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Iraq's history already written
By K Gajendra Singh

US chief administrator L Paul Bremer unveiled Iraq's 25-member governing council in Baghdad on Sunday. It now looks like the beginnings of the rule by the British Governor Sir Percy Cox in the 1920s, after the British had carved out three provinces of the Ottoman empire after its collapse in World War I. After a long national resistance, King Feisel II - of a British-appointed dynasty - and his prime minister, Nuri-as Said, were overthrown and killed in a 1958 military takeover.

The new council (1) replacing Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party regime consists of 13 Shi'ite Arab members ( who form nearly 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million population but who had for many years been excluded by the Sunni elite), five Sunni Arabs, five ethnic Sunni Kurds, who have lived in autonomous north Iraq since 1991, one Turkoman and one Assyrian Christian. The council includes three women and some tribal leaders. But it is not yet clear whether the council will have one leader, or some kind of a joint or rotating leadership.

The council will have some political muscle, such as the power to name ministers and approve the 2004 budget, but the occupying powers, the US-British Coalition Provisional Authority, which the United Nations essentially was forced to recognize through force majeure, will retain the ultimate power in Iraq until a constitution is drafted, approved and elections held.

Before the war, the US and Britain made tall promises of almost instant democracy, but Bremer, who arrived in May, rejected an earlier proposal to hold a national conference to name an interim government, saying that the country was not yet ready. He instead proposed an advisory body, which upset many politicians, especially exiles such as Chalabi, the erstwhile blue-eyed boy of the US, who had been promised an interim government. The deteriorating security situation and an increasingly restive and sullen Iraqi population, has brought about the present dispensation.

A positive note seems to be that some lessons have been learnt by the US neo-conservatives, who still rule Iraq from the Pentagon like Mongol warlords from their ordu yurts ( army camps). This is the advice given by UN special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, a former High Commissioner for Refugees, who has all along insisted that it was essential that the council had some "popular legitimacy" to give it credibility among the Iraqi public. Perhaps only fuller participation by the UN might save the situation from getting completely out of hand - with a reported 10 attacks a day taking place against occupying troops.

During World War I, Britain promised freedom to the Arabs and encouraged them under Hashemite ruler Sharif Hussein in Mecca to revolt against the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul (and deputed spy T E Lawrence to guide them ). But the war's end did not bring freedom to the Arabs as promised because, at the same time, by the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot agreement, the British and French had arbitrarily divided the Sultan's Arab domains and their warring populations of Shi'ites, Sunnis, Alawite Muslims, Druse and Christians. The French took most of greater Syria, dividing it into Syria and Christian-dominated Lebanon. The British kept Palestine, Iraq and the rest of Arabia.

Britain also denied Kemal Ataturk's new Turkish republic the oil-rich Kurdish areas of Mosul and Kirkuk, now in northern Iraq . Turkey has never really relinquished its claim and interest in regaining Kirkuk. The British had propped up oil-rich Kuwait, traditionally ruled by Ottoman pashas, in Basra to throttle Iraqi access to the Persian Gulf . The 1917 Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for Jews in Palestine and European Jews had started emigrating to Palestine. After World War II, the state of Israel, carved out of British Palestine, was not recognized by the Arabs and there have been three wars between Israel and Arabs and two intifadas by a squeezed and repressed Palestinian people.

After taking over Iraq, the British debated whether to rule it directly, as they did in India and as advocated by the Colonial Office, or, as promised before the war to Arabs, grant them freedom and rule indirectly. But events in Syria forced the British hand. Early in 1920, Emir Feisel established an Arab government in Damascus and was proclaimed king of Syria, and a group of Iraqi nationalists in Damascus then proclaimed his elder brother, Emir Abdullah, king of Iraq. From Syria nationalist activities and agitation spread first to northern Iraq and then to the tribal areas of the middle Euphrates. By the summer of 1920, the revolt had extended everywhere except the big cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, where British forces were stationed. The revolt was suppressed by force, in which Indian troops played a role.

In July 1920, French authorities, who had been given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon, claimed Syria and chased out Feisel. To reconcile the Iraqi masses and to meet the clamor in London to get out of Mesopotamia, in 1921 Britain offered the Iraqi throne to Feisel, with an Arab government under British mandate. He accepted the offer on condition that the Iraqi people agreed to it in a plebiscite, and that the mandate was replaced by a treaty of alliance. The British government accepted this. A provisional Arab government declared Feisel king of Iraq on July 11, 1921, provided that his "government shall be constitutional, representative and democratic". A plebiscite confirmed this proclamation, and Feisel was formally crowned king on August 23, 1921.

The next step was the signing of a treaty of alliance with Great Britain and the drafting of a constitution. The treaty was signed on October 10, 1922 and valid for 20 years, but it reproduced most of the provisions of the mandate. Britain was to offer advice on foreign and domestic affairs, such as military, judicial, and financial matters (defined in separate and subsidiary agreements) and prepare Iraq for membership in the League of Nations "as soon as possible". But it was soon apparent that the mandate was still in existence and that complete independence had not been granted. There was strong opposition to the treaty in the press and among the people.

The period of the treaty was then reduced to four years, but the constituent assembly demanded complete independence when the treaty was put before it for approval, but it was ratified on June 11, 1924 after Britain warned that the matter would be referred to the League of Nations, dominated by European colonizer nations.

The constituent assembly then adopted the constitution, called the Organic Law, in July 1924, with extensive powers for the king, and it went into effect on March 21, 1925. It provided for a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary government and a bicameral legislature. The control exercised by the British treaties was seen by the Iraqi people and their leaders as an impediment to their aspirations and inimical to the economic development of Iraq. The impossibility of government by the dual authority of the mandate was called a "perplexing predicament" (al-wad' ash-shadh). In 1929, Britain announced that the mandate would be terminated in 1932 and a new treaty of independence negotiated. A new government headed by General Nuri as-Said negotiated for Iraq 's independence.

