Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Iraq - A History Lesson

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The following is an excerpt from "Winston Churchill Strikes Again: The Map of Iraq," Encyclopedia Idiotica: history’s worst decisions and the people who made them, Stephen Weir (Barron’s Educational Series, 2005)

One result of World War I was that the Ottoman’s foolish last-minute alliance with the Kaiser and the Austrians led to the almost complete dismemberment of their empire. Turkey itself, empowered to some extent by the victory in the Dardanelles became a secular state bridging Europe and Asia. The rest of the empire was left without rule, but not entirely in chaos. The Byzantine nature of the empire meant that provinces were to some extent self-governing and could soldier along on their own…The new nationalisms that had exploded in the Balkans and had begun the whole decline of the Ottoman Empire swiftly spread into the newly-liberated Ottoman provinces, and bitter riots against any attempt at British rule began. The home audience had no stomach for this:

"How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population and elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?" asked The Times.

…Perhaps the only one who really did care was Sir Mark Sykes appointed by General Kitchener in 1915 as his personal representative to a prime ministerial committee to determine the future of the Middle East. He worked tirelessly to establish proper British control in the region…but in 1919 Sykes unexpectedly died [and was replaced] by Winston Churchill.

Churchill had no time for any of this policy. He wanted the army demobilized: he wanted the Arabs rebellions put down, and the map redrawn…A British protectorate was finally set up in 1917, but the hold on Iraq was tenuous…There was strong opposition to British rule… The Ottomans had divided the region into three provinces, more or less ethnically centered around Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra in an attempt to keep the warring Sunni and Shiite populations apart…

By 1920 all of this had boiled over into full-scale revolt across the region. Horrifically, Churchill was not the least bit interested in working out what to do with whom. His view was …"I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am utterly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes." … [P]oison gas was used regularly across the region to put down the revolt…Airpower, the dropping of bombs containing gas, was used extensively for almost the first time in history to save ground forces and expense; indeed, the whole revolt was put down with the loss of 2,000 British soldiers.

The problem remained of what to do with Iraq once the revolt had been put down. Essentially, the decision was made to hand over all of Arabia to whatever local strongmen could be relied on to support British rule in return for being allowed unlimited control over local populations. It didn’t really matter which populations, whether they wanted to be under that leader, or who their new countrymen might be. The careful planning of Sykes was all for naught. Churchill held a 10-day conference at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo on March 12, 1921, to work out the new frontiers…[Ibn Saud was given] the heart of Arabia…the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were no longer separate but were thrown together into the new state of Iraq…Local observers were horrified. An American missionary noted, "You are flying in the face of four millennia of history." The British civil commissioner in Baghdad, Captain Arnold Wilson, warned that it was a recipe for disaster because the enduring Shia-Sunni conflict would result in the "antithesis of democratic government."…The Kurds were lured into the new kingdom, rather than becoming a part of Turkey, by promises of self-rule, not the first or last time such a promise from the West was instantly broken.

The conference blithely gave a large portion of what should have been Saudi Arabia – west of the Euphrates – to Iraq. In return, Ibn Saud was given control of most of the historic Kuwaiti kingdom, all but cutting off Iraq from…access to the Persian Gulf.

The consequences are all too apparent today. Rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iraq remains. Three times Iraq has laid claim to Kuwait and been thrown back, most recently precipitating the First Gulf War. The total lack of interest in laying down sensible borders for the country resulted in what was at the time predicted – never-ending rivalry between the Shiites and the Sunni. This was complicated by the uncomfortable and unwanted presence of the Kurds, and the imposition of someone who was considered an outsider as king; and the lack of interest on behalf of the British in imposing anything other than a sphere of influence or proper governmental systems to replace the Ottomans. This resulted in the internal catastrophe and the endless successions of coups that led to the coming to power of Saddam Hussein.


Stephen Weir said...

As the author of the book you take this extract from, thank you for widening the reach of this particular very important article. Written now almost two years ago, I am astonished at how much more telling the history now seems in foreshadowing the utter disaster that has now occurred.

Stephen Weir

G. Randy Primm said...

Steve, thanks for letting me use the extract without suing me over the copyright.

i had written a post some time ago covering some of the same ground, but i thought your book piece would add a little more scholarship to rectify the vast ignorance that many people have vis a vis the middle east, and especially the very particular problems of sectarainism in iraq.

after all, if you don't know where you've been, you really don't know where you are, and that makes it harder to chart a course to where you want to go.