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Parallels in the past

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST



After being an independent state since 1958, when a people's uprising took it out of the British imperialist orbit, Iraq is all set to be integrated into another such orbit, as an American protectorate.

REMEMBERING history is important. For an oppressed people, the memories of the struggle against colonialism and for nationhood are vital when all other resources are taken over and appropriated by the oppressors. It is also important to look back into history if one has to understand the motivations for the current occupation and the pattern of dominance that America seeks to impose on Iraq. The occupation of Iraq is the first American imperial project in a major Arab country. But for the Iraqi people it is not a new venture. When Lieutenant General Jay Garner assumes the governorship of Iraq, he will be following in the footsteps of Arnold Talbot Wilson, the first British pro-Consul in Iraq from l918 to l920.

The Iraqi people will not be mistaken if they believe they are back to the days of old style colonialism when imperial powers determined their destinies. All through the build-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Western media and the ruling circles of the Anglo-American axis were busy making the world forget the central aim of the current military adventure - a return to empire and the recolonisation of Iraq. But for those who have even a passing knowledge of the history of West Asia and for the people of Iraq, the writing on the wall was clear.

The land of ancient Mesopotamia, which became modern Iraq, was colonised by the British at the end of the First World War. The defeat and collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire led to the British and the French dividing up the Arab lands of the erstwhile empire. The British and French imperialists struck a secret deal in 1916 known as the Sykes-Picot pact. The Arabs came to know that they were being cheated of their freedom only when Soviet Russia released the details after the October Revolution. Trans-Jordan and Iraq went to the British and Syria and Lebanon to France. Egypt and Libya were already under British tutelage.

The League of Nations, set up in 1919, gave the British the mandate to run Jordan and Iraq. The British declared the Hashemite chief Faisal as the King of Iraq; earlier he was made the King of Syria, but was deposed by the French. In l920 began the fiction of Arab rule while Iraq continued as a British protectorate. The Iraqis, from the outset, refused to accept the British as their new masters. The Arab Shias, who are now sought to be portrayed as welcoming the new American masters, rose in revolt along with the others. The British took months to put down the rebellion. How they did it is an illustration of imperialist cost-benefit analysis, something which the new imperialists, the Americans, have taken forward and perfected.

The problem for the British was the mounting cost to the exchequer in maintaining a huge army in West Asia. The solution was found in the use of aerial bombing by the Royal Air Force (RAF). From 1915, the British had been bombing off and on recalcitrant Pathans in the north-west frontier in India, and other malcontents in Egypt, Afghanistan and Somaliland. But it was in Iraq that the genocidal use of aerial bombing was pioneered. As a historian of Iraq's colonial experience, Peter Slugglet, observed: "The British decided to rule on the cheap, as it were. To police the territory, they called in the Royal Air Force. This was the first known use of air power as constabulary." The head of the RAF in Iraq stated: "If the Arabs had nothing to fight against on the ground, and no loot to be obtained, and nobody to kill, but have to deal with airplanes which are out of their reach, they are certain to come in and there will be no risk of disaster or heavy causalities such as are always suffered by small infantry patrols in uncivilised countries."

All through l921, the British used the air force to bomb the rebellious Arabs. Another writer Pelletiere noted: "In time, the British expanded the use of the RAF, sending it on all sorts of assignments. For example, it would bomb the tribes to soften them up for visits from the tax collector. It bombed preemptively - at the first rumour of revolt, the planes would be dispatched to incinerate croplands."

Winston Churchill was the War Secretary at the time. He was delighted to learn that the RAF could be used for what was called "control without occupation". According to Sven Lindqvist, author of A History of Bombing, Churchill "offered the RAF six million pounds to take control of the Iraqi operation from the army, which had cost eighteen million thus far". Lindqvist describes how the revolt of l920 was put down. "In principle, the inhabitants were supposed to be warned before a raid. In principle, house, animals, and soldiers were supposed to be targets, and not the elderly, women, or children. In practice, things didn't always go that way. The first report from Baghdad describes an air raid that causes wild confusion among the natives and their families. `Many of them jumped into a lake, making a good target for the machine guns'."

According to Lindqvist, Churchill professed to be shocked by such wanton killing: "To fire wilfully on women and children taking refuge in a lake is a disgraceful act, and I am surprised that you do not order the officers responsible for it to be tried by court martial..." Yet, the bombing continued as Churchill found it prudent to rely on the air force, which had saved him the cost of keeping 51 battalions of soldiers in Iraq.

