‘Everyone Middle East is here’: The British in Iraq

The real difficulty here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country. Can you persuade people to take your side when you are not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs? No wonder they hesitate; and it would take a good deal of potent persuasion to make them think that your side and theirs are compatible. 
Gertrude Bell, Basra, 1916

Britain is a high-maintenance ally.
I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States, 2003

I: The Cairo Conference

When T. E. Lawrence met the Iraqi delegation of Gertrude Bell, Sir Percy Cox, Jafar Pasha al-Askari and Sasun Effendi Eskail at Cairo train station on March 11th, 1921, he could have expected a frosty reception. Bell, in particular, had been furious with Lawrence for his harsh criticism of the post-war British occupation of Mesopotamia under Arnold T. Wilson. “Things have been far worse than we have been told,” Lawrence wrote in The Sunday Times, “our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows” (1). “Tosh…pure nonsense,” Bell had responded defensively, but by the time they met again in Cairo this disagreement had faded into insignificance. They had important work to do. “Dear boy,” Bell warmly greeted her old Orientalist comrade. “Gertie,” Lawrence replied, scanning the colonial delegates stepping off the train, “everyone Middle East is here” (2). “We arrived yesterday,” wrote Bell in her diary, “T. E. Lawrence and others met us at the station — I was glad to see him. We retired at once to my bedroom at the Semiramis and had an hour’s talk…” (3). Here they discussed their joint strategy, in preparation for the conference called by the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. Both had the same objective: to convince Churchill to adopt the principle of Arab self-determination in Mesopotamia and appoint Faisal — the third son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca — King of Iraq.

Even when they argued, Lawrence and Bell were in accord. Bell sympathised with Lawrence’s criticisms of Wilson because she basically agreed with them. Wilson was a colonialist who believed that Mesopotamia should be absorbed into the British Empire under the direct authority of the British crown. He was not alone: his staff in Baghdad agreed with him and, following his example, froze Bell out of all the social and professional engagements that they could, dismissing her as a female dilettante and pro-Arab adventurer. The fate of Iraq under the British had been caught between the parochial ambitions of two British institutions: the government in India wanted to annex the Iraqi state and keep control of Arabia, while the British administration in Egypt aimed to incorporate the former Turkish vilayets of Mesopotamia into an Arab Kingdom that Britain would influence but not directly rule. The Cairo Arabists were willing to cede more autonomy to local clients than the Indian government, who reacted with fury to this challenge: “I devoutly hope that this proposed Arab State will fall to pieces, if it is ever created,” Viceroy Hardinge wrote in a letter to the Foreign Office, “It simply means misgovernment, chaos and corruption, since there never can be and never has been consistency among the Arab tribes” (4). This rage was partly due to a sense in India that their power and influence over the tribes had been lost, particularly after the propaganda triumph of the Arab Revolt led by Faisal and orchestrated by Cairo. Bell had been highly influential in the conception and execution of this campaign — as Lawrence acknowledged in a radio interview in 1927 — her geographical, cultural, linguistic and political knowledge of the territory and its tribes providing unrivalled intelligence for British officials.

Both Lawrence and Bell were British imperialists who believed in Arab self-determination under the tutelage of British administrators such as Cox, Bell’s main ally in Baghdad. They blamed Wilson for stoking anti-British sentiment that culminated in a nationalist revolt among the Arab and Kurdish tribes in 1920, and considered his brutal response — bombing villages and Shia shrines, machine-gunning insurgents and burning down their homes — to be counterproductive, or “bloody and inefficient” as Lawrence wrote in the Times. Wilson’s preference was for colonial subjugation: he did not see any prospect for successful local rule and he did not want it anyway. Wilson was a complex character: after leaving the Middle East and entering parliament he became a vocal supporter of Hitler and Mussolini, but then died in a plane crash in Dunkirk in 1940 after enlisting with the R.A.F. volunteer reserve (he would later be a model for Sir George Corbett in Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing). 

Meanwhile, Lawrence and Bell both worked towards Arab self-rule, but against British withdrawal from Iraq. Having outmaneuvered Wilson and convinced the Indian government of their case, the prospect of abandoning the nascent Iraqi state remained the gravest threat hanging over the Cairo conference. Churchill summoned the key Middle East administrators and Orientalists to help resolve a number of outstanding and interrelated political issues in the British mandates, but he also wanted to save money. The British public, in the midst of post-war depression and strikes, had protested against the cost of pursuing British ambitions in the Middle East, and a lead article in the Times had asked a question that would haunt later occupiers: “how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?” (5) Churchill was himself inclined to pull out of Iraq, leaving only a controlling presence in the strategically critical vilayet of Basra — “I’m going to save you millions,”  he crowed to the press. Bell, Lawrence and Cox were aghast at the possibility of abandoning their Arab allies, which they saw as a recipe for territorial disintegration rather than independence.

For Bell the conference was a success because it avoided this outcome, although she didn’t know that the key decisions had already been made in London. As Bell later wrote, somewhat surprised, “Sir Percy and I, coming out with a definite programme, found when we came to open our packet that it coincided exactly” with Churchill’s proposals (6). The Iraqi borders that she had drawn up in Baghdad were reinforced, incorporating the vilayet of Mosul, home of the Kurdish tribes. Churchill was sceptical of its place in the new Iraqi state and favored their independence, but Bell and Cox insisted on it as a way to counter the imbalance between the urban Sunni minority and the rural Shia majority, and he had finally agreed. Furthermore, the principle of self-determination under her own preferred ruler, Faisal, was affirmed, while his brother Abdullah was chosen to rule Transjordan as a temporary governor. Despite her own modest disavowals, Bell returned to Baghdad as a state builder and a kingmaker. For the rest of her short life, her influence over the creation of modern Iraq was unrivaled and her identity intimately woven into the elite cultural and administrative structures of the new state. Faisal considered her to be an honorary Iraqi. She loved the country and felt responsible for its fate, although by the end of her life she was troubled by the course of its development and the behaviour of the King, her old friend and confidant.

Following the end of their mandate in 1932, the British handed control to Iraq’s parliamentary government, while protecting their own political and business interests in the country they had just created. The result was a cultural and economic boom in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, but also resentment of the British that permeated all sections of the Iraqi population, even those identified closely with them, like the monarchy, the governments of Nuri al-Said and the Jews of Baghdad. Despite his desire for independence and the end of de facto occupation, al-Said believed that it was in the best interests of Iraq to work with the British rather than to expel them, but this position was compromised by the economic and military priorities of the British themselves, as exposure of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 made clear to all Iraqis. This fed into the atmosphere that led to the 1958 military coup which effectively terminated British colonialism in Iraq. The revolutionary officers and their Baghdad mobs butchered the royal family in their Palace, while anybody identified with the ancien régime faced a choice of incarceration or slaughter.

