Iraq: Saladin to Saddam
The ancient cradle of civilization has fiercely resisted occupiers for millenniums. Will this time be different?
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"It will be chaos," says Mr. Jawad.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.