on Western Intervention in Iraq
Source Yoshie Furuhashi
Date 03/12/06/22:49

*****   Deceit and duplicity: Some reflections on Western intervention in Iraq

The attempt by the US and Britain to project their occupation of Iraq
as an act of 'liberation' is consistent with the pattern of deceit
and duplicity that has characterised Western intervention in that
country. And if history is any guide to the present, this latest
imperial adventure will meet the same fate as earlier ones.

T Rajamoorthy

COMMENTATORS on the invasion of Iraq have pointed out that when Bush,
Wolfowitz and Negroponte recently declared that US troops had entered
Iraq 'as liberators, not as occupiers', they were simply echoing a
familiar refrain that has accompanied Western interventions in the
Middle East since the time of Napoleon.

As is now well known, when the British General Sir Stanley Maude
invaded Iraq in 1917 during the First World War and initiated the
process of the colonisation of that country, he too claimed that 'our
armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or
enemies but as liberators'.

As if to ensure that their message to the people of Iraq was clearly
understood, in November 1918 the British (together with the French)
issued a declaration (called the Anglo-French Declaration) which
purported to set out their vision for the future of Iraqi and other
Arab peoples formerly ruled by Ottoman Turkey. Their goal, they
proclaimed, was 'the complete and final liberation of the peoples who
have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of
national governments and administrations that shall derive their
authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the
indigenous population'.

These pious pronouncements about 'liberation' and the right of
peoples to self-determination were, of course, public declarations.
In private discussions, British government Ministers and advisers
expressed very different views about the rights of indigenous peoples
to self-determination. Only a month before the Anglo-French
Declaration was proclaimed (i.e. October 1918), as British troops
reached the outskirts of Mosul, at a meeting of the Eastern Committee
of the British War cabinet, some of the key British officials who
were to shape British policy in the Middle East revealed what they
really thought about 'self-determination'.

Among those who attended this meeting were the British Foreign
Secretary, Lord Balfour (of Balfour Declaration fame), Lord Robert
Cecil, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and T E
Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia').

At the meeting Mr Balfour expressed the view that 'it would be unwise
to become pedantic about self-determination because it was
inapplicable to 'wholly barbarous, undeveloped and unorganised black
tribes'; to which Lord Robert Cecil added the bewildering warning
that while self-determination should be 'an indication ... we should
not attempt to leave it to the populations to say, because you would
have the most awful rows if you did that ...' Lawrence at any rate
had an understandable point of view: 'Self-determination has been a
good deal talked about. I think it is a foolish idea in many ways."1

Exercise in cynicism

The Kurds of Iraq unfortunately took the Anglo-French Declaration at
its face value and welcomed the British troops as liberators in the
autumn of 1918. Their leader, Sheikh Mahmud al-Barzani, took the
Declaration so seriously that it is alleged that he kept a copy of
the Anglo-French pledge in an amulet as a talisman. Within six months
of the Declaration, he had proceeded to exercise the promised right
of 'setting up of national governments and administrations' deriving
'from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the
indigenous population', by establishing a Kurdish state in the north.

In May 1919, however, Britain sent her troops to crush the fledgling
Kurdish state. The Kurds were obviously to be 'liberated' from
certain aspirations which the British could not entertain! The Kurds
resisted fiercely and although the revolt was put down ruthlessly,
British rule in Iraq continued to be punctuated by a series of
Kurdish revolts.

The British attitude (or for that matter, Western attitude as a
whole) to the Kurdish question was to remain throughout, an exercise
in cynicism, a matter of pure expediency. As one American historian
explained, the British had originally toyed with the idea of a
British-protected Kurdish state because 'the support of Kurdish
aspirations could be used as a lever of pressure on recalcitrant
Kemalist Turkey, on Iran and especially on Iraq, in which the
percentage of Kurds was higher than in any other country'.
Subsequently, however, they abandoned this because it was too
explosive. However, as the same historian noted, 'This did not mean
that friendship with the Kurds was thrown overboard. On the contrary,
it continued to be cultivated, especially on the local level, by
various British agents, both in Iraq and in Iran. This served [among
other purposes] ... to keep the Kurdish question as a tactical
reserve in case of difficulties with Baghdad or Teheran.'2 (emphasis

