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US repeating Britain's 1920 mistakes in Iraq

'What happened in Iraq in 1920 so closely resembles the events now that only a historical ignoramus can be surprised'
April 17, 2004

A HEAVILY armed military force from a Western country takes down a Middle Eastern regime which threatens Western interests in the region. A widespread revolt breaks out. This forces the invader to hand back power to elements of the former regime.

Iraq? Obviously. But in describing the latest case of insurrection in the country, one could just as well be talking about Britain's Iraqi experience in the 1920s.

'What happened in Iraq in 1920 so closely resembles the events now that only a historical ignoramus can be surprised,' writes Mr Niall Ferguson, the author of Empire: The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power. The parallels are chilling.

During World War I, between 1914 and 1918, Britain overthrew an authoritarian regime in Baghdad. It then installed a political order that was respectful of British interests in the Persian Gulf. In 1920, a widespread revolt ensued, comprising the country's three main ethic groups - Shi'ites, Sunni and even the Kurds. It led to thousands of British casualties. By August that year, the desperate British commander even appealed to London for poison-gas shells - an option that Winston Churchill, then a secretary of state in the War Office, had also called for.

In the following years, Britain ceded control of the country to elites from the former regime - made up mostly of Sunnis and politicians not representative of the population. This scenario led to the emergence of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in the 1970s. There is no reason - as yet - to believe that Washington's experience in Iraq could see the United States venturing down the British road.

The latest insurgency led by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr is estimated to command support from less than a tenth of Iraq's 25 million people. But the intensification of the current insurrection suggests that the US is slowly being pushed the way of Britain in the 1920s.

'A light military force whose occupation of Iraq was becoming unpopular allowed armed groups to fight with great effectiveness,' said Iraq expert Toby Dodge of Britain's Warwick University. 'That caused Britain to leave before completing the job of state-building. It looks like this might happen to the US as well,' he told The Straits Times.

If the US does leave before it builds a broad-based government, the Iraq of today could indeed go the way of the Iraq of the 1920s. Ironically, the unpopular 25-member Iraqi Governing Council - whose members are considered by many Iraqis to be US puppets - looks very much like Britain's unrepresentative regime of the 1920s.

'The British were forced to give up on building a solid state with popular support. They gave power to a clique of politicians who were totally unrepresentative of the population,' said Dr Dodge. 'This is what the Americans are doing today.'

To be fair, Washington has agreed to United Nations' recommendations that the council be scrapped in place of a more broad-based interim government before power is returned to Iraqis on June 30. But with the rise of the insurgency and an American public that is cooling towards Iraq, a British-style disengagement is possible.

Writing three months before the US invasion of Iraq in March last year, British historian Charles Tripp warned of such an outcome.

A US disengagement would 'certainly cause despair among those Iraqis who have seen the US as their main hope of radical political change,' he wrote. 'But for the US, as for the British 80 years ago, the lower risk, the lesser cost and the short-term advantages may outweigh the possible future benefits of fundamental social transformation in Iraq.'

homepage: homepage: http://straitstimes.asia1.com.sg/world/story/0,4386,246208,00.html

what a numbskull! 16.Apr.2004 18:30


what the US is doing are not mistakes, they are policy. Maybe you should read up on the Project for a New American Century.(PNAC). Mistakes is the lesser of two evils, and the excuse often chosen when things go wrong.

Warnings ignored, says Gen. Anthony Zinni 16.Apr.2004 18:40

Rick Rogers

April 16, 2004

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni wondered aloud yesterday how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could be caught off guard by the chaos in Iraq that has killed nearly 100 Americans in recent weeks and led to his announcement that 20,000 U.S. troops would be staying there instead of returning home as planned.

"I'm surprised that he is surprised because there was a lot of us who were telling him that it was going to be thus," said Zinni, a Marine for 39 years and the former commander of the U.S. Central Command.

"Anyone could know the problems they were going to see. How could they not?" ...

Western Imperialism and Iraq: From Colony to Semi-Colony 16.Apr.2004 22:54

Aspects of India's Economy

Western Imperialism and Iraq:

From Colony to Semi-Colony  http://www.rupe-india.org/34/colony.html

Entry of imperialism
Iraq, the easternmost country of the Arab world, was home to perhaps the world's first great civilisation. It was known in classical times as Mesopotamia ("Land between the Rivers"—the Tigris and the Euphrates), and became known as Iraq in the seventh century AD. For centuries Baghdad was a rich and vibrant city, the intellectual centre of the Arab world. From the sixteenth century to 1918, Iraq was a part of the Ottoman Turkish empire, divided into three vilayets (provinces), Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre, and Basra in the south. The first was predominantly Kurdish, the second predominantly Sunni Arab, and the third predominantly Shia Arab.

