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Ottoman Provincial Boundaries

Ottoman Provincial Boundaries

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Published by aykutovski
This article is about Iraq and its border status during the Ottoman Period.
This article is about Iraq and its border status during the Ottoman Period.

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Published by: aykutovski on May 09, 2009
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Ottoman Provincial Boundaries, Shiite Federalism, and EnergyConflict in Iraq
By Reidar Visser (http://historiae.org)[This is the English version of an article which appeared in Turkish in
Stratejik Analiz 
(Ankara),November 2006, originally titled "Osmanli eyalet sinirlari, Sii federalizmi ve Irak’taki enerjianlasmazligi" and available asPDFfile.]Among the internal provincial borders of the eastern Ottoman lands, the old boundary betweenthe vilayets of Mosul and Baghdad has historically been the most momentous one in internationalaffairs. But the line that divided Baghdad from Basra could in the future become equally important – as a factor in Iraqi politics, in wider regional power struggles, and not least in geopoliticalconflicts over energy resources. Already today, the heated debate about new federalismlegislation in the Iraqi parliament has shown that this ancient border relates to regional sentimentsthat on certain issues pit Shiites against Shiites.
The unknown boundary 
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect about the old Ottoman Basra–Baghdad frontier is thatsurprisingly few contemporary Iraq analysts are aware of exactly where it was. That certainly isthe case in Europe and the United States, where even experts seem locked in a belief that theBasra vilayet covered approximately the area of Iraq where today there is a Shiite majority.Western maps purporting to show the administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire often use arough line drawn just to the south of Baghdad to mark the border; even prestigious academicpublishers and news media tend to reiterate this fallacious image.
The old vilayet of Basra bordering on Arabia (west), Baghdad (north) and Persia (east). The border with Baghdad sliced the Shiite areas in the region in two; note the location of Karbala in the upper left corner, in the centre of the Baghdad vilayet. Taken from an Ottoman atlas dating from the early twentieth century 
In reality, most Shiites in the Ottoman Empire lived in the vilayet of Baghdad. The boundarybetween Basra and Baghdad ran much further to the south than is commonly thought: for longperiods it extended roughly from north of Nasiriyya to north of Amara. As a result of this, themajority of Shiite regions in today’s Iraq – including such key Shiite shrine cities as Najaf andKarbala – have historically had their fortunes intimately connected with Baghdad rather than withBasra as “their” centre.Since the early days of Islam, “the province of Basra” – when it existed – had tended to denotethe Gulf city plus its immediate tribal hinterland, rather than any larger unit extending northwardsin the direction of Baghdad. In classical times Basra formed an opposite pole to the province ofKufa (where the holy cities of the Shiites would later emerge). When on a few occasions Basrawas enlarged to a greater area, this tended to be in the southerly direction along the Arabianshores of the Gulf, or, alternatively, to the northeast along the Tigris. The often inaccessibleEuphrates districts, on the other hand, tended to remain within Baghdad’s sphere of influence, ifnot actual control. There was really only one substantial historical attempt at combining the centralareas of Iraq and Basra in the south in a single polity; this project, led by the semi-autonomousHilla-based Mazyadid Bedouin emirate in the early twelfth century, met with considerableopposition in urban Basra and collapsed shortly after its inception.(1)
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These geographical–political patterns were perpetuated during the first centuries of Ottoman ruleafter their conquest of the region in 1534, when the principal dynamic in the affairs of the Basravilayet was the struggle between the established urban centre of Basra and tribal forces in theJaza’ir and Muntafiq tribal regions to the immediate north. Rarely was any internal regionalharmony achieved, but there were short periods in the seventeenth and eighteenth century whensemi-independent principalities based on this delta region emerged, under such local rulers as theurban Afrasiyab dynasty (who contemplated severing all links with the Ottomans in favour of tieswith European powers) and tribal rulers of the Muntafiq Sa‘dun clan (who repeatedly sought toimpress on the urban population of Basra that they alone could guarantee tranquillity and a safetrading environment).(2) However, none of these entities extended much further northwards thanthe junction of the Tigris and the Euphrates at Qurna, and this tradition of a small-scale Basraprovince was reproduced by Ottoman administrators in the 1880s when they gave the Basravilayet its final shape by formally designating it as a triangle from Nasiriyya on the Euphrates viaAmara on the Tigris and down to Basra at the head of the Gulf (and with an extension, of adecidedly more theoretical nature, southwards to Hufuf in present-day Saudi Arabia).