The 1920 Shi'ite revolt

But while Kurdish resistance was almost a permanent feature of
British rule in Iraq, it was the Shi'ites who led what was perhaps
the first national revolt against British rule. The spark that
triggered the revolt was the news from the San Remo Conference that
despite the earlier British and Allied pledges of liberation and
self-determination for Iraq, the country was to be a mandated
territory of the British ('mandated territory' was a euphemism for a
colony). What is astonishing about the 1920 revolt, centred in Najaf,
was the role of the Shi'ite ulama in not only mobilising the Iraqi
masses, but in forging a united front with the Sunnis in opposition
to British colonialism. 'For the first time in many centuries,
Shi'ites joined politically with Sunnis and townsmen from Baghdad and
tribesmen from the Euphrates made common cause. Unprecedented joint
Shi'ite-Sunni celebrations, ostensibly religious but in reality
political, were held in all the Shi'ite and Sunni mosques in turn:
special maulids, Sunni ceremonial observances in honour of the
Prophet's birthday, were on occasions followed by ta'ziyahs, Shi'ite
lamentations for the martyred Husain, the proceedings culminating in
patriotic oratory and poetic thundering against the English.'3

In order to unite the two communities, the agitation was also focused
on the disgrace to Arab honour and the deep humiliation inflicted on
a proud people by the imposition of colonial rule - a point
encapsulated by the following lines from a poem by a Sunni poet:

'O you the people of Iraq, you are not orphans to seek guardianship
[a mandate] for Iraq.
You shall no longer enjoy the water of the Tigris if you are content
with humiliation and oppression.'4

The revolt began in May when two British soldiers were killed, and by
July the whole country was up in arms against the invaders. Even with
the 130,000 troops at their command in Iraq, the British found it
impossible to put the revolt down. Reinforcements had to be rushed in
and poison gas ('weapon of mass destruction') was requested to quell
the revolt. When the British finally managed to crush the revolt in
October, they had suffered some 2,500 casualties.

The revolt was to leave a permanent imprint on the emerging polity.
And in view of current attempts by the Western media to portray the
latest invasion of Iraq as the liberation of the Shi'ites long
suppressed by a Sunni-dominated state, it is essential to underscore
British culpability in designing this polity. It  was the British, in
their drive to undermine the power of the Shi'ite majority, who
fashioned and designed the modern Iraqi state with the entrenched
Sunni minority at its helm. 'Later generations of Iraq [Sunni]
politicians,' wrote a British official in summarising the revolt,
'may appreciate the gratitude they owe the British for saving them
from [Shi'ite] Najaf.'5

The process of fashioning this state began after the revolt when the
British imported Faisal Hussein, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca -
a man who had never previously set foot on Iraqi soil -  and arranged
for a 'spontaneous movement' for him to become the King of Iraq.
After some deft footwork, they had him elected as the ruler by a
majority of 96.8% - a feat equalled only by Saddam Hussein several
decades later. This monarch and his hangers-on, together with a small
urban group and powerful tribal leaders from the countryside,
constituted the foundation of what was to become an overwhelmingly
Sunni-dominated state.

But ultimate power lay in the hands of British advisers whose
'advice' had to be accepted at any cost; and even after Iraq became
nominally independent in 1932, it was the British Embassy which
called the shots. The crucial role of British military power in
propping up this structure was graphically explained by a British
Cabinet Minister in 1925 when he remarked that: 'If the Writ of King
Faisal runs effectively throughout the Kingdom, it is entirely due to
British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the
whole structure would immediately fall to pieces.'6

It was this colonial regime that undertook after the 1920 revolt the
measures necessary to undermine the power of the Shi'ite religious
establishment. Since the majority of the Shi'ite mujtahids were of
Iranian origin, immigration laws were amended to provide for the
deportation of foreigners who were engaged in 'anti-government'
activities. This power was ruthlessly exercised to break the power of
the Shi'ite clergy opposed to British rule. These measures also had
the effect of severing the links between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites.
Moves were also taken to restrict and curb the incomes of Shi'ite
clergy from traditional sources such as charities and pilgrimages.
Shi'ite educational institutions lost their independence and were
brought under state control. As a result of these measures, power
slowly gravitated away from the Shi'ite cities of Najaf and Karbala
to Baghdad. By 1925, Shi'ite clerics rarely intervened in politics.

