What the British learned in 1920 by not leaving Iraq
BAGHDAD — It's one of the loneliest places in Baghdad - the British military cemetery, where hundreds of forlorn gravestones attest to the price of imperialism in Iraq.
In 1920, a Shiite revolt erupted against British occupiers, who had arrived in Mesopotamia at the start of World War I. Britain pushed out Ottoman forces, but didn't move fast enough to create a promised new nation state. The uprising surprised the British, left more than 2,200 occupation troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqis dead or wounded - and cost, by one account, three times as much as British financing of the entire Arab revolt against the Ottomans.
Today the US faces the same dilemma that dogged the British: How to grant self-rule to Iraqis as promised, while keeping overall control. Despite rhetoric from Washington that it will transform Iraq into a democratic beacon in the Mideast, few Iraqis believe the US is sincere.
"The Americans believe in democracy, but they do not believe in its results," says Gailan Ramiz, an Iraqi political scientist with degrees from Princeton, Harvard, and Oxford. "The ballot box should rule - period. It is so in America, and it should be so in Iraq. It can't be avoided by any more tactics." Changing such attitudes will require the US to learn lessons from the British colonial experience - lessons applied only fitfully so far. Among them:
The US-appointed Governing Council signed an interim constitution on Monday, and Washington insists that it will hand sovereignty back to Iraqis on June 30. Elections for an interim assembly are due next January. But American troops will not be going home this summer if bloody resistance attacks continue, and few Iraqis expect the US to cede real control.
"When the British came to Baghdad in 1917, they declared that 'We are here as liberators, not occupiers.' That is the same statement the Americans have made," says Ghassan Atiyyah, an expert on the 1920 revolt and head of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy. "Iraqis thought the British were sincere about it, and they proved to have other designs. [Today] Iraqis are asking: 'How could America get rid of Saddam in three weeks, and have no elections in 11 months?' "
The historical comparison does not always hold. The anti-British revolt mostly involved Shiites, but was more tribal and rural than religious, and fanned by overtaxation. Bowing to military cost-cutting at home, and public pressure not to deepen its role in Iraq, the British government back then had less at stake in Iraq than America does today, as it uses Iraq as a test case of unilateral US action in a post-Sept. 11 world. Still, many points do apply.
The British relied on air power to quell dissent - at great cost to the civilian population and to its credibility. Americans, too, are often accused of heavy-handed tactics while hunting Saddam Hussein loyalists and anticoalition guerrillas.
British cabinet papers from 1921 raised doubt about keeping "peaceful control of Mesopotamia" if it "ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children."
In his memoirs, the British commander in charge of quelling the revolt, Lt. Gen. Sir Aylmer Haldane, wrote in 1922 of the "vanity of what we undertook," in confiscating 63,000 rifles from Iraqi tribes. The Iraqis "not only rearmed themselves but acquired weapons of more modern type," Gen. Haldane lamented, leading him to conclude of Mesopotamia that "it is folly to think, not in one year but even in many years, to draw the teeth of its inhabitants."
Historian Paul Rish, in an introduction to Haldane's memoirs, indicates that one method that contributed to the 1920 revolt and future unrest was a British plan that "relied heavily on putting pliable but unpopular Arabs in sham authority."
That view echoes complaints today among Iraqis that the Governing Council is a tool of US policy, under Washington's thumb in the same way that powerful British advisers decades ago controlled handpicked Iraqi ministers.
The British ensured a 96 percent landslide for their chosen new Sunni monarch, King Faisal I, by inviting his chief opponent to tea, and then whisking him off to exile in British-ruled Ceylon. "Arab rule" had arrived in name only. King Faisal despaired in a secret memo in 1933 that his government was "far and away weaker than the people," who were "unimaginable masses of human beings devoid of any patriotic ideas ... prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever."
The British-devised monarchy of Iraq lasted until its overthrow in 1958. "[The Americans] should draw parallels from the British experience," says Saad Jawad, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad. "Not only are they insisting on ruling Iraq on their own, but [like] the British, gave promises they did not fulfill."
The British expected to be greeted with open arms by Iraqis after forcing out Ottoman troops. But instead they found fierce resentment - precisely the misjudgment made by American planners, who believed that gratitude over the fall of Saddam Hussein would overcome Iraqi uneasiness about a new occupation.
"The British saw the Shia religious establishment in the 1920s as a direct rival for power, so they fled back into the arms of the Sunni elite," says Toby Dodge, at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. Despite London's detailed efforts to win the support of tribes, anti-British resentment grew to the point where Iraq's majority Shiite and Sunnis put aside their differences, and unified.
Likewise, US Administrator Paul Bremer, in his effort to scrub away Hussein's Baath regime, has given reason to broaden anti-US resistance. "Bremer thought he would rule directly ... but [the Americans] started making mistakes. They dissolved the Army, thinking they could [handle security] themselves," says Dr. Atiyyah.
There is no Arabic word for de-Baathification, and the closest one for this uncompromising policy means "uprooting." That "smacks of Baathist rule," adds Atiyyah. "The Americans were so clever with these policies of creating enemies, and [wound up] uniting enemies - the Army, the Baathists, and Sunnis."
If the US hasn't learned not to create enemies, Iraq's majority Shiites certainly have. So far, Shiites have made their complaints about the US without violence. They sacrificed during the 1920 revolt, Iraqis say, lost power and gained nothing.
General Haldane states in his memoirs that Iraqis "respect nothing but force," but he also notes his surprise that "resentment is small or wears off quickly." He writes of "princely hospitality" while snipe shooting with hundreds of sheikhs, including "those who stood by us during the insurrection, and others, a far greater number, who took up arms against us at the time."
Iraqis today share such mixed emotions about the US presence. "The first lie of the Bush administration is that they are liberators, but in fact they are occupiers," says Haj-Muhammad al-Khashallee, owner of Baghdad's Shabandar Café, which decorates its aged walls with historical photographs. "If they are sincere enough to make Iraq their friend by handing over power to the Iraqi people, then good."
"We need the Americans," says Atiyyah. "Who else will protect the Kurds from the Turks? Who will protect the Sunnis from Shia hegemony? The secular from the Islamist? You [Americans] will be loved by everyone if you can be the facilitator, not the ruler.... We need the helping hand, not someone to take our place."