By Anne Ashford
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Imperialism – Remaking the Middle East

This article is over 18 years, 8 months old
The history of British and French rule in the Middle East makes uncomfortable reading for Iraq's new conquerors.
Issue 274

‘I’ll never engage in creating kings again: it’s too great a strain.’ As they struggle to impose a compliant government on Iraq, Pentagon officials may well reflect on the words that Gertrude Bell wrote in 1921. Bell, an adviser to the British High Commissioner in Baghdad, played an important role in creating a new colonial order for the Middle East. Out of the debris of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialists of an earlier generation fashioned a network of client kingdoms under British and French tutelage. George Bush and Tony Blair’s modern day colonial adventure is only the latest chapter in a long history of attempts to shape the Middle East in the interests of the Great Powers.

However, as Gertrude Bell admitted more than 80 years ago, each redrawing of the political map has generated resistance. British officials eventually imposed kings on Iraq and Egypt, only to face renewed pressure from independence movements a few years later. British, and later US, support for Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland has created a permanent focus for anti-imperialist protest. If the experience of the past is anything to go by, far from becoming a pivot in an ‘axis of democracy’ spanning the Middle East, postwar Iraq may play a similar destabilising role.

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The history of Iraqi Kurdistan shows how imperialist powers and their local clients have used the warring factions of the Kurdish elite for their own ends, while the Kurdish people have paid a heavy price.

Kurdistan lies at the crossroads of western Asia. It has a long history as a frontier between rival empires. The Kurdish regions of south eastern Anatolia cover the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which provide water for Iraq and Syria. The US Department of Energy estimates that the Kirkuk oilfield on the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan has a capacity of around 1 million barrels of oil per day.

Britain’s desire to control Kirkuk’s oil saw large areas of Kurdish population added to the new kingdom of Iraq, although the Treaty of Sevres promised a referendum on Kurdish independence. This betrayal provoked Kurdish uprisings in 1923 and 1932 which were brutally suppressed.

Since the 1970s two parties have dominated political life in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) won the backing of the traditional Kurdish landowners and sheikhs in the 1960s. The core of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has its roots in a layer of middle class activists who wanted to build a modern nationalist movement.

Despite their bitter rivalry, the KDP and PUK have long followed the same strategy. They have built up substantial armed militias hoping to force concessions over Kurdish autonomy from the central government in Baghdad, while looking to Iraq’s regional competitors and international enemies for support.

For ordinary people in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, the driving force behind the nationalist movement has been the increasing brutality of Iraqi rule. This culminated in the Anfal Campaign in 1988. In only six months, Iraqi troops commanded by Saddam Hussein’s cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majid, wiped out as many as 182,000 people. Thousands died in chemical gas attacks, or were shot and buried in mass graves. At the time, western governments refused to act, claiming that the Kurds had exaggerated the death toll.

During the 1990s the KDP and PUK returned to courting the regional powers in an attempt to dominate Iraqi Kurdistan. KDP and PUK feuding has, as David McDowall puts it, ‘increasingly [driven] each party into greater dependency on, and cooperation with, the aims of their respective external rival sponsors’.

The experience of earlier generations holds other important lessons for today. In 1915, just as today, representatives of the Great Powers invoked the watchwords of ‘liberation’ and ‘self government’, although Ottoman despotism, rather than Ba’athist tyranny, was the bogeyman of the hour. Tactics of ethnic and religious divide and rule also have a long history in the Middle East. In Lebanon and Iraq, French and British officials encouraged the perpetuation of confessional politics–conveniently playing off Sunni against Shia, and Christian against Muslim, as it suited them. And rather than support democracy, colonial officials–old and new–have always preferred repression. In 1920 British troops put down an insurrection in Iraq, and crushed protests and strikes in favour of independence in Egypt. In the face of this resistance, British colonial officials followed a two-pronged strategy–brutal repression of the mass protests was coupled with a concerted effort to forge an alliance with local elites. Today’s discredited Arab leaders also have a long pedigree–every new imperialist intervention has found local rulers willing to cooperate with the occupiers.

