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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 19:00 GMT 20:00 UK
Baghdad diary: 'British' cemetery

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Baghdad

In the second of his daily diary entries, BBC News Online's Martin Asser finds the mausoleum of the British conqueror of Baghdad in 1917 and ponders some recent history lessons.

Much of the day has been spent chasing around Baghdad looking for signs of the ways in which "Men of Religion", as they're called, are filling the power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein's once all-invasive Baath party.

Gun market in Sadr City
The trade is brisk at Sadr City's gun market
Unfortunately, the man reputed to be one of the main movers and shakers in the field, Sheikh Muhammad al-Fartusi, ducked out of the interview he had promised to give the BBC today.

This was after the TV crew I was accompanying had slogged its way through the chaotic traffic jam Baghdad seems to have become to get to Mr Fartusi's HQ in Sadr (formerly Saddam) City - one of the most insalubrious parts of the Iraqi capital.

Apart from the appalling poverty and filth, Sadr City is also quite lacking in security - boasting its own open-air weapons market in a place called Suq al-Haramia, the thieves market.

All kinds of firearms were being held aloft among the crowds as we passed, the weapons discharged regularly into the air to prove their worthiness to prospective buyers.

The young men conducting this trade looked like people to avoid and it was a relief to get away from this place.

War Graves

On the way back BBC correspondent Alan Little, whose crew this was, suggested we make a little detour to the North Gate War Cemetery, home to several thousand graves from the last time the British were a conquering force in Mesopotamia.

A grave of a British soldier killed in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in 1917
A grave of a British soldier killed in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in 1917 at the North Gate War Cemetery

Members of our party were all moved and impressed by the way Iraqis had looked after the site - given that the British have very much been the enemy here since the 1991 Gulf War.

We wandered among the graves, reading out some of the inscriptions.

37870 Private A Middleton, Machine Gun Corps: 5 May 1917, Aged 27. "Peacefully he sleeps in a far off land."

A few attempts have been made to damage or steal headstones and monuments, but local residents keep the site under lock and key to deter thieves and vandals.

Nor do they apparently receive any reward from the Imperial War Graves Commission - they just respect the place and don't want it to be trashed.

"Do you think they will come from London now and make the gardens grow again?" says the man who had opened the gate for us.

It occurs to me that the number of graves here equates to the reported Iraqi death toll in one day of the recent war, as US forces fought their way to Baghdad airport.

Strange tyrants

At the centre of the parade-ground sized cemetery stands the mausoleum of Sir F Stanley Maude, the conqueror of Baghdad in March 1917 who died of cholera later that year.

The mausoleum of Sir F Stanley Maude - the conqueror of Baghdad in 1917
The mausoleum of Sir F Stanley Maude - the conqueror of Baghdad

It was Maude who proclaimed the following imperialist fiction on his entry into Baghdad 86 years ago:

"Your city and your lands have been subject to tyranny, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage."

Sounds familiar? Wait, it gets better.

"Your sons been have carried off to wars not of your seeking and your wealth has been stripped from you by unjust men and squandered in distant places.

"You have suffered under strange tyrants, who have endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit.

"This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and the Allies."

And what was London's solution?

"I am commanded to invite you," the General said, "to participate in the management of your own civil affairs in collaboration with the political representatives who accompany the British army, so you may be united with your kinsmen in realising the aspirations of your race."

Well, it didn't happen to the Iraqis liking then, and many don't think it'll happen this time either. In fact Arab aspirations and the American-imposed reality could be very different.

And is Maude's mausoleum quite as well protected as the row upon row of headstones of his officers and men? Not quite, the building has been used - just once by the look of it - as a toilet.

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