Tamara Chalabi’s family memoir Late for Tea at the Deer Palace paints a vivid picture of the terror and chaos of that day, when families associated with the monarchy and the government fled in desperation to safe houses and, eventually, the country. “Whether it was as a direct result of the Suez debacle which Britain had suffered a few years earlier, or a calculated plan to sell out their friends,” Chalabi writes, “it was unclear what lay behind the apparent indifference of the British. There had been a subtle shift of attitude amongst the British in Baghdad, who were clearly aware that propaganda against the monarchy had reached immense proportions within Arab circles” (7). To the horror of aristocratic families like the Chalabis (who fled to London) the British did nothing to stop or reverse the coup, even when their Embassy residence was burnt down and a British staff member was shot dead. They had made their own calculations and abandoned their Iraqi allies with ruthless expediency. 

After 1958, British engagement with Iraq was more fractured and distant. During the years of the Ba’ath regime the British tried to intervene in different ways, each ultimately unsuccessful and simply reinforcing the broken link with the Iraqi state that they had created. This essay is about those interventions. It is a tangled tale of exile and opposition, political strategy and foreign policy, invasion and occupation; a story haunted by Britain’s imperial past and the events set in motion by Churchill, Lawrence, Bell, Cox and Wilson.

II: Someone must keep track of these things

On March 18th 2003, the day that Parliament voted to approve the invasion of Iraq, Ann Clwyd wrote a combative op-ed for the Times that made graphic claims about the methods of torture and execution being used in Saddam Hussein’s prisons (8). This included details of screaming prisoners being fed into huge plastic shredders, a claim that was dismissed as simplistic propaganda by opponents of the war but which caught the attention of the U.S. Deputy Security of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz. There followed a unique tête-à-tête in Washington between the Labour member for the Cynon Valley and the neoconservative Pentagon civilian that typified the complexities and controversies of the 2003 intervention.

It turned out that they had more in common than she had expected. “Surprisingly, we hit it off,” Clwyd recalled, “it emerged that he had a long-standing association with human rights issues, dating back to his time as ambassador to Indonesia” (9). She was not the only person that Wolfowitz surprised in this way, but Clwyd also had a tendency to surprise people. Her support for intervention in Iraq did not go down well with former friends, allies and colleagues. “At Swansea, while attending a Welsh Labour conference, I was openly jeered and called ‘Bradwr’, ‘Traitor’. Somehow it sounded so much worse in Welsh” (10). Clwyd’s pragmatic approach to politics awarded her diverse allies, from Wolfowitz on Iraq to Jeremy Corbyn on East Timor. “In general, when weighing up whether or not to lend my support to causes and campaigns, I have learnt to make decisions based on what I believe is the right thing to do rather than the personalities involved” (11), she wrote in her 2017 memoir Rebel With a Cause. The cause of human rights in Iraq eventually left her isolated within her own party.

During their meeting Wolfowitz asked Clwyd who she thought would be the best candidate for the role of interim Iraqi president. She had acquired many contacts and friends over decades working with the Iraqi opposition, particularly within Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), but her choice was unequivocal: 

I spoke strongly in support of Jalal Talabani, since I felt he had the ability to draw the factions together, in other words he would provide the glue. At that point Donald Rumsfeld came into the room, and Wolfowitz said, “Tell him what you just told me.” We discussed why I was against some of the names he had mentioned and why Talabani would be such a strong candidate, and I was delighted when Talabani did indeed land the job as interim President of Iraq. (12)

Clwyd had credibility with the Iraqis and her opinions were taken seriously in London and Washington. During the years of Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign she had publicised the plight of the Kurds in parliament and the media, while the British government tried to consolidate their own covert trading relationship with the Ba’ath regime. Following the Gulf War she travelled into the Zagros mountain range to meet Kurdish refugees, taking personal and political risks in order to witness and record their suffering. She was instrumental in lobbying for no-fly zones and could take some credit for the designation of Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe haven. During the 1996 Kurdish civil war, she facilitated a delicate prisoner exchange between the PUK and KDP, negotiating an agreement between Talabani and Barzani that foreshadowed their eventual political settlement.

In her memoir Clwyd is vague about the details of the intra-Kurdish conflict but it was a key moment, not simply for the political course of Iraqi Kurdistan but for the Iraqi opposition as a whole. The civil war had its origins in the INC-Kurdish military offensive of March 1995, an operation that drove a wedge between the Kurdish parties after the KDP pulled out at the final moment, while the PUK and INC pushed on to crushing defeat at the hands of the Republican Guards. In the factional scramble that followed the KDP sought protection from Saddam, a desperate and catastrophic move that invited the reinvasion of the northern safe haven by Iraqi troops in August 1996. Saddam used this opportunity to wipe out the INC: Republican Guard divisions occupied Erbil, executed all the INC personnel they could find and seized their computers. The CIA airlifted the remaining INC members to Guam and evacuated Iraq, leaving the Kurds to their fate. Clwyd was present in northern Iraq when the INC was crushed in Erbil, taking desperate calls from Ahmad Chalabi who implored her “tell the world” (13) what was happening, which she did (or tried to). “It was a tragedy for us,” Chalabi later reflected, “‘Twas a devastating blow” (14).

This outcome seemed to confirm Churchill’s early misgivings about Bell’s plan to incorporate the Kurds into the Iraqi state: he had wanted to establish an independent Kurdish home in the north “to protect the Kurds from some future bully in Iraq” but had been overruled by the Foreign Office (15). However, by the 1990s, the Kurds carried the hopes of a democratic and unified post-Saddam Iraq on their shoulders, an outcome the PUK was far more committed to than the KDP. For this reason, the Kurdish collapse into open war and Saddam’s cunning exploitation of the division between the Kurdish parties was a bitter blow for their supporters, and Clwyd did not try to hide her own despair. “I pulled no punches in my conversations, even using emotional blackmail to remind them of my long-standing commitment to the Kurdish cause,” she writes, “I was blunt in telling them of the pain they were now causing their own people” (16). It was a low point for the exiles and their allies. The northern safe haven had been penetrated by Saddam’s army while British and American warplanes watched and did nothing. More importantly, the linchpin of the opposition and the supplier of its most effective existing fighting units, the Kurdish Peshmerga, had disintegrated as a united force. But for Chalabi — always the most resourceful and ruthless of the Iraqi exiles — this was only the beginning of a new, and more successful, phase in the war against Saddam.

