Culture of Conflict: Do Our Governments Care About Iraqis, Let Alone Their Culture? – PART ONE

Last year, Western media and cultural folks vigorously condemned the actions of Islamic State (ISIS, or ISIL, or Daesh) for destroying historically significant artefacts and demolishing entire sites of cultural heritage in Iraq. As the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stated:

The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime […] there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage (see Shaheen, 2015).

Historian Tom Holland commented:

It’s a crime against […] Iraq, and against humanity. Destroy the past, and you control the future. The Nazis knew this, and the Khmer Rouge – and the Islamic State clearly understand it too (ibid).

A member of the European Syriac Union, David Vergili, also wrote that ISIS is doing:

tremendous damage to the social fabric of the Middle East […] Preserving cultural and historical heritage in Iraq and elsewhere should be a concern for the whole civilised world (ibid).

Mideast Iraq Islamic State
ISIS militants take sledgehammers to an ancient artifact in the Ninevah Museum in Mosul, Iraq.

Since these remarks were made the issue has without a doubt reached the popular conscious, with articles cropping up here, here, here and here (and many more if one cares to Google). There is now even a Wikipedia page on the topic. Certainly, the preservation of such heritage – any heritage – really should be a concern for the international community, and it rightly ought to be emphasised at every junction that the terror and degradation spread by ISIS in Iraq and its surrounding regions constitutes the most abhorrent aspects of humanity. That being said, it should also be acknowledged that both ISIS and the current turmoil Iraq finds itself in is a direct result of Western intervention in the region; ISIS ‘grew out of our invasion’, as President Obama has officially acknowledged. This is certainly true, although the roots arguably go back much further, an argument that will be be made in this two-part post. Indeed, as the West readily rallies to condemn the cultural destruction committed by ISIS, we might legitimately ask ourselves if we are as ready and willing to openly discuss and condemn the actions of our own governments in the country? Are many of us even familiar with them? Moreover, in the light of what will be outlined, we might also ask whether the preservation of cultural and historical heritage in Iraq is any more of a priority in the minds of our leaders than the human rights of Iraqis have tended to be – unless of course they happen to serve the interests of Western business; namely, the control of the region’s oil.

We ought to consider, for example, that when in 2014 the US Government claimed to be carrying out air strikes in northern Iraq to ‘protect innocent, vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter or other dire humanitarian situations’ (Earnest, 2014), they and the mainstream media failed to mention that ISIS had been advancing toward ‘important oil locations’ in the region (Greenwald, 2014). Commenting on the issue, Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn explained that oil ‘underlies everything’ and is the reason for ‘so much interest in the Middle East […] over the past century’. ‘If it was dates rather than oil’, he rhetorically asked, ‘would there be such acute interest in what goes on in Iraq?’ (Cockburn, 2014). Here it might be useful to review a little history on the matter.

Oil and the Middle East

In his acclaimed history of the oil industry, entitled The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1999), Daniel Yergin outlines the West’s dependence on oil: it has become the ‘power source for the industrial world’ (p. xvi); ‘intimately intertwined with national strategies and politics and power’ (p. xv); and ‘central to security, prosperity, and the very nature of civilization’ (p. xiv). He continues:

[Oil] makes possible where we live, how we live, how we commute to work, how we travel – even where we conduct our courtships. It is the lifeblood of suburban communities. Oil (and natural gas) are the essential components in the fertilizer on which the world agriculture depends; oil makes it possible to transport food to the totally non-self-sufficient megacities of the world. Oil also provides the plastics and chemicals that are the bricks and mortar of contemporary civilization, a civilization that would collapse if the world’s oil wells suddenly went dry (p. xvi).

Given its importance, then, we ought not be surprised that the Middle East – a region containing ‘nearly half of the world’s proven recoverable crude’ (Sorkhabi, 2014) – has been of fundamental interest to Anglo-American governments in the twentieth century. The UK Government’s view of Middle Eastern oil was clearly outlined in 1947 when British planners described it as ‘a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination’ (cited in Curtis, 2003, p. 16). British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd later noted in 1956 that ‘we must at all costs maintain control of this oil’ (ibid). The US concurred. In 1945, State Department officials described Saudi Arabian oil as a ‘stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history’ (cited in Chomsky, 2003, p. 150). There was also a ‘mutual recognition’ with Britain in the same year that they ought to seek ‘control, at least for the moment, of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world’ (cited in Curtis, 2003, p. 16). The ultimate goal, as planners stated in 1947, was to ‘seek the removal or modification of existing barriers to the expansion of American foreign oil operations [and] promote […] the entry of additional American firms into all phases of foreign oil operations’ (ibid, see also here).

