Iraq’s troubled past

Toward the end of his speech before the Security Council of the United Nations on Feb. 5, US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared: “For more than 20 years, by word and by deed, Saddam Hussein has pursued his ambition to dominate Iraq and the broader Middle East using the only means he knows: intimidation, coercion and annihilation of all those who might stand in his way. For Saddam Hussein, possession of the world’s most deadly weapons is the ultimate trump card, the one he must hold to fulfill his ambition.”

No one probably knows this better than Iraq’s own neighbors – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iran and Turkey.  They all fear an Iraq run by Saddam Hussein.  They would love to see this monster disarmed.  And yet, apart from Kuwait, none of them has come out openly to support a US invasion of Iraq.  Their people are vehemently against it.

Islam has not been strong enough as a binding force to create a united Middle East.  And pan-Arabism itself died with the dissolution of the United Arab Republic in 1961.  But, immersed in their respective nationalist preoccupations, these Islamic states know that the only thing worse than a regional tyrant like Saddam is a Western superpower establishing itself once more as the new source of order in this troubled region.  In their memory is etched the pain and the terror of Western colonial rule over the region.

It is worth revisiting that particular phase in the history of the Middle East, not only because it is quite recent, but because the United States today is poised to play a role in the region that Britain assumed for itself at the height of World War I.

Mired in self-delusion, Britain bungled that role miserably.  After assuming the League of Nations mandate to govern Iraq in 1920, Britain faced a popular rebellion that blasted its pretensions as a liberator and unifier of the Iraqi people.  To crush the rebellion, Britain had to unleash its new aerial weapons, bombarding civilian populations and using poison gas against them.  This prompted a disturbed T.E. Lawrence to write: “We have killed ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer.  We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely populated.”

Before World War I, Britain was content to work with the Ottoman Turks that had ruled the region loosely for 400 years.  To some extent they worked under the illusion that the Ottoman Empire was a British interest.  More than once it helped restore Ottoman rule in provinces taken over by other powers.  But the geography of imperial interests was bound to change.  By the turn of the century, the Ottoman territories began to be coveted by the European powers.

Britain was particularly interested in two provinces: Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq).  Palestine because of its importance to the Zionist Jews of Europe, for whom, said the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a permanent home had to be found.  And Iraq not only for its strategic location, but especially because of its oil.  Consider how much these two ancient places continue to be the center of gravity of today’s most critical conflicts, and one immediately understands how the motive forces that drive this conflict have little to do with weapons of mass destruction.

Playing God like today’s America, Britain had become accustomed to ignoring local opinion.  It did not matter that 90 percent of Palestine’s inhabitants at that time were non-Jewish.  The population equation would soon change with the movement of Jewish settlers and refugees from Europe.  Mesopotamia itself had been the home of various tribes, including the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs who preferred to live apart from one another.  But Britain proceeded to form a modern Iraq by bringing under one centralized administration these heterogeneous peoples. The rebellion of the Kurdish people, who were nearly massacred by Saddam Hussein in 1988, testifies to this colonial foolishness.

More than that, Britain brought in a monarch from outside, Prince Feisal, after he was kicked out as King of Syria by the French. Feisal had fought loyally with Lawrence in the campaign against the Turks, and the British wanted to reward him.  The British remained in Iraq for 36 years, until 1956.  Their rule was fiercely resisted by the nations it had brought under its dominion, and, later, even by the Army itself, its own creation.

Throughout the Second World War and the Cold War, the Iraqi state served as a loyal Western outpost, staunchly secular and anticommunist.  But just two years after the British left, the military staged a coup, slaughtered the royal family, and destroyed the British embassy.  From then on, Iraq was governed either by the military or the Ba’ath Party, which outdid one another in ruthlessness.  In 1968, Saddam Hussein outwitted both and, with the help of a brutal secret police, became Iraq’s dictator.

Saddam turned Iraq into the region’s most modern and technologically advanced country.  He is indeed, as Powell describes him, a “secular tyrant.”  But throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, this scoundrel’s most abiding allies were none other than the US and Britain.  As the journalist Charles Glass tells it: “He is the same gangster to whom the US supplied satellite reconnaissance photographs, loans, dual-use technology and diplomatic support.”

How could the US and Britain have failed to detect the evil in the man they now consider its very personification?  Maybe the man hasn’t changed, but American and British interests have.


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