Here, as the year winds down and we wonder what it's been all about, are some excerpts from the classic history of Iraq by Hanna Batatu called "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" telling about some of the events of 80 years ago in Iraq, 1927, six years into the reign of Faisal, Britain's recalcitrant puppet-king of Iraq. That monarchy lasted from 1921 until its overthrow by the Baathists in 1958. The book was first published 1978. (I got mine via a US distributor at www.perseusacademic.com. It takes a while to arrive, and besides, weighing in at 1200 pages, it's a little bulky for a last-minute stocking-stuffer).
Batatu, Jerusalem-born, emigrated to the US in 1948 where he had an illustrious academic career, mainly as a historian of Iraq. He died in the year 2000. The book is non-partisan, and even though Batatu had access to many smoking guns in the form of British intelligence and other reports, he doesn't harp on things the way some of us are prone to do nowadays. Still, his description of these events of 1927, taken from pages 327 through 329 of his book, is excellent background for those of us skeptical about the standard corporate-media account of the US in Iraq as a history of more or less innocent bungling.
The British installed Faisal, son of Sharif Husain of Mecca, to be king of the new British-controlled Iraq in 1921, and immediately there was a struggle over what form the British control should take, Faisal favoring the informal and indirect approach, while the British insisted on, and finally obtained, a treaty acknowledging that Iraq was their "Mandate". Hanna Batatu wrote: "By deferring to the English, Faisal alienated popular opinion. Nor was his position made any better by the banishment in 1923 of the anti-treaty Shi'i [clerics] or by the pretext given for a measure so serious and which he had only reluctantly approved" [namely that the Shiite clerics were "foreigners", which in fact they weren't but obviously Faisal himself was].
The struggle between popular pressure for real independence and the English Mandate continued, and by 1927 it had taken the form of a dispute about military defense. England wanted to keep control of the volunteer Iraqi armed forces, while Faisal, backed by popular opinion, was for universal military service with Iraqi control.
Here's what happened: The English decided it would be a good idea to get Faisal out of the country, so they invited him to London, where he stayed for almost four months, while the English conducted sham negotiations with him. What is particularly instructive, Batatu wrote, is what happened in Iraq "behind his back". He lists four developments, negative as far as Faisal was concerned, all showing some evidence of colonial-power instigation: Fanning of Shiite-Sunni animosities; problems with the Shiite clerical establishment; separatism; and British exploitation of attacks by salafi fundamentalists from the Arabian peninsula. And running through it all, the question of who controls Iraq's military capabilities.
(1) A Shiite party newspaper called An-Nahda, just four days after Faisal's departure for London, began to publish a series of fierce attacks on Faisal and his government. "The bitter articles were calculated to provoke communal animosity and embitter the feelings between Shi'is and Sunnis. They dwelt upon and exaggerated past conflicts and old grievances. Simultaneously there was a surreptitious agitation against the Sunni dominance of the government and for the continuance of undiminished British control....'It is commonly believed throughout the Euphrates,' affirmed a British intelligence report, 'that His Excellency the High Commissioner is supporting the Shi'i agitation, and [the Shiite party leader in question and newspaper publisher] in his conversation has always managed to convey this impression.'"
(2) Prominent Shiite clerics, "and this is a stratum that was, as a rule, politically quiescent", suddenly began discussing the desirability of abolishing the monarchy and establishing a republic. Here too Batatu found British intelligence reports pointing to British control over the campaign:
"It is understood," maintained a British intelligence report, "that they have been encouraged by articles which have appeared in the British press but will be governed by the attitude His Excellency the High Commissioner takes up with regard to his Majesty the King on his return, and will not do anything unless they are sure of British support."
(3) "In the third place", Batatu wrote, "a number of influential mallaks of Basrah revived their old demand for 'a separate Basrah under British protection.' The promoters of the movement 'insinuated' that their cause had the support of Abdul Muhsin as-Sa'dun, an oftentime premier who was considered to be specially favored by the British government."
(4) Finally, during this period of time there were groups of what are today called takfiiri, based in the Arabian peninsula, prone to attacking the Shiite holy sites in Iraq, one such group called the Najd Brotherhood. During Faisal's absence in London, in addition to the three above-mentioned challenges to the king's authority, there was also this:
In the fourth place [writes Batatu] the Ihwan of Najd, led by Faisal ad-Dawish, chief of the 'Ilwah Mutayr, launched in this period repeated attacks on Iraq, which continued after Faisal's return from England....The student of Iraqi history cannot help noticing that Dawish carried out his raids precisely on those occasions when the Iraqis or their government would not bend to British wishes, that is,in 1922, when the King stood against the "Mandate;" in 1924, when a powerful anti-treaty opposition developed within the Constituent Assembly; and lastly, in the circumstances now under discussion.
It appears unlikely that Dawish should have attacked, at least in 1927-1928, unless he knew beforehand that the British air force, which was still committed by treaty to the defense of the Iraqi borders, would give him a free rein. Interestingly enough, on 11 January 1929, the secretary of state for the colonies directed the high commissioner "to exercise [his] judgment in using the present situation on the Iraq-Nejd frontier to emphasize the necessity of British support and the dependence of Iraq upon such support."
The roles in 2007 compared to 1927 are partly reversed, with a Shiite instead of a Sunni puppet under pressure by the colonial power to toe the line, but at least some of the ingredients of pressure are the same, notably Shiite/Sunni animosity fanned by the colonial power. When it comes to the colonial power's manipulation of takfiiri raids as a way of enhancing the puppet government's sense of weakness and sense of reliance on the colonial power, that is something where Batatu saw circumstantial evidence, in the first place, and also documentary evidence in the form of the colonial secretary's memo. We ourselves in 2007 haven't had the benefit of any documentary evidence of the Americans' manipulation of the takfiiri Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), but the circumstantial evidence seems strikingly similar.
It is almost as if Hanna Batatu is telling us: Been there, done that. Because eerily enough, he even takes up and disposes of the straw-man argument that has been seen so often in the comments here and elsewhere in the past year: "How can you say that Iraq was previously a Garden of Eden?" In answer to that argument he writes:
Of course, the British did not create the separatist proclivities of Basrah's mallaks or the animosity of Shi'is and Sunnis, or of Sa'udis and Hashemites. All these issues have deeper causes. But it looks as if there were gentle British pushes with the elbow somewhere along the line.