As British pull back from Basra, an eye is cast on past occupations
The British withdrawal from Iraq's south underscores that many of the same issues faced by current British forces were the same as those dealt with by Britain's military after World War I.
As British forces withdraw from Basra, many of the challenges facing Iraq's southern region and the exiting troops mirror those that frustrated Britain when it controlled the nation as a colonial holding following World War I. Some historians speculate that Iraq's sectarian issues may have even been created during British colonial rule. As Britain ends its second Iraq endeavor, observers wonder if history has once again repeated itself.Skip to next paragraph
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Over the weekend Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that the United States military is preparing a brigade of about 3,500 men to take control of Basra, the Iraqi port city that has been patrolled by British forces since shortly after the beginning of the war. The paper quoted Fred Kagan, a powerful advocate of the US military's current surge strategy in Iraq, as saying Britain's decision to withdraw will create "bad feelings" among US troops and their supporters.
Details of the number of US troops required to take over were disclosed by a senior British officer, who asked not to be named. He also revealed that commanders at the Ministry of Defence were "irritated" by the growing criticism from the US of their handling of Basra.
Mr. Kagan, who has just returned from Iraq, said: "The likeliest effect of British withdrawal from Basra is to keep an American unit in country for longer than they would like. I do worry about the short term effects on the relationship between the two countries. It will create bad feeling with American soldiers if they can't go home because the British have left."
But as Britain apparently moves closer to withdrawing its forces from southern Iraq and some American hawks like Mr. Kagan are questioning Britain's stomach for a fight, some historians are looking back to the last time British forces were a major power in Iraq – after being awarded control of the country after World War I – and finding parallels with the current situation. University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, on his blog Informed Comment, quotes at length from a 1922 letter written by Winston Churchill when he was Britain's colonial secretary to the British prime minister of the time, David Lloyd George. Mr. Cole makes the case that southern Iraq was as much a quagmire for British forces then as it is now, and thus there is no shame in withdrawal.
In the letter, Churchill complains of insufficient troops to pacify the country and corrupt local officials whose government had been brought to power by the British.
I am deeply concerned about Iraq. The task you have given me is becoming really impossible. Our forces are reduced now to very slender proportions. The Turkish menace has got worse; Feisal [the British-installed monarch] is playing the fool, if not the knave; his incompetent Arab officials are disturbing some of the provinces and failing to collect the revenue...
At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.
Britain's second major entanglement with Iraq is looking to be much shorter than the first, despite a more than four-year deployment that has stirred deep opposition at home. The modern state of Iraq was founded in 1920 by the British, after they were granted the three Mesopotamian states of the Ottoman Empire, which was then being carved up by the victors of World War I.