As the Ottoman empire fell into decline, Britain and France began extending their influence into its territories, constructing massive projects such as railroads and the Suez canal and keeping the Arab countries deep in debt to British and French banks.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain directly ruled Egypt, Sudan and the Persian Gulf, while France was the dominant power in Lebanon and Syria. Iran was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. The carving-up of the Ottoman territories (from Turkey to the Arabian peninsula) was on the agenda of the imperialist powers.

When Germany, a relative latecomer to the imperialist dining table, attempted to extend its influence in the region by obtaining a 'concession'1, to build a railway from Europe to Baghdad, Britain was alarmed.By this time the British government — in particular its navy — had realised the strategic importance of oil, and it was thought that the region might be rich in oil. Britain invested £2.2 million in the Anglo-Persian oil company (a fully British firm operating in Iran) to obtain a 51 per cent stake in the company. Gulbenkian, an adventurous Armenian entrepreneur, argued that there must be oil in Iraq as well. At his initiative the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) was formed, 50 per cent British, 25 per cent German and 25 per cent Royal Dutch-Shell (Dutch- and British-owned).

World War I (1914-18) underlined for the imperialists the importance of control of oil for military purposes, and hence the urgency of controlling the sources of oil. As soon as war was declared with the Ottomans, Britain landed a force (composed largely of Indian soldiers) in southern Iraq, and eventually took Baghdad in 1917. It took Mosul in November 1918, in violation of the armistice with the Turks a week earlier.

During the war British carried on two contradictory sets of secret negotiations. The first was with Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In exchange for Arab revolt against Turkey, the British promised support for Arab independence after the war. However, the British insisted that Baghdad and Basra would be special zones of British interest where "special administrative arrangements" would be necessary to "safeguard our mutual economic interests."

The second set of secret negotiations, in flagrant violation of the above, was between the British and the French. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Iraq was carved up between the two powers, with Mosul vilayet going to France and the other two to Britain. For its assent Tsarist Russia was to be compensated with territory in northeast Turkey. When the Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in November 1917 and published the Tsarist regime's secret treaties, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Arabs learnt how they had been betrayed.

Iraq under British rule
After the war, the spoils of the German and Ottoman empires were divided among the victors. Britain's promises during the war that Arabs would get independence were swiftly buried. France got the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got the mandate for Palestine and Iraq. (The 'mandate' system, a thin disguise for colonial rule, was created under the League of Nations, the predecessor to today's United Nations. Mandate territories, earlier the possessions of the Ottomans were to be 'guided' by the victorious imperialist powers till they had proved themselves capable of self-rule.)

Britain threatened to go to war to ensure that Mosul province, which was known to contain oil, remained in Iraq. The French conceded Mosul in exchange for British support of French dominance in Lebanon and Syria and a 25 per cent French share in the TPC.

However, anti-imperialist agitation in Iraq troubled the British from the start. In 1920, with the announcement that Britain had been awarded the mandate for Iraq, revolt broke out against the British rulers and became widespread. The British suppressed the rebellion ruthlessly—among other things by bombing Iraqi villages from the air (as they had done a year earlier to suppress the Rowlatt agitation in the Punjab). In 1920, Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, proposed that Mesopotamia "could be cheaply policed by aircraft armed with gas bombs, supported by as few as 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops", a policy formally adopted at the 1921 Cairo conference. ("The Hidden History of the Iraq War", Edward Greer, Monthly Review, May 1991)

British install a ruler
Shaken by the revolt, the British felt it wise to put up a facade. (In the words of Curzon, the foreign secretary, Britain wanted in the Arab territories an "Arab facade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff.... There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on".) The British High Commissioner proclaimed emir Faysal I belonging to the Hashemite family of Mecca (who had been expelled from the French mandate Syria) as the King of Iraq. The puppet Faysal promptly signed a treaty of alliance with Britain which largely reproduced the terms of the mandate. This roused such strong nationalist protests that the cabinet was forced to resign, and the British High Commissioner assumed dictatorial powers for several years. Nationalist leaders were deported from the country on a wide scale. (In this period the whole region was in ferment, with anti-imperialist struggles emerging in Palestine and Syria as well.) The British also drafted a constitution for Iraq which gave the King quasidictatorial powers over the Parliament.

In 1925, widespread demonstrations in Baghdad for complete independence delayed the treaty's approval by the Constituent Assembly. The High Commissioner could only force ratification by threatening to dissolve the Assembly. Even before the treaty of alliance was ratified—and before there was even the facade of an Iraqi government—a new concession was granted to the Turkish Petroleum Company for the whole of Iraq, in the face of widespread opposition and the resignation of two members of the cabinet. (Among other things, the British blackmailed Iraq by threatening that they would, in the negotiations with the Turks, cede the oil-rich northern province of Mosul to neighbouring Turkey—the opposite of what they were demanding in the earlier-mentioned negotiations with the French. Thus even the borders of the countries in these regions were merely set at the convenience of imperialist exploitation. The worst sufferers were the Kurds, whose territory was divided by the imperialist powers among southern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran.)