The issue of access to – and control of – oil in the twentieth century was recognised decades prior. Winston Churchill, for example, while head of the Royal Navy in 1911, oversaw the decision to shift from coal to oil power. It was a ‘formidable decision’, he later wrote, because it ‘loomed up the […] intangible problems of markets and monopolies’; namely, that the ‘oil supplies of the world were in the hands of vast oil trusts under foreign control’ (Churchill, 1931, p. 75). The task, therefore, was to secure cheap, reliable access to oil so that Britain could ‘raise the whole power and efficiency of the Navy to a definitely higher level’ (p. 76). As he put it, ‘mastery itself was the prize of the venture’ (ibid).

A 37-year-old Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911 – 1915).

Persia (Iran from 1935) was Britain’s biggest supplier in these early decades. British business had – through the D’Arcy Concession in 1901 – acquired exclusive rights to search for and exploit the country’s oil for sixty years. When oil was discovered there in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) (now British Petroleum) was established and, seeing its strategic importance, Churchill beseeched the Government to invest in and thereby attain a controlling stake in the company. As he told Parliament in 1914, the Government would provide ‘long-term contracts to assure adequate supplies at secure prices’ and obtain throughout the ‘enormous regions’ the ‘power to regulate developments according to naval and national interests’ (cited in Yergin, 1999, p. 145). This effectively ensured that Britain owned and controlled Persian oil for decades thereafter (see ibid for full details. Alternatively, see here).

Enter Iraq

It was during this period, as Yergin (1991, p. 157) writes, that the ‘oil potential of Mesopotamia [modern day Iraq] was beginning to loom larger in British military and political planning’. As war broke out, the region became the focus of a bitter struggle between British, French, German and Ottoman forces who were all driven by a ‘common perception […] that the postwar world would require ever-greater quantities of oil for economic prosperity and national power’ (ibid). As secretary of the British War Cabinet Sir Maurice Hankey wrote to Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour:

Oil in the next war will occupy the place of coal in the present war, or at least a parallel place to coal. The only big potential supply that we can get under British control is the Persian and Mesopotamian supply […] control over these supplies becomes a first-class British war aim (ibid).

Oil became a key military asset during WWI, powering naval ships, planes tanks, and trucks. Stratagists were also increasingly aware of the role it would play in the postwar civillian economy.

Accordingly, on May 16, 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was signed between Britain and France. Pre-empting an allied victory, the agreement dismembered the dwindling Ottoman Empire; that is, Britain and France divided Ottoman-held Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine between themselves. It is widely contended that when the agreement later became public it – together with the 1917 Balfour Declaration – contradicted an earlier promise made by Britain to the emir of Mecca, which, in return for Arab support fighting the Ottomans (an event inaccurately portrayed in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia), assured him that Britain would recognise Arab independence in the region after the war (see Husayn-McMahon Correspondence). Indeed, no such independence materialised, and as professor of Middle Eastern history at Oxford University Eugene Rogan (2015) observes, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was one of many at the time that was ‘concluded solely to advance Britain and France’s [post-war] imperial expansion’. Eminent historian George Antonius (2001[1939], p. 248) described it as a ‘shocking document’ that was ‘not only the product of greed at its worst’ but also ‘a startling piece of [British] double-dealing’. While the extent of this ‘double-dealing’ is disputed (see Kedouri, 2014) and the original Sykes-Picot map was later redrawn at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the accord remains a bitter episode in Arab history with many seeing it as being ‘directly relevant to problems they face today’ (Black, 2015). In 2014, the agreement was drawn into popular Western consciousness when, after having broken through the desert border between Iraq and Syria, ISIS gloatingly tweeted the hashtag #SykesPicotOver (Black, 2014).

Cui Bono? (To Whose Profit?)

One might postulate the view here that Western, particularly British, intervention in Iraq and control of its oil resources was to the benefit of its population. That is to say that our actions were driven by compassion and good intentions; ‘a valiant and benignant force in the history of mankind’, as Churchill saw Britain’s role (cited in Cannadine, 1989, p. 105). Or, as Harold Macmillan (1969, p. 228) wrote, the ‘preservation of peace and the spread of civilisation’ is what the British Empire helped to create. This view, however, could not be further from the truth, especially in Iraq.

