Iraq: how history’s lessons were ignored

[ Robert Fisk draws out uncanny parallels between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the early 20th century British invasion of the same. Thanks to Popi and Tom Natsoulas for forwarding this article. –BL ]

17 June 2004 | The Independent

by Robert Fisk

They came as liberators but were met by fierce resistance outside Baghdad. Humiliating treatment of prisoners and heavy-handed action in Najaf and Fallujah further alienated the local population.

A planned hand-over of power proved unworkable. Britain’s 1917 occupation of Iraq holds uncanny parallels with today – and if we want to know what will happen there next, we need only turn to our history books…

On the eve of the “hand-over” of “full sovereignty” to Iraq, this is a story of tragedy and folly and of dark foreboding. It is about the past-made-present, and our ability to copy blindly and to the very letter the lies and follies of our ancestors. It is about that admonition of antiquity: that if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

For Iraq 1917, read Iraq 2003. For Iraq 1920, read Iraq 2004 or 2005. Yes, we are preparing to give “full sovereignty” to Iraq. That’s also what the British falsely claimed more than 80 years ago. Come, then, and confront the looking glass of history, and see what America and Britain will do in the next 12 terrible months in Iraq.

Our story begins in March 1917 as 22-year-old Private 11072 Charles Dickens of the Cheshire Regiment peels a poster off a wall in the newly captured city of Baghdad. It is a turning point in his life. He has survived the hopeless Gallipoli campaign, attacking the Ottoman empire only 150 miles from its capital, Constantinople.

He has then marched the length of Mesopotamia, fighting the Turks yet again for possession of the ancient caliphate, and enduring the grim battle for Baghdad. The British invasion army of 600,000 soldiers was led by Lt-Gen Sir Stanley Maude, and the sheet of paper that caught Private Dickens’s attention was Maude’s official “Proclamation” to the people of Baghdad, printed in English and Arabic.

That same 11in by 18in poster, now framed in black and gold, hangs on the wall a few feet from my desk as I write this story of empire and dark prophecy. Long ago, the paper was stained with damp – “foxed”, as booksellers say – which may have been Private Dickens’s perspiration in the long hot Iraqi summer of 1917.

It has been folded many times; witness, as his daughter Hilda would recall 86 years later, to its presence in his army knapsack over many months.In a letter to me, she called this “his precious document”, and I can see why.

It is filled with noble aspirations and presentiments of future tragedy; with the false promises of the world’s greatest empire, commitments and good intentions; and with words of honour that were to be repeated in the same city of Baghdad by the next great empire more than two decades after Dickens’s death. It reads now like a funeral dirge.

“Proclamation… 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 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… Your citizens have been subject to the tyranny of strangers… and your fathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.

“Your sons have been carried off to wars not of your seeking, your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered in different places. 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… But you, people of Baghdad… are not to understand that it is the wish of the 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 realized once again, that the people of Baghdad shall flourish, and shall enjoy their wealth and substance under institutions which are in consonance with their sacred laws and with their racial ideals… It is the hope and desire of the British people… that the Arab race may rise once more to greatness and renown amongst the peoples of the Earth… 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 Representative of Great Britain… so that you may unite with your kinsmen in the North, East, South and West, in realizing the aspirations of your Race.

(signed) F.S. Maude, Lieutenant-General, Commanding the British Forces in Iraq.” Private Dickens spent the First World War fighting Muslims, first the Turks at Suvla Bay at Gallipoli and then the Turkish army – which included Iraqi soldiers – in Mesopotamia.

He spoke “often and admirably,” his daughter would recall, of one of his commanders, General Sir Charles Munro, who at 55 had fought in the last months of the Gallipoli campaign and then landed at Basra in southern Iraq at the start of the British invasion.

But Munro’s leadership did not save Dickens’s sister’s nephew, Samuel Martin, who was killed by the Turks at Basra. Hilda remembers: “My father told of how killing a Turk, he thought it was in revenge for the death of his ‘nephew’.

