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Bibliography on the 1924 census of Iraq


The Guardian
1924 Sep 03


(From our Correspondent.)


Before the elections for the new Parliament can be held, it has been deemed necessary to have a general census (Ahsa’a), owing to the official ignorance of the real population of the country. The only previous census in modern times has been that taken by the British Administration in 1920, which was admitted to be a somewhat rough one. This census gave the total population of the country as 2,849,282, divided into religious groups of 1,494,015 Shiah Moslems, 1,146,685 Sunni Moslems, 87,488 Jews, 78,792 Christians, and 42,302 other faiths.

The difficulties in the way of conducting anything like an accurate census are enormous. The public in the towns are extremely suspicious of any attempt on the part of the Government to obtain accurate figures, fearing that it may mean either personal taxation or military conscription. Moreover, it is extremely difficult in a Moslem country for the Government enumerator to obtain sufficient facts from individual households to enable him to build up his figures. The right of entry to a Moslem household is very strictly guarded, and the whole force of public and religious opinion would be turned against a Government bold enough to attempt an entrance into the privacy of the home. The Englishman's "castle" is an open house compared with a respectable Bagdad Moslem household.

Two other resources remain at the disposal of the census-taker, as far as the great towns are concerned — the figures of the registration of births and deaths and the estimates of the "mukhtars." The first are fairly accurate as regards deaths, but, according to the Bagdad medical officer of health, very inaccurate as regards births, birth registration being generally evaded by large sectors of the population even in the capital, which is admittedly more advanced in these matters than the other centres. The mukhtars from an institution unknown to Western cities; one of them is allotted to each "mohalla," or division of the city, in which he must reside. It is their business to get to know all the inhabitants of their mohalla, to aid them if necessary, but also to prevent them from being disorderly or committing unlawful acts. It follows that the mukhtar knows more about his particular mohalla than anybody, even the police, and he would undoubtedly be in a position to give the Government a fairly accurate estimate of the local population if he chose; on the other hand, from the inhabitants’ point of view there are many obvious ways of inducing the mukhtar not to divulge all he knows.

The Tribesmen.

When dealing with the country people and the tribesmen, the census-taker is faced with an exactly opposite difficulty. It is to the obvious interest of every small sheikh and headman to magnify the number of his dependents, for by doing so he increases his own importance; and, even if the census-taker had reason to doubt his word, it would be no easy or pleasant task to attempt to get at accurate figures behind his back, for the local sheikh is all-powerful in his little community. When it comes to dealing with the large wandering tribes, the difficulties are increased, for it is impossible to deal with them except through the paramount sheikhs, and the latter have obviously every interest in deceiving the Government as to the exact number of armed men which they could place in the field at need. Thus any census at present must largely be shrewd guesswork.

Nevertheless the Government are determined to attempt it, and a special organization has now been set up to deal with the matter. Once the census has been completed a general election will be held under the terms of the new Electoral Law recently passed by the Constituent Assembly. The Electoral Law specifies the right of every 20,000 male Iraqis of over twenty years of age to be represented by one deputy, who must himself be over thirty. Precautions are laid down for the securing of secret ballot, and the interests of the illiterate voters are taken into account.

None of the political parties here is as yet strong or experienced enough to attempt to stand on its own particular platform, and in consequence it is probably that the majority of the candidates will be elected unopposed; or, if there is opposition, it will probably be more on the lines of personal than of party opposition. Probably parties will gradually evolve afterwards from the various group manœuvres in the new Parliament.

The Guardian
1924 Dec 20



(From our Correspondent.)


The census of the male population taken for the purpose of holding Iraq’s first general election has now been practically completed, and the elections are expected to commence in three weeks’ time, under a system in vogue until recently in several countries in Europe: the electors will vote for secondary electors, and the latter will elect the actual members of the House of Assembly. This system is rendered necessarily the ignorance and illiteracy of large masses of the population.

The political future of the country is a sufficiently anxious problem. There is not in Iraq, it is true, the clash between certain vital imperial interests and local aspirations which unfortunately has been so productive of trouble in Egypt and the Sudan. On the other hand, it must not be forgotten that there is a time limit to the extension of British help towards this country, that there is also a financial limit, and that this country is perhaps more politically divided against itself than any other country of its size and population. Furthermore, its communications, in spite of railway extension and road improvement, remain extremely difficult from the point of view of a centralized Government, and its financial resources are of the most meagre. There are some who fear the eventual relapse of Iraq, after the British period of guidance is over, into a kind of second Persia, not strong enough to prevent perpetual rebellion in the provinces and foreign intrigue it the capital.

Basrah and the Tribes

With regard to the possible political divisions of the new electorate, there are five main streams of opinion discernible, emanating from (1) Basrah, (2) the tribes, (3) Bagdad, (4) the holy cities, and (5) Mosul and the north. Basrah is mainly absorbed in commerce, and therefore strongly pro-European. It has no enthusiasm for Iraq “liberty.” It will probably support whatever local political is considered to be the “best for trade.” The tribes are the dark horse of the political situation. The tribesmen will almost certainly follow their own sheiks, but the latter are widely divided amongst themselves. Certain of the tribes have strong connections with tribal groups in Arabia proper, and are susceptible to influence from that quarter.


Bagdad will remain for some time the most advanced and self-conscious political centre. Although it is by far the largest commercial centre in the country, commerce occupies a very secondary place in its affections to politics. This is partly to be attributed to the fact that commerce is largely in the hands of the Jewish community, who do not dare to exercise their full political and social weight, and also to the strange manner in which the tradition of metropolitan greatness has still clung to Bagdad in spite of its humble condition and many vicissitudes. Bagdad, like the new poor, may have had to suffer curtailment of circumstances, but she has always refused to lower her flag. Even in Turkish official documents she remained the “Glorious City.” Her people may only be able to offer you a cup of coffee in place of the banquets of the Thousand and One Nights, but this cup of coffee will still be presented in due metropolitan style. The pre-war Baedaker noted this attitude and recommended Europeans not to approach Bagdad, even by camel, without bringing their evening dress clothes. From this tradition of imperial position hails the considerable mob of coffee-shop politicians, local patriots, Sherifian loyalists, Arab nationalists, &c., whose possible influence must not be discounted because, to the European, it is vague and not easy to trace. Bagdad publishes far more than her fair share of the press and current literature of the country. All the daily Arabic newspapers but one are published there, all the weeklies and monthlies that count in any way. Politically she will probably take up a strongly nationalistic attitude, slightly suspicious of British intentions, and with a leaning towards that wider Sherifian State, to include Syria, Palestine, and Transjordania, the hope of which is not dead but slumbering.

Mosul and the Holy Cities.

The holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, on the other hand, will probably be anti-nationalist, and will play for their own hands. Their population is largely of Persian descent, and their sympathies are Shiah, and therefore against the present King and Government. They received a lesson in the banishment of their religious leaders last year, but it cannot be doubted that they will try to regain their influence. Their influence will always be anti-British, unless there is something to be gained, from their point of view, in playing off the British against the local Government.

Lastly, Mosul represents more strongly the Christian, pro-Western, and “modern” point of view. Imitation of British dress and British ways is more strong, naturally, among the Christians, and the latter have more power in Mosul than anywhere. Moreover, the Turkish danger is more real there, and the need for British help more insistent. Probably Mosul’s political efforts will be largely concerned with obtaining as large a portion of the national finances as possible for local development and of the national army for local defence. But the Moslawis represent an element which Iraq will probably find politically sound and reliable, provided their own interests are not neglected.