In Iraq, we have an expression: same donkey, different saddle. Iraq’s long-heralded interim government has now formally assumed sovereignty. Official labels and tags have duly changed. The US administrator will now be an ambassador, while Sheikh Ghazi al Yawar and Iyad Allawi, US-appointed members of the former governing council, are to be known as president and prime minister. To formalise the change, the UN has already issued a resolution under which “multinational forces” will replace “US-led forces”. On the issue of control over US troops, the message is clear: the US forces are there to stay only because “Iraqi people” has asked them to. But which Iraqi people? Do they mean the new administration headed by the CIA’s Iyad Allawi? And why does all this sound strangely familiar?
In Iraq we don’t just read history at school – we carry it within ourselves. It’s no wonder, then, that we view what is happening in Iraq now of “liberation-mandate-nominal sovereignty” as a replay of what took place in the 1920s and afterwards.
On April 28 1920, Britain was awarded a mandate over Iraq by the League of Nations to legitimise its occupation of the country. The problems proved enormous. The British administration in Baghdad was short of funds, and had to face the resentment of the majority of Iraqis against foreign rule, which boiled over that year into a national uprising. In the aftermath, the British high commissioner had to come up with a solution to reduce the British loss of lives.
A decision was taken to replace the occupation with a provisional Iraqi government, assisted by British advisers under the authority of the high commissioner of Iraq. Finding a suitable ruler was not easy,.
On the August 21 1921 Gertrude Bell, Oriental secretary to the high commissioner, wrote to her father about the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis. She mentions some of her Iraqi “pals” and enemies, descendants of whom are playing similar roles in Iraq today: “Muzahim Pachachi (the one who made the speech in English at our tea party at Basra). And another barrister whom you don’t know, Rauf Beg Chadirji, a pal of mine. And still more splendid was one of the sheikhs of the northern shammar, Ajil al Yawar; I had seen him in 1917 when he came in to us”. Then she refers to “Saiyid Muhammad Sadr … a tall black bearded alim (cleric) with a sinister expression. We tried to arrest him early in August but failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes.”
To the British government, control of Iraq’s oil was a necessity. Iraqi national liberation movements called for “Istiqlal al Tamm” – complete independence – which was regarded by the British as “the catchword of the extremists”. Any protest against the British-imposed monarchy was similarly regarded as the work of “extremists”.
In 1930 a new treaty was signed which aimed to satisfy Iraqi aspirations for the coming 25 years, but the British retained their power, through military bases, advisers and control of oil. The monarchy proved an oppressive regime under which many opposition leaders were executed and thousands more were imprisoned. Elections were managed, corruption was widespread, bombing and military force was used against popular uprisings, chemical weapons were used against the Kurds. Popular uprisings followed in 1930, 1941 1948, 1952 and 1956. Between 1921 and 1958 Iraq had an astonishing 38 cabinets, some of them only lasting 12 days. The mainstay of a corrupt and docile regime was the presence of British forces on the ground. Is this what present-day Iraq has to look forward to?
Three major events have shaped our national identity. The 1920 revolution, the 1958 coup regarded by most Iraqis as a revolution that finally achieved real Iraqi independence – and the Palestinian cause. At the heart of the three lay the struggle to end occupation. Occupation has always been perceived as a process by which to rob us of our identity and dignity. The British, in the past, failed to understand the depth of the feeling among Iraqis both against occupation and towards the Palestinian issue. Now, in their partnership with the US, they are repeating the same mistakes.
As in the past, Iraqis are denied their natural right to resist the occupier and its imposed form of government. The “extremists” of our history are now called “terrorists”.
Within a year the occupiers have achieved what Saddam’s regime failed to do over decades. They have killed our hope in democracy. What of tomorrow? It would be useful to reread history and take notice of Al Istiqlal Al Tam and above all Miss Bell’s warning about Iraq: “There are so many quicksands.”
* Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi-born novelist and former political prisoner