The terms of the concession, covering virtually the entire country till the year 2000, were outrageous. Payment was four shillings (one-fifth of a British pound) per ton of oil produced. For this extraordinary giveaway, the puppet king Faysal received a personal present of £40,000. It was this concession the oil corporations for half a century thereafter would fight to defend as their 'legitimate' right.

Contention for oil
With Germany's defeat in the war its stake in the Turkish Petroleum Company fell into Britain's lap. Thus Britain would almost completely dominate the company. However, this was no longer tenable—following the new correlation of strengths of the different imperialist powers. Britain, though it had the largest empire among the imperialist powers, was actually in decline. Unable now to compete with other industrial economies, it desperately attempted to use its exclusive grip over its colonies to shore up its economic strength; whereas the US, now the leading capitalist power, demanded what it termed an "open door" to exploit the possessions of the older colonising powers.2 Two years after the end of World War I Woodrow Wilson, the American president, wrote:

"It is evident to me that we are on the eve of a commercial war of the severest sort and I am afraid that Great Britain will prove capable of as great commercial savagery as Germany has displayed for so many years in her commercial methods." (Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis, Joe Stork, 1975, p. 14.)

American oil companies, with US government backing, demanded a share in the Turkish Petroleum Company, and by 1928 two American companies, Jersey Standard and Socony (later known as Exxon and Mobil, and today as the merged Exxon-Mobil) got a 23.75 per cent stake, on par with the British, French, and Royal Dutch-Shell interests. Most of the major oil corporations in the world were thus represented in the Turkish Petroleum Company (now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company—hereafter IPC).

Contending with nationalism
The continuous local opposition to British rule at last forced Britain to grant Iraq 'independence' in 1932. But this Britain did only after extracting a new treaty stipulating a "close alliance" between the two countries and a "common defence position"—effectively, continued indirect rule by the British. Britain kept its bases at Basra and west of the Euphrates, and Faysal continued to occupy the Iraqi throne.

Even such 'independence' did not last long. In 1941, sections in the Iraqi army and political parties staged a coup against the King, and were about to ally with the Axis powers to win freedom from the British. Britain invaded Iraq once again and occupied it, installing once again the King and a puppet cabinet headed by their lapdog Nuri as-Said (who was made prime minister 14 times in the turbulent period 1925-58).

After the war ended in 1945, British occupation continued. Martial law was declared in order to crush protests against the developments in Palestine in 1948 (the driving out of the Palestinians and the seizure of their lands by the new Zionist state). Just then, the Iraqi government signed a new treaty of alliance with Britain, whereby Iraq was not to take any step in foreign policy contrary to British directions. A joint British-Iraqi defence board was to be set up. But when the prime minister returned from London after having concluded this deal, a popular uprising took place in Baghdad, forcing his resignation and the repudiation of the treaty. In the following years, nationalist forces demanded nationalisation of the oil industry (as Iran had carried out in 1951).

In 1952 occurred another popular uprising, carried out by students and 'extremists'. The police were unable to control the demonstrators, and the regent called on the army to maintain public order. The chief of the armed forces' general staff governed the country under martial law for more than two months. All political parties were suppressed in 1954.

Growing US intervention in the region
The price of standing up to the oil corporations was made clear in neighbouring Iran. There the regime headed by Mossadeq nationalised British Petroleum in 1951, faced a devastating boycott by all the oil giants for the next two years, and was overthrown by a CIA-led coup in 1953. (The CIA man in charge of the operation later became vice-president of Gulf Oil.)3

On the other hand, regimes throughout the region were under pressure from the Arab masses. Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to power in Egypt in a 1952 coup, adopted a confrontational posture toward the US and Britain, nationalising the Suez Canal and taking assistance from the Soviet Union. Nasser's stance won him popular support in the Arab world, where Iraq and Egypt contended for leadership. In that period an anti-imperialist wave swept the Arab countries, threatening the stability of pro-western puppet regimes.

The US became the new gendarme of the region to suppress any agitation against imperialism and its client states. For example, when in 1953 both Saudi Arabia and Iraq crushed oil workers' strikes by the use of troops and martial law regimes, shipments of arms from the US to both followed immediately. In 1957 the Jordanian king (the first cousin of the Iraqi king) arrested his prime minister, dissolved the parliament, outlawed political parties, and threw his opponents into concentration camps, with economic and military aid from the US. In 1958 the right-wing Lebanese regime used American equipment in its attempt to crush nationalist opposition. At American insistence three pro-US/UK regimes—Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan—came together to form an alliance against the USSR, the Baghdad Pact (later known as the Mideast Treaty Organisation and the Central Treaty Organisation; Britain and Iran were later to join). Iraq, the only Arab country to join this pact, had to face Nasser's denunciation for doing so.