IN the Iraq War I and II, in 1991 and 2003 and the intervening period, the Americans built upon the economies of bombing applied by the British in those early days. The U.S. Air Force (USAF) is thus following the hoary traditions of the RAF. Only they are using more lethal and destructive munitions such as cluster bombs, bunker busters and fuel-air explosives. The RAF then used a few score planes; the USAF deployed more than 600 war planes for its "Operation Iraqi Freedom". The use of such aerial bombardment led to the murder and mutilation of women and children, the RAF found out quite early in its bombing campaigns. The die-hard imperialist circles rationalised this cost as a regrettable necessity to put down the savage people who were untouched by civilisation. The modern imperialists call it collateral damage.

The natives kept revolting all though the 1920s. So Britain decided to grant them independence in l932. But there was a catch. Iraq would remain under the paternal care of the British as a protectorate, though the term was not used. Faisal continued as the monarch, but he had a new Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, a chum and agent of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (romanticised in imperialist lore as Lawrence of Arabia). Under him Iraq became a police state.

The colonial set-up in Iraq drew much of its personnel and experience from the officers who manned the empire in India. Like in India, the chieftains were made the owners of land, where land was formerly held in common. They were now made the property of the chiefs. By the 1950s, 55 per cent of the cultivable land was owned by 2,484 individuals. The sheikhs and the aghas lorded over the peasants and had to keep them down with armed gangs.

The saga of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) mirrors what happened with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Iran and the Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The unbelievable oil riches of Iraq fell into the lap of the British oil companies and their counterparts in France. The U.S. muscled in later in l928. The IPC shares were owned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Co. (23.75 per cent), Shell (23.75 per cent), Compagne Francaise (23.75 per cent), the American Near East Development Corporation (consisting of Exxon and Mobil - 23.75 per cent) and an individual who originally thought up the idea of such a company, Gulbenkein (5 per cent). The British and American companies together held a three quarters share.

Iraq was shackled by the Anglo-American Treaty of 1922, which legalised the British military occupation, and the 1925 oil agreement, which confirmed its vassal status. Said Aburish, a writer on Arab affairs and a former consultant to the Iraqi government, noted: "The agreement between the British and Iraq regarding the rights to the oil of the country is one of the most criminal documents I have ever read in my life. It is aimed at keeping Iraq in the dark ages."

All through the colonial occupation, the Iraqis kept fighting. According to the historian Hanna Batatu, between 1921 and 1958, there were no fewer than 30 significant violent revolts of one sort or another. It was the 1920 rebellion by the Arabs, both Shia and Sunni, which began the shaping of the Iraqi national identity. Like in many other colonial countries, Iraq began the tortuous process of forging its nationhood through the bitter and protracted fight against the imperial power and its puppet regime. In the present-day world, when Pax Britannica has become Pax Americana, every effort is being made to foster the divide between Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Kurds. Iraqi history is replete with such tactics of divide and rule from the early decades of the 20th century. For the Iraqi people, who valiantly and without respite fought their colonisers, the new occupation will not be tolerable. The protracted struggle against the new colonisers is about to begin.

AS for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his pious cant about liberating the Iraqi people from dictatorship, it would be instructive to study the role of past Labour governments towards Iraq. The Labour government elected in 1929 reviewed the 1922 treaty and got a new one signed in 1930. It made vague promises of independence for Iraq in the future but extracted concessions that only underlined the subjugated status of the country. This was followed by the Portsmouth Treaty 18 years later, which was negotiated by another Labour government in 1948. It was this agreement when signed, but not ratified, that sparked off the Al-Wathbah, the biggest mass insurrection against the puppet regime in which the Iraqi Communist Party played a prominent role. After days of mass protests, Nuri Said ordered the police to machine-gun the people. Three hundred to four hundred people died in the streets of Baghdad on January 27, 1948.

Tony Blair seems to have forgotten what happened when the British experimented with providing democracy to Iraq. Under a constitutional monarchy, a bicameral Parliament was set up in 1924. But it was a farce. Under Nuri Said's dictatorship even as late as 1954, 122 out of 135 seats were won unopposed, half being filled up by semi-feudal landlords. In 1958, The New Statesman gave an accurate description of the Nuri Said regime as one with "a very efficient, British trained police force, innumerable spies and agents provocateur, a controlled press and a complacent Parliament dominated by the big southern landowners who are his main national supporters". Blair had railed against some of the similar anti-democratic features of the Saddam Hussein regime, which the British could tolerate and protect in the 1950s. But there is, of course, an important difference. Unlike Nuri Said, the Baathists had nationalised the oil industry in 1972.

