Strife In Iraq: Thoughts as Fallujah Falls Yet Again

“How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration they do not want?”

— Editorial on the Occupation of Iraq in The Times of London

You may well recall the sequence of events, but a brief survey of the events in the first year of the occupation Iraq is proper here:

The initial invasion of the Occupation forces seemed to be remarkably successful. By May, the major cities of Basra in the South and Baghdad in the center had been secured. Though there had been civil disorder and rioting, it seemed that these matters had been brought under control by late Spring. The occupation forces had suffered relatively light casualties during the invasion, which gave rise to expectations of a quick resolution to the military aspects of the invasion. Indeed, the government claimed – prematurely, as became obvious later – that the goals of the operation had been successfully achieved and that the mission had been completely accomplished.

Things in the Middle East are not always as they first seem, of course. By June the insurgency had started in earnest. It apparently started in late May when British troops arrested a Sheik in the small town of Tel Afar. Locals hurled rocks and bricks at the British soldiers, and a full scale riot ensued. The losses for the British were shocking: though it had seemed all was under control, they day proved as deadly or deadlier than during the hot days of the actual invasion. Two officers and fourteen troops were killed by the mob violence.

British newspapers made great note of this debacle. Even papers which had supported the occupation previously publically questioned the government’s assessment of the situation and expected stability of the region. In the United States, though, few papers made much mention of this clash (it did not, after all, involve American troops.) Still, most of the press supported the occupation, and expected calm and order to be quickly restored. But it was not to be.

To impose quiet upon the region, the town of Tel Afar was ordered cleared of its inhabitants. Far from quelling the insurrection, this heavy-handed approach only fanned the flames of resistance to the occupation. Nearby Mosul developed into a focal point of the insurgency. Improvised explosive devices were used to blow up an armored transport and the bodies of the soldiers aboard were dragged disgracefully through the streets to the cheers of the locals and the horror of the media which covered the situation.

By July, religious leaders of a Mohammedan faction in Karbala had issued a fatwa declaring a Jihad against the occupation, calling for support from Mohammedans around the world. Soon, the insurgency had spread across the whole region. Since there really were not enough troops on the ground to properly control the situation, the Air Force was called in to help drive back the insurgents. Thus came the shocking spectacle of the occupying forces who had come ostensibly to bring order and peace dropping bombs upon the very towns and cities they had liberated.

The media began to lose its enthusiasm for the occupation as the fighting – supposedly finished in the Spring – dragged on. On October 15, a major battle took place in and around Mosul; some 2,000 troops became casualties in one week alone (about 400 killed and 1,600 wounded, some gravely.) Order had been restored for the moment, but it had become stunningly clear that the situation was not stable and that the occupation was violently unpopular with the populace. Though Sunni and Shi’ite had been traditional foes, all the population seemed united against the Western forces’ armed presence in their land.

The Times of London, reliably a supporter of the Prime Minister abandoned his cause and editorialized as quoted above. One British cabinet minister noted: “Pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts cannot continue.” In a surprisingly short time, the apparent widespread support of the occupation had disappeared in a cloud of disillusionment and political finger-pointing.

As the very first calendar year year of the occupation drew to a close, it became clear that the occupation would not be short-lived, and that the cost in the dead and wounded would prove far higher than the early confident projections had indicated. It also became clear that some sort of plan for at least limited local rule would have to be offered as a means of diffusing part of the insurgency. The difficulty, of course, was not only suggesting a plan that might mollify the rebels, but also finding a person to lead the local government: it would not do to select a Kurd, for that minority was hated by Shi’ite and Sunni alike, but the Sunnis would obviously reject a Shia, and the Shi’ites would reject s Sunni. It was a thorny situation, and one with no good answer.

The only practical solution would be to install a compromise leader – equally unpopular as one observer noted – and to support the local regime with continued military presence from the Western occupiers. It was a formula for an open-ended commitment that could last for years.

And, in fact, it did end up lasting for years. Indeed, more than FIFTEEN years after the occupation forces arrived in Baghdad, they were still there, propping up the unpopular Iraqi government. The last of the occupation forces did not leave Iraq until Iraqi general Bakir Sidqi established a military dictatorship in 1936!

Yes, Nineteen Hundred Thirty-Six.

The occupation of Iraq to which I refer took place between 1920 and 1936. The Times editorial ran in November of 1920. The cabinet minister who deplored the waste of lives and money in a pointless occupation was Winston Churchill. The occupying forces were the British and Indian Armies. And the insurrection never completely ended during that almost sixteen year period. Reading the daily newspapers of England in the 1920s gives one an eerie sense of deja vu; we have seen the whole scenario played out before our own eyes.

In 1920, Britain was the good guy, having freed Iraq from its 600 year domination by the Ottoman Empire. “They will greet us as liberators,” British analyst Rupert Whithead wrote in a report to Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, in yet another uncanny parallel with more recent history. The prospect of bringing freedom and liberty to the oppressed peoples of Iraq appealed to the Liberal Party government of Lloyd-George, and the possibility of cheap, dependable oil supplies for the Anglo-Iraq oil company appealed to the Tories. Something for everyone, it seemed, and an all around “win/win” situation.

Alas, it was not so.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If men could learn from history,
what lessons it might teach us!
But passion and party blind our eyes.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1831