Take, for example, when Iraqis and the Kurdish communities in the north revolted en masse against British rule in May 1920. Thousands were killed in a brutal suppression by ‘more than 100,000 British and Indian troops’ who were sent to quell the uprising (Pruszewicz, 2014). These troops were greatly supported by the new policy of ‘aerial policing’, whereby RAF squadrons were deployed to bomb villages of civilians (ibid, see also Glancey, 2003, Vinogradov, 1972 and this documentary). In 1921, RAF Wing Commander J. A. Chamier said:

The best way to demoralise local [Kurdish] people was to concentrate bombing on the most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle (cited in Unver, 2015, p. 149).

Squadron Leader Arthur Harris reported after several such raids that:

The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means: within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out, and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured, by four or five machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape (cited in Grosscup, 2006, p. 55)

British RAF armoured cars and bomber planes on duty in Iraq during the 1920 revolt.

Only a year prior, in May 1919, the RAF Middle East Command had asked Churchill, then Secretary of State at the War Office, for permission to use chemical gas ‘against recalcitrant Arabs as experiment’. Authorising the experiment, Churchill, the man regarded by millions as the Greatest Briton, exclaimed:

I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas […] I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes […] It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses; gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected (cited in Brauer and Van Tuyll, 2008, p. 357).

As Beau Grosscup (2006, p. 55), Professor Emeritus specialising in the Politics of Terrorism, writes, despite (or perhaps because of) the ‘savagery’ of the British ‘aerial policing’ employed in the 1920 Iraqi revolt, the actions ‘provided the blueprint’ for future bombing campaigns; the ‘technical and financial advantages’ of it were too great to pass over (certainly, the parallels with modern drone warfare are striking, see Satia, 2014). Despite its effectiveness, however, the blatant savagery of aerial policing was impractical for Britain’s long-term ambitions in the region. As Laming Worthington-Evan, Churchill’s successor at the War Office, recognised in 1921:

If the Arab populations realise that the peaceful control of Mesopotamia ultimately depends on our intention of bombing women and children, I am very doubtful if we shall gain [their] acquiescence (cited in Simpson, 2004, p. 74).

A less crass means of subordinating Arabs and Kurds in the region was thus sought. The solution was infamously articulated by then Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon who declared that Britain needed an ‘Arab Façade’ that could be:

ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff […] There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on (cited in Mustafa, 2011).

Accordingly, in 1922 Britain installed the Anglo-friendly puppet regime of King Faisal I of the Hashemite monarchy, who generously facilitated the foreign exploitation and control of Iraq’s oil (see Yergin 1991, pp. 84 ff). In 1925, he signed a 75-year oil concession to what became the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), a foreign-owned consortium in which Britain held the controlling stake and whose headquarters were in London (see Brenchley, 1989, pp. 104-5). Western control of Iraqi oil under a so-called ‘Arab façade’ was crucially secured, at least for the time being.

King Faisal I’s delegation at Versailles, during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal, Captain Pisani (behind Faisal), T. E. Lawrence, unknown person, Captain Tahsin Kadry.

Favouring Tyranny

The British-backed regime of the Hashemite monarchy would rule Iraq until July 14, 1958, at which point they were overthrown in an Arab nationalist revolution led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim. British embassy officials in Bagdad described the event as a ‘popular revolution’ driven by:

pent-up passions of hatred and frustration, nourished on unsatisfied nationalist emotion, hostility to autocratic government, resentment at Western predominance, disgust at unrelieved poverty (cited in Curtis, 2004, p. 81).

Indeed, the British Government was fully aware that the regime it had installed and supported for decades was both undemocratic and vastly unpopular among Iraqis. Only days after the revolution a Foreign Office brief described how the ‘wealth and power have remained concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners and tribal sheikhs centred round [sic] the Court’ (ibid). Weeks prior, Britain’s ambassador in Iraq, Sir Michael Wright, had explained to Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd that not only was ‘the constitutional position in Iraq […] very like what it was in the United Kingdom at the accession of George III [1761]’, but that political opposition could ‘not hold public meetings or express opposition to the regime itself in the press’ (ibid). He further described how the ‘efficiency of the Iraqi security services has increased materially in the last year, thanks largely to British assistance with training and equipment’ and acknowledged that ‘complete political suppression’ had been established (ibid). Expressing his adversity to democracy in Iraq, Wright then told Lloyd that ‘a complete relaxation of present controls on freedom of expression coupled with free elections’ would ‘produce chaos and possibly a revolution’ (ibid). It was much better, then, to support repression and inequality; that is, if it was conductive to British interests.

