Commentary: Iraqi history is back

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Aug. 29, 2003 at 5:17 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 29 (UPI) -- The devastating bomb attack that took the lives of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and at least 74 other people at the Ali Imam mosque in Najaf, Iraq, on Friday grimly confirmed warnings and themes we have been sounding over the past year in UPI Analysis columns. First and foremost, it teaches that Iraq history is back.

The Pentagon civilian hawks and their neo-conservative media allies who preached the necessity for toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and building a shining monument to American democracy never referred much to Iraqi history and they seem to have known little or any of it, which is not surprising, as few of them had ever visited Iraq.

The general impression one got from their writings, and from the pronouncements of President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and the other masterminds of the war was that Iraq, the legendary site of the Garden of Eden, had indeed been one, and that that state of innocence had endured until Saddam and his allies seized power to establish the Second Baath Republic in 1968 or, at least until the pro-Western monarchy with its trappings of parliamentary democracy was destroyed in the bloody coup of 1958.

But that was not the case.

The history of Iraq before the 35-year-long night of the Baath Republic descended upon it should have provided ample warning that once the lid was lifted off, those long decades of repression, more years of terrorism, assassination and massacre were only too likely to follow. For they were what had gone before.

Kanaan Makiya -- today one of the leading figures in the Iraqi democratic opposition and over the past decade and a half, one of the most fearless and perceptive critics of Saddam's tyranny -- summed up the history of Iraq's last decade of political turmoil before Saddam and his colleagues of the Baath took power -- and kept it -- in 1968.

Writing in his classic study "The Republic of Fear," he recalled, "Between 1958 and 1968 there were more than 10 coups and attempted coups two armed rebellions and a semicontinuous civil war against the Kurds."

The 37 years of supposedly constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy which the British Empire created in 1921 until its destruction in the frightful military coup and killings of 1958 was hardly a model of democratic and political propriety either. The late Professor Elie Kedourie of the London School of Economics, the greatest Western authority of his day on the modern political history of Iraq, described it up this way:

"Brief as it is, the record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine and, however pitiful its end, we may now say this was implicit in its beginning."

In 1933, right after Britain granted Iraq titular independence, the Iraqi army under Gen. Bakr Sidqi launched a massive pogrom against the Assyrian community in northern Iraq, slaughtering many thousands of them. So frightful were the killings that there was a serious move in the League of Nations to try and rescind full Iraqi independence, but it was blocked by Iraq's British protectors.

Three years later, on Oct. 29, 1936, the first military coup in the Arab world took place in Iraq when Gen. Sidqi overthrew the government of the day. In June 1941, British forces in Iraq who had just foiled another coup planned to bring Iraq over to the Nazi-Axis side in World War II stood back passively while forces led by frustrated young Iraqi army officers killed hundreds of Iraqi Jews and despoiled their community.

Repeated local Arab tribal rebellions were crushed by the British-supported regimes during this period with the utmost severity. Discussing the crushing of the 1936 Rumaitha revolt, Kedourie wrote, "The killing, it seems, was indiscriminate, and old men, women and children were the victims of machine-gunning and bombing from the air."

This, it should be noted, was a year before the Nazi Condor Legion bombed the Spanish Republican-held city of Guernica, indiscriminately, arousing shock and outrage throughout the world.

The British, it should be remembered, ruled Iraq directly for 15 years from their military conquest in 1918 to 1933. And they remained the real power in the country behind a succession of puppet governments -- the most long-lasting of them led by Nuri e-Said -- for the next quarter of a century until 1958. It was an era when the technology did not yet exist to threaten the homeland of a world-spanning empire with weapons of mass destruction. But in all that time, the British failed dismally in their sincere efforts to bring political stability and Western institutions of government, law and freedom to Iraq.

Although Britain came to Iraq as its military conqueror in 1918 with a 300-year long record of imperial conquest and colonial administration unequalled by any other power in modern history, it failed to successfully transplant any of the institutions of freedom and Western democracy there, even though it tried hard to do so for 40 years. And almost as soon as they entered the country, the British faced a ferocious popular uprising of Sunnis and Shiite alike, though dominated by Sunnis, which it mercilessly crushed at the cost of thousands of dead.

The end of empire was as bloody as its beginning. The Royal family were first massacred by mutinous troops wildly firing their automatic weapons, then their bodies were mutilated. Nuri e-Said, seeking to flee disguised as a woman was recognized in a street crowd and instantly torn limb from limb. The remains of his body were then repeatedly driven over by a small family car until it had been reduced to the consistency of porridge.

Friday's frightful bombing in Najaf, coming so soon as it does after the destruction of the U.N. compound in Baghdad and the murder of the chief U.N. envoy within it, serves notice that the bullet, the knife and the bomb are reigning again in Baghdad, just as they did during all those four long decades of supposedly enlightened British rule. U.S. policymakers should cease laboring under the delusion that they are about to change it.

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