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Nothing to lose but their chains

28 September 2002

12:00 AM

28 September 2002

12:00 AM

A war against Iraq might destabilise the Middle East, says David Pryce-Jones, but that is precisely what the region needs

Iraq may soon be liberated. The Americans are building bases and runways in the Middle East, airlifting men and supplies, and passing the resolutions in Congress necessary to take military action. Regime change is what President Bush has set his heart on. Condoleezza Rice goes further: she calls for democracy, not only in Iraq but also in the wider Muslim world. From the reaction all over Europe, you might think that Washington was insisting on the sacrifice of the first-born.

In Britain, the Sir Andrew Aguecheeks and Sir Toby Belches, after long and calamitous careers in the Foreign Office, are bombarding the press with fictions about Arabs and a coming jihad against the West. The Left everywhere tries to set the moral tone with sniggers about cowboys. It’s an adventure, according to the Germans. Simplistic, according to the French. Mustn’t make Iraqis suffer; that would be wrong, according to Clare Short, as if all were otherwise milk and honey in their land. For people of their kind, it was never the right time to trouble Herr Hitler or Monsieur Stalin, and it is not the right time now to upset Saddam Hussein, destabilise the Middle East and see oil at $100 a barrel.

The expedients to which free people are reduced in order to avoid facing up to totalitarian tyranny are always a wonder. Any Iraqi in a position to utter his opinion without being tortured and killed has no doubt at all. Kanan Makiya, Iraq’s leading equivalent of the Soviet dissidents of old, asks America to ‘think big’. Iraq, he writes, is the best example of why the United States ‘should carefully excise the cancerous growth of extremism from the region’. Here’s a journalist, Hamid Ali Al-Kifai: ‘Saddam Hussein has destroyed my family and effectively sent me into exile.’ He goes on, ‘The West has always sought to befriend dictators and despots in the Middle East in the past; now it has an opportunity to gain the friendship of a whole people, for a change.’ There are tens of thousands of such people, but the Alice Mahons, George Galloways, Harold Pinters and other bishops of our cosy little world are not equipped morally or intellectually to hear them.

South America, Russia and central and eastern Europe, and parts of Africa have all democratised in recent years. Arabs and other Muslims are almost alone in standing outside this profound historical transformation, and as a result they are increasingly unable to deal with today’s world. Islam in practice tends to absolutism but it has a vision of justice and equality consonant with political democracy. What is missing in their legacy is any mechanism for enlarging separate ethnic and religious identities into a unitary nation-state.

Iraq is a case in point. It is a country in name alone, one of the many created out of the thinnest air in the aftermath of the first world war. The principal local elements are Sunni and Shia Arabs, and Kurds, a separate people who are Muslim but not Arab, with their own language. The Ottomans were Sunni, and the Sunni Arabs were therefore accustomed to seeing themselves as natural rulers of everyone else, although they comprised less than a fifth of the population. Three separate provinces corresponded more or less to these divisions, but there were numerous other minorities, including Turkmen, Jews, Chaldaeans and Assyrians. Driving out the Ottoman Turks and becoming the dominant power in the region, the British had no plans for the next step, but improvised a regime as they went along.


To look at portraits and photographs of the British officials who created Iraq is to see types no longer recognisable: tall angular men with weather-beaten faces and a military bearing. No doubt they thought they were acting in the best interests of the local people, but their imagination was limited by the imperial experience. The High Commissioner had as Oriental Secretary the improbable figure of Gertrude Bell, a lady with good social contacts and much sentimental illusion. In November 1918 she was writing, ‘It doesn’t happen very often that people are told that their future as a state is in their hands and asked what they would like.’ More than anyone else, T.E. Lawrence settled the issue. During the campaign against the Ottomans he had come to know Faisal, one of the sons of Sherif Hussein, the hereditary Hashemite ruler of Mecca. Lawrence persuaded everyone to make Faisal king of Iraq, and to the end of his life he boasted that he was a ‘foundation member’ of the kingdom, and ‘so proud of it’. This was the achievement, he believed, for which he would be remembered.

A few officials – for instance, the much-maligned Sir Arnold Wilson – warned that the Shia formed a majority of the population, and that the imposition of a foreign Sunni king over them was bound to lead to a revolt. In his writings, Lawrence does not pause for reflection on this stumbling block. Sure enough, Sir Arnold was right and the Shia rose. The British were not squeamish about suppressing them, pioneering the use of aircraft to kill desert tribesmen. A plebiscite was rigged to approve Faisal, who one hot August day in 1921 arrived for his coronation in Baghdad. ‘We swear allegiance to you,’ realistic tribal sheikhs declared, ‘because you are acceptable to the British’.