I don’t know if they were in the same battalion, but they were a similar age, 22 years.” In all, Britain lost 40,000 men in the Mesopotamian campaign. The British had been proud of their initial occupation of Basra.

More than 80 years later, Shameem Bhatia, a British Muslim whose family came from Pakistan, would send me an amused letter, along with a series of 12 very old postcards, which were printed by The Times of India in Bombay on behalf of the Indian YMCA.

One of them showed British artillery amid the Basra date palms; another a soldier in a pith helmet, turning towards the camera as his comrades tether horses behind him; others the crew of a British gunboat on the Shatt al-Arab river, and the Turkish-held town of Kurna, one of its buildings shattered by British shellfire, shortly before its surrender.

The ruins then looked, of course, identical to the Iraqi ruins of today. There are only so many ways in which a shell can smash through a home. As long ago as 1914, a senior British official was told by “local [Arab] notables” that “we should be received in Baghdad with the same cordiality [as in southern Iraq] and that the Turkish troops would offer little if any opposition”.

But the British invasion of Iraq had originally failed. When Major-General Charles Townshend took 13,000 men up the banks of the Tigris towards Baghdad, he was surrounded and defeated by Turkish forces at Kut al-Amara.

His surrender was the most comprehensive of military disasters, ending in a death march to Turkey for those British troops who had not been killed in battle.

The graves of 500 of them in the Kut War Cemetery sank into sewage during the period of United Nations sanctions that followed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, when spare parts for the pumps needed to keep sewage from the graves were not supplied to Iraq.

Visiting the cemetery in 1998, my colleague Patrick Cockburn found “tombstones… still just visible above the slimy green water. A broken cement cross sticks out of a reed bed… A quagmire in which thousands of little green frogs swarm like cockroaches as they feed on garbage.”

Baghdad looked much the same when Private Dickens arrived in 1917. Less than two years earlier, a visitor had described a city whose streets “gaped emptily. The shops were mostly closed… In the Christian cemetery east of the high road leading to Persia, coffins and half-mouldering skeletons were floating.

On account of the Cholera which was ravaging the town [300 people were dying of it every day] the Christian dead were now being buried on the new embankment of the high road, so that people walking and riding not only had to pass by but even to make their way among and over the graves… There was no longer any life in the town.”

The British occupation was dark with historical precedent. There was, of course, no “cordial” reception of British troops in Baghdad. Indeed, Iraqi troops who had been serving with the Turkish army but who “always entertained friendly ideas towards the English” were jailed – not in Abu Ghraib, but in India – and found that while in prison there they were “insulted and humiliated in every way”.

These same prisoners wanted to know if the British would hand Iraq over to Sherif Hussein of the Hejaz – to whom the British had made fulsome and ultimately mendacious promises of “independence” for the Arab world if he fought alongside the Allies against the Turks – on the grounds that “some of the Holy Moslem Shrines are located in Mesopotamia”.

British officials believed that control of Mesopotamia would safeguard British oil interests in Persia (the initial occupation of Basra was ostensibly designed to do that) and that “clearly it is our right and duty, if we sacrifice so much for the peace of the world, that we should see to it we have compensation, or we may defeat our end” – which was not how Lt-Gen Maude expressed Britain’s ambitions in his famous proclamation in 1917.

Earl Asquith was to write in his memoirs that he and Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, agreed in 1915 that “taking Mesopotamia…means spending millions in irrigation and development”. Which is precisely what President George Bush was forced to do only months after his illegal invasion in 2003.

Those who want to wallow in even more ghastly historical parallels should turn to the magnificent research of the Iraqi scholar Ghassan Attiyah, whose volume on the British occupation was published in Beirut long before Saddam’s regime took over Iraq, at a time when Iraqi as well as British archives of the period were still available.

Attiyah’s Iraq, 1902-1921: A Socio-Political Study, written 30 years before the Anglo-American invasion, should be read by all western “statesmen” planning to occupy Arab countries.

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