“Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”
So announced Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Maude when British forces marched into Baghdad 86 years ago this month. Three years later, Iraqis were in open revolt against British rule.
Condemning the Ottoman rulers that Britain was ousting, he proclaimed- “O people of Baghdad, remember that for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions.
“This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her allies, for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity and misgovernment.”
Should General Tommy Franks, the US commander who will direct any new war in Iraq, enter Baghdad as the head of victorious military force, his proclamation is likely to be less high-flown. They do not do rhetoric where he comes from in Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, America’s stated ambitions for Iraq after Saddam Hussein bear an uncanny similarity to those outlined by the British general. And rhetoric about the unseating of tyrants and the liberation of peoples is not the only parallel to today. The occupation of Iraq was the subject of deep differences among officials in London, as it is today in Washington- some saw a chance to remake the region in Europe’s image.
The prospect of US military rule over Iraq has sent experts inside and outside government scrambling to examine the British era. Despite the big changes there since British influence in Baghdad was finally snuffed out with the toppling of the monarchy in 1958, specialists have concluded that some lessons are highly relevant for Washington today.
Here are a few-
Lesson 1- Do not make promises and break them. After promising independence, Britain was assigned a League of Nations mandate for Iraq in 1920. “Many saw this extension of British rule as a betrayal of British wartime promises of independence,” says Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, co-author of a book launched yesterday on lessons from the British experience.
Lesson 2- Be very careful to whom you entrust power. British emphasis on stability led it after a costly 1920 revolt to abandon efforts at representative rule. It centralised power on Baghdad and a few members of the Sunni Arab minority, and relied on members of the bureaucracy left over from the Ottoman empire. It also depended on alliances with local tribal chieftains, who often abused the powers they obtained, encouraging enmity towards the British.
Lesson 3- Do not impose a leader from outside. Britain installed a foreigner as king – Faisal, who accompanied Lawrence of Arabia in the fight against Ottoman rule.
“Despite the efforts to distance themselves from Britain, the royal family’s British connection made them hated in the eyes of many Iraqis,” Mr Eisenstadt says.
Lesson 4- Keep the military out of internal security and politics. Iraq suffered repeated military coups from about 1936 onward. Charles Tripp, a British specialist in Iraqi history, says the officer corps of the regular Iraqi army – though now dismissed as a fighting force – “has a professional amour propre, much like the Turkish officer corps”. He says the US may be tempted to use them for short- term roles that could have important long-term consequences- “They may come across to Americans as highly professional.”
Senior Pentagon officials have already said they aim to pay the regular army to take part in reconstruction. “Our thought is to take them and they can help rebuild their own country,” one said this week.
Some historians say many of the roots of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule lie in the consequences of that decision by Britain after 1920 to settle on the overriding objective of stability.
Achieving that objective was severely constrained by Britain’s financial plight, leading London to rely for security on the Royal Air Force and about 4,000 locally raised, British-led troops.
According to David Fromkin’s history of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, cited in Mr Eisenstadt’s book, the belief Britain was in the Middle East to stay – “at least long enough to re-shape the region in line with European political interests, ideas and ideals – was based on the fragile assumption that . . . she could do so at little cost.”