The build-up towards the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 has a historic parallel in the past. For the first time, Iraq became an independent state and a republic in July 1958. The popular upheaval that overthrew the Nuri Said regime was a revolutionary step. General Abdul Karim Kassem took power with the support of all sections of the people, except the feudals and the compradors. Nuri Said, who sought to escape, was caught and executed.

How did the Americans and the British react? By gunboat diplomacy. The U.S. landed 5,000 marines in Lebanon and the British sent its paratroopers into Jordan. The British were indignant that the Iraqi people could be presumptuous enough to decide who would run their country. The Times wrote on July 15: "If the revolt succeeds it could be a disaster for the West. Britain and the NATO powers might well be deprived of their important staging rights through the Iraqi aerodromes.... Iraq, besides being itself an important supplier of oil to the United Kingdom, is the lynchpin on which the whole British position in the Persian Gulf, her main source of oil supplies, depends."

Rajani Palme Dutt, the prominent British Communist, wrote in the Labour Monthly, which he edited: "How will the Western powers react? Already before the revolution in Iraq they were engaged in massing their forces for their counter-offensive in the Middle East, specifically with relation to Lebanon and Jordan. The massive British airlift to Cyprus had already stationed there the great part of Britain's mobile strategic reserve in readiness for action. The American Sixth Fleet had been moved into position; the marines had been dispatched. The unstable puppet rulers in Lebanon and Jordan, faced with the implacable hostility of their own peoples, will only too eagerly, if occasion arises, offer the Western powers the pretext for intervention." He warned that the British and Americans would seek to legitimise their military intervention as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Invoking Article 51, the right to self-defence as a pretext for aggression, was what Dutt then termed "the new fashionable imperialist interpretation of the Charter". It is still in fashion today. For it is precisely this "right of self-defence" that U.S. President George W. Bush and his cohorts cited to launch their pre-emptive military attack. Self-defence in the face of the imaginary threats from the terrorist groups linked to the Iraqi regime or from its weapons of mass destruction.

If the July uprising of 1958 succeeded, it was because the world situation was radically different from what it is today. British and American military intervention was stayed by the existence of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union recognised the Kassem government on July 19. It conducted military exercises in Transcaucasia and Turkmenistan to counter the Anglo-American mobilisation. It proposed an early end to the confrontation. The matter eventually went to the U.N., but imperialist intervention, in the face of a Soviet veto, was not possible.

After the Second World War, the decline of British imperial influence set in, accompanied by the ascendance of U.S. power. The Baghdad Pact was formed with the blessings of the U.S. to counter the Soviet threat. It consisted of Britain, Iraq, Persia and Pakistan. The headquarters was in Baghdad and the General Secretary was an Iraqi. The 1958 revolution took Iraq out of the imperialist orbit.

THE wheel has come a full circle now. After being an independent state since 1958, Iraq will be reintegrated into the imperialist chain as an American protectorate. The U.S. has replaced Britain as the hegemon of the region and the arguments set out in 1958 for gunboat diplomacy were trotted out to occupy Iraq 45 years later. Britain is a very junior partner in the Iraqi enterprise of the U.S., a pathetic parody of its imperial role in the heady days of the early 20th century. Ghosts of empire seem to haunt the successors of Ernest Bevin and Hugh Gaitskell in the Labour Party leadership.

The record of chicanery and loot that marked the British suzerainty over Iraq is going to be surpassed by the new imperial warriors of Bush. Lieutenant-General Jay Garner is not just the chosen man of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He is also a representative of corporate America and its arms manufacturers. Garner is on leave from the company he works for, L-3 Communications, which is a defence contractor for the Pentagon. It has an annual revenue of $4 billion. Some of the precision-guided missiles used to attack Iraq had technology supplied by Garner's company. This is what the American occupation is all about, combining military power with profits.

In one sense, the American occupiers are different from the earlier British ones. Some of the key figures in the British imperialist enterprise in West Asia were acutely conscious of the grand history of Mesopotamia. Gertrude Bell was one of them. She was an Arabist, linguist and worked for British intelligence during the First World War. She helped draw the boundaries of Iraq and became an adviser to King Faisal. She was also deeply interested in archaeology and founded the first archaeological museum when she was the Honorary Director of Antiquities. Her grave lies not far from the National Museum in Baghdad. As the treasures of the museum were looted and vandalised, the precious legacy of Iraq that extends back to the earliest centres of human civilisation disappeared in one stroke. Gertrude Bell would have been horrified and inconsolable at such destruction. Not so the American occupiers, who stood by and watched the pillage. It happened again with the National Library. The new barbarians have truly arrived.

Prakash Karat is a member of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 09, 2003.)



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