This was the Churchill of two decades earlier who, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 served as Britain's Secretaries of State for War and Air. This was the Churchill who presided over the British occupation of Mesopotamia and especially Iraq, a bastard nation carved by the peacemakers out of the dregs of the Ottoman Empire with a close eye only to their self-interest – preserving the trade routes to the Raj in India and access to oil that was just in the process of being discovered. It was Churchill who also presided over the first explosion in the new nation. As I write in A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today:
"In June 1920 the tribes of the Euphrates rose up against their British masters—a rebellion that cost Britain 40 million pounds and 450 troops, leaving 10,000 Iraqis dead. That's when Winston Churchill finally realized that direct rule would never work and he sought a ruler he could control. Enter Feisal. The Hashemite prince, stateless since the French deposed him in Syria, was the perfect puppet. Though a foreigner to the people of Mesopotamia, he was quickly 'elected' in a stage-managed national referendum, paraded into Baghdad, and crowned in a comic-opera ceremony that might have been produced by Gilbert and Sullivan, replete with a small military band playing 'God Save the King.'"
Eventually, the British did get out. But it took them ten years and in the process they managed to sign a 75-year "contract" with the Iraq Petroleum Company designed to give them full access to Iraqi supplies and at the same time installed a government that took the nation to its official independence in 1932 and admission to the League of Nations as a sovereign state. In the process, Churchill and his successors created many of the problems that Bush and his supporters are confronting today.
The British eighty years ago turned over power to the only individuals they could find able to create a nation in their own image – run a bureaucracy, establish a parliamentary government and maintain a military hierarchy with which those Brits left behind could deal. These were the Sunnis, trained in the Ottoman legions of the Caliph and who maintained power, by force of arms or intimidation, over the majority indigenous Shiites and had done so for a millennium. This is the background to the bitter remarks of Abu Sajat, a 36-year-old commander in the Shiite Mahdi Army terrorizing Hurriya and other nearby areas. Talking with a New York Times reporter, Abu Sajat justified his unit's attacks on Sunnis: "Their houses belong to us. They've colonized us for more than 1,000 years. Sunnis are like the puppies of a filthy dog. Even the purest among them is dirty."
With such deep-seated and bitter hostilities – on both sides – there may be no good way out. Moreover, as Packer so nobly suggests and as history so aptly teaches, how we leave is far less important than what we leave behind. Still, the history of another part of the world, indeed another corner of the same Ottoman Empire, may provide some lessons…which I'll discuss in my next posting.