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Political analysis and other daily rants on the state of the nation

Saturday | July 19, 2003

They don't get it

By Steve Gilliard

I'm reading David Hackworth's latest column and it repeats a common theme: we need to change the way we're fighting this war. We need help from our allies, from local Iraqis.

We must also lean on the world community to immediately send peacekeeping reinforcements to Iraq while Abizaid simultaneously transfers the main burden of fighting the G’s to Iraqi citizens – preferably those who hate the Ba’athists – just as we successfully did in Vietnam with programs such as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group, Popular Force and Regional Force. Especially since no insurgency has ever been put down without indigenous participation.

The grunt-friendly school solution would be more coalition troops supported by local paramilitary units tasked with taking out the G’s. Highly-motivated freedom fighters drawn from the 20-million-plus Iraqis would be eager to put a real end to more than 35 years of repression and finally govern themselves in peace and prosperity as a free people.

You can hear the same thing on the left as well, but all of this misses a point made earlier this week in the Guardian.

The disconnection between the American view of reality and that of other countries can be amazing. Reports speak of "calls" from congressional committees - shocked by rising estimates of occupation - for "more international sharing" of those costs. Such calls are made as if international help was available on tap whenever the US should choose to turn the faucet. There seems to be scant understanding, despite everything, of the way in which American resistance to cooperation with others, not only on Iraq, might induce in them a reluctance to cooperate with America. Senator Edward Kennedy would not make this mistake, and yet even he can speak of the "best trained troops in the world" tied down in policing in Iraq as if it was self-evident, first, that they are in fact well trained, and, second, that others, not so well trained and more disposable, should take their place. As for Donald Rumsfeld, he is reduced to bizarre musings that the US, which recently closed its peacekeeping centre, might take the lead in training and gathering together an international corps of peacekeepers for use in emergencies.

The Iraqis aren't going to join a US-led anti-guerrilla force or hunt down Baathists according to our rules. The calls of the Shia and Sunni clerics against the council and Iraqi history mitigates against such a move.

While many people are fascinated with the various ethnic tensions between Sunni, Shia and Kurd, much of which, if not overblown, is misunderstood. Iraq is not Kosovo. Kurds, Sunni and Shia do not have irridentist claims on each other's territory, for one thing. Najaf has no Sunni minority living in fear, for example.

The key moment in modern Iraqi history is 1920, when Kurds, Shia and Sunni united to fight the British.

Local outbreaks against British rule had occurred even before the news reached Iraq that the country had been given only mandate status. Upon the death of an important Shia mujtahid (religious scholar) in early May 1920, Sunni and Shia ulama temporarily put aside their differences as the memorial services metamorphosed into political rallies. Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, began later in that month; once again, through nationalistic poetry and oratory, religious leaders exhorted the people to throw off the bonds of imperialism. Violent demonstrations and strikes followed the British arrest of several leaders.

When the news of the mandate reached Iraq in late May, a group of Iraqi delegates met with Wilson and demanded independence. Wilson dismissed them as a "handful of ungrateful politicians." Nationalist political activity was stepped up, and the grand mujtahid of Karbala, Imam Shirazi, and his son, Mirza Muhammad Riza, began to organize the effort in earnest. Arab flags were made and distributed, and pamphlets were handed out urging the tribes to prepare for revolt. Muhammad Riza acted as liaison among insurgents in An Najaf and in Karbala, and the tribal confederations. Shirazi then issued a fatwa (religious ruling), pointing out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims, and he called for a jihad against the British.

The lack of understanding of the Iraqis is neither new, nor novel
Three young army officers were killed in Kurdistan in 1919. An experienced official sent by the Government of India to replace them was killed a month later. Six British officers were killed in the spring of 1920. Later, two political officers were abducted and murdered. The Iraqi desert was full of raiding parties, and one British officer was led to believe that the only way to deal with the disaffected tribes was "wholesale slaughter."

More chaos was to follow in the months to come. Posts were over-run, British officers killed and communication killed in the Middle Euphrates region. Colonel Gerald Leachman, a leading British officer, was shot in the back and killed on the orders of the tribal sheikh who was hosting him during a gathering of the tribes. The news of his killing led to further tribal uprisings along the Euphrates and north and west of Baghdad.

In the summer of 1920, a one-time junior officer in the Arab Bureau in Cairo and now a celebrity, Colonel T. E. Lawrence, commented acridly that the Turks had been better rulers. He said the Turks kept 14,000 local conscripts employed in Iraq and killed an average of 200 Arabs in maintaining the peace. The British had deployed 90,000 men, with airplanes, armored cars, gunboats and armoured trains, and killed about 10,000 Arabs in the summer uprising.
On August 7, 1920, The Times demanded to know "how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?"

The revolt was brought to an end in February 1921, but Britain had suffered nearly 2,000 casualties, including 450 dead. Many attempts were made to analyze the mysterious revolt in the Iraqi desert, since the British had been told that the Arabs would appreciate British rule. Confessing total ignorance about the locals, an official argued that the enemy facing the British was "anarchy plus fanaticism, devoid of any political aspect."

This is the seminal moment in modern Iraqi history and while history does not repeat itself, every Iraqi knows this story. So there won't be any rush to join the US in repressing fellow Iraqis or to make Iraq develop among the lines the US imagines.

There are no allies, the locals look at us with suspisicion and the prism of 50 years of Arab Nationalism makes the acceptance of US rule less likely now, than in 1920.

Posted July 19, 2003 08:18 AM


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