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Monday, 3 February, 2003, 13:11 GMT
Britain's role in shaping Iraq
Saddam Hussein poster

What to do about Iraq is hardly a new question for the UK. For it was Britain that drew the map of Iraq, and it has never ceased to play a significant role there.
In the tumbledown city of Kut south of Baghdad, a half-flooded cemetery is one of the few memorials to British control of Iraq. The tops of gravestones stick out of the slimy green water which obscures the names of some of the 40,000 British soldiers who died in Iraq in World War I.

British rule over the three provinces which became present-day Iraq was never happy. It started in 1915 when a small British army tried to capture Baghdad from the Turkish army, but was driven back and forced to surrender at Kut after a long siege.

Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia urged a gas attack against Iraq
When a much-reinforced British Army finally defeated the Turks, the UK was immediately faced with some of the problems still facing anybody seeking to rule Iraq today.

Captain Arnold Wilson, the British civil commissioner in newly captured Baghdad, believed that the creation of the new state was a recipe for disaster.

He warned that the deep differences between the three main communities - Sunni, Shia and Kurds - ensured it could only be "the antithesis of democratic government". This was because the Shia majority rejected domination by the Sunni minority, but "no form of government has been envisaged which does not involve Sunni domination".

Rebellion against British rule broke out in July 1920. The causes were diverse. Arab nationalists wanted independence. Officials who worked for the Turks were marginalised. The Shia clergy disliked the new authorities because they were Christian. The tribesmen were resentful that the British were more effective than the Turks in collecting taxes.

Civilian targets

The centre of the revolt was the middle Euphrates. By the time British rule was restored in 1921, some 2,000 British soldiers and 8,000 Iraqis had been killed or wounded.

Within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out

Arthur "Bomber" Harris
In the wake of the rebellion, the UK tried to rule Iraq cheaply and at one remove.

Faisal I, a member of the powerful Hashemite family from Mecca, was appointed king, but was always dependent on British support. He and his descendents never succeeded in establishing their nationalist credentials in Iraqi eyes.

The British also wanted to reduce the cost of ruling Iraq by relying on air power rather than expensive ground troops. It was a testing ground for the Royal Air Force.

Soldier on Ark Royal
British troops are once again heading for Iraq
Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who was to lead the bomber offensive against Germany 20 years later, did not conceal the fact that he aimed at civilian targets.

Harris said in 1924 that he 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".

Some other British leaders were equally blood-thirsty. After the revolt of 1920, TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - wrote to the London Observer to say: "It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions."

Loosened ties

Iraq became formally independent in 1932, but British influence, though diminishing, remained important.

Winston Churchill
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes

Winston Churchill
Iraq: From Sumer to Sudan, by Geoff Simons
In 1941 Rashid Ali, a former Ottoman officer, became prime minister, backed by four army colonels.

Encouraged by Hitler's victories in Europe, the new government sought to whittle away at British imperial control. Britain sent troops from Jordan and India. Despite the rebels' hopes, German support never came and Iraqi troops were defeated after a month's fighting.

After World War II, the alliance with Britain carried increasing dangers for the Hashemite government as the influence of Arab nationalism increased throughout the Middle East.

The last two airbases controlled by Britain were handed back to Iraq in 1955. But three years later, the last British influence was removed when a military coup overthrew the Hashemite dynasty.

In the subsequent power struggles, Saddam Hussein worked his way up through the ranks - a rise supported by the West, anxious to preserve its influence in the region.

Patrick Cockburn is the author, with Andrew Cockburn, of Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession, published in September 2002.

So Lawrence of Arabia & Winston Churchill recommended poison gas for civilian control. England & US produced and sold Sadam WMDs and encouraged him to use it against the Iranians to halt Muslim fanaticism. The US refuses to rule out using tactical nuclear weapons. And we are invading Iraq because we suspect he might not have destroyed all the WMDs we sold him. Just a moment while I put on my history-resistant sunglasses.
Jan, UK

In the 1960s, I served in the US Army. While at Army Aviation School, I obtained the unclassified version of the after-action report by the French General Staff concerning the unplesantries in Indo-China. I still vividly recall the final sentence by the translator: "The only lesson learned from lessons learned is that no one learns from lessons learned." I learned the same lesson in Vietnam. Perhaps the US forces will learn these lessons of the early 20th Century again in the fertile crescent.
Donald G Husek, USA

If anything, this shows how ethnic, cultural and religious differences seem to survive all attempts at imposing unity. The same can be said of India/Pakistan despite years of unity under UK rule; or Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and the former USSR states, despite all the years under communism.
Mark, France

Expand the National Curriculum (again!) to include the significance of the law of cause and effect in history and in social relations. Perhaps up and coming generations will learn what we appear not to have.
L Phipps, England

Is there a way of having different enthic, cultural and religious co-exist? We had our teething problems after the British left. The Chinese fought within their own dialect groups and there were riots among other minorty races. All these came to a halt when we started mixing up the demographic and limiting the numbers of each race in housing, schools, workplaces.
John, Singapore

So often in my arguments with my British friends I've tried to emphasise that they are now reaping what they sowed with the Empire. The past cannot be undone but it should be learnt from. The best approach is to think hard before you act or prepare to reap a whirlwind.
Amoroso Gombe, Kenya

Now all you have to do is to encourage those who decry asylum seekers to read this. One is responsible for the actions of one's ancestors. The slate isn't wiped clean at the end of each day. If only we could learn from history (rather than just remember), we wouldn't be destined forever to repeat it.
Karen King, Luxembourg

It seems to me that most ethnic wars are a result of European colonial practices - start a war then leg it when the heat turns up, leaving the residents to fight on. The US hasn't learnt a thing from these past failures either, but I guess they will someday.
Chris, Ireland

"It seems that most of the world's ethnic wars are a result of European colonial practices" - were the Ottomans any more successful at unifying the Sunni, Shia and Kurds? Did the European empires instigate ethnic rivalries, or did they use pre-existing rivalries to create tension-balanced power structures?
Abraham, United States

The Kurds are Sunnis. One of the greatest Muslims ever, Salahuddin Ayubbi who defeated the crusaders, was a Kurd. The Ottomans did a fantastic job managing not only the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds but also the Christians and Jews in their empire. Rise of Kurdish nationalism is a direct result of the rise of secular Iraqi and Turkish nationalism.
Shakoor, UK

My grandfather was killed in the forced march that followed the siege of Kut. I have always wondered what he was doing there, this has clarified things for me.
Frances Andrew, France

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17 Oct 02 | Country profiles
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