To understand the origins of Clwyd’s role in all of this it is crucial to understand Britain’s status as a haven for Iraqi exiles. After 1958 a number of surviving members from the constitutional government fled to London, among them Chalabi’s father Hadi, who had been head of the Iraqi senate before the coup. They would later be joined by émigrés from successive purges until, by the end of the 1980s, London hosted a large and prestigious community of Iraqi refugees. This was partly explained by the close links that remained between the British state and the old Iraqi elites. These ancien régime survivors retained their anglophone sensibilities and a powerful nostalgia for pre-coup Baghdad having benefited from the prosperous and liberal society of the Hashemites and their British sponsors; for some later additions, there were MI6 links. Then, during the years of the Ba’ath, the genteel elegance of their lives in Mayfair, Bloomsbury and Surrey had been overshadowed by the threat of Saddam’s assassins: famously, Chalabi’s rival Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord had been attacked by an axe-wielding intruder in his Kingston-Upon-Thames home and left for dead by the side of his swimming pool. The escalating brutality and depravity of the Ba’ath regime, as well as Saddam’s willingness to murder his enemies on foreign soil, focussed minds among the opposition groups, although they remained too fractious and scattered to pose any real threat to the dictator. 

London remained a key base for Chalabi, who kept his Knightsbridge office as an operational hub for the INC until the eve of the 2003 invasion. The Chalabis were, in many ways, the epitome of the elite Iraqi exile families: wealthy, cultured, well-connected and determined to return to Iraq to reclaim their stolen inheritance and identity. While he shuttled between Washington and Tehran for the INC, Chalabi kept his family in an opulent Mayfair apartment overlooking Green Park, replete with silk Persian rugs, European and Middle Eastern paintings and a resident maid. When he relocated to northern Iraq in the 1990s, he recreated this refined environment in his house in Salahuddin, decorating it with local sculptures and paintings, hardwood and walnut furniture carved in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, a state-of-the-art stereo system and a library of imported cookery books from which he taught his Kurdish cooks French cuisine.  One of his favorite relaxations in Kurdistan was to rewatch videos of his favorite TV programme: the 1981 ITV production of Brideshead Revisited, a work with great personal and atmospheric resonance for him. “Fighting Saddam does not mean you have to eat bad food or live in shabby surroundings,” he insisted (17).

Clwyd had worked closely with Chalabi as chair of the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq (CARDRI) and its successor INDICT, in the effort to archive evidence of Saddam’s crimes against humanity. In her memoir, Clwyd recalls the time Chalabi visited her in Cardiff on INDICT business and requested a visit to the National Museum of Wales to see the Davies Sisters’ celebrated collection of Impressionist paintings: “as we walked past the renowned Brangwyn Panels, Ahmad pointed at them and said casually: ‘I bid for those at auction’” (18). For Chalabi, European culture was simply part of the human inheritance that he absorbed without compromising his Iraqi or Shia identity. For his allies, he was the living embodiment of the possibility of a new Iraq, even a new Middle East: proof that a viable alternative to the totalitarianism of the Ba’ath regime or the medieval recidivism of Shia and Sunni fundamentalism actually existed. But for Clwyd’s comrades on the Labour left this was suspicious company, a feeling only confirmed by her subsequent meeting with Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. Even before the Iraq war, INDICT had received negative coverage or been treated with passive indifference, a fact that dismayed Clwyd, who wrote: “we knew people in Iraq were being tortured and killed in large numbers and could not understand why others did not feel the same sense of outrage” (19). This feeling of anger and futility in the face of ongoing barbarity culminated in her stark declaration during the February 2003 parliamentary debate on UNSCR 1441: “I believe in regime change. I say that without hesitation, and I will support the government tonight because I think that they are doing a brave thing” (20). On the subject of Iraq, Clwyd had become Blair’s most committed ally.

There was a postscript for the Cynon Valley MP that capped all of the work she had done with the Iraqi opposition since the 1970s. In May 2003, a grateful Blair appointed her Special Envoy on Human Rights to Iraq and in this role she witnessed the excavation of the mass graves of Shia victims of Saddam in Al-Hillah. In later years evidence collected by INDICT was finally put to use in the Baghdad trials of Saddam and his captive inner circle, while the Free Prisoners Association, founded by widows of prisoners who had died in Saddam’s jails, would vindicate the work of CARDRI and INDICT and engage Clwyd long after the overthrow of the regime. In her 2017 memoir she summed up this work with a statement that she could have easily made in 1988: “I still keep an eye on the plight of the widows…even though there are other enormous geopolitical challenges and crises, someone must keep track of these things” (21). 

III: A leader of nations or nothing 

“Ann Clwyd was absolutely terrific and we needed to hear more of her” wrote Alistair Campbell in his diary following the February vote, which otherwise delivered a backbench rebuke to the Prime Minister (22). Iraq proved to be the definitive test of a foreign policy doctrine Blair had originally formulated against a background of amoral Conservative realpolitik that had reached a low point during the Bosnian war. The Prime Minister presented his ideas in full at the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999 with a speech titled ‘The Doctrine of the International Community’ — a text partly written by KCL Professor of War Studies Lawrence Freedman, who would later be appointed to the Iraq Inquiry by Sir John Chilcot. The speech was delivered in the shadow of Kosovo, but the implications were very different for Iraq. Blair, in his statement to parliament on 18th March, 2003, tried his best to separate them: “I have never put the justification for action as regime change. We have to act within the terms set out in Resolution 1441 — that is our legal base” (23). Nevertheless, the moral argument for regime change did come within the scope of the Chicago speech and was effectively covered for Blair by Clwyd. This is why she became important to him, particularly once the WMD argument had disintegrated.

To trace the arc of this journey in British politics it is useful to return to the Conservative Party’s policy towards Iraq in the late 1980s. This policy had its roots in the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, an emergency war measure that gave governments the power to control import and export licenses, and proved far too useful to be repealed. In 1984, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe had set out guidelines that prohibited exports that would “significantly enhance the capability of either side to prolong or exacerbate the conflict” (24), but by the end of the war he had secretly revised his own guidelines in order to establish “a more liberal policy” towards exports to Iraq’s lucrative weapons market. Parliament was not informed (as it did not need to be under the existing 1939 act) because, as Howe recognised, “it could look very cynical if, soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales” (25). The “treatment of the Kurds” referred to by the British Foreign Secretary was the chemical weapons attack on Halabja, which had been dismissed to Clwyd’s face by FCO Minister William Waldergrave, who told her, “‘There is no proof.’” (“I told him bluntly to get it,” she writes, 26). Clwyd recalls with disgust seeing photographs of FCO Minister David Mellor shaking hands with members of the Iraqi regime at the Baghdad trade fair months after Halabja. Waldergrave succinctly clarified the cynicism of government policy in the aftermath of the execution of Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in Abu Ghraib prison: “the priority of Iraq in our policy should be very high: in commercial terms, comparable to South Africa…a few more Bazofts or another bout of internal repression would make this more difficult” (27).

