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Friday, June 20, 2014


In the First World War, the Ottoman Empire, having taken the wrong side, collapsed. The British army marched into Jerusalem, Damascus and Baghdad. Britain and France divided the post war control over the middle east between them. Baghdad was the center of the area which historically had been known as Mesopotamia. The vast amorphous section included the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which had seen the earliest agricultural civilizations rise: cities, culture, writing, law – all had begun in this area. Empires had come and gone: Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian. Now, it was to be stitched together as a nation the British would create, called Iraq.

In his book, “A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of The Ottoman Empire And The Creation of the Modern Middle East,” David Fromkin writes that idealistic post war principles espoused by Woodrow Wilson that demanded “national self-determination” trumped the British colonial predisposition. Against their better judgment, the British proceeded to create a nation although it “opened up other possibilities which were regarded almost universally with anxiety, ... gave opportunity for political intrigue to the less stable and more fanatical elements.” 

Sir Arnold Wilson was the British civil commissioner in Baghdad from 1918-1920.  
The British Cabinet tasked Arnold Wilson to “ask the peoples of Mesopotamia what states or governments they would like to see established. . . .” He told them that there was no way to gauge public opinion.

“While he was prepared to administer the provinces of Basra and Baghdad, and also the province of Mosul (which, with Clemenceau’s [the French P.M.] consent, Lloyd George [the British P.M.] had detached from the French sphere and intended to withhold from Turkey), he did not believe that they formed a coherent entity. 

“Iraq (an Arab term that the British used increasingly to denote the Mesopotamian lands) seemed to him too splintered for that to be possible. Mosul’s strategic importance made it seem a necessary addition to Iraq, and the strong probability that it contained valuable oilfields made it a desirable one, but it was part of what was supposed to have been Kurdistan; and Arnold Wilson argued that the warlike Kurds who had been brought under his administration ‘numbering half a million will never accept an Arab ruler.’”

“A fundamental problem, as Wilson saw it, was that almost two million Shi’ite Moslems . . . would not accept domination by the minority Sunni Moslem community, yet ‘no form of Government has yet been envisaged, which does not involve Sunni domination.’ The bitterness between the two communities was highlighted when each produced a rival Arab nationalist society. ... Seventy-five percent of the population of Iraq was tribal, Wilson told London, ‘with no previous tradition of obedience to any government.’”

Another expert of the time was Gertrude Bell, a British writer who had traveled widely and understood its history, religion, culture, and politics. She was respected by her government and advised on mid-east policy in this period. Along with T.E. Lawrence, Bell tried to forge a unified and independent Iraq, and opposed the policies of her superior, Arnold Wilson, who was skeptical of Iraqi nationhood. 

According to Fromkin, Bell was also warned “by an American missionary that she was ignoring rooted historical realities in doing so. ‘You are flying in the face of four millenniums of history if you try to draw a line around Iraq and call it a political entity! Assyria always looked to the west and east and north, and Babylonia to the south. They have never been an independent unit. You’ve got to take time to get them integrated, it must be done gradually. They have no conception of nationhood yet.’” 

During the British occupation, while they were nation building, discontent and sectarian violence began to brew. Over the course of months, British soldiers began to die, in pairs, then in groups. The culprits were varied: former “officers who had served in the Hejaz forces with Lawrence had been forbidden to return home as suspected potential troublemakers . . . [now] had slipped back into the country.” British officers were killed in Kurdistan. 

“In June [1920] the tribes suddenly rose in full revolt. . . a nationalist reign of terror. . . .  For one reason or another—the revolts had a number of causes and the various rebels pursued different goals—virtually the whole area rose against Britain. . . A Holy War was proclaimed against Britain in the Shi’ite Moslem holy city of Karbalah.”

After the assassination of a high British official, the London Times asked:

“how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endevour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?” 

The revolt was not considered put down until after February, 1921, after Britain suffered almost 2,000 casualties. 

The British searched for causes of the revolt, blaming supporters of Feisal, in Turkey, Standard Oil, and other countries including the Bolsheviks who now controlled England’s traditional enemy in the area, Russia. Arnold Wilson told London that “there was no real desire in Mesopotamia for an Arab government, that the Arabs would appreciate British rule.” To explain the uprising, he concluded, “what we are up against is anarchy plus fanaticism. There is little or no Nationalism.” 

“The tribesman, he said, were ‘out against government as such’ and had no notion what they were fighting for.’”

The fact was that everywhere in the region the status quo was unstable. Kemal, the revolutionary post Ottomon leader of Turkey defied the Allies. King Hussein, who had been installed by Britain, was unpopular in Arabia. Egypt was bridling at British control. The Afghans were “conspiring with the Russians.” Arabs were rioting in Palestine and rebelling in Iraq. All the while, England’s post-war economy was in shambles, and the expenses of middle east adventure mounted. (In England, blame for the mess was variously ascribed to all of the above, and one more faction, one that should not be surprising, given our knowledge of history — the Jews. There were significant Jewish populations in Baghdad — as well as Christians— and in Palestine, and as usual, Jewish influence was sometimes disproportionately greater than their numbers.)

How things have NOT changed in a hundred years!