Monday, February 13, 2006

history never repeats

From Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit and Conflict by Edwin Black. Excerpts from pages 214-217.

As an occupying power, Great Britain declared it had come to liberate Mespotamia from the Turks. "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerers or enemies, but as liberators," proclaimed the generals upon entering Baghdad. Instead, Great Britain suddenly found itself almost at war with the local population. Once again, [Civil Administrator, Arnold] Wilson was the central character, wielding oppressive civil regulations. Under Wilson's direction, families were routinely evicted and their homes requisitioned by occupying forces and administrators, with the token rent often less than satisfying. Piped water was restricted to the burgeoning administrative and military sectors, depriving even established merchants of Basra and Baghdad of their established basics. Large numbers of ordinary residents were dragooned as minimally paid compulsory laborers for British work projects, often pulling them away from fields, flocks, or shops. Freedom of movement was greatly curtailed, purportedly to preempt Turkish spies, but this practice continued long after the Ottoman threat had been purged. The local population bitterly resented these instrusive measures, which redefined their daily life.
The British found numerous sheikhs willing to be co-opted to prop up their unpopular occupation. They were empowered to collect taxes in their area and to settle disputes with the force of law, not according to tribal traditions but based on an imported Indian code, which itself adapted from English legal precepts ... Petty abuses and high-handedness by Wilson's new strongmen were common. Both the populace and the British openly considered these new boss sheikhs to be little more than stooges. One prominent reform-minded British official of the Indian government who later joined the Baghdad administration readily explained in 1916, "Once a sheik has to rely on [the] government for support, he has lost the sympathy of his tribesmen." Refeudalizing Mesopotamia effectively restored the corrupt ways of the sultan that had prevailed prior to the young Turk reforms.
.. when the power of the purse retreated, seething outrage erupted. For example, on January 28, 1918, Captain W.M. Marshall was installed as the new governor of Najaf. During preceeding months, the city had been mutinous. British patrols had been shot at, an airplane was almost downed by gunfire, and government offices were attacked ... On March 19, timed with the Moslem Nawruz festivities, assassins dressed as policemen entered Marshall's home and killed him. Punjabi guards were summoned to hunt down the assailants, but insurgents fought them as well. When the central killers could not be found, the British blockaded Shiite Najaf - nothing in, nothing out. Wilson and the military demanded the surrender of the murderers ... until those conditions were satisfied, Wilson ruled, the residents would suffer a total "food-and-water supply cut off" ... He wanted the killers - or everyone could just starve. With food and water dwindling, many local sheikhs and ordinary citizens joined the rebellion, or strongly considered it, out of a sheer survival instinct ... After weeks of seige, Najafi food supplies held, but the water was almost gone - this approaching a summer that would reach 112 degrees. Finally, by May 4, 1918, quarter by quarter, the town had been starved into submission. Najaf surrendered the culprits.
In recalling the episode, Wilson wrote these words: "Najaf has never again been a source of serious anxiety to the government of the country."

No comments: