What Tony Blair Never Told George W. Bush

Should the Bush Administration have studied Iraqi history before attempting to democratize it?

September 4, 2003

Should the Bush Administration have studied Iraqi history before attempting to democratize it?

The devastating bomb attack that took the lives of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim and at least 120 other people at the Ali Imam mosque in Najaf, Iraq teaches — first and foremost — that Iraq's history is back.

In the run-up to the war, Bush Administration officials coincidentally never referred much to Iraqi history — and they seem to have known little, or any, of it.

The general impression they conveyed implicitly and explicitly was that Iraq — the legendary site of the Garden of Eden — had indeed been a unified, stable country until Saddam and his allies seized power to establish the Second Baath Republic in 1968.

But that was not the case. The history of Iraq before the 35-year long night of the Second Baath Republic descended upon it should have provided ample warning in one crucial regard.

Once the lid was lifted off those long decades of repression, more years of terrorism, assassination and massacre were only too likely to follow. For that is what had marked Iraq's history before.

Just listen to Kanaan Makiya, who today is one of the leading figures in the Iraqi democratic opposition and who — over the past decade and a half — had been one of the most fearless and perceptive critics of Saddam’s tyranny.

He summed up the history of Iraq prior to Saddam’s takeover in 1968. Writing in his 1989 classic study “The Republic of Fear,” he recalled, “Between 1958 and 1968, there were more than ten coups and attempted coups, two armed rebellions and a semi-continuous civil war against the Kurds.”

And even before that period, the 37 years of supposedly constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy — which the British Empire created in 1921 — did not provide any stability either.

Witness its destruction in the frightful military coup and killings of 1958. Those events were hardly a model of democratic and political propriety.

The late Professor Elie Kedourie of the London School of Economics — the greatest Western authority of his day on the modern political history of Iraq — described the height of Britain's influence this way: “Brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine — and however pitiful its end, we may now say this was implicit in its beginning.”

In 1933, right after Britain granted Iraq titular independence, the Iraqi army under General Bakr Sidqi launched a massive pogrom against the Assyrian community in northern Iraq, slaughtering many thousands of them.

So frightful were the killings that there was a serious move in the League of Nations to try to rescind full Iraqi independence. But the move was blocked by Iraq’s British protectors.

Three years later, on October 29, 1936 the first military coup in the Arab world took place in Iraq when General Sidqi overthrew the government of the day. In June 1941, British forces in Iraq had just foiled another coup planned to bring Iraq over to the Nazi-Axis side in World War II.

But they stood back passively while forces led by frustrated young Iraqi army officers killed hundreds of Iraqi Jews and despoiled their community.

Repeated local Arab tribal rebellions were crushed by the British-supported regimes during this period with the utmost severity.

Discussing the crushing of the 1936 Rumaitha revolt, Kedourie wrote, “The killing, it seems, was indiscriminate, and old men, women and children were the victims of machine-gunning and bombing from the air.”

This, it should be noted, was a year before the Nazi Condor Legion bombed the Spanish Republican-held city of Guernica indiscriminately, arousing shock and outrage throughout the world.

The British, it should be remembered, ruled Iraq directly for 15 years from their military conquest in 1918 to 1933. And they remained the real power in the country behind a succession of puppet governments — the most long-lasting of them led by Nuri e-Saad — for the next quarter of a century, until 1958.

It was an era when the technology did not yet exist to threaten the homeland of a world-spanning empire with weapons of mass destruction. But in all that time, the British failed dismally in their sincere efforts to bring political stability and Western institutions of government, law and freedom to Iraq.

Britain had come to Iraq as its military conqueror in 1918, with a 300-year long record of imperial conquest and colonial administration unequalled by any other power in modern history.

It failed to successfully transplant any of the institutions of freedom and Western democracy there, even though it tried hard to do so for 40 years.

And almost as soon as they entered the country, the British faced a ferocious popular uprising of Sunnis and Shias alike, though dominated by southern Sunnis, which it mercilessly crushed at the cost of thousands of dead. The end of empire was as bloody as its beginning.

Iraq's royal family was first massacred by mutinous troops wildly firing their automatic weapons, then their bodies were mutilated. Nuri e-Saad, seeking to flee disguised as a woman, was recognized in a street crowd — and instantly torn limb from limb.

The remains of his body were then repeatedly driven over by a small family car, until they had been reduced to the consistency of porridge.

And that brings us full circle to the frightful bombing in Najaf in late August 2003 — coming so soon after the destruction of the UN compound in Baghdad and the murder of the chief UN envoy within it.

The act serves notice that the bullet, the knife and the bomb are reigning again in Baghdad — just as they did during those four long decades of supposedly enlightened British rule. U.S. policymakers should cease laboring under the delusion that they are about to change it.

Martin Sieff, Chief News Analyst, United Press International

More on this topic