Interestingly, following the revolution, Qasim was also repressive, often brutal, in pursuit of his political goals. However, his goals were not conductive to Western interests. This became clear in 1961 when he took steps towards nationalising the IPC (meaning that Iraq’s oil would be owned by Iraq and not by foreign companies). In a 1962 memo to the Foreign Office, a British member of the IPC described his ambitions:

[Qasim] wished to give Iraq what he considered political independence, dignity and unity, in brotherly cooperation with other Arabs and in neutrality between the world power blocs; he wished to increase and distribute the national wealth, partly on grounds of nationalist and socialist principle, partly out of simply [sic] sympathy for the poor; on the basis of economic prosperity and justice he wished to found a new society and a new democracy; and he wished to use this strong, democratic, Arabist Iraq as an instrument to free and elevate other Arabs and Afro-Asians and to assist the destruction of ‘imperialism’, by which he largely meant British influence in the underdeveloped countries (cited in ibid, p. 82).

Portrait Of The Iraqi Prime Minister The General Kassem Before The Takeover At Bagdad In Iraq On February 9Th 1963
Iraqi Prime Minister General Abdul Karim Qasim before the 1963 CIA-backed coup that lead to his overthrow and the subsequent massacre of thousands.

Qasim’s ambitions would not be realised. In 1963, he was overthrown in a coup under General Abdul Arif and Prime Minister Abdul Al-Bakr of the Ba’ath Party. He was quickly tried in a Baghdad radio studio, tied to a chair and shot. What followed has been described as a ‘massacre of extraordinary ferocity’ that was supported and welcomed by the US and British governments (Cockburn, 1997). According to Aburish (1997, cited in ibid), the US Central Intelligence Bureau (CIA) provided the Ba’ath Party with the names of around 5,000 people so they could ‘undertake a “cleansing” programme to get rid of the communists and their leftist allies’. ‘Pregnant women and old men were killed, some tortured to death in front of their children’ (ibid). As Roger Morris (2003), former US State Department official and senior staff member at the US National Security Council (NSC), explains, the Ba’ath Party, with CIA backing, ‘systematically murdered untold numbers of Iraq’s educated elite’. Victims included ‘hundreds of doctors, teachers, technicians, lawyers and other professionals as well as military and political figures’ (ibid, see also here). The coup was declared a ‘great victory’ by James Titchfield, head of the CIA, who said they ‘really had the T’s crossed on what was happening’ (cited in Cockburn, 1997). An NSC aide also informed President Kennedy that it was ‘almost certainly a gain for our side’ (cited in Aburish, 1997, p. 139-40).

Supporting the ‘Bloodbath’

Collating the now declassified embassy correspondence between Baghdad and London during the coup, Curtis (2004, pp. 85 ff) shows how the British Government indisputably ‘knew of the massacres and welcomed the new regime carrying them out’. For example, a week after his embassy reported mass killings, executions, gunshots and the ‘rounding up of communists’, the British ambassador in Baghdad, Sir Roger Allen, told the Foreign Office that ‘the process of winkling out the Communists in Baghdad and the towns is continuing’ (ibid, pp. 85-6). However, he added, ‘a Communist problem will remain’ and while the new ‘government is doing what it can […] it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself’ because it ‘probably suits our interests pretty well’ (ibid). An internal Foreign Office brief sent out the same day declared that the new Ba’athists had ‘shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot’; they ought to be ‘somewhat friendlier to the West’ (ibid). A month later an embassy official referred to the events after the coup as a ‘bloodbath’ and that ‘we should not wish to be seen publically to advocate such methods’ of suppression (ibid). Nonetheless, it was hoped that there was ‘a chance for a new period in the oil companies’ relations with the [Ba’athist] government’, as another Foreign Office briefing note said (ibid, p. 88).

