Nuri al-Sa'id (1888-1958) was an army officer, a statesman, and an Arab nationalist. He fought with Faisal (who with his father led Arab troops in the revolt against Ottoman rule during World War I) and later became chief of staff, minister of defense, and prime minister when Faisal became king of the newly created Iraq.
Nuri al-Sa'id was born in Baghdad to a poor family in 1888. His father was a minor functionary in the Awqaf department (pious foundation), designed to supervise estates for charitable purposes under the Ottoman administration. After finishing training in a cadet school, Nuri went to study at the Military Academy in Istanbul (Constantinople) in 1903 and was graduated three years later. He returned to Baghdad to serve in an infantry unit whose task was to collect taxes from tribesmen. When the young Turks—a party calling for liberal reform—achieved power in 1908, Nuri became interested in politics. He went to Istanbul for further training at the Staff College in 1910 and was graduated two years later.
While in Istanbul Nuri, with a few other Arab officers, led by Aziz Ali, an Egyptian officer, formed the Ahd Society (Covenant) and demanded self-government for the Arabs. Nuri, however, disagreed with Aziz Ali on foreign policy. Aziz sought cooperation with the Germans, who supported Ottoman unity, while Nuri was suspicious of their objectives. When Aziz was expelled from Istanbul for his political activities, Nuri left in disguise for Basra seeking protection under its Arab governor. While in Basra World War I broke out, and a British force from India occupied Basra in 1914 to protect the Gulf of Aden from German penetration. As an officer in the Ottoman army, Nuri was sent to India to be interned. From there he escaped to Cairo, where he became engaged with other Arab officers to join Husein ibn Ali (Sharif Husayn) of Mecca, who led the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule.
Nuri's participation in the Arab revolt was the beginning of a life-long association with the Hashemite (Hashimi) house of Husein. He first served in the Hijaz under Husein and later under Faisal, Husayn's son, in Syria and in Iraq. When Faisal's rule over Syria came to an end, since Syrian Nationalists failed to accept the French Mandate, the British assisted Faisal to become king of Iraq. Nuri returned to Iraq early in 1921 to cooperate with other leaders to prepare for Faisal's accession of the throne of Iraq in August 1921 as Faisal I.
For almost a decade, from 1921 to 1930, Iraqi leaders were dissatisfied with the limited independence granted by the British. They demanded complete independence. Nuri preferred to remain in the background of the ensuing struggle for independence. All political leaders had agreed on independence, but they disagreed on the way to achieve it. Some wanted independence at once, others were prepared to wait for it. Nuri saw the need for British assistance and urged rapid development before independence. He concentrated on the building up of a national army and served for almost a decade either as chief of staff or minister of defense.
In 1930, when Britain finally decided to recognize Iraqi independence and replace the mandate with a treaty of alliance, Nuri was the man to deal with Britain. For two years as prime minister he worked to reconcile differences, and a treaty with Britain was signed on June 30, 1930. It provided for an end of British control and recognition of Iraq's independence. For the British promise to protect Iraq from foreign attack, Iraq granted Britain two air bases and the use of all means of communication in time of war. On October 3, 1932, Iraq became a member of the League of Nations as an independent state.
A year after Iraq's independence King Faisal I died in 1933. It devolved on Nuri to lead the country, and he became the principal architect of the country's foreign and domestic policy. From 1930 until his death in 1958 he was prime minister 13 times and many more times foreign minister. The goals of his policy were to assert the country's independence and to make alliances with neighbors as well as with one great power (Britain) in order to protect that independence. He also paid attention to internal development and sought to use the limited resources Iraq had to achieve economic development. This policy proved so successful that Iraq's position in the world seemed quite secure.
After World War II, when almost all Arab countries achieved full independence, Iraq appeared to lag behind them because it was burdened by the treaty with Britain. When Nuri tried to rid his country of the treaty in 1955 he entered into a new defense agreement—the Baghdad Pact—which Britain rejoined as a partner. Iraq not only seemed tied with its former ally, but also committed to the Western bloc as a whole. Since Iraq received Western military and economic assistance, Nuri hoped that other Arab countries might join the Baghdad Pact and become united and strong. He also hoped the Arab countries would influence the Western powers to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in their favor.
During the Cold War, most Arab leaders—especially the military leaders of Egypt—did not share Nuri's optimism. There was a widespread suspicion that European powers were not prepared to withdraw their influence from Arab lands, nor were they ready to supply arms in large quantities to strengthen them. As a result, the Arab leaders desired to remain neutral. But neutrality was unacceptable to the West. Nuri's inability to persuade Western and Arab leaders to cooperate weakened his position in the Arab world.
Nuri turned to building up Iraq's internal strength by concentrating on economic development. He created the Development Board for reconstruction and entered into a new oil agreement with the Iraq Petroleum Company on the basis of 50/50 profit sharing, which increased the amount of funds available for development. The board launched ambitious schemes for irrigation and drainage, designed to save the country from the perennial threat of floods and to provide water for agricultural development. But conditions of the poor were hardly touched. Nuri's opponents in Iraq aroused the masses against him, while opponents outside the country concentrated on attacking his foreign policy. Nuri hoped that his development schemes would bring about prosperity and improve conditions of the poor. But time ran short for development. His opponents were able to win over the army against him. The army rose in revolt on July 14, 1958, and overthrew the monarchy and put Nuri to death as well as King Faisal II, who had come to the throne in 1939.
Further Reading on Nuri al-Sa'id
There are two books which cover Nuri's life and policies. The first, Lord Birdwood, Nuri al-Sa'id (London, 1959), is a full biographical study and the second, W. J. Gallman, Iraq Under General Nuri (1964), is a study of Nuri's policy after World War II, with special emphasis on Iraq's relations with the United States. Nuri's political activities are discussed in detail in M. Kadduri's Independent Iraq (London, 2nd edition, 1960) and Republican Iraq (London, 1969). For Nuri's views on foreign policy see Nuri al-Sa'id, Arab Independence and Unity (Baghdad, 1943) and "Last Testament of Iraqi Premier," Life International, Vol. XXV (August 18, 1958). For an evaluation of Nuri's leadership, see M. Khadduri, "The Realistic School: Nuri al-Sa'id," in Arab Contemporaries: The Role of Personalities in Politics (1963).