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The Early Years:
1918 Through 1939

Iraq isn't really a country so much as it is an ongoing project. Iraq is one of the first 20th Century examples of what you would call "nation building" and like many initial attempts, it was fatally flawed.

Any competent process consultant will tell you that sometimes a project can be so irredeemable that repairing the problems is virtually impossible — or at least much harder than starting it over. Hours later, in the bar at the hotel, the same consultant will tell you that almost no one takes this advice because they are stuck in the belief that all the cost and work invested so far has to be worth something — it's has to be better than nothing. Iraq is one of those projects. Worse yet, there are reasons why some of the people who could help fix it don't want it fixed; when those people announce an intention to fix it, their motives should be questioned and the details of their plan demanded up front.

Iraq entered the 20th Century as part of the Ottoman Empire, which was the imperialist era of what is now Turkey. The region, which largely corresponds to ancient Mesopotamia, was home to a variety of Arab tribes who had lived there — or wandered in nomadic groups there — since at least Biblical times and probably earlier.

During World War I (WWI), the Turks allied with their northern neighbors, the Germans, and thus ended up on the losing side. When the war broke out, the Brits contacted the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali a ruler from "The House of Hashem," and appealed for Arab allegiance against the Germans and Turks.

The British identified Hussein as a regional religious leader and they intended to offer him the position of "pope" of Islam — not realizing that such a position didn't actually exist[3]. A combination of "over enthusiastic" English-to-Arab translations and a pan-Islamist understanding of what this regional leadership would entail, lead the Hashemite patriarch to understand that the British were offering him post-war suzerainty over the entire Arab Peninsula.

The war ended in 1918, and almost the entire Arabian peninsula was under British occupation. The French controlled Syria. The Arabs had assumed that they would convene after their liberation to decide what nationalities should emerge and what their borders would be. This didn't happen.

Instead, in 1920, the League of Nations assigned areas like this as "Mandates" to League members and told them to sort things out. Mesopotamia — which became Iraq — was assigned to Britain. The right thing for Britain to have done would have been to act as coordinator of the Arabs' deliberation, providing an outside party to help mediate conflicts. Like water, the right thing to do just doesn't mix with oil.

The British were all for Arabs running their own countries, of course, but first the British had to secure unimpeded access to their oil fields. It was decided that a rail line would be built, running from Europe, across Turkey and all the way through Kuwait to the Persian Gulf. The British occupation would continue until the project was well under way. Oh, and until they were sure that the flow of oil northward would be maintained at low, low prices after they withdrew.

The British let the Arabs know that it was now a British job to fix the region and it would take some time, old chaps, so sit tight, don't do anything requiring too much in the way of civil rights and we'll be out of your rag-covered hair before you can say, "Hey, that's our oil."

The Arabs had fought years of war only to have the Ottoman occupation replaced by a British occupation. The Arabs were as indignant about this as the French are about everything else, and, unfortunately for everyone involved, must less squeamish about violence.

The people of England have been led in [Iraq] into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and Honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqués are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.

T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia)
A Report on Mesopotamia, 22 August, 1920 [ref]

Whine, whine, whine. What was this liberal appeaser, bleeding-heart, peacenik conspiracy-monger bleating about anyway?

In the summer of 1920, a unified faction of Arabs and Kurds staged an uprising aimed at expelling the British occupation. The northern half of Iraq exploded in anti-British violence. Free from the scrutiny of CNN camera teams, which hadn't been invented yet, the British took a direct approach to convincing the Mesopotamians that they should be happy with the liberation they already had and to pipe down.

They were bombing here in the Kaniya Khoran...Sometimes they raided three times a day.

An elderly Kurdish man, in a 1993 interview [1]

This assault set new benchmarks in wartime atrocities in several reprehensible ways. Distinctions between peaceful areas and those with active fighting were ignored. This was particularly hard on the mountainous Kurdish areas, where the British were able to commit an act of violence, murder or cruelty in every square inch of inhabited land. This appeared to be an effort to kill every inhabitant, which had recently become a crime under an international law against "genocide."

