Iraq: Saladin to Saddam

The ancient cradle of civilization has fiercely resisted occupiers for millenniums. Will this time be different?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Shabandar Cafe is where Iraqis with an intellectual bent and a taste for sweet, hot tea served in slender glass cups gather to discuss poetry, and politics - and offer stark warnings to would-be conquerors.

There is no shortage of words. On a recent winter afternoon, a man sits engrossed in a book, his big toe wiggling freely through a large hole in a dark sock. And there is no shortage of history.

On a nearby wall, the faded photographs of stern British generals disapprovingly survey the scene - a sepia reminder of last century's colonial rule.

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"The Iraqis - all these people in front of us - have so many good characteristics: they are friendly, honest and polite to foreigners," says Amir Nayef Toma, a professor of English who sits two benches away, working on a translation. "If you go to any Iraqi home and knock on the door, they will welcome you.

"But those good characteristics will be killed in one instant, when you come through the window like a thief," Mr. Toma says. "They will treat [you] so severely and without mercy, and beat [you] nearly to death."

The scene in the cafe speaks volumes about Iraqis today - educated, secular, nationalistic, recently impoverished, and filled with bitter recollections of life under British occupation. Indeed, most Iraqis would say that Professor Toma is understating the case.

"The Iraqis are the hardest Arab people to control or subdue - this is their nature," says Saad Naji Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "Their history is one of revolts and rebellions. No foreigner could control Iraqis."

For millennia, Iraq has worn and rejected the yoke of foreign invaders, from merciless Assyrians to a British-constructed monarchy that was overthrown in 1958.

Besides regime change and military occupation, even if temporary, the US game plan for Iraq also includes a more ambitious, long-term goal of using Iraq to sow a first seed of democratic rule in the Arab world, where none has grown before.

Attempting to blunt growing criticism abroad that the US has imperial motives in Iraq, Mr. Bush said last week that "a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

The president compared US goals to post-World War II results in Germany and Japan: "After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments." Bush added: "We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more."

Administration confidence may be underpinned by the relative ease with which the Taliban was toppled in Afghanistan. Less than 18 months ago, there were dire warnings that - like the Soviet Union - the US would get bogged down waging war in a nation with a long history of brutally rejecting outside rule. While the verdict on that campaign is still out - and Osama bin Laden is still on the run - it is widely seen as a case study of a low-casualty war with broad regional impact.

'Chaos'

The Bush administration argues that Iraq is not Afghanistan. And it aims to revive the Iraq of the 1970s and '80s. Then, the world's second largest producer of oil boasted a modern infrastructure and the highest living standards in the Middle East. It had a thriving middle class, and some of the most sophisticated social services and health systems in the region. Literacy campaigns spread far and wide, and Iraq's traditional impulse for learning and cosmopolitan life deepened.

But the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and the 1991 Gulf War, hammered modern Iraq. More than 12 years of UN economic sanctions further tore at the social fabric, bringing poverty on a scale not seen here for more than a generation.

Many Iraqis blame the US for that decline. And experts also point out that the US track record on establishing democracies anywhere - especially in the autocratic Arab world - is poor.

"It will be chaos," says Mr. Jawad.

Iraq's unique standing in this part of the world goes back thousands of years. The territory nestled between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers is known as the cradle of civilization. It was a Babylonian king in the third millennium BC who gave the world Hammurabi's Code, the roots of the West's legal system in which the punishment must fit the crime. Two millennia before that, the ancient Sumerians gave birth to the written word, using cuneiform script on clay tablets.

But Iraqi historians also note that the land of Babylon's fabled hanging gardens and ancient learning is rich in a history of clashing empires, violence, and failed conquests.

Kings and conquests

King Nebuchadnezzar built up Babylon and destroyed Jerusalem's Temple of Solomon in 586 BC. Alexander the Great's blue-eyed Macedonian armies swept across Iraq's dusty plains toward the Indian subcontinent in the 4th century BC.

Islam later spread from Mecca across Iraq and toward Europe, only to be pushed back by Christian warriors during the Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries. Saladin - icon of the Arab world, who was born in Saddam Hussein's own home area of Tikrit - forced the Crusaders from Jerusalem.