Faisal had to try to hold together the strange conglomeration that the British had bundled up for him. His main strategy was to become popular by intriguing against the British, who duly caved in and granted Iraq its independence in 1931, in effect leaving the Iraqis to make of it what they could. Shortly before his death in 1933, Faisal described with painful truth the people he had been jobbed in to rule over as ‘unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil; prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever’.

Here was a laboratory in which to grow a culture of tyranny. General Bakr Sidqi in 1937 staged the first of the coming series of military coups, and massacred the Assyrian minority. Rashid Ali Gailani seized power in 1941, and there was a massacre of Jews. In 1958 Abdul Karim Qassem butchered the Iraqi Hashemite dynasty, and was himself soon murdered. In due course Saddam Hussein consummated the chain of brutality. In one perspective he looks psychotic, but in another he is only doing what a tyrant has to do to retain his absolute hold on power in circumstances which at any moment might degenerate into anarchy. Pernicious and inhuman as all these tyrants have been, there is a sense in which they are the creatures of inherited ethnic and religious rivalries.

The imagination of the British Foreign Office and the American State Department is limited by the bureaucratic experience. These institutions are staffed by office-bound paper-shufflers with much less experience than the imperial military men who preceded them. So terrified are they of the implications of destroying tyranny that they are leading resistance to regime change, proposing instead to replace Saddam with another Sunni strongman of the same type. Somebody must hold together the Iraqi bundle of ethnicities, otherwise the country might break up with dire consequences. They warn that the Shia might link up with Iran, and separatist Kurds might threaten Turkey. Were the bureaucrats to have their way, some future tyrant would hear his Iraqi subjects swearing allegiance to him because he is acceptable to the Americans. That is how to aid and abet the culture of tyranny to perpetuate itself.

What happens after the American invasion is a justified question. President Clinton passed the Iraq Liberation Act. A hundred million dollars was voted for the purpose, but only a small proportion of those funds has been made available to the main body of the Iraqi opposition, the Iraqi National Congress under Ahmad Chalabi. Secretary of State Colin Powell and hi
s department see the INC as fragmented and lightweight, the vehicle for the personal advancement of its members. Yet it alone offers the one proper alternative to tyranny, namely democracy. Ahmad Chalabi comes from an influential Shia family (Gertrude Bell used to visit some Chalabis in the country near Baghdad). A banker by profession, he is a politician by vocation. He repudiates with indignation the idea that the Iraqis are not capable of democracy. They are sophisticated, well-educated; they know what they have suffered, and that there must be an end to it. He thinks that those on the Left who oppose war with Saddam are ignorant, prisoners of racist stereotypes about Arabs. Better policy bureaucrats are required, with a vision of the Arabs and the Middle East that allows scope for freedom and democracy.

Cornered, Saddam may use weapons of mass destruction, Chalabi fears, even though such weapons are likely to harm Iraqis as much as allied soldiers. The campaign will be short, he believes, as Iraqis will no longer even go through the motions of fighting for their oppressor. They will defect. Then the INC’s task begins. The Iraqi future must be in their own hands, this time without Gertrude Bell’s vapours and Lawrence of Arabia’s fantasies. The American presence will ensure that there is no blood-letting, no revenge of the Shias and Kurds on the persecuting Sunnis. Saddam and perhaps two dozen others have to be brought to account in the local equivalent of the Nuremberg trials. Chalibi likes to compare the reconstruction of Iraq to that of Germany and Japan in 1945.

A constitutional convention has to meet, and decide exactly what kind of regime to erect, whether a presidential or a parliamentary democracy, or perhaps a constitutional monarchy. At a recent assembly in London of some 200 members of the Iraqi opposition, Crown Prince Hassan, of the Jordanian branch of the Hashemites, arrived unexpectedly, signalling that he was willing to serve as a symbol of unity and reconciliation.

Iraq is not about to be broken up. The nation-state has its outlines by now, its boundaries. But if the Kurds and Shias wish for some form of autonomy, then a solution has to be reached on federal or confederal lines. That is the missing mechanism for converting all the different identities into a unitary nation-state, for finding that ‘common tie’ which escaped poor King Faisal and all his successors. No other way exists to eliminate violence from the system, and to keep the country from ending up with another thug choking everyone in the blood of yet more communal massacres.

Chalabi is a moderate and modest man, who disclaims any personal ambition. Time will soon show whether or not his slightly nervy optimism about the overthrow of Saddam is justified. He doesn’t draw up visionary plans, but offers the only practical alternative to tyranny. The objection to this campaign focuses on the probable ‘destabilisation of the Middle East’; and yet that destabilisation is an essential prerequisite for progress. Countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran may have the good fortune to be similarly destabilised. This could be the moment when the Arabs and Muslims take their place in the modern world.


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