The British Secretary for Air and War, Winston Churchill — quite the overachiever — went above and beyond ethical ineptitude, to achieve a degree of moral vacancy characterized by an utter inability to comprehend the humanity of his targets.

[A promising strategy would entail] the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death...for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.

Winston Churchill, 19 February, 1920
In a letter to Sir Hugh Trenchard concerning regaining control of Iraq. [1]

As it was, Churchill's dream of delivering nerve gas from planes would have to wait for Vietnam. The Kurds were gassed by regular British mortar fire, making Churchill the first guy to "gas the Kurds," which proves that Churchill should not have been appeased.

Winston didn't squander this valuable opportunity to test new weapons on live targets, either. He tested a selection of perverse weapons that really made for a top 10 all-time atrocity. The combination of indiscriminate targeting, exhaustive area coverage and diabolically cruel weaponry remained unique in character, despite being eclipsed in magnitude, until the American assault on North Vietnam. This latter-day campaign was nearly identical to its 1920s predecessor, but featured updated technology and a much grander scale.

In Vietnam, at least, cameras were rolling and some of the tools and techniques were banned in the wake of world-wide disgust and outrage.

Churchill later became the personification of the noble British resistance to the Nazis, which is too bad because he was a complete dick.

The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.

Wing-Commander Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris [1]

Killing an estimated 10,000 people in a few short weeks — mostly via air power — was a capacity for mass murder the Kurds and Arabs had never witnessed, and possibly hadn't imagined possible. The uprising ended abruptly forcing the Mesopotamians to comprehend the new level of malevolence they were facing.

Apparently, Imperialist Oppression for Dummies was available in English as well as Turkish, but the English edition had some extra chapters too severe for the Ottomans — a regime not known for compassion. If anything changed after their "liberation," it was that the British were worse than the Turks.

Spreading Freedom, Version 1.0

In a specific sense, the Turks are as bad as — or a close, close second to — the Nazis for what they did to the Armenians. To be fair, that was a particularly bad moment for them, and they're usually reasonable people, unless you get on their bad side, in which case they're outright assholes again. The Nazis (not to be confused with Germans, in general), on the other hand, were pretty serious assholes all the time. The Turks were not nice people to be ruled by, but they'd been ruling the Ottoman Empire for several centuries, and they had some sense of the limitations of cruelty that you can inflict and still maintain a stable relationship with the occupied population.

It costs a lot of money to sustain a military campaign at the war crime-level of achievement. Killing people is a probabilistic venture, so killing a lot of them quickly requires a volume of ordinance for which we need a word meaning "gratuitously gratuitous." The Kurdish areas were all hit with air power, which is particularly expensive, and there were also tens of thousands of troops in the fertile plains to the south. This was a larger force than the Turks had needed, but then again, the Turks only killed about 200 dissidents a year, not 3000 a week. With Britain continuing its possession of oil-rich Kuwait, the expense of holding the rest of Mesopotamia was deemed unnecessary. The Brits began drawing up plans for a new nation of Iraq, in which all the malcontents could live.

The meeting had gone on for five grueling days with no compromise in sight. So one night in late November 1922, Cox, Britain's representative in Baghdad, summoned to his tent Sheik Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, soon to become ruler of Saudi Arabia, to explain the facts of life as the British carved up the remnants of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

"It was astonishing to see [ibn Saud] being reprimanded like a naughty schoolboy by His Majesty's High Commissioner and being told sharply that he, Sir Percy Cox, would himself decide the type and general line of the frontier," recalled Harold Dickson, the British military attaché to the region, in his memoirs.

This ended the impasse. Ibn Saud almost broke down and pathetically remarked that Sir Percy was his father and mother who made him and raised him from nothing to the position he held and that he would "surrender half his kingdom, nay the whole, if Sir Percy ordered."

Within two days, the deal was done. The modern borders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait were established by British Imperial fiat at what became known as the Uqauir Conference.

