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Britain Has Liberated the Iraqis Before - 2003-04-30


Today is not the first time that western powers have taken control of Iraq. At the end of the First World War, the British and French carved up the territory of the defeated the Turkish Ottoman Empire, an ally of vanquished Germany. The British created the state of Iraq from the ancient land of Mesopotamia and maintained influence there until 1958.

After the British captured Baghdad and defeated the Ottoman Empire in 1917, General Stanley Maude made a declaration to the Iraqis:

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

President Bush used nearly the same words in his promise of democracy and freedom to the Iraqis.

As coalition forces forge ahead to fulfill these promises, they do so in the long imperial shadow of British influence that ended less than 50 years ago.

Charles Tripp, Professor of Oriental Studies at the University of London. writes in his recent book A History of Iraq, that initially the Iraqi reaction to the British was mixed. In 1917 the Iraqis welcomed the removal of Ottoman control but were apprehensive about what they considered military occupation. "The word occupation was for many Iraqis an unjustified imposition right from the beginning of the state," he says. "Many of them did not want at all to become part of the British empire. So they saw whatever the empire was saying in terms of mandates and self-determination as basically a fig leaf for British military occupation."

Professor Tripp says there are many historical parallels between then and now. For example, when the British formed the state of Iraq almost 90 years ago, they faced a population divided along the same religious and tribal lines as today. The Ottoman Empire had favored the Sunni Muslim minority's power over the larger group of Shiite Muslims who make up more than half the population then and now.

Professor Tripp believes the British missed the chance to correct that imbalance of power. Part of the problem was British disdain of Shiites. "The British saw these people as sunk in the depths of reaction, of religious prejudice and fanaticism - a caricature that is strangely familiar in much of the western media in the present century," he says. "When people look at Shiite Muslims in politics in the Middle East, they tend to see fanatics or they think they see fanatics. So the British, having found the Shiite leaders completely unreliable in their view, handed over power to the administrative elites who also were contemptuous of the Shiites as well."

Professor Tripp says by keeping Sunnis in power, the British sidelined a major portion of Iraqi society and killed any chance for real democracy. "Iraq wasn't a state that necessarily shared its benefits among all the Iraqis," he says. "It was still a very hierarchical one in which certain privileged elites got away with a great deal and effectively kept much of the population in pretty abject poverty. One of the dangers for the Americans and British in Iraq now is that in their haste to establish some kind of stability and order, they will look to people who are effectively contemptuous toward many of their compatriots. That means that large number of Iraqis will be disenfranchised, and clearly that is something that will have grave consequences for the future development of Iraq."

In 1920, just three years after they entered Iraq, the British faced a major revolt from an alienated Iraqi population, most of whom were Shiite Muslims.

Eugene Rogan, Director of the Middle East center at Oxford University, agrees that Shiite Muslims cannot be ignored this time around. He says after so many decades of suppression, Shiites want political power that reflects their percentage of the population.

In a statement welcomed by Shiites this week, retired General Jay Garner who is overseeing post-war Iraq, told a group of local leaders that Iraq must have a democracy representing all groups.

Drawing on another lesson of history, Professor Rogan warns that the US and British forces must be very careful to avoid the perception that they are in Iraq to achieve Middle East domination. He says the idea of maintaining western military bases in Iraq has strained relations in the past. "Anything which implies a continued American military presence in Iraq is going to be dangerous in the extreme," he says. "The British certainly kept bases there, and this is one of the most controversial aspects of their relations with the Iraqs. In 1948, Iraq and Britain tried to update their relations with a new treaty that was negotiated in secret. The Iraqi public knew nothing about it. But when they read the terms, they rioted because Iraqi sovereignty was compromised by continuing to grant Britain rights to military bases in Iraq. So this is certainly a volatile subject. It certainly was then and even more so today."

Professor Tripp says that planning permanent US bases would bring back memories of British colonialism. "I think if one thinks of the present period, if there is a fear that America wants to occupy Iraq by having military bases or privileged positions as far as the economy or oil is concerned, many Iraqis would clearly view this as a form of colonial occupation that they would fight against."

The British also maintained influence over the Iraqi economy, legal and educational systems and the oil fields. Oxford Professor Rogan says coalition forces should be mindful of the historical controversy over Britain's quest for Iraqi oil. "What the British did in essence was to take the oil territories north of the Kirkuk region and tie them to the oil in the Basra regions in the south in one Mesopotamian country called Iraq. It was in that sense very much a country created out of imperial convenience."

The British kept a hand in Iraq's affairs until a violent coup forced out the monarchy in 1958.

Niall Ferguson, author of Empire, the Rise and Demise of British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, says coalition forces must remain committed to rebuilding a stable Iraq where people can live comfortably. He says the United States and Britain must stay as long as it takes, even years if necessary. "I think by helping to establish stable institutions, law and order and creating opportunities for free markets to operate successfully, the United States can make itself popular in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq," he says. "If however, its interventions are short lived, and after a few months of media enthusiasm, Americans lose interest and withdraw forces or do not contribute resources, then I think the American empire will become even more unpopular around the world. It is all about delivering results. And what I think the British empire did was to deliver the good in terms of economic development in most of the countries Britain ruled in the 19th and 20th centuries."

Observers acknowledge the British experience in Iraq yields only certain lessons for Americans. The historic parallel is limited. Nevertheless, it does provide warnings worth heeding. Not all that much has changed in the region. Americans will have to deal with contrary opinion on the length of their stay in Iraq. But opinion is near unanimous on the need to establish a democracy representing all Iraqis.