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Iraq’s Liberation in Perspective

Iraq–the cradle of civilization and fabled seat of the Abbasid Khalifa–is about to be liberated for the second time in less than a century. The current military operation represents a major inflection point in its history, perhaps in the history of the Middle East, and possibly in world history. Future historians will judge how Iraqis will greet the new liberators. But historians have already passed judgment on the first liberation.

On March 11, 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Stanley Maude and his Anglo-Indian Army of the Tigris entered Baghdad. The campaign to invest Baghdad took place against the backdrop of the First World War. It seemed to have had no clear strategic objectives except the fulfillment of the new prime minister’ s desire to capture the fabled city of the Arabian Nights. In retrospect, the invasion of Iraq gave the government of Lloyd George the opening to invade Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.

The campaign was the brainchild of Sir Mark Sykes of the Arab Bureau in Whitehall, a novice with less than two years of executive experience. Sir Mark asked General Maude to read out a proclamation couched in “high-flown phrases of liberation and freedom, of past glory and future greatness,” according to British historian David Fromkin.[1]

The commanding general commanding assured the people of Iraq, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” He continued, “O people of Baghdad, remember that for 26 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.” [2]

It proved difficult to govern Iraq and General Maude was put in the awkward position of having to preach self-rule while discouraging its practice. He cabled London that local conditions did not permit employing Arabs in responsible positions, “Before any truly Arab facade [sic] can be applied to edifice, it seems essential that foundation of law and order should be well and truly laid.”

What General Maude had discovered was that Mesopotamia was a place where 75 percent of the population was tribal “with no previous tradition of obedience to any government,” and a place with a long history of power struggle between the Shias and the Sunnis. Eventually, vague rumors, constant unrest, and repeated killings took their toll on British nerves.
Three young army officers were killed in Kurdistan in 1919. An experienced official sent by the Government of India to replace them was killed a month later. Six British officers were killed in the spring of 1920. Later, two political officers were abducted and murdered. The Iraqi desert was full of raiding parties, and one British officer was led to believe that the only way to deal with the disaffected tribes was “wholesale slaughter.”

More chaos was to follow in the months to come. Posts were over-run, British officers killed and communication killed in the Middle Euphrates region. Colonel Gerald Leachman, a leading British officer, was shot in the back and killed on the orders of the tribal sheikh who was hosting him during a gathering of the tribes. The news of his killing led to further tribal uprisings along the Euphrates and north and west of Baghdad.

In the summer of 1920, a one-time junior officer in the Arab Bureau in Cairo and now a celebrity, Colonel T. E. Lawrence, commented acridly that the Turks had been better rulers. He said the Turks kept 14,000 local conscripts employed in Iraq and killed an average of 200 Arabs in maintaining the peace. The British had deployed 90,000 men, with airplanes, armored cars, gunboats and armoured trains, and killed about 10,000 Arabs in the summer uprising.
On August 7, 1920, The Times demanded to know “how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?”

The revolt was brought to an end in February 1921, but Britain had suffered nearly 2,000 casualties, including 450 dead. Many attempts were made to analyze the mysterious revolt in the Iraqi desert, since the British had been told that the Arabs would appreciate British rule. Confessing total ignorance about the locals, an official argued that the enemy facing the British was “anarchy plus fanaticism, devoid of any political aspect.”

The Mesopotamian provinces of Baghdad and Basra were the first to be conquered by the British from the Ottoman Empire. In the autumn of 1917 General Sir Edmund Allenby invaded Palestine and on December 11, he and his officers entered the holy city of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. Prime Minister Lloyd George regarded it as a Christmas gift, and wrote that Christendom had regained “possession of its sacred shrines.” French General Henri Gouraud entered Damascus in July 1920. After kicking Salahuddin’s tomb, Gouraud exclaimed, “Awake Saladin, we have returned. My presence here consecrates the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.”
In a few years, the Arabs were rioting in Palestine and rebelling in Iraq at a very inconvenient time, when the economy of the Empire was collapsing and when the Crown’s time, energy and resources were needed to revive it. An exasperated Winston Churchill, who had taken over the mantle of Britain’s colonial policies in the Middle East, was to tell the British government that it was spending millions for the privilege of sitting atop a volcano. Lamenting on the British experience in Palestine, the “last lion” was to write, “At first, the steps were wide and shallow, covered with a carpet, but in the end the very stones crumbled under their feet.”

Much has changed during the past century. A former colony across the Atlantic has eclipsed Britain, and is the new home to an empire on which the sun never sets. The armies of the new empire are now invading Iraq, with the armies of the old empire in tow. The soldiers are marching in, bearing the gift of democracy. However, unlike General Maude, General Franks will not ride into Baghdad on horseback, but in the air-conditioned comfort of modern armored vehicles, after having used the firepower of five aircraft carriers to invest Baghdad.

The tactics of liberation have changed as the empires have changed places, but the objectives remain the same. Iraq remains the lynchpin to the Middle East, and whoever controls Baghdad will control the Middle East.

As the French say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

AHMAD FARUQUI is an economist. He can be reached at: faruqui@pacbell.net

[1] David Fromkin, A Peace To End All Peace, Avon Books, 1989.

[2] Quoted in Stephen Fidler, Financial Times, March 14, 2003, p. 4.

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