The oil boundary 
The Ottoman boundary line between Basra and Baghdad did more than creating internal splitsbetween the Shiites in the region. It was not known at the time, but the line that separated thetwo vilayets also correlated closely to geological patterns, which meant that almost all thehydrocarbon reserves in this region fell to Basra. However, in twentieth-century history thisremained largely irrelevant. After Basra, Baghdad and Mosul became administrativelyamalgamated under a British mandate in 1920, the population of the oil-bearing regions of thiscountry – the Shiites of Basra included – embraced the new Iraqi nationalist ethos and its unitarystate paradigm with remarkable ease. By the time oil exploration started in Basra in the 1930s(and certainly before actual drilling commenced in the 1950s) Iraq had a firmly unitary statetradition – and oil was widely considered a common national resource, especially in the Arabareas, whether Shiite or Sunni. Whereas Kirkuk oil would sometimes be claimed as “Kurdish”,there emerged no parallel particularistic demands on Basra oil, which was consistently referred toas a common national good, by regime and oppositionists alike.(3)Since the Gulf War in 1991, there has been increased focus on the connections between Iraq’s oilresources and identity politics. But in this regard another unfortunate media simplification hasemerged, quite similar to the one that habitually equates the “vilayet of Basra” with “the Shiites”.Thus, in much reporting from Iraq today, it is widely assumed that every square inch of territorydownstream of Baghdad is overflowing with oil and gas. Journalists are often content to speak ofthe “the vast energy resources of Shiite Iraq” and tend to overlook how most of the oil is really inthe “far south” – and not in any sense distributed evenly across the Shiite-dominated territories.All the key existing fields, as well as important future ones, can in fact be found within shortdistance of Basra, Amara and Nasiriyya.(4)
Shiite federalism and the boundary question 
The reason why the Basra vilayet boundary is again becoming relevant is quite simple: despite thelong-standing unitary state tradition in Iraq, after 2003 the people living in what was the oldOttoman vilayet of Basra have shown an increasing interest in the geology of their patria. Back in2004 they were the first Shiites to launch a bid for a federal region, when the governorates ofBasra, Dhi Qar and Maysan combined in a bid to unite as a single southern federal region. Namedthe Region of the South or
iqlim al-janub 
, this project aimed at restoring a high standard of livingto the long-neglected southern region, not least by securing a local share of the enormousproceeds of the oil industry. At first, the idea of a federal unit in these three governoratesattracted interests from both secularists and Islamists, but since 2005 the chief protagonists for asmall-scale “southern” region have been from the Fadila Party (who are particularly strong inBasra) and from tribal blocs in all three governorates.(5) (Additionally, independent-mindedSadrist factions, who control the Maysan governorate, have at least been flirting with regionalistschemes.)It is important to distinguish between this regional variant of federalism, and a sectariancompetitor which emerged in August 2005. At that point, the Supreme Council for the IslamicRevolution in Iraq (SCIRI) launched the idea of creating a much bigger entity that would cover allthe Shiite-majority governorates south of Baghdad – nine altogether – in a single unit. (Thisproject has been named
iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub 
, partly to distinguish the scheme from its“southern” competitor, but also a reflection of native Iraqi discourse where the Euphrates regionaround Najaf is usually referred to as the “centre” and not as the “south”.) The principalpropaganda element in SCIRI’s vision of a Shiite federal state has been the idea that federalismcould serve as a check on anti-Shiite terrorism by Sunni extremists.(6)
Left, the Region of the South (iqlim al-janub); centre, oil fields of Iraq (in black); right, the Region of the Centre and the south (iqlim al-wasat wa-al-janub)
Because of the geopolitical dimension and the vast oil resources involved, it should come as nosurprise that adherents of these two different Shiite visions of federalism are in competition witheach other. If for instance a separate mini-region were established in the south, the vast majorityof Iraq’s Shiites (who live north of this area) would find themselves left out of the chiefoil-producing area. On the other hand, in case the larger vision of a Shiite super-unit should gainground, there would be a more equitable distribution of oil per capita among the Shiites, and aparty with traditionally strong ties to Iran, SCIRI, would be able to bolster its position at the
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expense of the smaller factions that are currently in control of provincial government in the south.Although considerable efforts have been made to sweep these tensions under the carpet – theyare particularly delicate because they relate to internal frictions within the United Iraqi Alliance(UIA) – there can be little doubt that they persist today. One telling indicator was Nuri al-Maliki’sdramatic visit to Basra in late May 2006. Ostensibly this action was taken to deal with “criminalgangs” and, secondarily, Shiite–Sunni tension. The key reason, however, may have related to thebitter struggle in Basra between the local branches of the Fadila Party (who favour thesmall-scale region of three governorates in the south) and SCIRI (who like their partisans inBaghdad and Najaf are more inclined towards the vision of a single Shiite mega-canton).(7)
The second Ottoman legacy in Iraq 
