Saturday, May 18, 2013

An Iraq Story

Saddam Hussein- a terrible, blody dictator, yes.  But also a man who saw that a greater portion of his country's wealth went to useful causes than in any other Arab country.  He oversaw the building of the best infrastructure in the Arab world, the best educational system, the most universal health care.  Women and non-Muslims enjoyed greater opportunities and security than in any other Mideastern country (Israel excepted, of course.)

Saddam is gone now, and all of the above has vanished too.  Iraq seems about to descend into sectarian warfare which will crush the lives and hopes of a large part of its people, largely thanks to the American aggression that destroyed civil society in that country.  I think it is time to talk about how this mess of a country came to be in this state.   It is a story that few people in the U.S. have any knowledge of, but it is an interesting one.

The current country of Iraq is made up of three Vilayets, or provinces, of the now almost forgotten Ottoman Empire.

 Here you can see the Ottoman empire at the start of World War I.  As you can see, there is no entity called Iraq.  If you know where Iraq is on the map, you can clearly see the three Vilayets that made up the inhabited area that is now Iraq.  (Note some inland areas which were essentially uninhabited but are now part of Iraq are not shown as part of the Ottoman Empire- it basically ignored them because they had no political or economic value.)

By the twentieth century, the Ottoman empire had been rotting away for a hundred years.  Egyptians in the early 1800's led by Muhammad Ali (not the boxer, the guy he named himself after) had established a good deal of autonomy.  For decades the Ottomans' Balkan territories had been descending into nationalistic, sectarian warfare, which would eventually precipitate World War I, and sweep away this empire of a thousand years.

In the aftermath of World War I, the victorious allied countries abrogated to themselves the right to control the future of the Middle East.  Britain was given the "mandate" to run the area which is now Iraq, which in part required them to provide military security to that area. 

After the war, a Conservative politician who had disgraced himself by becoming the chief advocate of the disastrous Gallipoli invasion, and who was now trying to work himself back into a position of power in Britain, accepted the unenviable job of running the mandate.  You may have heard of him- his name was Winston Churchill.

Like Conservatives everywhere, Churchill's only real interest was in dealing with his responsibilities by doing as little as possible, and spending as little as possible.  He was faced with providing a stable environment for these three Vilayets, the one to the north primarily Kurdish, the center one primarily Sunni and the southern one primarily Shiite, which had never been united, except as the property of the Ottoman empire.  Here was his plan, which he induced the British to accept at the Cairo Conference of 1921:  The three provinces would be united into one country.  The British would accept no military responsibility other than providing an air force for the region.  The rest of its military responsibilities would be sloughed off on a new government that the British would create.  Churchill decided that he could give the government a veneer of legitimacy by picking one of the three sons of the Saudi King as its leader.  The eldest son was out of the running of course, because he was heir to the Saudi throne.  That left the other two, one of whom was an intelligent and decisive person, the other, Faisal I, a weak, easily influenced tool.

Attendees at the 1921 Cairo Conference, where the Conservative
British government decided that their budget deficit was 
more important than the welfare of the Iraqi People.  That's Winston at the bottom right.

I hardly need tell you who Churchill and the British chose to head the new country of Iraq.  The guy was "approved" by the Iraqi people in a meaningless, rigged election, but owed his position entirely to the British, and therefore accepted Churchill's scheme for security in the country, despite everyone knowing that his government was grossly short of the money and support necessary to  provide adequate military resources for the task.  Thus was created a country that was strategically untenable from the very beginning, entirely to satisfy Conservative demands for budget cuts in Britain.  And thus was begun Iraq's rapid descent from monarchy to dictatorship to chaos.

King Faisal the First of Iraq

Sad to say, the story does not end in Iraq.  What happened to the "good" son, who was passed over for the weak one?  Well, he was not one bit happy about the situation, and made very credible threats to the security of the new country, backed by many Arabs who saw him as by far the best choice for king.  So the British decided they had to buy him off.

Now, let's turn our attention to another British Mideast mandate- Palestine.  As you may know, by the end of World War I, the British, through the famous Balfour declaration, had determined to split their Palestinian mandate into two countries- East of the Jordan river, and including about two thirds of the mandate, a State governed by the resident Arabs, and West of the river, a State for Jews, who had been returning to their homeland in large numbers since the mid-19th century.  This arrangement, approved by the League of Nations, was never to be allowed to take effect.  Instead, Churchill bought off the other son by giving him the land East of the river as his own little kingdom, and leaving Jews and Palestinians to fight over the remainder, seemingly forever.

What the West has left behind.  Is it any wonder that they don't like us?

Thus, in one blow, Churchill, acting according to ageless Conservative cant designed to buy the goodwill of the voters by cutting government costs, managed to create the Iraq quagmire and the Israeli-Palestinian one too.  Once again, Conservative politics produced nothing but disaster, but on it goes, inflicting its disasters over and over again.  And as long as greed exists, and contempt for anyone of a different ethnic background,  it probably always will.

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