British troops prepared for three-year occupation of Iraq
British officers have been told to prepare for an occupation of Iraq lasting up to three years. The BBC said Tuesday that it had been told by a “senior military source” that the British army had begun planning for an occupation of Iraq that would run for three years.
The country would be divided into sectors, with a different nation responsible for each sector — a format similar to that used by NATO forces when they deployed in Bosnia in December 1995 and Kosovo in June 1999. I’m assuming the British/Americans will have Baghdad, the Turks northern Iraq (sorry, Kurds!) and … uh, who gets the rest? The Czechs?
How many people here are familiar with the history of modern Iraq? If you are, you know that having British troops as occupation forces is a phenomenally bad idea. The first time the British invaded Iraq (then called the Ottoman province of Mesopotamia) in 1915-1916, they lost 51,800 men in three years — almost as many of the United States lost in Vietnam in nine years. Britain ultimately conquered the region, setting up a 16-year imperial occupation that was quickly engulfed in tribal and regional squabbles. British officers were assassinated on the streets of Baghdad, violent anti-British demonstrations were common and RAF bombers were summoned to keep the peace more than once.
Even today, in 13 little-known cemeteries in Iraq, there lie the remains of some 22,400 British and Commonwealth soldiers. Late last year, the British government shipped 500 new headstones to Baghdad to replace those broken and corroded by weather.
But the British occupation set the stage of the rise of Saddam, ironically enough. In 1921, the British made Faysal ibn Hussein al-Hashim, the third son of Lawrence of Arabia’s friend, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the new king of Iraq, beginning a 37-year rule of the Hashemites over the new nation. Of the three Hashemite kings, only Ghazi (1933-39) had any popularity — because he was anti-British. He died in an automobile accident in 1939. Throughout World War II, a pro-Axis military junta attempted to throw off the British yoke with the help of the Germans, but the British moved troops from Palestine and India to crush the revolt.
The monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 by the general Abd al-Karim Qasim, who was able to come to power because the Iraqi government was not sufficiently pro-Egypt when it fought the Israelis, the French and the British in the 1956 Sinai-Suez War. When Qasim came to power, the nascent Ba’ath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was a member, rejoiced but quickly became disillusioned because Qasim wasn’t a pan-Arabist. Pan-Arabism was a somewhat Rube Goldberg-esque ideology that called for uniting all Arab countries into a single nation to stand up to the West as an equal. Qasim refused to join the United Arab Republic, which was the vehicle for pan-Arabism formed by Egyptian general Abd al-Nasser.
In 1959, Saddam — along with six other men — attempted to assassinate Qasim but failed. The Ba’athists finally managed to overthrow Qasim in 1963 with the help of a group of Army officers, including the colonel Abd as-Salim Arif, who then went on to purge the Ba’ath party from the government the next year. When Arif died in a helicopter crash in 1966, his brother took power only to be deposed in another Ba’athist coup on July 17, 1968. This is the coup that cemented the Ba’ath Party’s hold on power in Iraq and set up Saddam, who was a central cog in Ba’ath Party machinery, to become the major power in Iraq. On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein assumed the presidency of Iraq.
With this bloody history still fresh in the minds of people who have very long memories — and creative notions of revenge — is it any wonder that British occupation forces in Iraq should be viewed with great trepidation.