From this point on the government relaxed restrictions on exports to Iraq that were clearly, if not openly, destined for Saddam’s weapons programmes. Trade Minister Alan Clark was accused of advising companies on how to tailor export licences to satisfy official guidelines and approving contracts on a “nod and wink” basis. When Customs took Matrix Churchill to court after intercepting a consignment of dual use machine tools destined for Iraq, the government used all the legal methods at its disposal to disguise complicity in the case. The trial finally collapsed when Clark admitted to being “economical…with the actualité” concerning his advice to Matrix Churchill and other implicated firms: “there was nothing misleading or dishonest to make a formal introductory comment that the Iraqis would be using current orders for general engineering purposes. All I didn’t say was, ‘and for making munitions…’” (28). Clwyd, one of the few opposition MPs who doggedly pursued the case in parliament, noted that Clark “summed up the arrogance of ministers when he dared to suggest that Labour MPs were a bit dim not to understand that, from 1987 onwards, they were being misled by the government and that we should have known Britain was selling arms to Iraq. We did suspect it, we did try to expose it, but he and his colleagues lied to cover it up” (29).

Blair would later be accused of many things, but arming Iraq was not among them. Blair, it is fair to say, was one of the more vigilant disarmers of Saddam — or, at least, he would have been, if Saddam had actually had any WMDs left to destroy. He was worrying about the dictator’s procurement as early as 1997, telling Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown,

I have seen some of the stuff on this. It really is pretty scary. He is very close to some appalling weapons of mass destruction. I don’t understand why the French and others don’t understand this. We cannot let him get away with it. (30)

Operation Desert Fox was launched in response to Saddam’s expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 and set a number of precedents for Blair. In his own memoir he dismissed it as “a limited success…the general feeling was that Saddam had got away with it again” (31), but the operation was significant for different reasons. It was Blair’s first military intervention and demonstrated that he was prepared to confront Saddam directly. It also provided, in miniature, a model for the run up to the 2003 war. The reason for bombing Iraq was WMD rather than human rights but Blair did not even try to disguise his contempt for the dictator and his regime. Ignoring the advice of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, he did not seek further UN authorisation, but acted on separate advice that Resolution 687 provided sufficient legal cover for action. To prepare public opinion for the bombing campaign Blair and Campbell produced a briefing note for MPs titled Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, a tactic they would revive to disastrous effect in 2003. Chirac, already pursuing French commercial interests and seeking the end of sanctions, was furiously opposed, as he would be later on. And, in his speeches to parliament, Blair was uncompromising, refining the rhetoric he would later recycle and expand:

Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people….our quarrel is with [Saddam] alone and the evil regime he represents. There is no realistic alternative to military force. We are taking military action with real regret, but also with real determination. We have exhausted all other avenues. We act because we must. (32)

The American alliance was a priority for Blair in 1998 and 2003, and it may well have played a part in the decisions of any Tory administration that had been in place at the same time. Nevertheless, Blair’s policy towards Iraq directly repudiated the cynicism of the Thatcher and Major administrations. Characters that appeared in the Scott Report into Arms to Iraq — like Howe, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind — also played a role in the sacrifice of Bosnia to geopolitical calculation: again, the practical result was British complicity in the cover-up of genocide. Blair’s Chicago speech was an attempt to define an ethic of intervention that would bury this school of realism forever. It had been morally repugnant but also strategically damaging: Major’s Balkans policy had led to fracture with Clinton, who detested Britain’s pro-Serb stance. Blair would eventually irritate Clinton for the opposite reason: the Chicago speech was delivered at the precise moment Blair was pushing for military intervention against Milosevic and Clinton was vacillating. From this perspective it looked like a very public form of moral blackmail. In fact, Blair’s speech was shaped by the immediate political priorities of Kosovo but its scope was far broader. In some ways it suffered from being too broad — while superficially detailed, the doctrine sketched out was largely untested and full of holes, qualifications and contradictions. But for Blair personally, it was a key political moment.

Blair’s first significant foreign policy speech was in some ways as ambitious as Chicago: in Manchester in April 1997 he had called for the eastwards expansion of the EU, reform of the UN, and a larger British role in NATO, proclaiming, “we are a leader of nations or nothing” (33). Two years and two military campaigns later, he was now attempting to define a new foreign policy ethic and era, not just for Britain but for the entire world. “We have to establish a new framework,” he declared: 

No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer. (34) 

Blair began with the premise that the age of power politics had been superseded by globalisation: the Chicago speech was, in part, a funeral oration for the Westphalian system of state sovereignty and non-interference. Underpinning this was the assumption that Western liberal democratic values are universal values that transcend religion, culture, tradition and ethnicity. In this sense, Blair’s speech was not only against protectionism and isolationism, but also against relativism. This is the point at which Blair’s version of humanitarian intervention overlapped with the moral interventionism of the American neoconservatives. Echoing Blair, Paul Wolfowitz reaffirmed the point in a 2005 interview, as Iraq was unravelling: 

The contradiction is to say that allowing people to choose their government freely is to impose our ideas on them. There was a wonderful moment at a conference here in Washington where someone said it’s arrogant of us to impose our values on the Arab world, and an Arab got up and said it’s arrogant of you to say these are your values because they are universal values. (35)

In many ways the Iraq War was an application of the principles outlined in the Chicago speech and they did not survive the experience intact. Conservative critics of Blair’s doctrine proved to be correct in one crucial aspect: the abstract principles of human rights and democracy could not account for or contain religious, national and ethnic rivalries. In 2003, specifically because of Iraq, the international community was so fractured that it barely existed, as Russia, Germany and France positioned themselves in hostile opposition to Britain and America. Later on, the disintegration of Iraq would expose the limits of both American neoconservatism and liberal interventionism by opening a new era of raw power politics stripped of all progressive and democratic illusions. 

IV: The theatre of power

In the introduction to his 1964 account of his travels among the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger made a gloomy prediction: “soon the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear” (36). Thesiger was not an Orientalist in the style of Bell and Lawrence, but an English explorer in the Victorian mold. In The Marsh Arabs he complained that during his travels in Iraqi Kurdistan he kept coming up against national borders he could not traverse. Travelling through Iraqi towns and cities he was bored and dissatisfied with the urban Arabs who, he felt, were “ashamed of their background and anxious to forget it. A suburbia covering the length and breadth of Iraq was the Utopia of which they dreamed” (37). Like Bell, Thesiger sought escape from “drab modernity” and found it in the Arabian desert and, between 1951-8, among the Arabs of the Iraqi marshes. This small, self-enclosed tribal world in which he tried to forget his own background was, indeed, ancient and fragile: a pastoral existence defined by flood water and reed beds, wildfowl and pig hunting and the milking of buffalo. For the tribes who welcomed him, Thesiger retained the residual authority of the English and was used as a doctor and surgeon despite his lack of formal medical training. “In Iraq, at that time,” he noted,

the British still had a considerable legacy of good will, the result of our close association with the county between the two world wars when Englishmen worked there as administrative officers and advisers. Many of the older inhabitants continued to feel respect and affection for individuals. Tribesmen were, on the whole, too courteous to embarrass a quest, but I was sometimes bitterly attacked by townsmen of Government officials over British policy — Palestine or Suez, for example. On such occasions, the mention of an Englishman they had known could turn bitterness to friendly reminiscence. (38)

During the First World War the shelter provided by the marshes allowed the tribes to attack and loot both British and Turkish forces with relative impunity. During the mandate they were largely left alone and their link to Iraqi nationalism and to the ruling administrations of Baghdad remained tenuous. Despised by the urban Iraqis and desert Arabs alike, the Marsh Arabs maintained their own society and used their natural environment for protection as well as insurrection. “The Marshes themselves,” wrote Thesiger, “with their baffling maze of reed beds where men could only move by boat, must have afforded a refuge to remnants of defeated people, and been a centre for lawlessness and rebellion, from earliest times” (39). 