1. A 'concession' is a piece of territory which the host country has allowed a company to occupy or use in a particular way, usually for a sum of money. Historically, concessions typically have been granted for railways, mines, and ports. (back)

2. The US did not then require Iraqi oil for its own consumption: large finds on its mainland by the 1930s created a glut of capacity. American oil companies needed an overseas presence in order to restrict global supply and thus maintain prices that would be profitable to them. And the US, as the new leader of the capitalist world, wanted to ensure that the world's strategic resources came under its control. Later, after World War II, the US was to use its control of West Asian oil as one of its instruments for dominating Europe. (back)

3. The interchangeability of Big Oil and government personnel is a tradition of US political life, with predictable effects: in the current administration, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney , and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are all former oil company executives. (back)

Next: Towards Nationalisation  http://www.rupe-india.org/34/nationalisation.html

Not Mistakes 17.Apr.2004 09:07

Gary Sudborough IconoclastGS@aol.com

I agree totally with Brian. The unmentioned assumption one makes in classifying imperial aggressions as mistakes is that the original intentions are benevolent and beneficial, but something goes wrong and the outcome is unintended. These imperialists may be evil, but they are not morons. Wars to control precious natural resources make perfect logical sense, if one is intent on increasing profits to certain corporations. Vietnam is called a mistake, but not an immoral war that cost the lives of 3 million Vietnamese, and the United States has never apologized for it. Actually, it was not a mistake because it completely destroyed the country, poisoned it with Agent Orange and insured that a socialist society there could never serve as a model of development to any other poor countries. Incidentally, that web site of rupe-india gives about the best synopsis of the history of imperialism in Iraq that I have seen anywhere.

... the more things stay the same. 17.Apr.2004 14:16

this thing here


'The following proclamation was issued to the inhabitants of Baghdad on March 19, 1917, by Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude shortly after the occupation of the city by British forces.

To the People of Baghdad Vilayet:

In the name of my King, and in the name of the peoples over whom he rules, I address you as follows:-

Our military operations have as their object the defeat of the enemy, and the driving of him from these territories. In order to complete this task, I am charged with the absolute and supreme control of all regions in which British troops operate; but our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.

Since the days of Halaka your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation, and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage. Your sons have been carried off to wars not of your seeking, your wealth has been stripped from by unjust men and squandered in distant places.

Since the days of Midhat, the Turks have talked of reforms, yet do not the ruins and wastes of to-day testify to the vanity of those promises?

It is the wish not only of my King and his peoples, but it is also the wish of the great nations with whom he is in alliance, that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science, and art, and when Baghdad was one of the wonders of the world.

Between your people and the dominions of my King there has been a close bond of interest. For 200 years have the merchants of Baghdad and Great Britain traded together in mutual profit and friendship. On the other hand, the Germans and Turks, who have despoiled you and yours, have for twenty years made Baghdad a center of power from which to assail the power of the British and the Allies of the British in Persia and Arabia. Therefore the British Government cannot remain indifferent as to what takes place in your country now or in the future, for in duty to the interests of the British people and their Allies, the British Government cannot risk that being done in Baghdad again which has been done by the Turks and Germans during the war.

But you people of Baghdad, whose commercial prosperity and whose safety from oppression and invasion must ever be a matter of the closest concern to the British Government, are not to understand that it is the wish of British Government to impose upon you alien institutions. It is the hope of the British Government that the aspirations of your philosophers and writers shall be realised and that once again the people of Baghdad shall flourish, enjoying their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws and racial ideals. In Hedjaz the Arabs have expelled the Turks and Germans who oppressed them and proclaimed the Sherif Hussein as their King, and his Lordship rules in independence and freedom, and is the ally of the nations who are fighting against the power of Turkey and Germany; so, indeed, are the noble Arabs, the Lords of Koweyt, Nejd, and Asir.

Many noble Arabs have perished in the cause of Arab freedom, at the hands of those alien rulers, the Turks, who oppressed them. It is the determination of the Government of Great Britain and the great Powers allied to Great Britain that these noble Arabs shall not have suffered in vain. It is the hope and desire of the British people and the nations in alliance with them that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown among peoples of the earth, and that it shall bind itself together to this end in unity and concord.

O people of Baghdad remember that for twenty-six generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies, for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity and misgovernment. Therefore I am commanded to invite you, through your nobles and elders and representatives, to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army, so that you may be united with your kinsmen in North, East, South, and West in realising the aspirations of your race.'

- HARPER'S Magazine, May 2003, Vol. 306, No. 1836.  http://www.harpers.org