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U.S. Risks Repeating Britain's 1920 Mistakes in Iraq

William Choong, in the Straits Times (Singapore) (April 17, 2004):

A HEAVILY armed military force from a Western country takes down a Middle Eastern regime which threatens Western interests in the region. A widespread revolt breaks out. This forces the invader to hand back power to elements of the former regime.

Iraq? Obviously. But in describing the latest case of insurrection in the country, one could just as well be talking about Britain's Iraqi experience in the 1920s.

'What happened in Iraq in 1920 so closely resembles the events now that only a historical ignoramus can be surprised,' writes Mr Niall Ferguson, the author of Empire: The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power.

The parallels are chilling.

During World War I, between 1914 and 1918, Britain overthrew an authoritarian regime in Baghdad. It then installed a political order that was respectful of British interests in the Persian Gulf.

In 1920, a widespread revolt ensued, comprising the country's three main ethic groups - Shi'ites, Sunni and even the Kurds. It led to thousands of British casualties.

By August that year, the desperate British commander even appealed to London for poison-gas shells - an option that Winston Churchill, then a secretary of state in the War Office, had also called for.

In the following years, Britain ceded control of the country to elites from the former regime - made up mostly of Sunnis and politicians not representative of the population.

This scenario led to the emergence of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in the 1970s.

There is no reason - as yet - to believe that Washing- ton's experience in Iraq could see the United States venturing down the British road.

The latest insurgency led by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr is estimated to command support from less than a tenth of Iraq's 25 million people.

But the intensification of the current insurrection suggests that the US is slowly being pushed the way of Britain in the 1920s.

'A light military force whose occupation of Iraq was becoming unpopular allowed armed groups to fight with great effectiveness,' said Iraq expert Toby Dodge of Britain's Warwick University.

'That caused Britain to leave before completing the job of state-building.

'It looks like this might happen to the US as well,' he told The Straits Times.

If the US does leave before it builds a broad-based government, the Iraq of today could indeed go the way of the Iraq of the 1920s.

Ironically, the unpopular 25-member Iraqi Governing Council - whose members are considered by many Iraqis to be US puppets - looks very much like Britain's unrepresentative regime of the 1920s.

'The British were forced to give up on building a solid state with popular support. They gave power to a clique of politicians who were totally unrepresentative of the population,' said Dr Dodge.

'This is what the Americans are doing today.'

To be fair, Washington has agreed to United Nations' recommendations that the council be scrapped in place of a more broad-based interim government before power is returned to Iraqis on June 30.

But with the rise of the insurgency and an American public that is cooling towards Iraq, a British-style disengagement is possible.

Writing three months before the US invasion of Iraq in March last year, British historian Charles Tripp warned of such an outcome.

A US disengagement would 'certainly cause despair among those Iraqis who have seen the US as their main hope of radical political change,' he wrote.

'But for the US, as for the British 80 years ago, the lower risk, the lesser cost and the short-term advantages may outweigh the possible future benefits of fundamental social transformation in Iraq.'