In the end, Thesiger’s prediction did not come true until the 1990s, when Saddam drained the marshes in response to the 1991 Shia revolt that had been encouraged by the Bush administration. Saddam had a pressing strategic aim here: following defeat in the uprising, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and their paramilitary unit Badr Corps used the thick cover of the reeds to regroup and organise the next phase of their campaign against the regime. “Accordingly,” wrote SCIRI representative Hamid al-Bayati in his 2011 memoir From Dictatorship to Democracy, “Saddam began to target the Marshes with planes, tanks and artillery” (40) and commenced work on a vast project to divide the major wetlands and divert the River Euphrates with enormous dams, barriers and dykes. This was a double assault of heavy weaponry and civil engineering designed to destroy the environment of the marshes and the rebellious tribes that populated them. As the SCIRI spokesman based in London and a board member of INDICT, al-Bayati had the desperate task of publicising this carnage in Europe and found allies in Foreign Office mandarin Julian Walker, Conservative MP Emma Nicholson and Ann Clwyd. But this was not a popular cause in 1995 and the plight of the Marsh Arabs gained no traction. Saddam succeeded in destroying a unique part of Iraq’s natural landscape and cultural heritage in a combined programme of genocide and ecocide that attracted no significant international response. 

This was the environment in which Rory Stewart arrived in August 2003 as a provincial administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Amara and Nasiriyah. Stewart was one of five British civilians appointed by the Foreign Office to support coalition troops and American officials in the immediate post-Saddam period. But he was no zealot for regime change, writing in his 2006 memoir Occupational Hazards:

Ten years in the Islamic world and in other places that had recently emerged from conflict had left me very suspicious of theories produced in seminars in Western capitals and of foreigners in a hurry. The best kind of international development seemed to be done by people who directly absorbed themselves in rural culture and politics, focused on traditional structures, and understood that change would often be slow. I believed that politicians often misled others and themselves when they started wars and that there were dubious reasons for our invasions of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. (41)

Once in post, Stewart quickly learned that Iraqi civil society had been destroyed by the lethal combination of Saddam and UN sanctions. The post-Ba’ath vacuum was filled by what had always existed underneath the political superstructure: tribal allegiance, foreign agents and religious movements. The liberal middle class professionals that the CPA assumed, or hoped, would emerge to lead reconstruction had either voluntarily vanished from the scene or been intimidated into silence. This was a constituency without power in the new Iraq: there was no mass liberal party, no liberal movement and, more importantly, no liberal militia. What actually emerged from the wreckage of tyranny, sanctions and war was not liberal or secular or democratic. In Maysan, Stewart had to contend with a local tribal warlord, Iranian-backed Shia militias and a branch of the Sadrist movement, a triangle of enmity that sidelined all other constituencies and kept the province on the brink of civil war. And this wasn’t unique to Maysan: similar struggles and rivalries were emerging all over Iraq.

As the messy transitional administration under Jay Garner moved into full CPA occupation under Paul Bremer, all of these local rivalries and conflicts intensified and accelerated, feeding a national insurgency. By the autumn of 2003 the CPA was no longer a resource to be exploited but an occupying power to be resisted. This was compounded by the strategic chaos of the occupation. CPA civilians and military personnel tripped over each other constantly, unable to clarify or distentagle their respective duties or areas of responsibility. The CPA in Baghdad devised ambitious nation building schemes that included “programmes on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform” when, as Stewart put it, “people in Maysan talked about almost none of these things. They talked about security” (42). After a year of occupation, “Coalition governors were inventing different political structures in different provinces because Baghdad had not yet defined the legal powers or budgets for local officials” (43). Perhaps most importantly, in the end, “we could not define the conditions under which we were prepared to kill Iraqis or have our own soldiers killed” (44), which sounds harsh, but proved fundamental. Once the governor of Amara realised that the British would not give him the level of protection they gave themselves, Stewart writes, “almost any hope of cooperation was lost” (45).

The point, after all, was power. The financial and military power of the CPA was defeated by the complexity of Iraqi society and by the confusion of an occupying mission that could produce both gender quotas on local elected bodies and the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Stewart would often be forced to project an authority that he did not really feel like he possessed: 

In an ad-hoc organisation in a war zone, most power is the theatre of power. It is not enough to do things, you must be seen to do things. I needed to promise change to give Iraqis some belief in us and in the future. I needed to claim authority and bluff people into falling in step. (46)

The problem was the Iraqis saw right through this and treated Stewart’s “theatre of power” precisely as that: theatre. The occupiers were seen as a source of money to be tapped and, potentially, a way to neutralise or eliminate rivals and enemies. But the real source of authority lay in local constituencies and external backers, a shadow power structure that the CPA could do nothing to influence or defeat. In the south, the SCIRI and Badr brigades and their affiliates and proxies extended Iranian influence into the province, using elections to take control of the regional security apparatus and infiltrate the police forces, as they would do across Iraq. Their main Shia rival was the Sadrist movement, whose local proxies stoked anti-Coalition insurrections and whose constituency grew exponentially during the occupation. As Stewart details, the Sadrists were a new and expanding element in Iraqi and Shia society: a populist movement that appealed to the young and the poor in rural backwaters and city slums and found apotheosis in the fiery sermons of Friday prayers. These were two components of the coming civil war that was, in 2003, merely a threat on the lips of petitioners who did not get what they wanted from CPA officials. As Stewart records, he and his colleagues in the CPA and British army were helpless to contain or control any of this. Even if it was possible, they did not have the real power to do so, because the occupation could not clarify its own purpose or limits. Their authority was an empty performance that was soon exposed.

