At dawn the bombers came. As the first RAF machines came in low over the hills surrounding the village of Rowanduz, the people left their homes and ran for the nearby hills, hoping to escape the “birds of death” by hiding among the gullies and caves. The village was partially destroyed in the raid, but two hours later, just as the villagers had returned to what was left of their homes, a second wave of bombers arrived and completed the destruction. Many of the houses had been completely destroyed, but all had suffered major damage, and several villagers had been killed or wounded. One 13 year old boy had been hurled 12 feet in the air by an explosion, breaking his ribs and left leg and arm. Although he would limp for the rest of his life, he was lucky, for his young cousin and best friend had been killed.’
This account of an attack on an Iraqi town, allegedly a hideout for dissidents, is not from our very own on-going war/police action/imperial adventure, but a report of an RAF bombing raid over 80 years ago – just one of a number of such raids carried out by Britain during its war to pacify Iraq after taking control of the Middle East following the collapse of the Turkish Empire in 1918.
The more that one looks at what’s been happening in Iraq over the past year, the more one feels a terrible sense of déjà vu, and not just from what is now referred to as the ‘First’ Gulf War, but from the 1920s, when the British were attempting to gain control of the Middle East. Politicians have always had trouble learning from past mistakes, and our present government apparently has more trouble than most. But there are obvious historical parallels between Britain’s imperial adventures in the 1920s and what is taking place in Iraq today.
In 1919, as part of the territorial plunder taken by the victorious allies, Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule Iraq. Ostensibly Britain’s role was to prevent interstate rivalry and tribal feuding after the upheavals of the First World War, and to improve the lot of the Iraqi people. The real reason, of course, was to safeguard British investments in Iraq and protect vital oil supplies. Iraq was also a useful staging post for the overland route to India and the Far East, and altogether far too valuable a possession to leave in the hands of the unstable and undisciplined Arabs. Britain created the Kingdom of Iraq under a puppet king – Faisal, son of Hussain, the Grand Sharif of Mecca – but actually ran the country through an Indian-style administration, backed by a strong military presence.
During the 1920s, then, Britain justified its meddling in Middle East affairs by proclaiming a humanitarian mission to liberate subject people from the tyranny of the Turkish Empire, just as Bush and Blair have claimed to be liberating Iraqis from the tyranny of Saddam. But the coalition is, of course, equally pursuing its own imperial agenda. Oil, and especially the awareness that American reserves are in decline, is desperately important for the US, as the frenzied attempts by Cheney, Rumsfeld and the oil cartels to galvanise their boy George into action last year clearly demonstrated. At the same time, the ‘rebuilding’ of Iraq’s infrastructure – so thoughtfully blown apart by coalition forces – by US corporations and their lapdogs is a godsend for a nation in economic recession. No change there, then!
In 1919 the Iraqis initially believed British rhetoric and welcomed the ‘liberators’, but became alarmed when, instead of their own leaders taking control, a ‘foreign’ puppet prince was dumped on them. And things became even worse when they realised just how arrogant and racist the British could be. It quickly became clear that they had no intention of leaving, and inevitably, as one historian has noted, ‘Iraq exploded into full-scale rebellion in July 1920,’ especially around Baghdad and in the Kurdish north.
Last year, while most Iraqis welcomed the fall of Saddam, they had not considered that liberation would mean indefinite occupation, nor that national resources were up for grabs, nor that they would face systematic humiliation and abuse at the hands of the occupier. Then, as some future historian will no doubt explain, ‘Iraq exploded into full-scale rebellion.’
Politicians, then as now, cannot admit that most Iraqis want them out. Thus they must find an excuse, a scapegoat upon whom they can pin the blame for rebellion and agitation. The concept of the terrorist as we understand it today had not been developed in the 1920s, so unrest was blamed on a handful of Muslim fanatics who wanted a holy war against Europeans, or on the Bolsheviks who were desperate to destroy the British Empire. Today it is more convenient to lay the blame on Saddam loyalists or Islamic terrorists.
Then Britain hit upon using the RAF as a sort of air police, and through aerial bombing delivered swift punishment to dissidents and rebels by bombing their homes and killing livestock. The military argued that air strikes were humane, the smart weapon of their generation, and could be delivered with surgical precision that would take out only the guilty. The bombing of Suleymaneh and other ‘rebel’ cities demonstrated otherwise.
When criticised for using unnecessary force, the RAF fell back on the old defence of simply following orders. As an RAF pilot explained, ‘I had a job to do – my first loyalty was to my commanding officer. If the Kurds hadn’t learned to behave in a civilised way, we had to spank their bottoms… This was done with bombs and guns.’
But since the Nuremberg trials, the ‘following orders’ defence can no longer be sustained, so Washington and London have fallen back on excuses involving ‘rogue elements’ in the military – which neatly separates high-minded politicians from the realities of occupation.
The next step in this action replay is, of course, to establish a puppet regime in Baghdad. I think we can all make a guess at what will happen then…
Michael Paris is a professor of modern history at the University of Central Lancashire.
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