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Sunnis and Shia Clerics Unite in Revolt Against Occupation

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On the left is Yousif Al-Suwaidi, one of the leaders of the Iraqi revolt of 1920, in which Shia and Sunni clerics joined together to orchestrate opposition to the British occupation. Al-Suwaidi later became a speaker in the Iraqi Senate. Pictured at right is Sheikh Dhari, who is said to have assassinated a British colonel in Rumaitha, which sparked the revolt.
The British suppressed the revolt with their own forces and troops brought in from India.
Some have alleged that Britain used poison gas in the campaign.

Churchill's solution to the "Mesopotamia entanglement" drew upon Britain's colonial experience around the world. The Mogul city-state principalities in India provided the model. The idea was to create and prop up some form of local administration (in the Mogul case, a royal one), bankroll the government with a stipend and hope that the administrator could ensure internal security and stability. The British military presence would be concentrated at few selected bases and capable of rapid deployment and reinforcement of local constabulary if necessary. In applying this model to Iraq, Churchill, Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence selected Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca, to lead Iraq. The Hashemite dynasty was subsequently proclaimed and installed in Baghdad on August 23, 1921 and lasted until July 1958 when it was deposed by a coup lead by General Abdul-Karim Qassim. In some respects it is remarkable that the Hashemites survived as long as they did. The monarchy exercised ineffectual and titular control, with administrative power wielded by a caste of Sunni bureaucrats that had risen to the fore during the years of the Ottoman administration. In a depressing statement of the monarchy's failure, the most coherent and effective "national" institution created by the monarchy during its 50-year reign proved to be the Iraqi Army.

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The architects of the modern Middle East gathered at Cairo in March 1921 and made decisions that affected the course of history in the region. The impact of the decisions made at the Cairo Conference are still being felt today. Gertrude Bell (third from left), Winston Churchill (second from left) and T.E. Lawrence are all pictured here in what must have been an "outing" at the time of the conference. Bell and Lawrence are generally credited with the idea of installing the Hashemite dynasty in Baghdad and got Churchill's buy-in at the conference.

Then and Now

Churchill's odium of the Mesopotamian entanglement is as powerful a metaphor today as it was when he uttered it. Churchill saw an ungovernable morass before him in Iraq and correctly foresaw that Britain simply could not afford to occupy and govern the entity it had created out of the former Ottoman principalities of Basra, Baghdad, and, later, Mosul. He feared financial and political disaster and, in retrospect, came up with an innovative solution that satisfied Britain's immediate objectives and kicked the problem far enough down the road so that "Iraq" was no longer Britain's problem.

The odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement now sits squarely in the Bush Administration's lap, and the alligator-infested swamp awaits the United States just as it awaited Churchill 80 years ago. Many of the sources of Churchill's fear in 1922 remain with us today, and may in fact be more serious now than they were then. Fissures present in the artificially created state have never been healed. The three major ethnic groups, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, may be united in their desire to see Saddam gone, but they must each overcome the fear, hatred and mistrust borne of decades of brutality and betrayal if they are to accomplish that which has so far not been achieved?the creation of an Iraqi national identity. The legacy of the Sunni-led police state that has engaged in brutal repression on a scale that is difficult to imagine and even genocide (in the case of the Kurds) may make reconciliation or even confederation impossible for any national government.

It also is unclear, just as it was in 1922, how an externally imposed governing elite is to be accepted by the country's ethnic triad, which is itself further divided by sectarian, religious and tribal schisms. Some figures in the so-called Iraqi opposition have never wielded political authority inside the country and, like the Hashemites before them, will be seen as dependent on and craven to an imperial power for their position. While the 1920 rebellion was orchestrated by an established and relatively coherent tribal structure, tribal leadership in Iraq today wields no such authority, having been bought off and compromised, or, alternatively, brutalized by the regime. Shia clerics in the south, a potential source of authority in a ruling structure, have been systematically hounded, killed and deported by Saddam's ever-efficient Mukhabarrat over the last 30 years. In the north, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan remain in an uneasy co-existence that could break apart at any time. The Sunnis in the country's center remain terrified of being overwhelmed by the more numerous Shias in the south and being set upon by vengeful Kurds from the north.


Whose said our intelligence on Iraq was flawed? I think the Navy had a pretty good picture of what was to come: for reasons of personal profit, the Bush cabal simply decided all the hardship would be worth THEIR while. The story and photos about are from the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California, excerpted from a report published in October 2002.


David Roknich

REALATED: 911 for Undergraduates

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