But to focus exclusively on the old vilayet boundary between Basra and Baghdad and today’sstruggle between two different variants of Shiite federalism would be to overlook other significanttrends in Iraqi and indeed Shiite history. And again Ottoman as well as ancient Islamicadministrative history offer good points of departure for catching a glimpse of currents andconcepts that have proved truly enduring over time.Perhaps the most formidable of these are the “Iraq” concept. There is another fallacy in muchcontemporary Iraq commentary that is almost as widespread as the misconceptions about thetrue geographical extent of the Basra vilayet: the outright dismissal of “Iraq” as a geographicaland historical entity, as if it were a complete novelty forced on the inhabitants of theMesopotamian riverbanks after the First World War. In fact, this concept is a much older one. Inthe early days of Islam, although there was a subdivision between Basra and Kufa, there wasalso a wider upper-level administrative unit that stretched far inland: Iraq. This entity ran at leastas far north as Takrit, north of which was another province named Jazira. In Abbasid times, whenthe caliphate was moved to Baghdad, much of this entire area was in fact so close to the seat ofpower so as to be almost undistinguishable from it, as a sort of giant capital district. True, therewould be revolts in the far south around Basra – mostly focused on various anti-caliphate religiousmovements, as during the revolt by African slaves in the ninth century, or subsequent Kharijitechallengers (literally, “those who go out”, dissenters) of various calibres. But equally, there wouldbe rescue expeditions from Baghdad, often after desperate requests by local inhabitants whopleaded with the caliph to send troops to terminate the excesses of unruly local strongmen.(8)Iraq continuity persisted beyond the fall of the caliphate in 1258. In fact, for considerable periodsduring the age of Mongol rule in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, Iraq was technically ruledas a single charge. In Ottoman times, especially after Basra aspirations for autonomy had provedtoo dangerous under the adventurous Afrasiyab in the seventeenth century, Istanbul too sought tocreate a sense of unity between Baghdad and Basra in the early 1700s. This project wasperpetuated and enjoyed something of a heyday during the reign of the semi-autonomousGeorgian mamluks who ruled from Baghdad between 1747 to 1831 – especially during Sulaymanthe Great, whose “greatness” was indeed associated with the relative stability and prosperity hebrought to this particular region. “Iraq” in this period corresponded quite closely to the modernstate that was established in 1921: even though Mosul technically remained a separateadministrative entity, Baghdad’s influence comprised most of the rural lands apart from the city ofMosul itself, and the “Iraqi” sphere of control continued northwards into Kurdish areas (actually allthe way to Mardin).(9)
Detail from Ottoman report dating from 1889 on the spread of Shiism in the “Iraq region” 
Conversely, the nineteenth century – the period of an Ottoman comeback in the region – ratherbelonged to the forces of administrative differentiation. In this era Mosul did acquire a degree ofreal administrative independence at junctures, as did Basra eventually. Nevertheless, as late asduring the final decade of Ottoman rule, efforts were made to re-centralise and merge certainadministrative and military functions for this vast region under a single office, as seen in thereform attempts under Nazim Pasha – who was charged with coordinating administrative functionsfor Basra Baghdad and Mosul, and by 1910 was referred to as “reformer of Iraq” by the localpress. The fruits of Nazim Pasha’s particular efforts may have been limited, but that cannotdetract from what on the whole stands out as the most enduring factor in the politics of theMesopotamian plains from the early seventh century to 1914: some sort of subordination – if notalways an idyllic one – of outlying peripheries to Baghdad as the paramount regional centre ofpower.Given this long-lasting historical record it is unsurprising that the inhabitants of the region, be theyShiites or Sunnis, should respond to the idea of a unified Iraq in the twentieth century with somesense of recognition and familiarity. Even though they were in serious disagreements with themodern-time rulers of Baghdad about the overall direction of Iraqi politics, the Shiites in thetwentieth century never ever presented any substantial separatist scheme that sought to severties with Iraq in favour of a sectarian Shiite breakaway state. (There was a separatist movementin Basra in the 1920s, but its protagonists were Sunni Arab, Christian and Jewish merchants.) TheIraq concept, often dismissed by contemporary commentators as mere “Iraqi nationalistpropaganda”, is in fact one of the principal and most constant themes in the history of the landsalong the Euphrates and the Tigris.(10)
Status of the federalism issue today 
Today’s situation in Iraq reflects all these different trends. The vision of a oil-rich federal region inthe far south remains alive, and whilst the Fadila Party is coming under pressure from others inthe UIA who consider them a problem, they still seem capable of putting up resistance. Even afterMaliki’s security clampdown in Basra in June 2006, Fadila continued to quarrel with Baghdadabout who should be police chief in the area, forcing Maliki to adopt yet more extra-proceduralmethods in August when he abruptly created a “security committee” for the Gulf city, under thecontrol of Baghdad appointees. Moreover, it is evident that the regionalist trend in the southenjoys a degree of wider support the factions that dominate local government in Basra. Still inearly August 2006, there were tribal demonstrations in Dhi Qar in favour of the three-province
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