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December 27, 2004
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12-27-04: News Abroad

Given Its History, Can We Succeed in Iraq?
By Edwin Black
Mr. Black is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is adapted from his just-released book, Banking on Baghdad, Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit, and Conflict (Wiley), which chronicles 7,000 years of Iraqi history.

America cannot succeed in Iraq until we understand the history we ignored and recently repeated.

Since the beginning of recorded time, Mesopotamia, that is, the V-shaped land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, has been a realm of uninterrupted violence and conflict. Commerce has been a leading cause. The region’s schoolboy subtitle, “Cradle of Civilization,” hailing back some 7,000 years, is more than misleading. Genuine civilizations clearly emerged throughout our world many millennia before Mesopotamia became the so-called “Cradle of Civilization.” Archaeologists have documented civilized and highly organized cultures in ancient Jericho some 9,000 years ago, in southern France where mystic cave art was found dating back some 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, and among southern African cave dwellers some 70,000 years ago.

Nonetheless, on April 8, 1867, during a discussion at the Royal Geographical Society in London, Sir Henry Rawlinson rose to enthusiastically dub Mesopotamia the “Cradle of Civilization,” largely because the region became a commanding commercial center and crossroads. This commercial attraction only raised the stakes for centuries of invasion, conquest and subjugation of its citizens.

As a result, civilization in Iraq had been stopped in its infancy. It had never matured. Instead, it became a mere cradle fit for robbery and abuse by the greatest forces in history: by the most murderous barbarians, by the most powerful nations, by the greediest corporations, by the onslaught of progress that sprang from its midst and took root elsewhere, continents away, and by the ravages of cultural self-wounding that ensured Iraq would remain a prisoner of its own heritage.

Indeed, for nearly 7,000 years, Iraq has been shackled to unspeakable violence, toppled pride, cruel despotic authorities, and an utter lack of self-governance. The unbreachable continuum of its legacy inculcated bitter alienation as a birthright. Rather than becoming an intersection of the most splendid and accomplished, as ancient European civilizations ultimately became, Iraq has become a crossroads of conquest and conflict.

Through it all, the people of Mesopotamia have displayed an irrepressible ability to victimize their victimizers—real or perceived--in a never-ending cycle of violence. For hundreds of years reaching into the twentieth century, even when the ruthless Ottoman Empire ruled the three ethnically diverse provinces of Mesopotamia — Mosul, Baghdad and Basr¬‚a – it did so only from afar and even then only nominally. In the twentieth century alone, no group has been exempt from mass murder and/or mass oppression: Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’is, Chaldeans, Jews, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis—all of them have felt the sting of Iraq’s uncivilized impulses.

During that tempestuous twentieth century in Iraq, the region has offered only one attraction to the Western powers: oil. It has been a fatal attraction, one that has lured the Europeans, and later the Americans, deep into this troubled and tortured land.

The current saga began in WWI when Britain invaded Mesopotamia (as the three neglected Turkish provinces were collectively called) for oil and only for oil. Despite this, the British declared in their May 18, 1918 proclamation, read aloud in Baghdad: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” Subsequent invaders would employ the phrase again and again.

As part of that wartime liberation, the British illegally seized the most valuable oil lands in Mesopotamia, the Kurdish Mosul region, this on November 7, 1918, a full week after the general armistice with Turkey. This invasion enabled Britain to cobble the three ethnically separate Ottoman provinces together—Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad and Shiite Basra—into a single land that London would rename “ Iraq.” The name “ Iraq” came from the ancient Arab cartographic designation.

The British then established Iraq as a nation for the sole purpose of structuring the exploitation of its oil. Arnold Wilson, the British civil administrator of Mesopotamia, the man who authorized General William Marshall’s unauthorized push into Mosul, wrote, “Thanks to General Marshall, we had established de facto, the principle that Mosul is part of ‘Iraq,’ to use the geographical expression… Whether for the woe or weal of the inhabitants, it is too soon to say.” Wilson added, that had General Marshall waited just 24 hours for the restraining instructions from London to arrive, history would be otherwise. But, Wilson continued, Marshall did not wait to invade Mosul, and so “laid the foundation stone of the future State of Iraq.”

