I noticed this week British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had for the first time admitted one of the coalition's supposed exit strategies for Iraq is for it to be broken into three separate states. After all the blood that's been shed in Iraq to date, it probably seems a bizarre call indeed – but historically, it might also be the only feasible solution to a seemingly impossible problem.
It's also appropriate (although not desirable, by a long shot) that the British are involved and (sadly) getting their fingers burnt, because it is largely down to them that the problem of Iraq exists in the first place. To get the idea of how history has a history of repeating in Iraq, you need to turn the clock back about 90 years or so, in the aftermath of WWI, when the victorious British and French got first dibs on the great carve-up of the Ottoman Empire – having just fought a long and very nasty war on two fronts against both the Germans and the Turks.
It began under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement, concluded in 1916 and two years before the war ended, in which Britain and France began marking out their desired spheres of influence in the region should Turkey be defeated. In the final wash-up, the British received a number of mandates to govern in the region, including Palestine (which was to have been under international control) and Iraq, but in reality they were simply artificial creations whose borders were decided at the stroke of a pen. The French got what was to become Syria and Lebanon. The British, as we now know, got control of a whole lot of oil and in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq, more trouble than a bag full of cats.
The three Ottoman Empire districts of Mosul (mainly Kurdish), Baghdad (read: "Sunni triangle'') and Basra (Shia, and heavily influenced by its Persian [Iranian] neighbours), and remembering that three's the important number here, became what is today's modern Iraq – an oil-rich country (and bordering oil-rich Kuwait, which was already under British protection) that had not previously existed, much less been regarded as a single entity. In one fell swoop, that act turned Iraq into what has been called the bastard child of the British Empire, because in a classic example of the very opposite of Britain's proven imperial strategy of divide and rule, it actually brought together a disparate group of dozens of different religious traditions and national identities – Kurds, Sunni muslims, Shia, Sufi, Christians, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkomen, Persians and so on and so forth.
Like today, they could find little if any common ground. Even worse, under the Turks, the Sunni, now the main protagonists in the current bloody insurgency, had historically formed the ruling class among the Arabs, particularly in Baghdad and Basra. They were already resented by both the Kurds and the Shia, so trouble was brewing well before the first British Army boot left its imprint on the desert sand of the new nation.
Indeed, from the get go, it was an absolute disaster. Various nationalist movements wanted them out, while others, fearing retribution at Sunni hands and a return to old hatreds, wanted them to stay. Sound familiar? By the 1920s, Britain was fighting a running war in Iraq just to stay in control and very similar to the one the coalition is embroiled in today. Ultimately, it became about their influence, oil, and the protection of that oil and its infrastructure. Britain's Prime Minister of the time, Lloyd George, under pressure to pull up stumps and get the hell out, is quoted as saying: "If we leave, we may find a year or two after we departed that we handed over to the French and Americans some of the richest oilfields in the world.'' So much for British altruism, but then you can hardly blame them given what was on offer.
In a little-known, shameful episode in what is otherwise a mostly glorious history, the Royal Air Force convinced its bosses in Whitehall that it could maintain control from the air, particularly in the troublesome Kurdish north, at low cost and without the need to commit legions of British troops on the ground — which London feared would be an issue at home among a public still reeling from the dreadful wartime casualties on the western front. So British bombs rained down on Kurdish villages and towns, scores of civilians were killed, and the RAF experimented with a petroleum-based bomb that was the precursor to napalm. Along with some token British Army regiments, thousands of Indian troops were committed to the fray, and in towns and villages all over that country today there remain memorials to the many Indian Army soldiers who died fighting for their imperial masters in Britain's first Iraq war, a war that eventually embroiled the whole of the country.
