja’far al-’Askari and Jamil al-Midfa’i, dominated its membership and later played important roles as the early leaders of the independent state of Iraq.(p114)

Another Iraqi historian, Jasim Abdulghani, writes about Nuri Al’Sa’id in his book, Iraq and Iran: The Years of Crisis. Abdulghani stresses al-Sa’id’s credentials as a statesman, as well, having served several positions in Iraq’s cabinet, not soley the position of Prime Minsiter:

Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Nuri al-Sa’id, stressed before the League’s Council the strategic importance of the Shatt to Iraq, as her only access to the sea, when he said:

On the general question of equity, the Iraqi Government feels that it is Iraq and not Persia that has grounds for complaint. Persia has a coast-line of almost two thousand kilometres, with many ports and anchorages.

Iraq is essentially the land of the two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris. The Shatt al-Arab, formed by their junction, constitutes Iraq’s only access to the sea; it requires constant attention if it is to be kept fit for navigation by modern shipping, and Basrah, 100 kilometres from the mouth, is Iraq’s only port. It is highly undesirable, from Iraq’s point of view, that another Power should command this channel from one bank. Iraq is not asking that the frontier should be altered, but I make these remarks to show that it is not because the existing line is unduly to its advantage.(p113)

This is perhaps one of the earliest assertions by Iraq of its right to the eastern bank of the river. Jasim Abdulghani cites the statement from al-Sa’id to bolster his arguments regarding the foundations of the Iraq-Iran conflict which came to a head at the end of the 70s and through the 80s.

Al-Sai’d’s personal history, perhaps providing an insight for Khalilzad and foreign policy analysts into Iraq’s new Prime Minister, because of its diverse and contradictory nature, while also being fundamentally dedicated to Iraqi national strength.

Abdulghani also gives hints at a possible trend toward Arab nationalism in regards to Syria and Kuwait evidenced by other actions Nuri al-Sa’id took, for example:

Iraq’s association with the Fertile Crescent has been influenced by historical considerations:
(2) the preoccupation on the part of Nuri al-Sa’id, the architect of Iraq’s foreign policy under the monarchy, to bring about a Fertile Cresecent union under Iraqi Hashemite rule and to contain Egyptian influence in Syria,(p76)

When the Iraqi-Jordanian federation was proclaimed in the late 1950s, Nuri al-Sa’id entertained the hope that Kuwait might eventually join the Federation.

Another factor behind Nuri’s calculations was his conviction that Kuwait’s inclusion in the federation would lend more credibility to the Iraqi-Jordanian union in the Arab world, particularly since Kuwait was ruled by a non-Hashemite dynasty.

However, as Marion Farouk Sluglett & Peter Sluglett make abundantly clear, all good things must end. In their book, “Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship,” they note:

In the case of the Sharifian officers who threw in their lot with Faysal and the Iraqi state after 1920, their original patriotic and nationalist attitudes are not in doubt.

By the end of the 1920s, however, it was clear that such figures as Nuri al-Sa’id and Ja’far al-’Askari had become content to accommodate themselves to the British, with the result that any Arab nationalist credentials they might once have had gradually ceased to count in their favour among the Iraqi population.(p17)

Perhaps Iraq’s new Prime Minister’s name change was meant as a more direct signal to American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad and his American allies have been pressuring Iraq’s politicians to reign in the militias, something Nuri al’Maliki has recently made an initial order of business for his premiership.

William R. Polk, in his book Understanding Iraq, describes the former Prime Minister Said’s efforts to crush rebellion:

Nuri was well aware of the hostility toward him, his government, adn the monarcy. To protect the regime, he did three things. He cracked down on opponenets, killing some, imprisoning others, and buying off many. He neutralized the army by ensuring that while on duty in Iraq, military units were deprived of ammunition and usually kept far from centers of power. And, at the same time, he began a program aimed at restructuring the country economically. In this effort he was able to draw on substantially increased oil revenues.

Obviously Saddam Hussein’s regime learned much from Nuri al-Sa’id’s strategies. His rule was relatively successful, unlike al-Sa’id, who met a tragic end on July 15, 1958, the day after the revolution against the monarchy began. Nuri al-Sa’id’s major mistake appears to have been betting on the British occupation, rather than the Iraqi people. It remains to be seen whether Nuri al-Maliki learned these same lessons from Iraqi history, or whether he will successfully execute a combined strategy of bringing the militias to heel by force, and the populace to heel with the carrot of economic reconstruction.

As I said previously, it’s most likely that Nuri al-Maliki’s name change is simply coincidental, but its hard for me to believe that Iraqis have not already made the connections to Iraq’s famous strongman and strategist, Nuri al-Sa’id.

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