From the Western view, Britain and France wanted to install a leader who would sign on the dotted line, thereby authorizing the oil and pipeline concessions that London and Paris had divided between them. Democracy, or a facsimile thereof, was needed to create a stabile environment for the oil to flow.

But Arab and Islamic nationalists in the newly invented Iraq did not want to share their land with infidel European Christians. Nor did they choose to share European values of democracy and pluralism, ideals that had never taken root in the Islamic Middle East. When Arabs hear the word “democracy,” they do not think of Jefferson doctrine, they hear a codeword for “we want your oil.”

Indeed, the Arab world only sided with the British against the Turks in WWI as a mere expedience to obtain their national independence. Arab nationalists were willing then to speak the lingo of democratic values and trade access to cheap oil, which was worthless to them. In turn, the British were willing to blithely promise any variant of Arab national independence for that oil. But when the British liberated Mesopotamia—and then stayed on throughout the twenties as occupiers, the betrayed Iraqis exploded with terror raids, burning, bombing, kidnapping and massacring westerners, including those sent to commercially develop the land and its waterways.

Islamic militants throughout history have never hesitated to terrorize those they deemed enemies who fell within their grasp, be they Assyrians, Shiites, Armenians, Europeans or Jews.

The outraged British response to insurgent horrors was aerial bombardment to shock and awe the villages. But the Iraqi violence persisted--as did the British resolve to combat it with troops and tanks. Once again, Western involvement was tied to the thirst for the oil wealth of Iraq, and that thirst commanded. Cycles of escalation and illusory temporary ceasefires followed. But the rage and confrontation among the people of Iraq never went away.

After WWI, the British and the French, becoming ever more dependent upon oil, engineered a secret petroleum pact, sanctioned by the League of Nations, which divided up oil drilling and pipeline rights in Syria and Iraq. The oil pact was announced at San Remo the same day the League of Nations granted mandates to Britain to rule oil-rich Iraq, and France to rule Syria where the pipelines would run to the Mediterranean. The British worked hard to instill democratic values in Iraq, thus creating a stable environment for the oil to flow. But it was a governance disaster because the people did not want democracy, and resented Western efforts to impose it. Genocide against minorities, ethnic cleansing, repression, despotism, corruption and neglect was the rule in Iraq for years, perpetuating another endless cycle of victimizing and victimization.

Major John Glubb, the British officer who organized the Arab Legion, complained bitterly in a letter to Whitehall. “We...imagined that we had bestowed on the Iraqis all these blessings of democracy… Nothing could be more undemocratic than the result. A handful of politicians obtained possession of the machinery of government, and all the elections were rigged.... In this process they all became very rich.”

For eight more decades, the West—now with the United States joining France and Britain—has tried to hang onto its oil lifeline in the Middle East, using our best diplomats, corporate surrogates and militaries. This addictive struggle has only further fueled the cycle of insurrection and now world terrorism from a people who resent our presence and resource exploitation, and have always understood better than anyone exactly why we are there. The Arabs have come to believe that all the talk of democratic values is just a shibboleth of the infidel.

It is not sand we crave in Iraq, it is oil.

America will never succeed in Iraq, if we once again naively expect democracy to take root there and flourish. What can possibly occur in the immediate future to transform that society that has not occurred for 7,000 years?

The only way to succeed in Iraq is to survive long enough to intelligently withdraw, and then rapidly—at breakneck speed—develop alternative energy resources to detach us from this far-off place where we are not wanted, where we should not be, and upon which our industrialized world is now dependent.

Copyright 2004 Edwin Black All Rights Reserved

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