The 1958 revolution

In July 1958 Brigadier Abd al-Karim al-Qasim and the Free Officers
movement led an army revolt which developed into a revolution that
swept aside the monarchy and the colonial political order.

Qasim had no political party of his own and it was the powerful Iraqi
Communist Party (ICP) which provided him with a mass political base.
Founded in 1934, the party had an impressive record of anti-colonial
resistance and commanded widespread respect because of the tenacity
with which it had pursued its struggle. In the 1940s and 1950s, its
membership and support had expanded dramatically, particularly within
the Shi'ite community. The tilt towards the Communist Party by the
Shi'ite community has been explained as the response of a politically
disenfranchised community from which 'the poorest of the poor' were
drawn. In the 1960s the drift of Shi'ite youth towards the party was
so alarming that the traditional Shi'ite ulama even issued a fatwa
against those supporting or joining the party.

But despite this development, the real political struggle was not
between the secular Communists and the religious Shi'ite opposition,
but between the two main secular forces, the Communists and the
Ba'athists - a struggle which also reflected the Sunni-Shi'ite divide
as the Ba'ath Party was overwhelmingly a Sunni-dominated party. The
latter also turned against Qasim after initially backing him because
of his lukewarm response to pan-Arabism. After a failed assassination
attempt in 1959 against Qasim (in which Saddam Hussein participated),
most of the Ba'athist leaders fled the country. As a result the
Communists emerged even stronger.

The growing strength and influence of the Communists however set
alarm bells ringing in Washington. In 1959, the then CIA director,
Allen Dulles, had already described Iraq as 'one of the most
dangerous places on earth'. Fear of the growing influence and power
of the Communists led the CIA to establish contacts with the exiled
Ba'ath leaders to work out plans for the overthrow of Qasim. 'The
plans to overthrow the Iraqi leader, led by William Lakeland who was
stationed at the Baghdad embassy as an attache, represented one of
the most elaborate CIA operations in the history of the Middle East.'7


On 8 February 1963, a coalition of Ba'athist and independent officers
overthrew the Qasim regime. Ba'ath Party supporters took to the
streets and their principal targets were the Communists. About 1,500
Communists died in street fighting nationwide and hundreds of others,
including seven of the Party's 19 central committee members, were

An interesting point about the CIA role in this coup was that, as in
Indonesia in 1965, the Agency was instrumental in supplying the names
of the Communists to be eliminated. This has been confirmed by
different sources. For example, Qasim's foreign minister later told
two analysts that 'the Iraqi Foreign Ministry had information of
complicity between the Ba'ath and the CIA. In many cases the CIA
supplied the Ba'ath with the names of individual communists, some of
whom were taken from their homes and murdered.' King Hussein told a
similar story to the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal:

'I know for a fact that what happened in Iraq on 8 February was
supported by American intelligence ... Many meetings were held
between the  Ba'ath Party and American intelligence - the most
critical ones in Kuwait. Did you know that on 8 February, the day of
the coup in Baghdad, there was a secret radio broadcast directed
toward Iraq that relayed to those carrying out the coup the names and
addresses of Communists  there so that they could be seized and

Jamal Atasi, a member of the Syrian cabinet, who confronted the Iraqi
Ba'ath exiles when he learnt about their secret meetings with the
CIA, realised the significance of this development:

This was 'a push from the West and in particular from the United
States for the Ba'ath to seize power and monopolise it and push away
all the other elements and forces [i.e., both the Communists and the

Revival of Shi'ite opposition

This decimation of the ICP in 1963, coupled with continued
persecution of Communists during the ascendancy of Saddam Hussein
from 1968 onward, left a political vacuum which enabled the Shi'ite
opposition to revive their strength. To be sure, the Shi'ite revival
had already begun in the 1960s but there cannot be any doubt that the
weakening of the Communist Party was a major factor in the renewed
expansion of Shi'ite political influence. As the great scholar on
Iraq, the late Hanna Batatu, explained in respect of the Shi'ite
stronghold of Al-Thaurah in Baghdad:

