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We Seem to Be Following in the Footsteps of the British in Iraq

From the South China Morning Post (April 25, 2004):

If the United States and its allies had consulted history books before invading Iraq just over a year ago, they might have had second thoughts. Iraqis do not take foreign occupation lightly, as the blood-spattered accounts attest.

Most telling is the British war cemetery in Baghdad known as North Gate.

Row upon row of graves - more than 3,000, mostly unidentified - mark the last resting places of invading soldiers killed during more than four decades of occupation from 1914.

That, according to historians, is the tip of the human cost of Britain's attempts to militarily hold on to the region once known as Mesopotamia as part of its empire. Tens of thousands of civilians died fighting to oust the occupiers, sometimes in aerial bombings and mustard gas attacks.

Such methods of warfare are now outlawed by the Geneva Conventions, but invasion of another country is not, as the United States-led occupation proves. Neither have Iraqis altered their desire to determine their own future.

The point is not lost on historians and defence analysts, who are not surprised at the mounting toll of coalition soldiers. More than 800 have so far been killed - more than three-quarters of them since US President George W. Bush declared the war over on May 1.

As the toll rises and the objectives of instilling stability and democracy seem increasingly difficult to attain, the comparisons with the Vietnam war are inevitable. But it is the British occupation, not Vietnam - America's biggest military humiliation - that is a closer parallel, former US army colonel Kenneth Allard suggested last week.

"Americans do not know their history and what they do know, they do not know well," Professor Allard, a defence analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said."Most have at least heard of Vietnam and we're inevitably drawing our lessons in Iraq from that conflict.

"But in this case, the relevant example is the British occupation of Iraq in the 1920s, not Vietnam. There were the same number of British there after the first world war as there are Americans in Iraq now."

There are 135,000 American troops in Iraq and calls are rising in the US for that figure to be increased to crush resistance before the handover of power to an Iraqi civilian authority on June 30.

Britain became militarily involved in the region in November 1914 when it declared war on the Ottoman Empire for siding with Germany in the dawning days of the first world war. With an eye primarily on protecting its oil interests in Persia, now Iran, it invaded and occupied Mesopotamia the following month.

With Germany's defeat in 1918, Britain and its victorious allies divided the territorial spoils of war. In January 1919, Britain formed Iraq from Mesopotamia and the governates of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. In April the following year, the forerunner to the United Nations, the League of Nations, gave the British a mandate over the new nation.

Middle East expert Phebe Marr, author of The Modern History of Iraq, said most Iraqis viewed the mandate as foreign occupation, and it resulted in a ferocious rebellion from July to October 1920. Involving all sectors of society, from urbanites to tribespeople, different ethnic and religious groups, the human and economic cost for Britain was high.

Historical accounts generally agree that 4,000 Arabs and 450 British were killed. The cost to the British treasury was about GBP40 million - an amount worth many times more today.

"Britain had to go back to the drawing board because taxpayers refused to foot the bill or accept the cost in lives," Dr Marr, a Washington resident who spoke during a visit to Qatar, said."What they came up with was indirect British rule under a monarch and a western-style democracy with a parliament and elections."

The rumblings from Iraqis continued, though, and eventually the main dissenters, Shi'ite religious leaders, were exiled to Persia. Fresh elections were held, an Anglo-Iraq treaty signed in October 1922 to supplant the mandate and, through behind-the-scenes manipulation and skill, relative stability was created.

Iraqi independence was recognised by a British treaty in 1927, although the nation still retained three air bases on Iraqi soil. The pact was formally recognised by the Iraqi parliament in November 1930, confirming independence, sovereignty and British base rights for the next 25 years. Statehood was finalised with admission to the League of Nations in October 1932.

Political instability persisted, though, with a military coup in 1936. The onset of the second world war in 1939 and Iraq's pro-German stance prompted a second British invasion and occupation in 1941, which ended six years later.

With parliament and elections restored, a period of calm ensued until the coup of 1958, in which the king was assassinated, the monarchy abolished and a republic established. That decade could be described as Iraq's"golden age", Dr Marr suggested.

"Although there was martial law and newspapers had to be closed, this was a period of great stability," she said."They had a parliament, a constitution, elections and a reasonably free press. It didn't function as well as it would have in a western society and economic development was not widely spread, but it could be termed a 'golden era' nonetheless."

Gradually, Britain lessened its influence and relaxed control.

Dr Marr agreed there were striking similarities between the British occupation and that of present American operations. But she also believed there were sufficient differences to suggest that history was not being repeated.

Both occupying forces had believed Iraqis were ready to embrace efforts of"liberation"; there was a similarity in the June 30 handover to an Iraqi administration with a degree of sovereignty, but little control over security and the economy; and a parallel could be drawn with the future role of the UN and that of the League of Nations in 1919 to legitimise the process.

"But I wouldn't push these parallels too far," Dr Marr said."We have gone into a state which we all agree was ruled by an horrendous regime and destroyed the institutions that ruled it - the government, the ruling Ba'ath Party and the military. We had no grip on reality in Iraq or understanding of what we were doing."...