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.
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.
With the growing global importance of oil, Iraq looked to be a plum possession. But though Britain held on until 1932, its steps were dogged by violence and opposition from almost the very first day, largely based in the tribes of the mid-Euphrates, many of whose descendents have attacked British and American forces in the current war, but also from the politically ambitious Shiite political class.
Many political commentators and historians have blamed Britain's efforts at controlling Iraq in those years as having sowed many of the seeds of the country's current sectarian fighting, as Gareth Stansfield argued in Britain's Prospect magazine last year.
The logic behind Iraq's new centralized structure made sense only from the perspective of the British. Chairing the Cairo conference in March 1921, Winston Churchill headed a "who's who" gathering including TE Lawrence, Percy Cox, Gertrude Bell, and the Emir Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca and leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Churchill's main concern was to secure Mesopotamia from any threat from Turkey or Russia. For Bell, Cox and Lawrence, the objective was to ensure the accession of Faisal, their wartime ally. These priorities helped to implant the two main pathologies of the modern Iraqi state.
The Cairo conference saw to it that the non-Arab Mosul province (Kurdistan) remained within the newly named and centralised state of Iraq because of its oil, because its inhabitants were Sunnis (from the British perspective, more trustworthy than Shias), and because its mountainous terrain provided the new state with natural defences. The conference also nominated Faisal as king, thus ensuring that Sunni Arabs continued to dominate the predominately Shia population, as they had in Ottoman times. Iraq was therefore constructed with a non-Arab minority, the Kurds, who objected to their inclusion in Iraq and ... a majority Shia population that remained unimpressed with their Arab Sunni monarch and his British backers.
The dynamics of Shiite anger against the central government has also been a key challenge for modern British soldiers in Iraq, with most of their casualties generated by Shiite attackers. Now, analysts are speculating that local forces trained by the British risk being overrun – just as the British-trained forces loyal to the Iraqi monarch were eventually overrun, reports Reuters.
As British forces prepare to pull out of their last base inside Basra, Iraq's security forces face their biggest test yet – stopping the country's oil centre from becoming a battleground for rival Shi'ite militias.
In a possible sign of things to come, Shi'ite militiamen tried on Sunday to occupy a police station in Basra which a small contingent of British troops had vacated only hours earlier. Iraqi police said they thwarted the attempt.
Many residents say they are happy to see the back of the British, who now number about 5,500 down from 7,200 a year ago. However, some fear that once they withdraw to a desert airbase outside the city there will be no restraints on the militias.
"I think the situation will get worse if the British forces leave. There are hidden struggles between the different parties and militants. The presence of the British is a safety valve," said unemployed Basra resident Abu Ali, 39.