Mongol rule began with a brutal conquest in the 13th century, but gave way to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, which ruled Iraq as three regions - the Kurdish areas, central Sunni areas, and the southern Shiite area. That empire in turn collapsed and left the British - after years of battle to ensure control of Iraq's oil and to help protect India - in control of ancient Mesopotamia.

After initially welcoming British forces to Baghdad, Iraqis soon realized they had traded one occupier for another. At one point, the British were "encouraged" by the expulsion of Turks during a rebellion in a southern city, and sent envoys in hopes of winning support. But "few tribal Arabs proved willing to give their horses, their guns or themselves to any alien force," writes Middle East specialist Sandra Mackey in her book "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein."

After World War I, Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to carve up Ottoman territory and bring all three disparate regions together.

The key problem: the exact shape of the new Iraqi nation, which included 25 percent Kurds in the north and 60 percent Shiite Muslims in the south. Both were ruled by a Sunni upper class in the central part of the country.

An anti-British revolt in 1920 was put down - at the cost of more than 2,000 British lives and much treasure. Trouble plagued the British even after they installed in 1921 a puppet monarch, King Faisal I - a polished Sunni Arab officer who was treated suspiciously by Kurds and Shiites alike. History records how the British shipped the king's chief opponent to British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and how a "vote" yielded 96 percent support for the new monarch.

A cycle of uprisings

But the set-up hardly brought peace. By one count, from the end of World War I to the revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1958, Iraq was shaken by eight Kurdish revolts, nine Shiite revolts and several pogroms.

Indeed, the history of the British struggle to maintain control is written in rock at Baghdad's North Gate Cemetery. A dry wind whirls among row after row of bleached gravestones, blowing past the memories of thousands of British soldiers who died here in the name of the empire.

Here are those who "perished" while marching from al-Kut, and those who fought "for 30 hours against overwhelming odds." Here, too, is the British commander who declared that he had "liberated" Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, only to succumb to cholera shortly after his victory.

Back at the cafe, Professor Toma tells how his father was just 17 when he was given a pistol called an "Adolf," and tried to assassinate the British consul in the southern city of Basra. "My father hated the British; they treated Iraqis so severely," Toma says. Today, Iraqis remember how family members were interned in British camps or executed. Iraqis often derisively called the British "al Haimer," the "red-faced man."

"If the Iraqis resisted and could not live with colonial rule - at a time when it was normal all over the world - how about today, when independence ... and self-determination [are] the important values of human life?" says Halim Barakat, a recently retired professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "The period of colonization in the minds of the Iraqis is over."

American occupation plans now call for a senior US military governor, and senior US officers to replace every minister and deputy minister in the Iraqi government for at least 18 months - a far more direct role than ranking British "advisers" employed in the colonial days.

Will the Americans be welcomed? "There is not a chance," says an Iraqi professional, who spoke candidly, alone, and in English. "You can't expect a foreigner to come outside your house with a gun, and expect him to be welcomed - why do they think they can do it?

An American ally?

Such emotions are ironic in Iraq, where long-standing secularism, lack of fundamentalist tradition, and oil-rich, well-educated, free-wheeling modern lifestyles in the past have led many analysts to believe that Iraq could be a natural ally in America's war on terror.

Indeed, in these respects, there are few people in the Arab world who are more like Americans.

But overcoming the anti-US hurdle won't be easy, if the lessons from the British colonial example are anything to go by. The high profile American role itself could be an issue. "If you want to drive Iraqi resentment toward any administration, then put as many Americans as you can in Iraq," warns Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Britain's University of Warwick. "That would be the easiest way to fuel the growth of militant and angry Iraqi nationalism."

Ticking off the history lessons relevant to Americans, he says: Don't rely on friends that you think are influential but are not - such as long-term exiles who oppose Hussein's regime, but many of whom have been outside the country for decades.

"And the British dominated Iraq by bombing its population into submission," says Mr. Dodge. "You can argue that they never established a viable political order because of their addiction to air power."

So where does optimism come from in Washington? One difference between today and the 1920 revolt is the state of the Sunni-Shiite Muslim divide.

"Nationalists at that time worked very effectively for unity - there was an unbelievable rapprochement," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University, noting that in those days they often held joint religious celebrations.

