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'Our Guy' for Iraq Leader May End Up Biting Us

When the British anointed a ruler in the 1920s, they got more than they bargained for. Read your history, Washington.

December 26, 2003|David Fromkin

We haven't been here before, but our British allies have and there is much that we can learn from their experience. They captured Baghdad in 1917 in the course of World War I.

At the time, the Arabic-speaking Middle East was ruled by the Muslim but Turkish-speaking Ottoman Empire. When the war began, the Ottoman government joined in the fighting on the German side and against England. When the war ended, in 1918, the victorious British found themselves in possession, among other things, of the three Ottoman provinces that were later merged to form a single unitary state that was to be called Iraq.

In 1918 and 1919, its hour of triumph, the British Empire garrisoned the Middle East with an army of a million men. No other significant military force in the region could dispute Britain's mastery. Iraq's future seemingly was for Britain to determine. It is from Britain's experience in that respect that Americans entering the year 2004 have so much to learn.

The Ottoman Empire collapsed suddenly and unexpectedly in the autumn of 1918. Taken by surprise, London had not gotten around to formulating detailed plans for governing postwar Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

Americans in 2003 found themselves in a similar situation, albeit -- or so we are told -- for a different reason. Plans existed at some level of government in Washington, but those in operational charge of the American-led invasion of Iraq apparently ignored them.

A fundamental flaw in British Middle Eastern policymaking in those long-ago years of the early 20th century, and also in American policymaking now, was a division within the government itself.

In the United States, the most visible of many disputes relating to Iraq is that between the departments of State and Defense. In Britain, it was between the government in London and its advisors in British Cairo, and then also between London and the British government in India.

It was British India that had sent its forces to capture the provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul and that hoped to retain control of at least Basra for itself. But London's Middle East policy coordinator, Sir Mark Sykes, warned that "if you work from India, you have all the old traditions of black and white and you cannot run the Arabs on black and white lines."

Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude, commander of British India's successful forces, the Anglo-Indian army of the Tigris, insisted on installing a military administration in the Iraqi provinces that his troops occupied. Only by doing so, he argued, could he ensure the security on which a stable civil authority could be built.

London overruled him, however, and, in its muddling, attempts to identify potential Arab leaders merely increased the local confusion.

Time was running out for the British Empire in the Middle East. Winston Churchill, newly appointed minister of war, warned the House of Commons, "Do not disband your army until you have got your terms," but Parliament disregarded his advice. After nearly five years of warfare, the political pressure to "bring the boys home" was overwhelming. So was the economic pressure: Postwar Britain collapsed into a depression, and the cost of imperial adventures in Iraq and elsewhere could no longer be afforded.

British efforts to identify or create a political leadership and structure for the three ex-Ottoman provinces bogged down. As the British armies of occupation melted away, disorder took hold -- not unlike that currently facing the United States in and around Baghdad. Throughout 1919 and 1920, Iraq was a land of terror and lawlessness, of ambushes and assassinations. Britain hit back hard, horrifying friends of the Arab world.

On Jan. 1, 1921, Britain's Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Churchill as colonial secretary with expanded powers to solve the Middle East problem. Churchill promptly solved the immediate problem by coordinating the use of military aircraft with armored cars to magnify manpower and control rebellion, thus devising an inexpensive and sustainable way to keep order in a large but underpopulated country. He then brought unity and effectiveness to Britain's Middle East policymaking by assembling all 40 of its policymakers in one place for the Cairo conference of March 1921, where consensus was achieved on almost all aspects of policy. Prince Faisal, a son of the emir who served as guardian of the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina and a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, was nominated to rule Iraq.

Pushing the candidacy of Faisal, who had fought alongside the British in the final years of World War I, held many advantages for London. Faisal had indicated that he was prepared to make a fresh start in discussing his family's claims in the postwar Middle East on behalf of Arab nationalism. The family would no longer claim that it had been promised Syria and Palestine. It would forget about past promises and would start with a clean slate.

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