The result: those three disparate groups of people have now spent the past 80-odd years fighting for supremacy, influence, independence, or all three. About the only good legacy of the British era is Baghdad's much-loved and much-complained-about bus service (red double-decker ones, of course, that still operate across the city and look out of place as they run along roads lined with date palms). The Brits departed a newly independent Iraq in 1932, but their colonial meddling had already set the scene for today's nightmare. Power instantly moved back into the hands of influential minority Sunni Arabs. Not surprising, then, that Iraq's first civilian government lasted just four years before it was deposed in a coup. Fighting broke out again in WWII when the British had to quell nationalists siding with Nazi Germany, and in 1958, army officer Abdul Karim Qasim led a bloody coup that resulted in the murder of the puppet figurehead monarch, the Hashemite king, Faisal II.
Qasim was pro-Soviet and wanted an end to British imperialist and neo-imperialist (read U.S.) influence. Among his first jobs was nationalize the oil industry. But there was plenty of bad karma to go around: Qasim's New Republic, in turn, only lasted until 1963. He was killed in a coup led by another officer, his old friend Abdul Salim Arif, who had also made an alliance with the devil — thugs from Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, who were quickly shoved to one side once they had served their purpose.
Arif, a pan-Arabist with anti-communist leanings, died in a not-so-mysterious helicopter crash in 1966. It was thought Ba'athist opponents had placed a bomb on board as he flew back from a visit to Basra but nothing was proved, and as he'd managed to piss off the communists, Nasserite Arab nationalists and the Ba'athists, among others, the Baghdad phone book would have been the best place to start in the hunt for clues. And one shouldn't discount the meddling during this period by the intelligence services of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. By 1966-67, Baghdad was a veritable hotbed of international intrigue, full of shady and shady-looking characters doing who knows what.
And so it went on … and on, as the military, the real power base in Iraq, argued over pro-western, communist, nationalist, and separate secular pan-Arab ideologies. While Arif's brother did manage to hold on to power for a few years, the Ba'athists eventually made their grab in the wake of the six-day Arab Israeli war. The rest, as they say, is history, and set the scene for today's nightmare.
Saddam, a Sunni and the number two, gradually took over all functions of leadership from the lame-duck President Hasan al-Bakr. In 1979, he executed his opposition, real and perceived, bastardised Ba'athism, and turned Iraq into a Stalinist state. Much of what he did was designed to silence the Kurds and the Shia. He also sent 400,000 Iraqis of all persuasions to their deaths in the pointless, stalemated eight-year war with Iran before stupidly invading Kuwait and getting another bloody nose. But the fighting and subsequent international sanctions brought suffering only for the ordinary people.
The truth is that most Iraqis hated the regime and are grateful to the US for its removal, but the power vacuum created means all those old squabbles, particularly between the Sunni, majority Shi'ite, and the Kurds, are back on the table. It's also brought fresh Iranian meddling, especially in the south. While Islamic fundamentalism is well and truly out of the box, many of the insurgents are known to be simply secular nationalists.
It's no wonder Iraqis struggled to agree on a constitution. They have generally agreed on what they don't want: foreign troops, imposed American-style democracy and McDonald's capitalism. Along with power and water supplies that don't cut out at regular intervals, they DO want peace, security and prosperity and like the rest of us, they want their children to be able to go to school without being blown up. How they and the coalition can ever reconcile some of these apparent contradictions is anyone's guess. The problem goes deeper, too. Bloodshed's nothing new here.
In biblical times, various kingdoms fought over the rich waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and the land in between. The US is only the latest in a long line of occupiers and invaders that has also included the Romans, Mongols, Greeks, and Ottomans. And not much has changed: there's no doubt oil is the new water in modern Iraq and is the real reason we have gone to war, despite what others will have us believe.
Given all this, I wonder whether anyone in Washington or London thought to have a quick check of the history books before embarking on the current debacle? And given the way it was planned, or not planned, depending on your point of view, could it have ended any other way? My guess is, that's doubtful. Interesting, then, that going back to square one is now being touted as a possible path to a way out.
Perhaps partitioning Iraq was always the only answer. Let's hope, however, in our rush to extricate ourselves (and paradoxically, to save face), we don't leave the Iraqi people to an even worse fate than they've already suffered.