By Charles Tripp*Le Monde Diplomatique
In Baghdad, an authoritarian regime, backed by military force, exercises a powerful grip over Iraq and poses a direct strategic threat to the interests of the major Western power in the region. A military expedition against the regime is mounted and, after a campaign that proves more difficult and costly than anticipated, Baghdad is captured and a new political order established under Western military and political control. But just as it seems that direct foreign rule is establishing the shape of the future for Iraq, rebellion breaks out among Iraqi army officers on the streets of Baghdad and throughout the Shi'ite centre and south of the country, putting the whole enterprise in jeopardy.
The uprising is eventually crushed, but the cost of doing that leads to a radical rethink in the army of occupation and in its government back home. In place of the ambitious visions once entertained by the occupiers, a more modest, cheaper plan emerges. It recognises the existing socio-political hierarchy in Iraq and hands control of the state, under Western surveillance, to the administrative and military elites of the old regime.
This is not a prediction of the next 12 months in Iraq. It is a description of events that took place over 80 years ago, when Great Britain conquered the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul and welded them into the new state of Iraq. The fact that there are echoes of the present and of possible future scenarios in Iraq has less to do with some irreducible essence of Iraqi history than with the logic of imperial power. If there is a war, the United States could find itself facing choices similar to those faced by Britain between 1914 and 1921. It is worth reflecting upon those choices to understand whether the exercise of imperial power in the task of state reconstruction has a similar logic. This could throw light on the kind of Iraq which an American military occupation might bring into being.
When the British invaded Mesopotamia in 1914, they did not intend to create a state. Their immediate objective was the security of their position in the Persian Gulf. But military success led to greater ambitions and by 1918 British forces had occupied the whole of what is now modern Iraq. Throughout the territories a civil administration was established, based on the model of British India, where many of the officers and officials had gained their experience.
It was a mixture of direct and indirect rule: the enterprise was controlled by British-staffed ministries in Baghdad, but British political officers in the provinces depended upon local community leaders to guarantee social order and collect revenues. Excluded from these arrangements were the predominantly Sunni Arab or Arabised Turkish administrative and military elites of the former Ottoman state. A distinct British imperial order began to emerge, centred on Baghdad, gradually penetrating all levels of society and appearing to consolidate British interests.
But with the end of the war in 1918, different ideas about the nature of those interests surfaced in different branches of the British state. Some held to a strong imperial vision that believed that it was part of Britain's mission to practise the micro-technologies of power, to make society fit the new administrative order. Another view, influenced both by moral doubts about the imperial project and practical questions of resources and commitment, advocated a lighter touch. Here the argument was that Britain had only two basic requirements of any government in Mesopotamia: that it should be administratively competent and that it should be respectful of British strategic requirements. It was this view which triumphed and upon which the state of Iraq was founded (1).
Events in Iraq, as well as in the wider international sphere and in Britain, contributed to this outcome. In 1920 the principles of national self-determination created the idea of League of Nations mandates - territories of the defeated Central Powers which one of the victorious powers would bring eventually to independence as sovereign states. The idea was taken up by those in the British government who wanted to maintain its global influence and control at minimum cost, financially and militarily. Given the changing public mood in Britain in 1919-20 about the uses of public expenditure, and the alarm in government about the cost of empire, this seemed an ideal solution.
In Iraq, many people resented the mandate as a light disguise for British imperial control; by contrast, certain British imperial servants in the country saw it as a dangerous abdication of responsibility (2). The clash between these two views led to the Iraqi Revolt of 1920. This began in Baghdad with mass demonstrations of urban Iraqis, both Sunni and Shi'ite, and the protests of embittered ex-Ottoman officers. The revolt gained momentum when it spread to the largely Shi'ite regions of the middle and lower Euphrates. Well-armed tribesmen, outraged by the intrusions of central government and resentful of infidel rule, seized control of most of the south of the country. It took the British several months, and cost thousands of lives - British, Indian and Iraqi - to suppress the revolt and re-establish Baghdad's control.
The revolt had two profound consequences. It persuaded the British that the cost of trying to rule Iraq would be too high and that it was imperative to set up a fully-functioning Iraqi government, army and administration. Furthermore, it made it almost inevitable that when the British looked for the cadres to govern the new state, they should choose the Ottoman administrative and military elites displaced during the war. The British saw these men as having proven experience in running a modern state, as well as a pragmatic grasp of the importance of Britain in helping them to entrench themselves in power, and in securing Iraq in the region. The leaders of the majority Shi'ite population and of the substantial Kurdish minority were seen as potentially mutinous, as well as too encumbered by tribal and religious traditions to govern a modern state.
These considerations shaped subsequent British policy in Iraq. Amir Faisal of the Hijaz was installed as king, sustained by mainly Sunni Arab former Ottoman officers and officials. They took over the administration from departing British officials and formed the backbone of the new Iraqi officer corps. British influence continued through its advisers in the Iraqi ministries, through its two major air force bases in the country and through the multiple ties which bound the two countries together and sustained Britain's informal empire even after Iraqi independence in 1932.
In the sense of safeguarding British strategic interests, the advocates of the minimalist or indirect approach to the question of political order in Iraq appeared to have been vindicated. However, they had also laid the foundations for a distinctive form of state in Iraq. This was affected both by the authoritarian inclinations of the new governing class, as well as by their prejudices towards the diverse communities who formed the majority of the Iraqi population (3).
The relevance of this to the present situation is not only that Saddam Hussein's regime is a direct descendant of this pattern of government. It is also that the temptation confronting the US, if and when it tries to organise the future of Iraq, may be similar to that which faced the British government and its officials in 1920. In the aftermath of a military invasion and the likely overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the US will face a choice.
It can try to bring about a fundamental change in the way Iraq is governed and commit the time and resources necessary to make that happen. Or it can set up an Iraqi administration which will carry out the principal wishes of the US - respect for American strategic interests and maintenance of order - thereby allowing an early withdrawal of US forces. This would mean recognising much of the existing power structure in Iraq, as well as the narrative of Iraqi history that brought the present regime into being. Faced by internal resistance and fearful of risking American lives and resources in a project of state reconstruction increasingly remote from the interests of the American public, it is quite possible that the US administration would opt for disengagement from Iraq's internal affairs.
This might contradict the present declarations being made in Washington promising a mission to transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the region. It would certainly cause despair among those Iraqis who have seen the US as their main hope of radical political change. But for the US, as for the British 80 years ago, the lower risk, the lesser cost and the short-term advantages may outweigh the possible future benefits of fundamental social transformation in Iraq.
About the Author: Charles Tripp is Reader in Middle East Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and author of A History of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
(2) Tawfiq al-Suwaidi, Mudhakkirati [My Memoirs] (London: Dar al-Hikma, 1999), p. 70-72; Sir Arnold Wilson, Mesopotamia 1917-1920: A Clash of Loyalties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 303-323.
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