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The Transformation of Land Tenure and Rural Social Structure in Central and Southern Iraq, c. 1870–1958

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 January 2009

Marion Farouk-Sluglett
Durham University
Peter Sluglett
Durham University


This paper is an attempt to show how the economy and society of rural Iraq was affected by a combination of changing world economic circumstances and structural innovations in the pattern of land tenure. Iraq's gradual incorporation into the world market in the latter part of the nineteenth century was assisted by the application of the legislative and military reforms of the Tanzimat, which served generally to extend the powers of the Ottoman state over its provinces. Although the effects of the application of the new system were less direct than the Ittomans desited, it did set in motion a gradual process of detribalisation, which tended to reduce the powers of tribal shaikhs and promote the emergence of private prooerty in land.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1983

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11 The extent of the Ottomans' “success” here is debatable; although, as Shaw (“Tax Reforms,” p. 428) notes, “The tithe continued to be the most important single state revenue under the new system,” it does not appear to have increased very significantly—or at least very consistently—in the latter years of the nineteenth century (see below from Shaw, “Tax Reforms,” pp. 451–53; revenues and tithes expressed in millions of piastres):Google Scholar

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13 Quotations from the Code are from Fisher, Ottoman Land Laws, pp. 1–42.Google Scholar

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27 The British authorities certainly knew what they were doing. A report of 1917 states: “Settled agriculture and extended civilisation have tended to disintegrate the tribe and to weaken the influence of the shaikhs. To restore and continue the power of the tribal shaikhs is not the least interesting of the problems in land administration which the Baghdad wilayet presents.” (Administrative Report, Revenue Board, Baghdad, for the period 22 March to 31 December 1918, FO 371/3406/139231.) Again, the Revenue Commissioner noted in 1919: “We must recognise that it is primarily our business not to give rights to those who have them not, but to secure their rights to those who have them.” (Lt. Col. Howell, E. B., Note on Land Policy, Baghdad, 1919; FO 371/4150/127807.) Edgar Bonham-Carter, Sir Percy Cox’ Legal Advisor, wrote in April 1921: “My own experience has been that when Arabs settle down to agriculture they begin to wish to come under a more settled authority and to break away from the Shaikh” (CO 730/3/52858).Google Scholar

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34 For better or worse, the greater the part of these newcomers into agriculture have been active politicians … They have been granted very extensive tracts of valuable government land, not only without payment, but also with revenue privileges, provided they undertook to exploit such land.” (Note on the Law Governing the Rights and Duties of Cultivators by the Inspector-General of Agriculture, November 1933, enclosed in Ambassador, Baghdad, to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Despatch No. 807 of 22 December 1933. FO 624/1/428/7.)Google Scholar

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54 al-Talabāni, Mukarram, Fī Sabīl Islāh Zirā'i Jidrī fī'l- 'lrāq (Baghdad, 1969), p. 31.Google Scholar

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58 See Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett, “Labour and National Liberation; the Trade Union Movement in Iraq, 1920–1958,” Arab Studies Quarterly, in press.Google Scholar

59 As we have already stated elsewhere, most writers on Iraq in this period seem to have misunderstood this important point. For example: “Had the British authorities understood the local situation more clearly while they still retained effective control over the country after the First World War, they might have been able to introduce a system for settling land titles which gave the great tribal shaikhs, who now often lived in the cities, smaller opportunities to acquire tribal lands for themselves and form a large class of absentee landlords.” (Edith, and Penrose, E. F., Iraq: International Relations and National Development [London and Boulder, Col., 1978, p. 153.)Google Scholar See our review entitled “Iraq; the Path to Independence,” Gazelle Review, 6 (1978), 40–48.Google Scholar

60 Some of these contrary opinions can be found in Sluglett, Britain in Iraq, pp. 231–238.Google Scholar