' ... the deep wound inflicted upon the Communists in 1963, the
course of compromise with the Ba'ath regime that their leadership
steered from 1973 to 1978, and the departure into exile in 1979 of no
fewer than three thousand of the Communist Party's hardened members
left the disadvantaged of the capital with no organised means of
protest and produced a void in the underground which the Da'wah and
Mujahidin hastened to fill.'9

To be sure, there was no lack of setbacks for the Shi'ite opposition
in the 1980s. The execution in 1980 of Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr,
probably the most important Shi'ite opposition figure in modern Iraq,
the ruthless repression coupled with the successful attempts by
Saddam to woo and co-opt some of the Shi'ite establishment leaders
clearly weakened the Shi'ite opposition. Moreover, the Shi'ite
opposition was plagued by disunity and factionalism - a feature that
has continued till today.

Despite all this, it has been clear to any serious observer that if
the Ba'ath regime which had monopolised control over all aspects of
social life fell, the group best positioned to emerge from the rubble
would be the Shi'ite opposition with its clergy and institutions. In
his essay written in 1985-86 on Shi'ite organisations in Iraq, Hanna
Batatu posed the question of the future prospects of Iraq's Shi'ite
movement. His answer was almost prophetic. Despite the setbacks of
the 1980s 'Shi'ite themes and symbols remain powerful, and the
Shi'ite opposition is poised to benefit if the regime of Saddam
Hussein falters politically or suffers a serious military defeat.'10
(emphasis added)

In planning its invasion of Iraq, the US seems to have been oblivious
to this factor; having unravelled Saddam's political order, it has
now been forced to face this bitter reality. But it is not only the
Shi'ite opposition that the US has now to confront. As in the 1920s,
a growing pervasive unity that transcends the Sunni/Shi'ite divide is
now evident. A mass movement is developing which is animated by a
single demand: the US invaders must go!

In the face of this growing opposition, it is astonishing that the US
can still harbour illusions that it can somehow stitch together a
neo-colonial structure like the British did in 1921 and prop it up by
force of arms.

But the British were to discover, somewhat painfully, that there is a
limit to what can be done to prop up such structures. They made that
shock discovery on 14 July 1958 when the whole political edifice that
they had erected came tumbling down, and the British Ambassador had
to flee for his life when the long-suppressed Iraqi people took to
the streets of Baghdad. Hanna Batatu describes this moment of truth
before the curtain finally came down on Britain's imperial enterprise
in Iraq:

'Before very long the capital overflowed with people - shargawiyyas
[those dwelling in mud-huts] and others - many of them in a fighting
mood and united by a single passion: 'Death to the traitors and
agents of imperialism!' It was like a tide coming in, and at first
engulfed and with a vengeance Nuri's house [Nuri was the Prime
Minister under the monarchy] and the royal palace, but soon extended
to the British consulate and embassy and other places, and became so
terrible and overwhelming in its sweep that the military
revolutionaries, ill at ease, declared a curfew and later, in the
afternoon, martial law. When in the end, after nightfall, the crowds
ebbed back, the statue of Faisal, the symbol of the monarchy, lay
shattered, and the figure of General Maude, the conqueror of Baghdad,
rested in the dust outside the burning old British

T Rajamoorthy, a senior lawyer of the Malaysian Bar, is one of the
Editors of Third World Resurgence.


1. Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson (1969), The Secret Lives of
Lawrence of Arabia, London: Nelson, p. 112.

2. George Lenczowski (1962), The Middle East in World Affairs, Ithaca
and London: Cornell University Press, p. 266.

3. Hanna Batatu (1978), The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary
Movements of Iraq, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.23.

4. Yitzhak Nakash (1994), The Shi'is of Iraq, Princeton: Princeton
University Press, p. 69.

5. Ibid., p. 72.

6. Peter Sluglett (1988), 'Iraq', in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
the Middle East and North Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, p. 341.

7. Said K. Aburish (2001), Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge,
London: Bloomsbury, p. 55.

8.  Malik Mufti (1996), Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and
Political Order in Syria and Iraq, Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press, p. 144.

9.  Hanna Batatu (1986), 'Shi'i Organizations in Iraq: Al-Da'wah
al-Islamiyah and al-Mujahidin', in Juan RI Cole and Nikki R Keddie
(eds.), Shi'ism and Social Protest, New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, p. 184.

10. Ibid., p. 200.

11. Hanna Batatu (1978), op.cit., pp.804-5.


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