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The British Mandate of Iraq: Part VI, Conclusion

Monday, August 20, 2007

mehdi_army0803.jpgBy Joe Spring

The conclusion on the history of the creation of Iraq by the British.

Click on these links for: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

V. Legacy Set in Stone?

Most noteworthy of the British policies passed in Iraq which reverberate to this day were the religious sectarian divisions promoted by the British Iraqi brain trust.  This brain trust included members such as Gertrude Bell, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and Percy Cox all of whom were believed to be experts in the Middle East as well as supporters of the interests of Britain.  These select few who made up the brain trust, none of whom were Iraqis, would go onto greatly influence the British Government establish the modern state of Iraq as we know of it today.  It is amazing to think that the fates and futures of so many relied on the decisions of so few.  The British government had chosen to promote not only tribal but Sunni tribal leaders (the sheikhs) as the leaders who would usher in a new Iraq.  The Sunnis, a minority in the new nation were nonetheless seen as the most viable option for Britain.  The Shias, viewed as religious fanatics were left out of many levels of the government starting from the top down.  With a Sunni king who wasn’t even an “Iraqi” and had already been rejected in Syria, the Iraqis were given a minority power structure which was controlled behind the scenes by the British.  Thus, faced with pro-British and anti-British allegiances, religious sectarian and tribal divisions which had already existed on a micro scale began to be projected to enormous proportions onto the new canvas which was Iraq.
In a January 22nd, 1921 letter to Sir Hugh Bell, Gertrude Bell recounts that:

 “They (the Sunnis) are afraid of being swamped by the Shias, against whom a Turk might be a better bulwark than a son of the Sharif.  The present government which is predominantly Sunni, isn’t doing anything to conciliate the Shias.”[1]

The Sunni power structure would only continue to increase until Iraqi independence in 1932.  However, Iraqi governmental traditions had been already formed and when the British invaded Iraq again during World War Two they made sure that an Sunni tribal power structure was reinstated.  Thus, the power structure not only pitted Kurd against Arab, rural against urban, as well as the rich versus the poor but now God was being asked to take sides as the Sunni received power over the Shia the effects of which can be seen heavily to this day.

Al-Wadha’ al-Shadd or  the ‘perplexing predicament'[2]  was the term King Faisal used to describe the quagmire in which he found himself.   Faced by the fact that the legitimacy of his power was based on British policy and intervention yet troubled by a need for an Iraqi national identity King Faisal and his adopted people were troubled.  The Iraqi psyche, although new, was a confusing, schizophrenic place to be. Expected to succeed as a hurriedly assembled nation under a newly imposed foreign king with newly imposed social and economic regulations, Iraqis already had it hard enough.  However, the fact that their entire national identity relied heavily on the decisions of a foreign, non-Arab power (the British)  Iraqis were placed into a truly ‘perplexing predicament.’   With importance  based on their physical attributes  (oil, resources, protectorate of India, trade routes, etc.)  Iraq was a “debt” owed to British and subsequent prevention of an Iraqi national identity was simply seen as collateral damage.

Everything about Iraq was artificial, from its composition to its inherited power structure, the quest for an Iraqi identity would be difficult but may have been possible (and still maybe is possible) without British intervention . Like trying to glue together a lamp with hundreds of different pieces, the only thing which could keep it held together was the strongest of adhesives.  This British short term egocentricity has haunted and continues to haunt to this day the nation of Iraq with a legacy of torture, theft, rape, and murder.  Although the British did not put many of Iraq’s past leaders into power the institutions and laws which they formed decades ago and the divisions they formed have acted as a direct catalyst which thrust many into power and resulted in the catastrophic sectarian violence which still plagues Iraq to this day.

Iraq constructed, pulled out of thin air, void of nationalistic leanings or reason for existence, Iraq from its birth was a nation provided with artificial boundaries, leaders, and basic reasons for existence.  A virtual economic slave state of Britain, Iraq was presented with the mindset of a victim.  Britain had prevented a strong Iraqi national identity from emerging as it was dangerous to the British power and economic base established within the country.  Put simply, the British sought to get the most out of Iraq with the least expenditure of funds or effort.   Thus, several sides were played against each other and via constructed Iraqi institutions of both a new economic and political situation the British were able to control the infantile state and its resources.

The British construction of the state of Iraq, based upon motives of British economic growth chiefly via oil, has produced a neglected nation void of a national identity or reason for unification.  The British needed a disunified Iraq in order to control it.  The problem arose that when Iraq was finally allowed to take its first steps as a nation without Britain’s helping hand, the only entity which could control its fractured populace was a man like Saddam Hussein, a true byproduct of British intervention.   Yet, as much as one would like to place the blame entirely on the British for the turmoil which has engulfed and continues to engulf Iraq today the quest for an Iraqi identity, an Iraqi soul must continue into the future.  Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”   Nowhere else does this maxim prove more important than within the borders of Iraq today.  While many of us must struggle throughout our lives to find ourselves and our reason for existence, Iraq too must struggle to find their own way.  The plight of Iraq is a plight which is extremely human in nature, the key to which lies within the Iraqis themselves and not within the verdicts or decisions of others.  Hopefully Iraq will one day find its own path out of the darkness and out of this most “perplexing of predicaments.


1. Gertrude Bell.  The Letters of Gertrude Bell: Volume II, ed. Lady Bell (Horace Liveright Publishers: New York, 1927.), 585.

2. Clywd, 7.

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