Sunday, December 23, 2007


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 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.


Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:35 PM  
Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

I'm a big fan of Batatu, always have been, good of you to quote from him. As you say, no easy reading, but anyone who does read Old Social Classes and absorbs even half of it is going to come away knowing 100 times as much about Iraq as just about any US politician or general (not that that's a particularly high bar in most cases).

3:36 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Nice to hear from you, nonarab-arab, and by the way I read with a lot of interest your latest post.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also a Batatu fan but it has to be said that those "gentle pushes with the elbow" are one of the few things in his book which were never footnoted or otherwise backed up with hard evidence. The
British documents from the period, including those that survive in India, show that by 1927 the FO and the CO were generally focused on getting out (or rather wanted to create an informal empire instead of a formal one). The RAF were more imperialist in the classical sense, but there is nothing to suggest that they ever made any attempts to engineer separatist movements south of Baghdad.

11:14 AM  
Blogger David said...

I look at the war from a historical materialist, i.e., atheist viewpoint. Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia looks to me more like an opportunist attempt at independent conquest than an adjunct of imperialism. But if I am wrong about God I know where I am going, and expect to see the AQM guys right there.

1:02 PM  
Blogger badger said...

You da man. And that did seem like the weakest of those four points. (And in case anybody didn't know, Reidar wrote the book on the history of the Basra region including that period: Basra--the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and nationalism in southern Iraq, see his website, so you won't catch me trying to debate with him in that area). However, it did seem to me that the above-quoted footnotes on Shiia-Sunni strife and on using the Ihwan attacks to remind Faisal of his military dependence on the British were fairly good indicators of a strategy of using existing fault-lines to help discourage Faisal from feeling too autonomous. My idea being that suspected us use of those same fault-lines wouldn't be something completely unheard-of as a colonialist tactic, over and above differences in specific desired outcomes.

1:06 PM  
Blogger badger said...

"suspected use of those same fault-lines by the US wouldn't be something completely unheard-of..." I meant to say

1:09 PM  
Blogger badger said...

I don't think anybody thinks of it as an "adjunct" of imperialism, instead as something that exists for its own reasons, but also can be manipulated and used in various ways, for instance by having Saudi or other regional intelligence outfits turn on and off the flow of financial support at key times... things like that.

1:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Badger, I totally agree that these are very important discussions, both the one about the UK in the 1920s, as well as the one about the US in Iraq today. Personally, I have tended to conclude that in many cases, poor policy implementation rather than deliberate partitionist designs is to blame.

12:59 AM  
Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

I would basically agree with Reidar, but add one more element: malignant disdain. The scheming partitionist designs sometimes reak a bit too strong of implausible conspiracy theories. "Poor policy implementation" is I believe accurate but insufficient. But add in a general disdain of the occupied by the occupier (coupled of course with the fact that the occupiers interests don't line up with those of the occupied in most instances) and one ends up with a situation where bad policy is tolerated because Americans/British occupiers generally esteemed Iraqis and Iraq about as much as their own spit. The anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat in recent years come to mind as a parallel: I got angry emails from Muslim friends showing charred bodies and expressing rage at an Indian and Gujarati state government they were convinced had plotted to kill so many coreligionists. The reality I think was a government not that planned or implemented the riots, but that (A) did not effectively contain the riots, and (B) out of sectarian hatred just couldn't be bothered to put in the full necessary effort to contain them. These are cases more of a malignant political tumor than of a sudden heart attack.

2:51 AM  
Blogger badger said...

Fair enough. Thank you both. You made me think this through again, as follows: If you tend to blame "poor policy implementation" I guess you need first to impute to Washington some "policy" that they are poorly implementing. Let's concede for the sake of argument a number of things that I don't agree with, and say, for the sake of argument, that the policy is to support a unitary government of Iraq with some kind of electoral-democratic legitimacy. Let's pass over the fact that this follows an illegal war of aggression based on lies, and that our putative "policy" only holds as long as it guarantees US control over such things as military-basing, oil, regional power, and so on. To get at the "poor policy implementation" argument, let's forget about all that. Let's assume the argument is they are trying to support a unitary-Iraq democratic government. How are they going about it? Over the last 18 months or so, major elements of US policy have been to support the two quasi-separatist blocs (Kurds and the Supreme Council), and to ignore (at best) the nationalist groups (I think Reidar has pointed this out on a couple of occasions), and then more recently arming and support for 70,000 fighters who can be reasonably supposed to oppose the GreenZone government (a danger [another example of poor policy implementation?] underlined many times by Marc Lynch and others). It seems to me it would be at least as much of a stretch to call that a record of "poor implementation" of a supposed policy to keep Iraq together under a democratic government, as it would be to call it part of a partitionist scheme. Perhaps it's somewhere in the middle. And nonarab's point about "malignant disdain" helps explain how from one crisis to the next, the US has wound up in this position where ignorance comes to look so much like malice. In fact the way I see it, ignorance and malice, and that contempt too, have blended into this peculiar American-policy mix, where nobody really knows what policy is being adopted by this most open democracy in the world, so some call it malice and some call it ignorance. And "malignant disdain" seems as good a summary as any.

