For Iraq: Déjà Vu All Over Again
'Liberators' Have Been There Before, And Stayed for Decades
By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2003; Page F01
This isn't the first time a Western superpower has invaded Iraq, promising to free the country from tyrannical rule and bring democratic government -- all while nursing its own strategic interests.
The last time it happened, the British influence stayed for four decades.
When the British captured Baghdad in 1917, defeating the Ottomans, Gen. Stanley Maude made a declaration to the Iraqis:
"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."
Here is what Vice President Cheney predicted last month: "I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators."
That word -- "liberators" -- is leaden with historical weight. Then, as now, the superpower's motivation was suspect to some of the people liberated. Then, as now, there were questions about just how much self-rule would be given to them.
From the viewpoint of Iraqis, suggests James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, "if anything defines the history of the last century, it's the sense of having lost control . . . This is not about Saddam Hussein. This is about one more time when Western powers are coming in to redefine the Arab region."
"It is history repeating itself," says Kumait Jawdat, an Iraqi American who lives in Northwest Washington and whose grandfather fought to free his homeland from the Ottomans and later served as prime minister. The Americans "are invading Iraq. No matter how you want to polish that phrase, they're entering a country by force against the will of certainly some of the inhabitants. They're going to generate a certain degree of resentment."
Consider the parallels. Almost 90 years ago, when the British army came to what was then Mesopotamia, they faced a population divided along ethnic and tribal lines. Just as now, Sunni Muslims, a minority, enjoyed an elite status and positions of power, despite the fact that Shiite Muslims were a larger percentage of the population. The British came in through the south of the country and took the city of Basra in 1914, then traveled to Baghdad. For different strategic reasons, the United States today follows a similar geographic route.
Like Americans now, the British faced a forbidding landscape. Britain's first advance on Baghdad was understaffed and under-prepared, and the British troops encountered surprising resistance along the way.
"This of course looks strikingly similar to what happened to the British," says Middle East historian Janet Wallach. "They went in and they thought it was going to be a quick and easy thing and it turned out to be a long and difficult campaign."
Britain's miscalculation led to one of its most humiliating episodes of the war, when they were defeated by the Ottomans at Kut in 1916 after a siege that lasted 146 days. They finally took Baghdad the next year. Among Iraqis, reaction to the British was mixed. As Charles Tripp writes in "A History of Iraq," "many welcomed the removal of Ottoman control, but were apprehensive about British military occupation."
Like Americans today, the British invoked the oppressed state of Iraqis, and promised that with foreign involvement, they would do better. In his proclamation in Baghdad, Gen. Maude reminded Iraqis that "for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants," and invited them "to participate in the management of your civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army."
But as the Iraqis saw it, history worked out somewhat differently.
Kumait Jawdat's grandfather was among the Iraqi military men who fought alongside the British to defeat the Ottoman Empire, which in the parlance of the times was called "the sick man of Europe." At the end of the war, "Arabs had some justification for thinking rather than getting occupation they were going to get self-determination," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq historian.
Instead, France and Britain carved up the Middle East like so much pie while the United States clucked its tongue at their imperialism. The British were eager to hold onto Iraq, which gave them a strategic position with regard to India and -- shades of the modern day here -- access to oil interests.
Confusion soon set in among both the British and the Iraqis. How should the country be ruled? Directly by the British? Indirectly? What Iraqi leaders should step forward to represent the people?
Historian Judith Yaphe of National Defense University compares the divisions among Iraqis to those that still exist today, both within the country and within Iraq's exiled community. "They might not have liked the Brits but they didn't like each other much either, and if that doesn't ring true today, I do not know what does," she says. "There was a lot of disarray."
Britain was awarded a mandate from the League of Nations in 1920, allowing it to keep Iraq under its tutelage for the time being. Iraqis found this system patronizing and heavy-handed, and undertook a sizable revolt in the summer of 1920. The British put it down.
"If history is a guide, then the Muslim population of Iraq will not want to be governed by non-Muslims," says Middle East scholar David Fromkin.
In 1921, the British installed King Faisal I, who was beholden to them, within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. In coming years they advised the government and controlled the population with air power in times of uprising. Even after Iraq was granted formal independence in 1932, the British kept a hand in the country's affairs until a coup forced out the British-allied regime in 1958.
Of course there are limitations to the historical comparison. This time around, the despot is homegrown. And Iraq as a state didn't exist when the British came in, unlike now.
Ghida al-Askari Yousif, a schoolteacher in Vienna whose grandfather and great-uncle were prominent officials in Iraq for decades after the country was created, believes that modern-day Iraqis are more sophisticated about their place in the world.
"The difference now is they have a sense of identity and they have CNN and al-Jazeera," she says. "They know they're a part of something bigger." Yousif says that this may make contemporary Iraqis even less willing to accept foreign dominance.
Just how far the parallels between the British and the Americans extend will depend on the coming months and years.
Jawdat says that King Faisal and his successors never could erase the stain of their association with the Western invaders. He fears that whomever the U.S. helps into power will face the same problem.
"They're fostering one particular group, the Iraqi National Congress, as the solution for leading modern Iraq, at least through the transition period, so that anybody associated with the regime -- because of its association with the U.S. invasion -- is going to be forever tainted," he says.
Kumait, a technical writer, just returned from a conference of Iraqi exiles in London that announced itself as an alternative to the INC. He says he fears that -- just as with the British -- an American imposition of what Iraqi government should be, no matter how well intentioned, is virtually doomed.
"A democracy conceived in the American mind and imposed by the Americans and the British on an Iraq with a long history of civilization is not going to take root, because while it may suit the administration's needs it does not suit Iraq's needs, and this is where I see a parallel," he says. "The British with their idealism created a modern state without focusing enough on the traditions of the indigenous people."
Yousif worries that there's a certain familiar arrogance to the Americans swooping in to save the Iraqis, bringing in their own political solutions and their own interests. She is frustrated that Iraq and the larger Arab world couldn't solve this problem on their own. Iraqis are proud, she says, and the United States "should not impose its values on these people."
If they resist the Americans -- call them invaders or liberators or what you will -- it will not be because they love Saddam Hussein, she says, but because they love their country. "It's called self-respect," she says.
How long will the Americans stay? Will their influence be felt for decades, like that of the British?
"In the broader [Middle East] region, there is the assessment that America is never leaving," says Zogby. "They have bases in the Gulf, they now have a strong presence in Afghanistan and Uzbekistan and Iraq, and now threats against Syria." Zogby says many feel the war in Iraq is just one step in attempting a "radical transformation of the Middle East."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company