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Britain Tried First. Iraq Was No Picnic Then.

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By John Kifner

New York Times
July 20, 2003

The public, the distinguished military analyst wrote from Baghdad, had been led "into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor."


"They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information," he said. "The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows."

He added: "We are today not far from a disaster." Sound familiar? That was T. E. Lawrence — Lawrence of Arabia — writing in The Sunday Times of London on Aug. 22, 1920, about the British occupation of what was then called Mesopotamia. And he knew. For it was Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence and the intrepid British adventuress Gertrude Bell who, more than anyone else, were responsible for the creation of what was to become Iraq. A fine mess they made of it, too.

During the First World War, Lawrence had been present at the birth of modern Arab nationalism and fought alongside its guerrillas to victory against the Ottoman Empire, only to see the same guerrilla tactics turned against the British in a rebellion in Iraq.

It is perhaps instructive to look back on that earlier effort by the leading Western power to remake the Middle East as the American occupation of Iraq appears increasingly beset.

It has not been going well, especially in Sunni-controlled central Iraq. Rather than being hailed as liberators, the American troops face "a classical guerrilla-type campaign" there that is increasingly organized, their new regional commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, said last week. A Pentagon-approved independent body of experts criticized the lack of postwar planning. Soldiers of the Army's Third Infantry Division, have been told they are not going home as planned. The cost, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld now says, is running about $3.9 billion a month, nearly twice earlier estimates, and tens of thousands of troops may have to remain for years to come.

At the same time, the rationale for war is increasingly questioned. Terror weapons have not yet been found in Iraq, nor have links to Al Qaeda. The Bush administration is scrambling to explain how allegations based on forged documents purporting to show Iraqi uranium purchases from Niger found their way into the State of the Union address. All this has not helped build global support: last week, India rejected an American request to send some 17,000 peacekeeping troops. Meanwhile, clashes and increasingly sophisticated ambushes have been running at a rate of a dozen a day; by week's end, at least 33 American soldiers had been killed in hostilities since May 1, the date when President Bush declared that major combat was over.

Ominously, Iraqi crowds have emerged to dance and cheer around burned-out American Humvees. Many American officers had sensed trouble ahead. As their armor clanked north to Baghdad, officers in the First Marine Division said over and over that the war was no problem; the difficulties would come with the rebuilding of Iraq. Indeed, in the face of American might and technology, the enemy, for the most part, simply did not show up for the big battles.

The British had a tougher time of it in World War I; they lost thousands of troops — most of them Indian — in a five-month Turkish siege of Kut. But they regrouped and captured Baghdad on March 11, 1917. Maj. Gen. Stanley Maude greeted the populace with a speech that could have been written today: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." Well, not quite, General.

When World War I began in 1914, most Arab lands were under the decaying Ottoman Empire, whose ruler, the caliph, was also Islam's supreme authority. The Ottomans were Germany's allies, and Britain saw a chance to seize the Middle East; its interests were to command the trade routes to India and, as it would develop, to control the emerging resource of oil. Lord Kitchener, the war minister, wanted to set up his own caliph Britain Tried First. Iraq Was No Picnic Then.

Enter the Arab Bureau, a special intelligence unit set up in Cairo. It had little expertise, and its early efforts to inspire an Arab revolt failed. Then Lawrence, a young captain at the time, volunteered to take a look on his vacation time. He recruited Hussein's second son, Feisal, as the charismatic leader of what became known as the Great Arab Revolt. His raiders crossed the desert to capture the port of Aqaba from the rear, repeatedly blew up the Turks' railroad tracks and harassed their troops, and finally entered Damascus in triumph (although this had to be staged because the Australian cavalry got there first).

The British had promised Feisal that he would be king of the Arabs in Damascus and he arrived at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference as the chief Arab spokesman. But Britain and France had secretly agreed to divide up the Middle East, and Feisal's reign in Damascus lasted just months — until the French came over the mountains from Lebanon. Meanwhile, things were not going well for the British in Mesopotamia. Bell was arbitrarily drawing lines on the map to make a new country out of three former Ottoman provinces — Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the center and Basra in the south. The districts were composed, respectively, of Kurds, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, all of whom hated each other — and the British even more. For one thing, the British were more efficient than the Turks in collecting taxes. By 1920, the country was in full rebellion, from Shiite tribesmen in the south to Kurds in the north. There were some 425 deaths on the British side and an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 among the Iraqis.

Hoping to restore order, the British, at the urging of Bell and Lawrence, switched Feisal's franchise to Iraq in 1921, although he had never set foot there. In a rigged plebiscite, the new king got 96 per cent of the votes. King Feisal and his strongman prime minister, Nuri as-Said, managed to solidify Sunni minority control over the rest of the country. But there was frequent turmoil.

IN response, the British turned to technology, with their air force commander, Arthur (Bomber) Harris, boasting that his biplanes had taught Iraqis that "within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or wounded." Winston Churchill, who, as colonial secretary, presided over the creation of Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Palestine, called Iraq an "ungrateful volcano." Still, it took 35 years for the disaster that Lawrence predicted to become total. Iraq gained independence in 1931, but the British-sponsored monarchy hung on and guarded British interests until 1958, when the royal family was murdered and dragged through the streets. That ushered in a period of successive military and Baath Party coups, all brutal, and by 1979 Saddam Hussein had assumed total control.

Like the Arab Bureau, neoconservative policy makers in the Defense Department, who have long been the most prominent advocates of removing Mr. Hussein, have a vision of the Middle East and a candidate. The vision is of a democratic Iraq that would be an example of change to other, undemocratic, Arab nations — the kind of change they believe would remake the region and make easier an Arab-Israeli peace. They have promoted as a leader Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite from a wealthy family that had been close to the old monarchy, even though some Middle East specialists in the State Department distrust him and consider him ineffectual. As the head of the Iraqi National Council, Mr. Chalabi recently returned to Iraq after living in exile for decades. The American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, has appointed a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, with Mr. Chalabi among them.

One other thing about Colonel Lawrence. While some of his exploits are doubtless exaggerated, his guerrilla tactics are still much studied. He came to realize that when a small band faced more powerful conventional forces, its strength lay in avoiding direct battles and instead conducting stealthy raids. His own guerrilla force, he wrote in his memoir, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," had "a sophisticated alien enemy, disposed as an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts. It had a friendly population, in which some 2 in the 100 were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority."

That larger army could be demoralized and worn down, its patrols and sentries made nervous and drawn, waiting for the next attack and never sure from where it would come. It is a feeling the weary soldiers of the Third Infantry Division are coming to know well.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.