The Ottoman Empire’s alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany at the outbreak of the First World War brought the Middle East directly into the conflict between the imperialist powers. France and Britain occupied much of the Levant and Mesopotamia, restricting the area of Ottoman rule to Turkish Anatolia. Hoping that an Arab revolt would help them defeat the Ottoman armies, British commanders encouraged the embryonic Arab nationalist movement that had emerged in many areas of the empire during the late 19th century. In 1915 British officials agreed with Sharif Hussein, the ruler of Mecca and a descendant of the prophet Mohammed, that Ottoman rule would be replaced by a new state headed by an Arab prince. Although the borders of this new country were left vague, the promise of independence helped to cement an alliance between traditional Arab rulers and the emerging Arab urban middle class on the one hand, and British imperialism on the other.

While Sharif Hussein’s sons gathered an army to fight the Ottomans, British and French officials were already deciding the real shape of the postwar Middle East. The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 carved the region into British and French spheres of influence. This act of imperial horse trading demonstrated that despite their talk of ‘liberating the oppressed’ neither Britain nor France would permit the creation of a genuinely independent Arab state. And for the first time Middle Eastern oil was now lubricating the wheels of international diplomacy. Both Britain and France recognised the crucial role that oil played in the conflict. British control of BP’s Persian oilfields played an important part in the defeat of Germany. As Anthony Sampson describes, the postwar partition of the Ottoman Empire was driven by competition over the as yet untapped oilfields of Mesopotamia and the Gulf. ‘Turkey was paying for defeat by having her dwindling possessions carved up between Britain and France. Both countries, while pretending that oil was not foremost in their minds, were specially concerned with two regions along the River Tigris…the regions of Baghdad and Mosul which were suspected of containing huge oil reserves.’

The British administration of occupied Iraq was modelled on the colonial system of India. From the highest levels of government to local political districts, British officers controlled Iraq. As the historian Phebe Marr explains, colonial administrators actively discouraged Iraqi participation: ‘The philosophy guiding this group was largely based on 19th century ideas of “the white man’s burden”, a predilection for direct rule, and a distrust of the ability of local Arabs for self government.’


Maintaining this hated system proved costly and difficult. British officials strengthened the role of the tribal sheikhs, who became their local tax collectors and law enforcers. However, even the support of the tribal leaders for the British administration failed to contain an explosion of anger in 1920, when the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Iraq.

The insurrection of 1920 swept away British control in large areas of central Iraq. Nationalist slogans united Sunni and Shia communities in protests in Baghdad, while tribesmen rose in revolt across the country. Although the insurrection was eventually crushed at the cost of hundreds of Iraqi lives, British forces also lost 400 soldiers and the British taxpayer was left to foot the £40 million bill. The revolt did not win independence for Iraq, but it forced the British government to drop the hated ‘India Office’ policy of direct rule.

Iraqis were still to be denied the chance to choose their own government, however. Britain’s preferred candidate to lead Iraq was the Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who had created a shortlived Arab kingdom based in Damascus. After French troops forced him out of Syria, British officials offered Faisal the crown of the yet to be created Kingdom of Iraq. Gertrude Bell described how British officials struggled to impose the new king on his future subjects. In August 1920 she wrote, ‘Its not all smooth yet. We get reports about the lower Euphrates tribes preparing monstrous petitions in favour of a republic… I don’t believe half of them are true but they keep one in anxiety.’

A combination of bribery, threats and political manipulation eventually ensured Faisal’s acceptance. To the strains of ‘God Save the King’–no one had yet composed an Iraqi national anthem–he was crowned in August 1921. Following the political traditions established under Ottoman rule, his government was dominated by Sunni Muslims. No Shia figures were appointed except in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. And while the all-powerful political officers were replaced by Iraqi officials, British advisers remained behind the scenes.

