Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

War and Occupation in Iraq: What Went Right? What Could Go Wrong?

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

War and Occupation in Iraq: What Went Right? What Could Go Wrong?

Article excerpt

The US occupation of Iraq is not the first such occupation of that country. Although little remembered in the US, the British occupation of Iraq at the end of the First World War, and the uprising and Mandate period that followed, are still vividly recalled in Iraq. Although historical parallels are never exact, the British experience does contain some striking parallels with the initial US experience. This article examines lessons to be drawn from the British experience, as well as the question of how to avoid repeating some of the failures of that earlier effort.

"You have offered us independence; we never asked for it, nor dreamed of such a thing till you put the idea into our heads. For hundreds of years, we have lived in a state as far removed from independence as it is possible to conceive: now we have asked for it, you imprison us."

-A prominent shaykh of the Middle Euphrates to a British political officer in southern Iraq, 1920.1

When the Arabs of southern Iraq saw the American and coalition forces enter Iraq in March 2003, it must have been with a curious sense of historical deja vu. Like their British predecessors in 1914 the US-led force entered near Basra and began a long sweep up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Baghdad. It ignored most of the cities and towns but still encountered difficulties such as heat, flies, sand, disease, recalcitrant tribes, and opposition by renegade militias armed with modern weapons. No one came out to welcome the new army, despite expectations that they would be greeted with rice and rose petals and despite its own proclamations that they had come "not as conquerors but as liberators." Some paramount shaykhs of the middle Euphrates region declared their support for the embattled government in Baghdad or their loyalty to the proud state of Iraq. Senior Muslim clerics - Sunni and Shi'i - issued decrees (fatwas) emphasizing that loyalty to Iraq superceded ethnic and sectarian differences and denouncing occupation by a foreign power. Their banners read "No Sunni. No Shi`i. Only One Islamic Nation." Disregarding events in southern Iraq, Kurdish factions in northern Iraq coveted territory and wealth and fretted about a possible Turkish invasion. Meanwhile, once-prominent and not-so-prominent politicians, clerics, and generals returned from years of exile, eager to tell those who had stayed at home how to recreate political life. They signed up militias, took over city halls, and established offices, but their squabbles hindered their ability to cooperate.

Outside the country, foreign governments argued about contracts to rebuild a country devastated by years of war and sanctions and the right to exploit Iraq's rich oil reserves. At home in the West, the government that waged the war faced growing questions about its reasons for invading a sovereign Arab state and its future role in the Land Between the Two Rivers. Who, the foreign government was asked, will rule the new Iraq? Who will determine the new form of the new government? What if the Iraqis are allowed to choose and their choice is rejected? What if we don't like the Iraqis' choice? How long will we have to stay there, now that the war is over? Who will pay for the war, relief, and reconstruction? Why aren't those Iraqis grateful? Why do they hate us? Or, better, why do they mistrust us? What year is it and who is the foreign occupier? Is it 1920? or 2003? Is Whitehall redesigning Iraq or is it Washington?

This article is an attempt to think through some lessons of history as we proceed through the second occupation of modern Iraq.2 Is there anything to be learned from the first occupation by the British in the years during and after the First World War? Can the United States avoid any of the mistakes made by the British? Or is there no other way but to proceed along the same path, hoping America's professed idealism, belief in law and order, democratic values, and human rights as expressed in the Bill of Rights and Constitution, can be welcomed and emulated by a people who have lived long years under a predictable and stable reign of terror? …

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