There is one coda to this story of the marshes. In the aftermath of the war, international aid agencies poured money into projects to reflood the Marshlands. As Stewart travelled around the province he noted the effects of Saddam’s ecological destruction: the near-extinction of the buffalo, the depleted fish stocks and bird flocks, ruined huts and broken islands. In Maysan, the Beni Hashim tribe that had been dispossessed and dispersed into the desert and the Shia ghettos and slums of Basra and Baghdad by Saddam was finally able to return to the Marshes, although many didn’t. Slowly the wetlands recovered and some of the old communities resettled. But this was only partial: a mere fraction of the population and a sample of the biodiversity that had existed before Saddam’s original campaign of destruction. 

V: Strategic failure

In 2006, after completing a tour with the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, Emma Sky spent some time with Stewart in a compound in Kabul working at his Turquoise Mountain Foundation. “I first met Rory in Iraq, after he had walked across Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban,” Sky recalled in her 2015 memoir The Unravelling

He was so scarred by his experience of working with the Coalition Provisional Authority that he had come to believe that grandiose nation-building schemes could never succeed in societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He was now focused on helping to restore historic parts of Kabul and to resuscitate Afghan traditions of arts and crafts. (47)

Stewart was familiar with the culture and the divisions of the British army: his father was a decorated soldier and senior SIS officer and Stewart had joined the Black Watch during his gap year. Yet his memoir reveals tensions between the CPA civilians and the military in Maysan and Nasiriyah: relationships with the colonels and majors he dealt with often seemed strained, even hostile. In contrast, Sky — the liberal, anti-war NGO veteran and British Council project manager who worked in the Occupied Territories before 2001 — would eventually form a close bond with the two most powerful generals in the U.S. army, Petraeus and Odierno. 

Unlike Stewart, Sky had unambiguously opposed the invasion of Iraq before she volunteered to join the CPA. She was eventually sent to Kirkuk in the role of Governorate Coordinator and worked so effectively with Colonel Bill Mayville of the 173rd Airborne Brigade that General Ray Odierno would later ask her to return to Iraq to be his political adviser. Sky was fully aware of her unique, even strange, position: the self-declared “peacenik” who had volunteered to be a human shield during the Gulf War was now the closest political confidant of a general notorious for his aggressive combat methods in Fallujah. Odierno had featured heavily in Tom Ricks’ 2006 best seller Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, which, Sky commented, “was particularly harsh…accusing him of causing the insurgency through his harsh tactics of breaking down doors and mass arrests. The allegations had hurt. It was an exaggerated portrayal which had tarnished his reputation” (48). Sky, on the other hand, remained loyal to the generals she worked for and was impressed by their soldiers. She would later contrast the performance of the American army in Iraq with the British, candidly telling Foreign Minister David Miliband: 

in the mid ranks of the U.S. military the criticisms that Brits had made about the Americans in the early years had rankled. The British military had been very arrogant, believing they knew the ultimate truth about counterinsurgency from Malaya and Northern Ireland. Every situation, however, was different. And the American military had proved themselves faster learners than the Brits. (49)

As Sky knew, reports being sent from Basra to London were politically censored, creating a false sense of optimism in Whitehall. This optimism had been abruptly dispelled by the global publication of a photograph of British soldiers jumping from their Warrior jeep, consumed by flames, following a stand-off with Sadrists at Jamait police station in September 2005. Blair was shocked, but he should not have been. A month before Jamait, the American journalist Steven Vincent had been kidnapped and executed in Basra after uncovering links between the Iraqi police, Shia militias, Iranian agents and oil smugglers, a network that the British had both enabled and ignored. “The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra’s residents,” Vincent wrote in his July 31 New York Times op-ed, the final article he would live to see published:

Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate. (50) 

The fear of appearing to be colonial occupiers was deep-rooted and historical, but history could also make this look like dissembling: Sir Mark Sykes had also told the Iraqis that the British were “liberators” rather than occupiers in 1917. The return to Basra was full of historical echoes that were consciously downplayed by British diplomats and the army without, however, being lost on the Iraqis. To pick just one example: from 2006-7 the British ambassador to Iraq was Dominic Asquith, whose great-grandfather had sent the first British troops to Basra in 1914. Once a month Sky and Odierno would dine in his embassy villa and Sky enjoyed his company:

He was tall and handsome, with the most wonderful manners and dry wit…I loved those evenings. They were our monthly treat. We would fly in from some trip to the battlefield, dirty and tired. But in the ambassador’s residence we relaxed on comfortable chairs, surrounded by paintings and photos and various artefacts of culture and life away from war. I always started with gin and tonic before proceeding to red wine…we were served a three-course meal, seated around a table that had once belonged to Gertrude Bell. Never had food tasted so good. We ate off china with metal cutlery, a welcome change from plastic and Styrofoam. (51)

Meanwhile, outside of Asquith’s diplomatic sanctuary with its fading traces of past imperial elegance, the British mission in the south of Iraq was falling apart. American irritation at British arrogance eventually turned to open contempt as the south spiralled into chaos. This feeling was shared by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who tried to confront the southern  Sadrists himself in his abortive Charge of the Knights raid, an operation that simply exposed how unprepared the British were for offensive combat and how dependent the Iraqis were on U.S. military support. The illogicality and profound failure of British strategy was summarised by a soldier in Basra Palace, in a lament that could have been scripted by Joseph Heller: “It’s going round in circles. People are getting killed for us to resupply ourselves, and if we weren’t resupplying ourselves, people wouldn’t be getting killed” (52). The British mission was finally terminated in 2009 with the evacuation of Basra Airport under a heavy barrage of Sadrist rockets. Blair redeployed a demoralised and under-equipped army to fight an equally disastrous campaign in Afghanistan, but to the Americans it looked like the British were running away from Iraq. The Americans were correct. Both the British military and politicians, including Blair, felt defeated and exhausted by Basra, and carried this palpable sense of humiliation and fatigue into Helmand, where the British mission had to be rescued once again by the Americans. As Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E Trainer wrote in their chronicle of post-war Iraq:

The British military had begun the war as the reputed masters of counterinsurgency…by the end of the Basra fight that reputation was in tatters. The British had ceded control of one of Iraq’s major cities and lost the trust of the Iraqi prime minister. (53)

For Sky the disintegration of Basra province was on the periphery of her work with Odierno in Anbar and Baghdad. In fact, Sky’s memoir reveals her distance and alienation from British institutions inside and outside Iraq: she remarks that her colleagues at the British Council took no interest in her work in Iraq; that both Blair and Miliband had no idea who she was or why she was working for the U.S. army; and her comments on the comparative cultures of the U.S. and British military are much more complimentary to her American employers. Her final judgement of the British in Basra is succinct: “it had not been the most glorious chapter in British history” (54). Nevertheless, she was no American lackey and maintained her position that the Iraq War was a strategic failure of historical distinction. By the time she returned to Kurdistan in 2012 the outcome was clear: the Iraq War had been won by Iran. The key moment turned out to be the 2010 election, which Ayad Allawi’s party won with a slim majority but was effectively handed to Maliki by Obama and Biden who, like the British before them, simply wanted to get America out of Iraq as quickly as possible. This proved to be the final victory for Iranian Quds Force Commander General Suleimani who could now fully penetrate Iraqi political space without any resistance. By the time that Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all Shia to join the Iraqi security forces to fight ISIS, Suleimani was in effective command of those forces and able to personally direct the offensive from inside Iraq. 