A rising tide of nationalist anger in Egypt proved even more difficult to control than the insurrection in Iraq. Under British occupation since 1882, Egyptians had already experienced decades of colonial rule by the outbreak of the First World War. When a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals applied for permission to attend the postwar peace conference in Versailles to put the case for Egyptian independence, British officials refused.

A nationwide campaign of protests and petitioning merely provoked the enraged authorities to deport four of the delegation’s members to Malta. The fate of the Wafd–Arabic for delegation–and its leader, Sa’ad Zaghlul, sparked off a wave of huge protests across Egypt. Thousands took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. British property was attacked, and the railway lines were torn up by angry crowds.

Unlike Iraq, where the insurrection against British rule remained largely confined to the countryside, Egypt’s working class movement played a crucial role in the revolt of 1919. Strikes by tram workers, cigarette rollers and government employees marked the urban working class’s entry onto the political stage. Class and nationalist demands frequently intersected as foreigners owned many of Egypt’s key industries and transport companies. Years of rising prices and wartime food shortages also played their part in pushing thousands towards rebellion.

Despite the demands of the nationalist movement for complete independence, once again the colonial administrators had the final say. In 1922 Britain declared Egypt an independent state–making sure in the process that the authoritarian King Fu’ad ascended to the throne. British officials also retained control over Egypt’s foreign and defence policy, and reserved the right to police the Suez Canal.

The Wafd was eventually allowed to form a government. However, the middle class leaders of the nationalist movement now turned against the working class. The newly founded Communist Party was closed down and the trade unions repressed–not by the British this time, but by the Wafd.

In Lebanon and Syria–designated as spheres of French influence by the Sykes-Picot agreement–the mandate government left a poisonous legacy of sectarianism for future generations. The French authorities ejected Emir Faisal and his Arab government from Damascus in 1919. Although Faisal was crowned king of Iraq by the British, nationalist agitation continued, culminating in an insurrection against French rule in the Jabal Druze area of Syria in 1925. In an attempt to contain nationalist protests, the French authorities played Syria’s religious sects off against each other.

In Lebanon the Maronite Christians, long regarded as France’s most loyal clients in the area, were the greatest beneficiaries of the carve-up, winning the presidency and control of the army. However, all the sectarian leaders had something to gain from the arrangement. In return for policing their own communities, the rich and powerful were given access to the corridors of colonial power.

The fate of the local leaders promoted by Britain and France under the Mandate period also holds lessons for the new administrators of Iraq. By the 1950s most of the client kingdoms that Gertrude Bell and her colleagues had fought so hard to create had been swept away in a wave of mass nationalist protests. It was in this era that the US, which had replaced Britain and France as the major imperialist power in the region, turned decisively towards Israel as the guarantor of its interests in the Middle East.

Today’s generation of Arab leaders may well feel the shockwaves of the war on Iraq sooner than their predecessors. Globalisation accelerates both the economic and military impact of imperialist intervention. But while CIA agents call in air strikes by satellite phones, activists across the Middle East can use text messaging to organise demonstrations.

The rich vein of anti-colonial protests in the region also shows that the peoples of the Middle East need no lessons in democracy from George Bush and Tony Blair. However, the historic role of local elites in propping up the imperialist order also demonstrates that the enemies of freedom in the Middle East are not only to be found in Washington and London. Ridding the region of corrupt Arab rulers will also be the task of a new generation of anti-imperialist activists.

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A history of intervention


Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France parcels out the Middle East between the Great Powers.


Lord Balfour gives British assent to the creation of a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine.


Creation of the state of Israel after the UN accepts the partition of Palestine.


A CIA-backed coup overthrows a nationalist government in Iran.


British, French and Israeli forces attack Egypt after Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal.


Israel attacks Egypt and Syria with US support


US officials encourage Saddam Hussein to declare war on Iran.


Israel invades Lebanon in an attempt to crush Palestinian resistance.


US-led forces expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait after a devastating bombing campaign kills thousands of Iraqi civilians.


US and British forces conquer Iraq.

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