US options in Iraq: Look at history

Perhaps the worst legacy of Saddam Hussein will turn out to be an Iraqi civil war after the coalition forces leave thinking they have pacified the country. This new war will come, if it does, from an explosion of bad feeling among various non-Arab groups who settled northern Iraq under the Ottoman Empire and Arabs who were brought there by Hussein as part of an Arabization policy.

Before there was Saddam Hussein, there was the Ottoman Empire and the League of Nations. At the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire extended from Algeria and the gates of Vienna on the west to Iran on the east and Saudi Arabia on the south. The Ottomans (Turks, really) occupied most of what is now Iraq in the 16th century. They built a major naval base in Basra to protect and control shipping in the Persian Gulf. Gradually Ottoman expansion into Europe was pushed back, and by the beginning of World War I in 1914 the Empire had shrunk to the Middle East and a little of North Africa.

The Ottomans might have remained neutral in that war, but instead they allied themselves with Germany. The decision was influenced by early German victories, basic Turkish hostility to Russia (later a factor in Turkey's joining NATO), and the opportunism of Ottoman Minister of War Enver Pasha. In October 1914, with the war only two months old, the Ottomans bombarded Russian Black Sea ports, and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Britain) declared war.

Out of the war, there came the League of Nations and its system of mandates, which were much like the United Nations trusteeships that followed World War II. The British got a mandate as far north as Baghdad, and the French had a mandate in Syria as far east as Mosul. The provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were merged into one political entity with diverse religious and ethnic populations and artificial boundaries which the British drew on a map. This new country was called Iraq.

In 1921, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill presided over a conference in Cairo, which established a monarchy in Iraq. A constitution provided for a parliamentary government with a bicameral legislature. The first parliament met in 1925. Britain terminated the mandate in 1932. In the period between 1925 and the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, there were 10 general elections and 50 cabinets - a new cabinet approximately every eight months. This is not a good record of political stability, nor is there reason to think a new Iraqi democracy will be much, if any, better. But for that matter, neither are the multitudinous governments of Italy or Bolivia, two very different nations that seem to be getting along alright and not threatening their neighbors.

There may not be opportunity in the short term to try a new Iraqi democracy. Hussein's efforts to suppress the Kurds are well known. What is not so well known is that these were part of a broader policy of Arabization of northern Iraq. About a thousand years ago, there began successive waves of immigration from Central Asia - Mongols, Turks, Turkmens, Kurds, and Circassians. Of these, Kurds, Turkmens, and Turks are still significant. (Turkmens are from Turkmenistan, a former Soviet Republic, and are not to be confused with people from Turkey.)

This mixture lived together without noticeable friction until Hussein decided that Iraq's security (and his own?) required Arab majorities. To encourage this, he gave Arab families houses (plus settlement allowances of some thousands of dollars). He obtained the houses either by buying them from non-Arab families or by evicting the families, with compensation a fraction of market value. The non-Arabs were told that a railroad or other public works project was to be built and the house was in the way. The projects never materialized and Arab families from elsewhere in Iraq moved into the houses.

This created abiding hatred on the part of the dispossessed non-Arabs. It was only in the north that American invaders were welcomed as liberators. Many non-Arabs are reported to hope the Americans stay, an invitation that most Americans would probably not like to accept.

The choices for American foreign policy will be: (1) Stay indefinitely as unwilling, and most likely ineffective, peacekeepers. Or (2) Come home and watch a civil war that was made possible by the American intervention followed by withdrawal.

Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He wrote the book 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy: A Dilemma of Democracy.'

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