The truth is that neither the British nor the Obama administration were prepared to challenge the Iranians in Iraq, despite the clear Iranian effort to kill coalition soldiers and ensure that the Iraqi state remained within the Shia rather than the Arab orbit. As early as May 2004, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw intervened to stop a CIA initiative to attack Iranian agents and training camps in Iraq because the FCO did not want to jeopardise negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, a pattern repeated on a grander scale by the Obama administration. The extent of the Iranian triumph was so great that Sky faced accusations of a secret deal between Iran and America and in Kirkuk a local Sunni Sheikh told her, “They handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter” (55). But there was no deal. In Kirkuk in 2003-4 Sky had caught a fleeting glimpse of “a city of four ethnicities who speak each other’s languages and love each other’s cultures” (56) — a rich patchwork of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen who might, one day, coexist in a secure country called Iraq. But at the same time, to Sky’s frustration, the Kurds relentlessly pursued Kirkuk as their own, seeking to reverse the Arabisation of the city that had been engineered by Saddam and secure its oil as the foundation of a future independent Kurdistan. Pluralism collapsed into ethnic and sectarian rivalry as group identities were politicised and fatally embedded in an electoral system that the Americans designed. This gave Iran — one of the great sectarian actors in the region — the perfect opportunity to divide and rule Iraq, and they took it.

VI: British ghosts

We were surrounded by half-forgotten history.
Rory Stewart, Occupational Hazards

Gertrude Bell spent her last days in Baghdad — the last days of her life — collecting and cataloging historical artifacts for her Archaeological Museum. Following the coronation of King Faisal and the dissolution of the British administration, Bell found herself isolated and increasingly adrift in the new Iraqi capital. She had helped to shape and found the modern Iraqi state, but the course of its development had not quite gone the way she wanted and she no longer had any influence over events. Her friends were leaving the city and, back in England, the family business had been fatally damaged by the coal strike. On June 16, 1926, King Faisal opened the first room of the museum and Bell wrote in her diary: 

Except for the museum, I am not enjoying life at all. One has the sharp sense of being near the end of things with no certainty as to what, if anything, one will do next. It is also very dull, but for the work. I don’t know what to with myself of an afternoon…It is a very lonely business living here right now. (57)

Bell’s focus on the museum consumed her and she spent all of her time and energy fixing up the building that was given to her and arranging all of her antiquities. When her father implored her to return home, she refused:

I do understand that things are looking very discouraging and I am dreadfully sorry and unhappy about you. But I don’t see for the moment what I can do. You see I have undertaken this very grave responsibility of the museum…(58)

In reality, the responsibility was self-imposed: the museum was the result of her own archaeological discoveries and her commitment to preserve the rich history of Mesopotamia for the new citizens of Iraq, a gift to the country that she truly loved. It was also a way to stave off her own sense of despair, grief and depression, until the point it no longer could. Bell died on July 11, 1926, after taking an overdose of sedatives. Her death was noted across the British empire and also among the tribes of Iraq, who flocked to Baghdad and lined the streets as her cortege travelled to the Anglican cemetery, her coffin decorated with the Union Jack and the new flag of Iraq that she had helped to design. 

Nearly eighty years later the descendant of Bell’s museum was looted by organised gangs who stole artifacts from the heart of her collection. The U.S. army failed to secure the building and it was left to returning museum staff to fend off the looters for four days. This was a significant and symbolic event: a presage of the anarchy and corruption to come. Rumsfeld’s infamous response to the looting exposed the vacuum at the heart of post-war planning in a manner that chilled both opponents and supporters of the war alike: “Freedom’s untidy,” he said, “stuff happens.” With this event, Bell’s archaeological legacy evaporated; her geographic legacy also seemed to be finished in 2015 when ISIS erased the borders she had drawn in the 1920s. In the early years of the monarchy, Bell had been friendly with Iraq’s Education Minister Abdul Hussein Chalabi and she often visited and enjoyed the gardens of Chalabi’s residence, The Deer Palace. In 2006, Abdul Hussein’s great granddaughter (and Ahmad’s daughter) Tamara tracked down Bell’s rarely visited, half-forgotten grave in “a barren spot” of the Anglican cemetery; having developed a fascination with the old family friend and looking at the withered flowers and dusty ground of the memorial, she decided to restore and maintain it. For Tamara, Bell’s grave stood for something more than one life: it represented the lost world of her family and an entire generation of exiles, “buried underground and in memories, almost as if it never existed” (59). But for anybody British who knew or cared about it, Bell’s grave was simply a relic from an expired empire.

The ghosts of British lives haunted the land: the traces of their lives and deaths strewn across Iraq, in graves, plaques, buildings and some living memories. In Maysan in 2003, Stewart met a man who remembered a day of duck shooting with Thesiger in 1953; he also noted the lingering memory of Colonel Leachmen, the Amara-based British political officer whose murder in Fallujah remained the great symbol of the 1920 uprising. Amara cemetery, which Stewart visited, was filled with the bones of British and Indian soldiers who had been killed during the siege of Kut in 1915-6. During the 2006 civil war, when other reporters were too afraid to leave the Green Zone, Dexter Filkins visited the British war cemetery in Baghdad; he found it derelict, with tombstones “toppled and crumbling” and grass growing up to his chest. “When an American died in this war,” he wrote,

he was flown home in a black bag, zippered at the top; the British, killed long ago, were buried across the realm from here to Trincomalee. There hadn’t been any refrigeration then, and the ships had been too slow. The British were buried where they fell. (60)

Symbols of lost power and responsibility surrounded British personnel in Iraq in 2003, but the imperial legacy was almost completely disavowed. Power and responsibility now belonged to America, a nation still changing the course of world history; the British played only minor roles as participants and spectators in an American and Iraqi narrative. Stewart and Sky would often hear praise for their imperial predecessors but only ever offered as a way to criticise their American successors and therefore serve to highlight the historic transfer of power. In the era of the CPA, the original British occupiers were lauded for their diplomacy and their knowledge of the tribes (which itself owed much to Bell’s 1920 masterpiece Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia), while the existing British occupiers tended to be treated as conduits for American money and influence. In contrast to the approach of earlier British imperialists, Bremer and his advisers had no desire to perpetuate the ancient tribal divisions of Mesopotamia and wanted to construct a modern, secular democratic nation out of the wreckage of dictatorship. The tragedy was that their method of achieving this — minority representation — had the effect of hard-wiring sectarianism into the new political institutions that they created. As Sky wrote later: “the focus on subnational identities was at the expense of building an inclusive Iraqi identity. No one at the time seemed to have any foreboding of the disaster this would bring upon the country” (61).

