As I See It
It’s deja vu, all over again.
This well-known saying, attributed to the inimitable Yogi Berra, was brought to mind by an article in a recent issue of the Smithsonian Magazine about the British experience in Iraq between 1914 and 1958.
Early in World War I, Britain invaded what is now Iraq, then a part of the Ottoman Empire which had allied itself with Germany and Austria. The reason for the invasion was to protect British oil fields in neighboring Iran and Persian Gulf shipping lanes. Many Iraqis welcomed the British troops with open arms.
The British ended 300 years of Ottoman rule, which had grown corrupt and oppressive. The commander of the British forces declared “Our armies do not come … as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.”
In 1920, Britain was granted a “mandate” over Iraq by the League of Nations. A British colonial official enthusiastically stated that “When we have made Mesopotamia (Iraq) a model state, there is not an Arab of Syria and Palestine who wouldn’t want to be a part of it.” But by that time, Iraqi nationalism outweighed pro-British feelings. National protests increased, and an Iraqi Imam issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring that British rule violated Islamic law and calling for a holy war against the British, uniting rival Sunnis and Shiites in a common cause. The British responded with a heavy hand, with aerial bombardment, machine-gunning the rebels and destroying whole towns, which only made matters worse. Five hundred British and Indian soldiers and 6,000 Iraqis were killed before the revolt was quelled. Before it ended, the London Times had asked, “How much longer are valuable lives going to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an … administration which they never asked for and do not want?”
The British found it expedient to turn to the more pro-Western and better-educated Sunni Arabs of Baghdad and central Iraq who had been trained and used by the Ottomans, despite the fact that they accounted for only 20 percent of the population. More than half of the Iraqis were Shiite Arabs, living mostly in the south. The Kurds, in the north, accounted for another 20 percent of the population.
In 1932, Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state, under a constitutional monarchy created by the British. Although British control of the government ended in 1930, a British presence continued in Iraq until 1958, when a military coup killed the reigning monarch and took over the country, ultimately leading to the rule of Saddam Hussein. Anti- British feeling in Iraq was so strong at the start of World War II that in 1940 Iraq attempted to ally itself with Nazi Germany. In 1941, the British temporarily took control of the country again, ousting a military coup which had supplanted the monarchy for a couple of months.
The British presence during the 1920s left a strong imprint on Iraq. According to one observer, the result was that Iraqi attention was constantly “focused on independence, not on how to develop a country, how to make a constitutional system work, or how to integrate Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.” She went on to say, “As a result, there is an obsession that there be no foreign control. We tend to overlook a basic rule: That people prefer bad rule by their own kind to good rule by someone else.”
Does this all sound familiar? Is there any reason to believe that our occupation of Iraq will turn out any differently? Current events are not encouraging – Deja vu, all over again!
Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.
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