Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A brief history of "Iraq"

From AlterNet, by Barry Lando (, an interesting history of the British experience in attempting to create the nation of Iraq, melding the Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds together in an attempt to maintain British control of the oil in the region.

It didn't work out too well for them, either.

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia [Iraq] into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information…..We are today not far from disaster.”

So wrote Colonel T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) in the London Sunday Times, August 1920.

Indeed, reviewing the historical record of British attempts to rule first Mesopotamia and then Iraq you get the feeling you’re watching an old Hollywood black and white classic that has been reshot for an American audience with digitalized sound, computer animation, and the “United States” substituted for “England.”

For instance, when British forces marched into Baghdad in 1917 they announced they had come not as “conquerors” but "liberators.”

In fact, they were no more interested in liberating the local inhabitants and their lands than were any of the conquerors who had preceded them, nor the one who followed. Their major concern was bases to support their sprawling empire and oil to fuel their economy and war-making machine.

As Rear Admiral Sir Edmond Slade wrote in a report to the British admiralty in 1918, “It is evident that the Power that controls the oil lands of Persia and Mesopotamia will control the source of supply of the majority of the liquid fuel of the future.” Britain must therefore “at all costs retain [its] hold on the Persian and Mesopotamian oil fields.”

Britain’s ruling classes spoke of a divine mandate to bring the obvious benefits of Western rule to peoples steeped in tyranny and darkness. As Arnold Wilson-- a prototype,one could argue, of Paul Bremmer in 2003—who was appointed to oversee Britain’s new holdings in Mesopotamia, declared in 1918. “The average [Iraqi] Arab, as opposed to the handful of amateur politicians of Baghdad, sees the future as one of fair dealing and material and moral progress under the aegis of Britain….The Arabs are content with our occupation.”

The Arabs, it turned out, were not content when they understood that Britain had no intention of liberating the conquered territories. On June 30, 1920, uprisings exploded across the country. The British then had 133,000 troops in the area—roughly the same number as the U.S. had after the invasion of 2003.

They fought back with armored cars, machine guns, and planes that could strike with impunity and terrorize the natives. They bombed the villages with everything from phosphorous to metal crowsfeet designed to cripple livestock and lay thousands of acres of crops to waste.

In six months, thousands of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds were killed, many of them lined up and executed by firing squads. The British themselves lost more than 1,600 men and spent six times as much as they had spent on their entire Middle East campaign during World War I.

British political leaders and editorialists were up in arms, but government officials assured all that victory was just around the corner: the uprising was weak, composed of disaffected “remnants” who were being incited by outside forces.

Though Winston Churchill, who was then Home Secretary, instructed the RAF to consider using chemical weapons against the rebels, he had also concluded that Britain eventually had to extricate itself from the Mesopotamia quagmire. His communiqu├ęs to British Prime Minister Lloyd George could have been prescient memos to Tony Blair not to mention President George W. Bush. “Evidently we are in for a long, costly campaign in Mesopotamia which will strain to the uttermost our military resources,” Churchill warned. “It seems to me so gratuitous that…we should be compelled to go on pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts.”

Churchill argued that Britain should give up its attempts to control Kurdish Mosul and Sunni-dominated Baghdad and retain only the Shiite province of Basra in the south, which was a strategic link to British possessions in Persia. If the British Cabinet had followed his advice, each of the principle peoples of Iraq—Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds—would have had its own government; the groups who were bound together as Iraqis might have had a much less tragic history.

Churchill, however, was overruled by Lloyd George, and as a loyal cabinet member he was obliged to continue publicly to make the case for a policy he privately argued was disastrous—that Britain should continue to rule Mesopotamia.

To govern the new state of Iraq they ultimately cobbled together in 1921, the British imported the Hashemite King Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca. Since they were handing him the crown, they presumed he would be compliant with the directives of a British High Commissioner. The fact that Faisal had never been to Iraq was considered an inconvenience, but one the British figured they could manage.

To man the government, the British continued to rely on the minority Sunnis; the majority Shiites naturally continued to view the Sunnis as an army of occupation. As an American missionary warned the British at the time, “You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a ‘political entity!’ They have never been an independent unity.”

Prime Minister Lloyd George, however, would hear nothing of abandoning the venture. “If we leave,” he wrote in 1922, “we may find in a year or two that we have handed over to the French and the Americans some of the richest oilfields in the world.”

In fact, the British decided that very year to expand the artificial nation by incorporating the Kurdish lands of Mosul into Iraq. Sir Arnold Wilson had earlier warned London that the Kurds would “never accept an Arab ruler.” Subjecting them to King Faisal quickly proved a disaster.

At the end of World War I, the victorious allies, prodded by Woodrow Wilson, had promised the non-Arabic Kurds an autonomous state. The promise was never fulfilled. In return for a cut of the petroleum take, the other great powers—including the United States—acquiesced in the arrangement. Thus, the hapless Kurds would find themselves part of an ungainly ethnic jumble, a minority in an Arab country ruled over from Baghdad by Sunnis they detested. In 1923, their resentment exploded in uprisings that were brutally repressed by the Royal Air Force.

As Wing-Commander Sir Arthur Harris (who later became renowned as “Bomber Harris”, head of Britain’s WWII Bomber Command, that carried out the firebombing of Dresden), declared with obvious satisfaction in 1924, [T]he Arab and Kurd ... now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full sized village ... can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.” (This, by the way, was a 13 years before the Germans outraged the “civilized” world with their bombing of Guernica).

The “recalcitrant” tribes targeted for such treatment were not just those attacking British installations and personnel, but also those accused of harboring wanted rebel leaders, even refusing to pay taxes; they also had to be bombed into submission.

Over the following years, protected by the British and the RAF, King Faisal grew in his role as a monarch far beyond what the British had expected—or wished. He attempted to forge a sentiment of nationhood among the hodgepodge of peoples and tribes that made up his Kingdom. But he was constantly stymied by bitter internecine feuds and bickering, not to mention the corruption and penchant for intrigue that permeated Iraq’s political elite. His efforts were also subverted by the British. Their objective was not to build a viable state, but to preserve their sway over the region and its huge oil resources.

In a confidential memo a dispirited Faisal wrote shortly before his death, “There is still—and I say this with a heart full of sorrow—no Iraqi people, but an unimaginable mass of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate and refine…The circumstances being what they are, the immenseness of the efforts needed for this [cannot be imagined].”

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