The main objective of the political parties was the termination of the mandate and independence. It was achieved in 1932, but air bases for British troops were granted near Basra and west of the Euphrates, and Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations.

While King Feisel was away in Switzerland, there was an Assyrian uprising in 1933 in which many hundreds were killed. The king died soon after this of a heart attack and his young and inexperienced son became King Ghazi. This led to a period of palace intrigues, media wars and tribal uprisings. A non-aggression pact, called the Sa'dabad Pact, between Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, was signed in 1937. In 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, King Ghazi was killed in a car accident, and his son Feisel II ascended to the throne. As Feisel was only four years old, his uncle, Emir Abdullah, was appointed regent and he ruled for the next 14 years.

Shi'ite resistance
After the breakup of the Ottoman empire, in which power had rested with Sunni Arabs, Shi'ites in south Iraq welcomed the British for having liberated them from the yoke of Sunni Ottoman oppression. But by 1918 it was clear that the British had not come to leave in a hurry. So, led by two sheikhs, Mohammed Taqi Shirazi and Abul Hasan Isfahani, the Shi'ites began their opposition. Fatwas were issued against the appointment of the non-Muslim Sir Percy Cox as the governor of Iraq. The whole Shi'ite south erupted in a revolt when in 1920 it appeared that the British mandate granted by the League of Nations would mean their continued rule. It was subdued with great difficulty and Shi'ites remained implacably opposed to the British, even after they put King Feisel on the throne with a timetable for independence.

In 1922, Shi'ite leaders issued fatwas against participation in the elections. Following disturbances, many clerics were expelled, although some leading ones left on their own for Qum in Iran. However, the expected revolt did not take place, but the major leaders were only allowed to return in 1924.

After that Shi'ite opposition became more and more muted, and only when an anti-Shi'ite book was published or anti-Shi'ite measures were taken by the government did unrest occur. With more participation in politics by Shi'ites the role of religion decreased and senior clerics became less active. The cabinets always had one or two Shi'ite members, with Salih Jabr and Sayyed Muhammed as Sadr even becoming prime ministers. After the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, politics became more secular, nationalistic and socialist.

When World War II started, pro-British prime minister General Nuri was persuaded from not declaring war against Germany. After the fall of France and under the influence of pan-Arab leaders, extremist Iraqi leaders wanted to free Syria and Palestine. They also did not cooperate with the British and did not allow British troops to land in large numbers. When British contingents entered from the Persian Gulf and Habbaniyah air base in April 1941 the armed conflict that followed with Iraqi forces lasted for a month, which the British eventually won. This earned them the use of transportation and communication facilities and a declaration of war on the Axis Powers in January 1942. Many Iraqis were dismissed from the armed forces, some were interned, and four were hanged.

Iraq's political system remained unstable, with more than 50 cabinets and 10 general elections before the abolition of the monarchy in 1958. It was a tumultuous time, with politicians using even armed forces as pressure against each other until finally they took over in 1958 and abolished the monarchy.

Another new beginning
The 25-member governing council's first action was announced by member Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, who declared April 9 as a new national holiday, the day that Saddam's statue was brought down in Firdaus square, led by exiled Iraqis flown in a few days earlier with help from a US armed troop carrier.

But tapes purporting to have been made by Saddam keep appearing, nobody appears to know whether he is alive or dead . Al-Uloum, a Shi'ite cleric, said that the council would work to revive the economy, improve security and restore public services. It will also begin work on a new constitution.

The UN representative, Vieira de Mello, called Sunday's meeting a first step in returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people, but the people on the streets feel that the council, handpicked and backed by America, won't change anything as the US will prevail - just like the British did all those years ago.


(1) The council members are: Ahmed Chalabi, founder of the Iraqi National Congress, Shi'ite; Abdelaziz al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution, Shi'ite; Ibrahim Jafari, al-Da'wah Islamic Party, Shi'ite, Nasir Chaderchi, National Democratic Party, Sunni; Jalal Talabani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Sunni Kurd; Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan Democratic Party, Sunni Kurd; Iyad Alawi, leader of the Iraqi National Accord, Shi'ite; Ahmed al-Barak, human rights activist, Shi'ite; Adnan Pachachi, former foreign minister, Sunni; Aquila al-Hashimi, a female foreign affairs expert, Shi'ite; Raja Habib al-Khuzaai, female maternity hospital director in the south, Shi'ite; Hamid Majid Moussa, Communist Party, Shi'ite; Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, cleric from Najaf, Shi'ite; Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, northern tribal chief, Sunni; Mohsen Abdel Hamid, Iraqi Islamic Party, Sunni; Samir Shakir Mahmoud, Sunni; Mahmoud Othman, Sunni Kurd; Salaheddine Bahaaeddin, Kurdistan Islamic Union, Sunni Kurd; Younadem Kana, Assyrian Christian; Mouwafak al-Rabii, Shi'ite; Dara Noor Alzin, judge; Sondul Chapouk, a woman, Turkoman; Wael Abdul Latif, Basra governor, Shi'ite; Abdel-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, member of the Iraqi political party Hezbollah, Shi'ite; Abdel-Zahraa Othman Mohammed, al-Da'wah Party, Shi'ite.

K Gajendra Singh, Indian ambassador (retired), served as ambassador to Turkey from August 1992 to April 1996. Prior to that, he served terms as ambassador to Jordan, Romania and Senegal. He is currently chairman of the Foundation for Indo-Turkic Studies.

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