That seems to me a reasonable interim conclusion for a small-group discussion out of the limelight. But once you get into the real world where the glare of the US propaganda machine colors everything, the whole issue is transformed. There, American aims are beneficent by assumption, and any challenge to that assumption (no matter what words you put it in) becomes a "conspiracy theory" of the type you only expect from UFO freaks and that ilk. So while I'd be willing to concede there we don't have any direct evidence that a "partitionist scheme" is part of US policy, I don't think that really matters, because (1) the debilitating and dis-unifying effects on Iraq, no matter what you call the "policy" aren't going to be affected by any lawerly back-and-forth on this issue of "guilty intent". (At best it is as if an armed bank-robber ended up killing dozens, and then pleaded that this was nothing more than bad execution of his original policy of just robbing the bank). And anyway (2) the propaganda machine, which is what the American electorate responds to, is going to continue its "beneficent design" campaign, no matter what, and to fight that, all I can do is continue to point out the "other side" of the argument, which as it happens is the only interpretation that is available in Arabic anyway.

8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

while I'd be willing to concede there we don't have any direct evidence that a "partitionist scheme" is part of US policy,

huh? Senate Endorses Plan to Divide Iraq..Showing rare bipartisan consensus over war policy, the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed a political settlement for Iraq that would divide the country into three semi-autonomous regions.

i think it is odd anyone calls it a scheme. when congress approves of legislation to divide iraq into regions how is that a scheme? at what point does it become policy. and why would you concede this.

when bearing point inserts caveats into iraq's constitution in preparation for separate regions how is this not policy.

if you just look at the choices they have made it becomes very clear what the policy is. coupled w/the information that infowarfare/propaganda is also policy ask yourself "if what they are asserting is true (lots of mistakes and incompetence) why do they need info warriors?"

what kind of bizzarro world do we live in when people who question the viability of the US military 'loosing' hundreds of thousand of weapons right out from under their noses w/(whoops) no serial numbers, when those people are considered conspiracy theorists!

one would have to be willing to concede the US military is a bunch of worthless bungling fools to be loosing weapons of this magnitude. a bunch of keystone kops running around w/their heads in the sand.

seriously, this is incomprehensible.

for anyone who doesn't think the current method of dividing iraq is policy will you please explain to me what part of what the US is doing leads to the congressionally supported division?

what exactly is the plan if not this? do we simply ask them to separate and they comply? the only thing soft about the partition is the way it is presented to us. the policy is ugly.

it stands to reason the US tactic to divide iraq would include division in such a way as to avoid loosing the lives of the US military.

the policy is not a scheme, the tactic is. until a plan to divide iraq is presented to the public in a clear transparent way i am just going to assume what is taking place is part of the plan. this includes the way it is presented to us.


10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one more thing, not to harp on this missing weapons thing for distribution of weapons is just one of the many requirements for a civil war. lets ask ourselves if this was merely a matter of massive blundering why wasn't the general in charge of this blunder demoted? on the other hand, by listening to the personnel no longer in charge we can get a better view of whose idea were not respected and elevated.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Badger I agree, I was probably unduly mild in my comments...The failure on the part of Washington to show any positive interest in several Iraqi nationalist currents is indeed a deeper problem. I just think that the search for conspiracy theories is more on track and relevant when it focuses on the possibility of US fear of Iraqi nationalism re-emerging in a strong and hence uncontrollable manner (where many interesting questions can certainly be asked about Washington's policies) rather than on elaborate Bush administration schemes to engineer territorial fragmentation in Iraq

2:20 PM  
Blogger badger said...

Roger that.

Annie, I'm not selling you out, I'm just trying to use this quiet year-end time to see where we are, and among other things to reflect on the fact that a lot of people (not just here, but elsewhere too) balk at this idea of a specific plan for partition and understand why that is.

By the way, funnily enough, that WaPo piece you linked to was wrong. There was no language in that legislative amendment relating to three, or any specific number, of federal units, and they even took out Biden's favorite phrase about the "three major ethno-sectarian groups", or whatever that phrase was. Obviously we know who Biden is and what he stands for, but Congress did go to the trouble of removing any implication about any specific plan, three-part or any other specific configuration. And Biden isn't the president. (Discussion of the Biden amendment here
But the main point is this: A lot of people agree with us about the dis-unifying and national-weakening character of US policy, but they balk at assuming there is a specific plan for partition. And that's understandable. It will be enough for the US, a lot of people think, if the country is subservient enough to permit long-term military basing; control of oil, or what have you. They don't really need any specific partition scheme for any of that. Besides, if there a partition plan, what is it exactly? Who will run the South. Has Iran signed on? Saudi? Why should we argue the point, when we really don't know the answers? It is enough, surely, with what we do know, namely that the US supports whatever is sectarian and puts down whatever is nationalist, and that they do this consistently. In a way, this is a harder argument to keep on making, because there is the continual denigration of the nationalists that has to be brushed away. But that's the way it is. Better to face that situation than get into some kind of an "is so" "is not" kind of an argument with people.

4:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

point taken.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is also a very good read, there is a big chapter on Iraq.

Paris 1919

10:35 PM  

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