"Now there is a genuine cleavage," says Mr. Nadhmi. "There is no animosity among the people, but there is a genuine animosity between the Shia and the central authority, and the Kurds, and a great deal of Sunnis [against] the central authority."

European diplomats with long experience in Iraq say that the scale and severity of that resistance will depend on the number of Iraqi civilians killed in any war. With strategic targets such as ministries, palaces, and military and intelligence offices intertwined with residences throughout Baghdad, Iraqis fear that civilians casualties may be inevitable.

But few Iraqis doubt that, if US and British forces invade their country, there will soon be another cemetery set aside for war graves in downtown Baghdad - for Americans.

Toma the English professor leans back, considers the idea, and drains his teacup. "The English once caught a tribesman in Najaf, and injured him with five or six bullets, in the shoulder, here in the arm, in the knee," Toma says. "He was painted with blood. He was asked: 'Why do you fight?' The tribesman replied: 'I fight the red-faced man, who came to conquer my home.' "

Iraq Through the Ages

Pre-Islam (c. 3500 BC-AD 632) The fertile plains of Mesopotamia give birth to some of the world's earliest civilizations. Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians develop city-states and systems of irrigation, trade, and writing. Under King Hammurabi's rule, Babylon expands its borders and is then conquered by the Assyrians. The city first comes under Persian rule in 539 BC. About 200 years later, Alexander the Great ushers in more than two centuries of Greek rule. Persians reconquer Mesopotamia in 64 BC.

Early Islam (632 -1533) Muhammad, the founder of Islam, sends his armies to take Mesopotamia, where they convert a majority of the population to Islam. The region becomes known as Iraq. The Battle at Karbala divides Islam into its two main sects, the Sunnis and Shiites. Baghdad, founded on the Tigris River, becomes the center of the Muslim world. But after several centuries of civil wars, invasions, and floods, Baghdad is destroyed by Mongol invaders in 1258.

The Ottoman Empire (1533-1914) The Ottoman Empire takes over Iraq and unifies the Middle East. In the ensuing peace, the Iraqi economy - particularly agriculture - improves, as trading begins with the British, Dutch, and Portuguese. This period is often regarded with pride among Iraqis. In the late 1800s, a need for oil in the West increases, as the British Navy shifts from coal to oil.

• British rule (1914-1932) The Ottoman Empire joins Germany and Austria-Hungary against England, France, Russia, and the US in World War I, during which British forces invade Iraq. When the Ottoman Empire falls, the land is carved up in a League of Nations mandate, which places Baghdad under British rule. In 1925, international companies are allowed to drill for oil in Iraq.

Monarchy/Independence (1932-1958) Iraq becomes an independent country in 1932 under the rule of a Hashemite king. When Israel declares its independence in 1948, Iraq joins other Arab states in attacking it. Meanwhile, oil revenues increase dramatically.

Political turmoil (1958-1979) Amid a wave of Arab nationalism, the monarchy is overthrown in a coup. The Iraqi government is later overthrown by the Baath Arab Socialist Party. In 1972, the oil industry is nationalized. Fighting between Iraq and the minority Kurds begins again.

Saddam Hussein (1979-1980) Saddam Hussein, rising through the ranks of the Baath party, seizes power and becomes Iraq's new president.

Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) Iraq invades Iran, marking the beginning of a costly and inconclusive eight-year war. The US gives intelligence support to Iraq and sells it chemical and biological weapons materials. In 1981, Israel destroys an Iraqi nuclear site. Iraq is condemned by the UN for its use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops, its execution of political opponents, and the poison-gas murders of thousands of Kurdish villagers.

Gulf War (1990-1991) Iraqi forces invade Kuwait. Seven months later, Iraqi troops are driven out by a US-led army. Sanctions and war take a heavy toll on civilians. With US encouragement to overthrow Hussein, Shiites and Kurdish groups revolt - but the US fails to back them.

Sanctions (1991-present) International support for sanctions fades after UNICEF estimates that 4,000 Iraqi children die each month. Hussein undermines UN attempts to inspect Iraq's weapons programs and weapons inspectors withdraw. After the Sept. 11 attacks, US President George Bush calls Iraq, Iran, and North Korea an "axis of evil."

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