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BOASTS AND BLUNDERS
- The US presidential envoy in Iraq has learnt nothing from the past

It is one of life’s tragedies that those who claim to be making history today are blissfully unaware of history yesterday. That is especially true of the new masters of creation who, being themselves blest with a remarkably short history, discount the long-term implications of the history of more ancient peoples. The Americans are all at sea, for instance, when a former British chief of joint staff, Lord Bramall, compares their conquest of Iraq to the fiasco of the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt or France’s capitulation, two years earlier, at Dien Bien Phu.

Nowhere is this ignorance more apparent than in Iraq, where last week’s belated signing of the Temporary Administrative Law or interim constitution has not ended bickering by Shi’ites, who comprise 60 per cent of the population, about Sunnis, who comprise under 20 per cent, as well as the four million Kurds, who also account for nearly 20 per cent. Iraq can expect another explosion as soon as American troops have gone because L. Paul Bremer III, presidential envoy of the United States of America, seems to have learnt nothing from the past. He is inviting disaster by defying the logic of numbers to placate US allies among Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbours and to snub Shi’ite Iran. No wonder the Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, looks to the United Nations for redress. A UN mandate might be the only way of averting another crisis. The war has already been disastrous enough. The absence of any weapons of mass destruction has demolished the Anglo-US excuse for invading Iraq and exposed US greed for west Asia’s resources. Reports suggest that Iraqi suffering is, if anything, greater than during the Saddam Hussein regime.

To take the second fallacy first, the British beat the Americans by 83 years when they tried to saddle Iraqis in 1921 with Westminster-style parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy. The constitution that was finalized four years later proclaimed that Iraqis had “confided…a trust” in their foreign king, Faisal, who had been thrown out of his hejaz homeland by the Saudis and chased out of Syria by the French, and who had arrived from his European exile in a British gunboat. Never mind that Winston Churchill called him the “best and cheapest solution” to Britain’s west Asian impasse or that he wryly described himself as “an instrument of British policy.” Never mind, too, that though Britain’s pro-consul in Baghdad, Sir Percy Cox, claimed that 99 per cent of Iraqis wanted Faisal, he timed the installation for six in the morning when there was hardly anyone around to say him nay.

An Iraqi aspirant to the throne was seized and bundled off to exile in Ceylon (as it then was). The British also crushed a Shi’ite revolt against the artificially created infant kingdom ruled by an imported prince and his British controllers and Sunni advisers. They were desperate to secure the route to India as well as grab the oil reserves that the Ottoman vilayats of Mosul and Baghdad had been negotiating to sell to the Dutch, Germans and Americans since 1906 by installing their puppet in Baghdad.

It is anyone’s guess how many of the interim constitution’s 25 signatories, all handpicked by Bremer, can claim more convincing credentials than Faisal. This document is supposed to give way at the end of the year to Bremer’s ingenious system that will rely on “local caucuses” instead of elections. It sounds even more arbitrary than the British-imposed constitution that theoretically vested power in parliament’s elected lower house because sovereignty “resides in the people.” The British endowed the people with “complete freedom of conscience” as well as a glittering array of other democratic “rights” such as freedom “of expression, liberty, of publishing, of meeting together, and of forming and joining associations.”

Of course, no one took this mumbo-jumbo at all seriously. Although 16 parliaments sat under the 1925 constitution and 58 cabinets came and went, they were all dummies. It was the boy king’s uncle and regent who exercised all authority until the kingdom collapsed in bloodshed in 1958. So illiberal and autocratic was the monarchy that until the very end, it would at once stop the grants of Iraqi students in Europe who joined even the most inoffensive of university political associations.

That did not bother the British whose imperial interests demanded that the Sunni minority should control other races and religions. Saddam Hussein benefited from that precedent, which the Americans are now following. Hence, no elections. They will rule through a nominated clique instead of a nominated princeling. Naturally, Ayatollah al-Sistani resents this continued denial of democratic self-expression and the majority’s political rights.

Saddam Hussein also followed the West in discriminating against Kurds. First, the victorious World War I powers reneged on the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne on the pledge of Kurdish self-determination made in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. In 1920, Ottoman Turkey had to be punished for siding with the Axis powers; three years later, Kemal Ataturk had to be rewarded for his modernizing zeal. Neither stance had anything to do with the plight of the Kurds. Then, as a US ambassador, Peter W. Galbraith, the economist-diplomatist’s son, reminded Washington Post readers 16 months ago, both the Nixon and first Bush administrations double-crossed the Kurds, encouraging them to revolt and then withholding support.

It is an old truism that men make constitutions and not the other way round. Just as the Iraqis gave short shrift to the 1925 document, they will reject the new dispensation if it subordinates 60 per cent of the people to less than 20 per cent. Only the US military’s presence can prevent a showdown. But, then, how long will the Americans, who have learnt nothing from the obliteration of South Vietnam, continue to hang on as protector'

Asked about the wisdom of his decisions, Bremer bravely retorted, “I’ll let the historians worry about that!” The real worry is about 24 million Iraqis, about their neighbours and, ultimately, even about the new imperium that is repeating all the blunders of the old. Only the UN might be able to rescue Iraqis from the consequences of US folly by enforcing a mandate that leads to majority rule within a stipulated short-term time-frame. Meanwhile, Iraq and the world must suffer for Bremer’s ill-concealed contempt for history and historians.

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