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A history lesson on Iraq

The roots of revolt

Phillip Knightley

Before Tony Blair joins the new crusaders trying to impose a "regime change", a Western "settlement" on Iraq, he should at least look at the historical facts that explain the rise of nationalist leaders such as Saddam Hussein. And while he is at it, since he is good at empathy, he might try looking at Britain through Iraqi eyes.

Seen from Baghdad, the British have bombed and invaded their country, lied to them, manipulated their borders, imposed on them leaders they did not want, kidnapped ones they did, fixed their elections, used collective terror tactics on their civilians, promised them freedom and then planned to turn their country into a province of India populated by immigrant Punjabi farmers. Small wonder that the author Said Aburish said to me recently: "If you think Saddam Hussein is a hard man to deal with, just wait for the next generation of Iraqi leaders."

In view of Saddam's ruthlessness in dealing with the Kurds in Iraq, his war with Iran and his invasion of Kuwait, it is hard to conceive that there are younger Iraqi leaders who believe Saddam has not been tough enough, and that, although the United States has the most powerful armed forces in the world, Americans do not have the stomach for the sacrifices an all-out war in the Middle East would entail.

These young Iraqis take the Islamic long view of history, which suggests that the Middle East never favours the foreigner and always takes its revenge on those who, like the British and Americans, insist on seeing the region through their own eyes.

We need to go back to the First World War, when Lawrence of Arabia and Winston Churchill were imposing the first regime changes on the Middle East, to see how we have reached the situation we face today. In 1919, the recently concluded war had made everyone realise the strategic importance of oil, and in any future major skirmish a secure supply of oil would be an essential weapon. Britain already had one source: British Petroleum, owned in part by the British government, had been pumping oil at Masjid-i-Salamn, in Iran's Zagros Mountains, since 1908. But it was not enough.

So even before the peace conference began in Paris in 1919 some underhand oil trading took place. France, for example, gave Britain the oil-rich area around Mosul in Iraq, in exchange for a share of the oil and "a free hand" in Syria. Unfortunately, Britain had already promised Syria to the Syrians. It was obvious to the smarter Arab leaders that guarantees of freedom and independence made during the war by Britain and France in return for their support against Germany's ally, Turkey, would now mean nothing.

This was confirmed at the peace conference when the oil companies pressed their governments to renounce all wartime promises to the Arabs. The oil companies saw only too well that oil concessions and royalties would be easier to negotiate with a series of rival Arab states, lacking any sense of unity, than with a powerful independent Arab state in the Middle East. Ironically - in that President George W Bush now leads the new crusaders - the only country to protest at the betrayal of the Arabs was the United States.

A commission set up by President Wilson warned that independence for states such as Palestine, Syria and Iraq, should be granted as soon as possible. And the idea of making Palestine into a Jewish commonwealth should be dropped. The report was ignored, even in Washington, and it took a further two years for the Allies to finalise their carve-up of the Middle East. The Arabs were stunned to learn that the whole Arab rectangle lying between the Mediterranean and the Persian frontier, including Palestine, was to be placed under mandates to suit the foreign policies of Britain and France. The Arabs had simply exchanged one imperial ruler, Turkey, for another, the West.

Revolution began almost immediately. The Iraqis tried to kick us out by raiding British establishments and killing British troops. The British army retaliated with collective punishment, burning to the ground every village from which any such attack was mounted. Lawrence of Arabia wrote to The Times suggesting, with heavy irony, that burning villages was not very efficient. "By gas attacks, the whole population of offending districts could be wiped out neatly, and as a method of government, it would be no more immoral than the present system." The grim truth was that something along these lines was being considered.

Churchill, then Secretary of State for Air and War, suggested that the RAF should take on the job of subduing Iraq: "It 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." In the end the RAF stuck to conventional high-explosive bombs, a method we are still using today.

When Churchill appointed Lawrence to clear up the mess the Middle East had become, Lawrence began by offering to make Feisal, the man he had chosen as military leader of the Arab revolt, King of Iraq. The problem was that there were several other candidates. The most popular was an early version of Saddam Hussein, the nationalist leader Sayid Taleb, who had gained popular support by threatening a nationwide revolt if the Iraqis were not allowed to choose their own leader. Our solution was simple. We kidnapped him, and dispatched him on a RN destroyer to Ceylon.

By the time Taleb was allowed to return, Feisal had been elected king by one of those suspiciously high majorities - 96.8 per cent. The regime changes continued. In Jordan, we made Feisal's brother Abdullah king, and provided him with money and troops in return for his promise to suppress anti-Zionist activity. Their father, Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, the man who had started the Arab revolt against Turkey, was offered £100,000 a year not to make a nuisance of himself. And that was that. Britain regarded this as redemption in full of her promises to the Arabs. The Arabs, particularly the Iraqis, did not see it that way. They have been in revolt ever since.

Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979 on a platform of Arab unity and resistance to Western influence in the Middle East. He continues to have a following in the Arab world because he is seen as one of the few Arab leaders prepared to stand up to the West, particularly the United States, whose interest in the area is comparatively recent. (The British Arabist, St John Philby, father of the notorious KGB spy Kim Philby, negotiated a deal between the Standard Oil Company of California and the Saudis, and commercial production began in March 1938.)

Whether we accept that Saddam Hussein poses a threat or not, and whether this threat is so great that we can justify attacking Iraq again, we should first ask the crunch question: if the new crusaders defeat and occupy Iraq, what then? A United Nations mandate, something like that imposed on the country after the First World War, allowing the victorious army to remain in control of the conquered land? Or perhaps a new "Feisal" inserted as a token ruler of a reluctant population?

Either course spells disaster. The cynical disposition of other people's countries and their leaders - no matter how frightful they may appear to us - will surely bring a bloody reckoning. That great Arabist Gertrude Bell once warned that the catchwords of revolution - equality and fraternity - would always have great appeal in the Middle East because they challenged a world order in which Europeans were supreme, or in which those Europeans and their client Arab leaders treated ordinary Arabs as inferior beings.

And so a new cycle of anger, frustration and bloodshed will begin because 800 years after the crusades there will still be foreigners occupying Arab lands.


Phillip Knightley is an Australian-born member of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The author of ten books - including The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (Thomas Nelson 1969) - and a veteran investigative journalist who has spent most of his life in Britain, he was a special correspondent for the Sunday Times for twenty years and a leader of its celebrated Insight team of investigative reporters. A multi-award winning journalist and writer, and author of the classic work The First Casualty: A History of War, Correspondents and Propaganda (revised edition, Prion 2000), he uncovered the Kim Philby spy scandal and played a central role in exposing both the 1963 Profumo sex scandal and the thalidomide birth defects. His latest book is Australia: A Biography of a Nation (Random House 2000). This article, which was first published in the Independent on 4 August 2002, is reproduced with the author's kind permission. Before heading for Fleet Street, Phillip's last assignment for the Sydney Daily Mirror was to cover Doc Evatt's 1954 election campaign.


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