The correspondence revealed by Curtis is truly shocking. Not only did the British Government support and welcome the so-called ‘bloodbath’ undertaken by the Ba’ath Party; they subsequently sold the regime weapons and ammunition and sent teams of mechanics to maintain the equipment in the months that followed. Among these weapons were 500 Hunter rockets to the Iraqi air force (with another 1,500 delivered by October and 18,000 to follow), ammunition for Saracen armoured cars, mortar bombs, 25-pounder shells, armed helicopters and sterling sub-machine guns (ibid, p. 92). The British Government approved these sales knowing full well that the Ba’athists were using them to massacre the Kurdish people in the north. ‘Iraq’s methods have been brutal and might sustain a charge of attempting to destroy or reduce the Kurds as a racial minority’, the Foreign Office noted in a minute in September (cited in ibid, p. 92). Only two months earlier, before the British Government approved most of the arms sales, the British embassy in Baghdad told the Foreign Office that:

The Kurds tend to be shot rather than taken prisoner. We have had some indications from officials that this may be a deliberate policy […] We have since heard reports of an intention drastically to reduce the Kurdish population in the North and to resettle the area with Arabs and of at least one Arab officer’s disgust with the methods employed as inhumane and ill-advised in the long term. There is no doubt at all of the government’s deliberate destruction of villages […] the government of Iraq […] have resorted to the use of force without the normal civilised safeguards against undue loss of civilian life and perhaps even with some intention of reducing the size of the Kurdish minority in Iraq, or at least cowing it permanently (ibid, pp. 92-3).

As this demonstrates, the British Government knew full well what the weapons they were selling to the Ba’ath Party would be used for, yet they continued to sell them. As Curtis acknowledges, this complicity in the masacre of Kurds and the destruction of their villages ‘was a forbearer of the same British policies with regard to Iraqi aggression in the 1980s and Turkish terror against Kurds in the 1990s’ (ibid). British officials even actively ‘worked to ensure that the UN would not discuss allegations of genocide in Iraq’ (p. 93). A Foreign Office brief to Britain’s delegation to the UN in September 1963 reads: ‘it is obviously HMG’s wish to get rid of this item as quickly as possible’ (cited in ibid). Foreign Office official William Morris proposed that if the issue did come up then ‘our best line would be to abstain from voting’ and to ‘avoid saying anything at all if we possibly can’ (ibid). When another year-long offensive against the Kurds took place in 1965, not only was napalm dropped on villages, which the British Government was fully aware of (see ibid), but it has also been reported that chemical weapons were used (see Aburish, 2000, p. 68; McDowell, 2000, p. 318). When Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani wrote to Prime Minister Harold Wilson appealing to him to stop arming the Ba’ath Party and to intercede to stop them from ‘carrying out their alleged intention of launching gas attacks against the Kurds’, no reply was sent (cited in Curtis, 2004, p. 95).

Preserving the ‘Façade’

What has been outlined so far reveals how in their efforts to maintain access to – and control of – the region regarded as the ‘vital prize’ in world power and domination (Lloyd), British (and later US) governments have shown a remakable lack of concern for both the democratic and human rights of Iraqis. This, however, is a drop in the ocean compared with what would happen in the decades to follow. Indeed, if the Ba’ath Party sounds familiar, then that is because it is; it is the same party that Saddam Hussein would later come to lead in 1979. As Aburish (cited in Cockburn, 1997) writes, Saddam, who was exiled in Cairo at the time of the 1963 coup due to an earlier failed attempt at assassinating General Qasim, ‘rushed back to Iraq […] to join the victors’ and ‘was personally involved in the torture of leftists in the separate detention centres for the fellaheen [peasants] and the muthaqafeen, or educated class’. ‘We came to power on a CIA train’, said Secretary General of the party, Ali Saleh Sa’adi (cited in Pilger, 2003, p. 68). Saddam’s reign of terror would last until the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was a regime marked by ‘brutality’ and ‘repression’ (Tony Blair) and decades of ‘deceit and cruelty’ (George W. Bush). So far, its crimes against humanity remain vastly greater than those of ISIS, yet there is virtually no overt admition from our governments (let alone much of our mainstream media) that Saddam’s regime was arduently supported by them throughout most of its worst atrocities.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein greets Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy of President Ronald Reagan, in Baghdad on December 20, 1983. See video clip here.

If what has been outlined thus far does not make one question Britain’s alleged commitment to the ‘preservation of peace and the spread of civilisation’ (Macmillan), or that it has been a ‘benignant force’ for mankind (Churchill), then what is to come in part two of this post is sure to have a disturbing effect.

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