For many reasons, the relationship between the Iraqis and the British had been complicated. As Elie Kedourie noted — in a book written in the shadow of brutal Ba’ath reprisals after the first Gulf War — it was the British who were ultimately responsible for the descent of Iraq into factional bloodshed and military dictatorship, precisely because of the sectarian political settlement they had designed and upheld:

The newly-invented polity was…fragmented from the very beginning. The original fault lines have become, if anything, more pronounced with every change of regime. The Kurdish and Shi’a uprisings in the aftermath of the Iraqi defeat at the hands of the U.S. in 1991 eloquently show the abiding disaffection of the majority of the population towards rule from Baghdad. (62) 

Kedouri argued that an Iraqi state headed by a foreign King and governed by urban Sunni officers and officials “could not, parliament or no parliament, be governed constitutionally or within the rule of law” (63). The state established by Churchill, Cox and Bell therefore contained the seeds of its own destruction and the descent of Iraqi nationalism into genocide and totalitarianism also had its roots in British policy. Because Iraq was never fully annexed by the empire, British power was wielded in back rooms and through proxies, which simply created a different kind of resentment that festered and then exploded. Inspired by fascism and Nazism, Iraqi nationalism was, from birth, authoritarian, militaristic, antisemitic and anti-British. In her memoir, Tamara Chalabi describes the darkness and brutality that consumed Baghdad during the Second World War, inspired by Hitler who briefly courted the Iraqi nationalists. This set the scene for the execution of the royal family in 1958, the destruction of constitutional government and the slow suffocation of the Jewish community of Baghdad. In each case, British power and anybody associated with it was the target of violence and revolution. 

The interesting thing about the British engagement with Iraq during the Ba’ath era was how ahistorical it was. Modern Iraq was a British creation but all sense of ownership or responsibility had long vanished. Ann Clwyd’s campaigns on behalf of the Kurds and the Iraqi exiles were conducted in the context of international human rights, but without any real sense of the link between British imperial history and the tragic progress of Iraqi nationalism. Conservative trade policy with Iraq in the late 1980s was not even an attempt to revive old historical ties, it was simply a very modern, very grubby tale of cynicism and avarice. The Gulf War, Desert Fox and the Iraq War all occurred within a context defined by America and any British policy in Iraq was therefore almost identical to that of the U.S. Blair understood this to be the existential basis of British foreign policy and acted accordingly. The British occupation of Basra turned into a transactional commitment that, ultimately, proved too costly. The echoes of Britain’s past were nothing more than a liability during this mission: a source of tension, a provocation, a reproach. But they also taunted the British, cruelly exposing decline and fall relative to new global powers and forces, so they were best ignored. The British story in Iraq ended, finally, with Blair’s own epitaph, delivered in the form of the Chilcot Report.

As David Fromkin wrote in his account of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, “the shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own” (64). This remained as true in 2003 as it had been in 1916.

  1. Quoted in Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia (Phoenix Giant, 1999), p.296
  2. Quoted in Wallach, p.295
  3. Gertrude Bell, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, ed. Georgina Howell (Penguin, 2015), p.165
  4. Quoted in Wallach, p.154
  5. Quoted in David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 1989), p.453
  6. Quoted in Fromkin, p.503
  7. Tamara Chalabi,  Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family (HarperPress, 2011), p.274
  8. Ann Clwyd, ‘See men shredded, then say you don’t back war’, The Times, March 18, 2003
  9. Ann Clwyd, Rebel With a Cause (Biteback, 2017), p.274
  10. Ibid., p.264
  11. Ibid., p.255
  12. Ibid., p.274
  13. Ibid., p.241
  14. Quoted in Richard Bonin, Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi and the Selling of the Iraq War (Anchor Books, 2011), p.114
  15. Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018), p.283
  16. Clwyd, p.248
  17. Quoted in Bonin, p.81. 
  18. Clwyd, p.255
  19. Ibid., p.261
  20. See Hansard: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030226/debtext/30226-22.htm
  21. Clwyd, p.279
  22. Alistair Campbell, The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 4: The Burden of Power — Countdown to Iraq (Arrow, 2013), p.469
  23. Quoted in Tony Blair, A Journey (Arrow, 2011), p.439
  24. Quoted in Richard Norton-Taylor, Mark Lloyd and Stephen Cook, Knee Deep in Dishonour: the Scott Report and its Aftermath (Gollancz, 1996), p.48
  25. Quoted in Norton-Taylor et al., p.19
  26. Clwyd, p.227
  27. Quoted in Norton-Taylor et al., p.13
  28. Ibid., pps.140-1
  29. Clwyd, pps. 175-6
  30. Quoted in Anthony Seldon, Blair (The Free Press, 2005), p.387
  31. Blair, p.222
  32. See BBC News, Texts and Transcripts, December 17, 1998: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/crisis_in_the_gulf/texts_and_transcripts/236932.stm
  33. Steve Boggan, ‘Election 97: Patriotic Blair sets out global vision’, Independent, April 21, 1997: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/election-97-patriotic-blair-sets-out-global-vision-1268592.html
  34. Tony Blair, ‘The Doctrine of the International Community’ in The Neocon Reader, ed. Irwin Stelzer (Grove Atlantic, 2004), p.112
  35. Radek Sikorski, ‘Interview with Paul Wolfowitz’, Prospect, December 2004
  36. Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs (Penguin, 1964), p.14
  37. Ibid., p.59
  38. Ibid., p.61
  39. Ibid., p.99
  40. Hamid al-Bayati, From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p.30
  41. Rory Stewart, Occupational Hazards (Picador, 2007), p.8
  42. Ibid., p.82
  43. Ibid., p.276
  44. Ibid., p.296
  45. Ibid., p.297
  46. Ibid., p.35
  47. Emma Sky, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Atlantic, 2015), p.136
  48. Ibid., p.148
  49. Ibid., p.281
  50. Steve Vincent, ‘Switched Off in Basra’, New York Times, July 31 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/opinion/switched-off-in-basra.html
  51. Sky, p.167
  52. Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: the Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage, 2013), p.466
  53. Gordon and Trainor, p.481
  54. Sky, p.281
  55. Ibid., p.352
  56. Ibid., p.70
  57. Bell, p.248
  58. Ibid., p.249
  59. Chalabi, p.185
  60. Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (Vintage, 2009), pps. 332-3
  61. Sky, p.50
  62. Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992), p.31
  63. Kedourie, p.32
  64. Fromkin, p.468


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