Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Iraq presents a lesson from history


Andrew North's report from the British war cemetery in Baghdad

As Britain prepares to pull its troops out of Iraq, former BBC Baghdad correspondent Andrew North looks back to a previous military campaign and considers whether history is destined to repeat itself?

As the insurgency spread, the letters from the British diplomat in Baghdad grew bleaker.

"We are in the thick of violent agitation and we feel anxious… the underlying thought is out with the infidel."

And then: "The country between Diwaniyah and Samawah is abandoned to disorder. We haven't troops enough to tackle it at present."

A month later: "There's no getting out of the conclusion that we have made an immense failure here."

In fact, this insurgency was in 1920, the uprising against the British occupation of what was then still Mesopotamia.

The diplomat was Gertrude Bell, an energetic and passionate Arab expert who literally drew Iraq's borders. "I had a well spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq," she wrote in late 1921.

'Mass of roses'

But read her letters and diaries and you can easily imagine she's describing events since 2003, as American and British forces lost control of the country they had invaded.

The latest unhappy chapter in Britain's involvement in Iraq is approaching its end, with the government likely to announce soon a plan to withdraw most of its forces over the course of next year.

There are plenty of parallels with 90 years ago, says Toby Dodge, the widely-respected Iraq expert at London University's Queen Mary College, but "in the run-up to the invasion, both in Downing Street and the Foreign Office, there was no sense of history whatsoever".

The hundreds of letters Bell wrote to her parents during her time in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, complete with requests for supplies of "crinkly hairpins", are available to anyone via the internet.

Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators
Lt Gen Sir Stanley Maude in Baghdad, 1917

Born in County Durham, her papers are now held by Newcastle University's Robinson library, which has been putting them online, together with her many photos.

It is a record of a unique person, who also managed to find time to be an enthusiastic Alpine mountaineer and accomplished archaeologist, her first passion.

But it was the creation of Iraq that would consume her most.

There was a sense of elation when Britain took Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks in the spring of 1917 and a belief in the inherent rightness of the cause - much like the mood in the White House and Downing Street in April 2003 after the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

"Baghdad is a mass of roses and congratulations," Bell wrote, shortly after taking up her post as Oriental Secretary in the occupation administration. "They are genuinely delighted at being free of the Turks."

'Full-blown jihad'

A few weeks before, the British commander Lt Gen Sir Stanley Maude had promised the people of Baghdad that: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

Fluent in Arabic, Bell threw herself into her task of setting up a pro-British Arab government and was soon the main link to the country's new politicians.

Her instinct was to give the Arabs more independence than London wanted. For several years things proceeded peacefully. The slower communications of that time meant any dissension took longer to spread. Iraqi insurgents today have mobile phones. But dissension there was.

She had misjudged the power of the leaders of the Shia majority, particularly their clerics.

"There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity," she wrote dismissively to her mother in early 1920, "and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it - nor can they."

By that summer, they were leading an uprising against the British, who found themselves insufficiently equipped to handle it.

"We are now in the middle of a full-blown jihad," she confessed to her mother a few weeks later.

Burning villages

As things fell apart, anger and opposition to the Iraq venture grew in London. But Bell didn't shirk the blame. "The underlying truth of all criticism is… that we had promised self-governing institutions and not only made no step towards them but were busily setting up something entirely different."

Her letters capture too the contradictions of being an occupying power, however good it believes its intentions to be. "It's difficult to be burning villages at one end of the country by means of a British army and assuring people at the other end that we really have handed over responsibility to native ministers," she said in November 1920.

Oil is the trouble, of course. Detestable stuff!
Gertrude Bell, 1921

A new government was created though, in spite of the insurgency - as in Iraq today. It did meet one of London's goals - it was pro-British and in 1921, Iraq officially became a nation state.

But nearly 10,000 Iraqis had died in the process. And that government - with the imported King Feisal I at its head - was inherently unstable, led by the minority Sunnis, with the Shia majority excluded - the model by which Iraq would subsequently be governed by Saddam Hussein.

The Shias have today reversed that perceived injustice - as they dominate the current government - although through an arguably more open process than in the 1920s.

But their experience under the British is etched into their collective soul in a way that will condition Iraqi politics for many years yet. The other day in Baghdad, I was talking to a senior Shia figure who referred simply to "1920" as he explained his political outlook. And now it is the Sunnis who feel disenfranchised.

Sleeping tablets

Gertrude Bell died in the Iraqi capital in 1926 after taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. The last few years of her life she had returned to her original love of archaeology - setting up a museum that still stands - after falling out of favour in the colonial administration.

Many older Iraqis still talk affectionately of the woman they called "Miss Bell", despite her controversial record.

She's buried in a small date-palm fringed Christian cemetery in central Baghdad.

The sprightly caretaker started working there in 1955, in the time of the last British-backed king, Feisal II, surviving the coups, dictatorships and chaos that have followed.

Gertrude Bell's tomb in Baghdad
Christian cemetery caretaker Ali Mansour with Gertrude Bell's tomb

Fighting has often engulfed the area around the graveyard in recent years. The British and Americans should have learnt "from the experience of others, like Miss Bell, and the lessons from history," says caretaker Ali Mansour. "Iraq has always been a difficult country."

With the reduced levels of violence, there is a view in the outside world that Iraq is now somehow fixed.

But attacks still claim 10-20 lives every day. And Toby Dodge sees many similarities between the "unstable, unrepresentative" state the British left behind in the early 20th century and what has emerged today.

"The Americans as far as we know will leave Iraq in 2011 with an unstable state and an unpopular ruling elite using a great deal of violence to stay in power," he says.

What would Gertrude Bell have made of all of this? She did foresee the outline of things to come. In late 1921, the increasingly powerful Americans were manoeuvring to sign their own treaty with the new Iraqi state: "Oil is the trouble, of course," she spat. "Detestable stuff!"

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