Glenn Frankel, Lines in The Sand, 1991 [2]

A wise man once said, "Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity," and this wisdom impels one to consider Percy Cox, the man who authored the blueprint for Iraq, to be one of the biggest idiots in world history. The boundaries of the new nation were the kind of clueless blunder that can only be the result of true ineptitude. For example, the borders resulted in coherent tribal regions being divided between Iraq and bordering nations. In other places, obvious natural boundaries were ignored in favor of straight-line borders, hastily drawn by placing a straght-edge on a map. Had the League Mandate called for the British to contrive an endless legacy of border squabbles and ethnic unrest, the borders alone would have been utter perfection, but the plan for political infrastructure upstaged them.

The multi-ethnic character of the misshapen new state was best understood by the urbanized population living in the fertile plains and mountain valleys in the north. Naturally, the British planners sought out the sheiks of obscure nomadic tribes from the south to counsel them on the political landscape. The leadership selected by this committee placed disproportionate power in the hands of either ethnic minorities, or tribal leaders with the least possible political sophistication — sometimes both.

This new parliament of Iraq may have had a fighting chance to rule effectively, but the Brits finalized their Three Stooges version of a British government by making it a monarchy. This allowed the last residue of possible legitimacy to be thoroughly cleansed from the new government by what can only be described as super-human idiocy. A monarch was chosen from a different country, Jordan. This decision is a little less baffling when you realize that the chosen monarch was a Hashemite — yes, the Brits were trying to make good on their accidental promise of regional domination by the House of Hashem.

The new government might have been assured more certain doom had the Brits chosen an even less likely monarch, like say, a mentally disturbed teenage girl from Taiwan, but this might have stunned the critics into a long enough period of silence and inaction that the new government could have taken root.

It's puzzling that the borders of Iraq were defined by the end of 1922, and yet it was 10 more years later that the nation was created. But you have to understand that huge, century-spanning screwups take time. Things were, no doubt, delayed somewhat by the discovery of new Iraqi oil fields in 1927, but after some more planning and no doubt some violent oppression, rights to the fields were assigned to a newly-created entity, The Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), a multi-national firm owned by British oil concerns.

Light Fuse. Run.

The first 20th Century prefab nation went live in 1932. This historic event was soon followed by another: the first military coup in Arab history, in 1936. That must have been so fun, they did it again in 1937. Sometimes events cluster around points of instability, but in the case of Iraq, this was the start of a steady stream of assassinations and coups. It seems appropriate that 1937 saw not only the birth of this pattern, but also the birth of Saddam Hussein.

The king who took power in 1937 lasted only two years. He was spared the indignity of assassination; he managed to be the first king to die leading Iraqi troops into battle. The tale isn't so much... heroic... as it is laugh-out-loud funny.

In 1938, the Kuwaiti Parliament voted to rejoin their traditional countrymen by becoming part of Iraq. The Kuwaiti royal family responded by dissolving the parliament and removing any trace of democracy or freedom from Kuwait.

It's pretty sad when a monarchy invading a country increases that country's freedom.

In 1939, Iraq made its first attempt to invade Kuwait with intentions to annex the land and liberate its people from the tyranny of the ruling family. Known for his love of fast cars, the king floored the accelerator of his 1936 muscle-car and pealed out ahead of his troops. His gallant charged was sadly (well, comically) brief as his assault met unexpected resistance... from a tree. The patriotic Kuwaiti tree defended its homeland from the Iraqi invasion force by being in front of the King's car when he lost control of it and swerved off the road at high speed. I don't know how fast a car could go in 1936, but I do know they featured neither seat belts nor airbags.

1. Simons, Geoff. Iraq: From Sumer to Sudan. London: St. Martins Press, 1994
2. Frankel, Glenn, Lines in the Sand The Gulf War Reader, New York: Random House, 1991, p. 16
3. Fromkin, David, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation
of the Modern Middle East
Avon: NY, 1989. pp104-105.
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