Baghdad, June 15, 2014
Of the many ironies of recent history, this one surely justifies its description of “supreme”. Last weekend, as Sunni militants, describing themselves colourfully as the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” or ISIL for short, captured thousands of kilometres of strategic land in Iraq and threatened to march on the capital of Baghdad, Barack Obama’s defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, ordered to sail into the Persian Gulf a giant American aircraft carrier.
The supreme irony in Hagel’s order is that the aircraft carrier’s name has a special resonance with the ongoing events in Iraq which have the potential to transform that entire region forever with consequences for India which ought to be taken more seriously in New Delhi than they appear to be. The name of the ship in question is USS George H.W. Bush. Until not long ago, few experts on the Gulf or Levant lost their sleep over ISIL. But last weekend, its fighters forced official Washington to stay awake.
The United States of America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, was kept busy on the phone to the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, among others. President Obama interrupted his vacation in California. He struggled to stay on course with the promise that got him into the White House and won for him the Nobel peace prize: a break with his predecessor’s penchant to put his country’s boots on the ground against anyone he thought was not “with us”, and therefore, “against us”.
But Hagel had the most unenviable task of all: to create an illusion that by moving USS George H.W. Bush — along with a guided-missile cruiser and a guided-missile destroyer — into striking distance of Iraq, the Pentagon’s military might could scare away the steely and determined ISIL fighters.
In reality, Washington is making contingency plans for the evacuation of Americans from the Gulf region if Baghdad does fall to militants. Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said as much when he explained that Hagel’s “order will provide the commander-in-chief additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq”. Ironically, on Sunday the tide turned and brought unexpected relief to Washington — only because of understanding from the most unlikely of sources of succour for the Americans, namely Iran, ruled by ayatollahs, whom successive occupants of the White House have loved to hate.
Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Americans put in power only to watch helplessly as he grew too big for his boots for Washington’s liking, may yet survive the ISIL onslaught, but with help from Tehran. Iran’s help for the beleaguered Maliki government has come as Obama fears to tread in messy Baghdad. Yet the supreme irony of all will be if the aircraft carrier named after a president — along with his son-successor, the names of both men indelibly tied to the recent history of Iraq — is tasked to supervise an evacuation from the Gulf.
The Bushes, Herbert Walker and ‘Dubya’ or ‘W’, his son, the 41st and 43rd presidents of the US, falsely promised the world an Iraq free from an aggressive dictator and liberation from an “axis of evil”. After untold suffering lasting more than a decade, what the world is watching is the prospect of Americans turning tail and leaving the entire region within the grasp of terrorists far, far worse than Saddam Hussein. Watching from New Delhi, it ought to be of utmost concern.
The ironies in Iraq do not end there. In this centenary year of World War I, several books on the Great War have hit the stores in the West. One of them, Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921, published last month, stands out. It is easy to mistakenly assume from the title chosen by its author, Ian Rutledge, the distinguished economist, that the book is about Saddam or about men like Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric-politician who openly confronted the Americans or even about Maliki, who undermines Washington in an underhand style.
But Enemy on the Euphrates is a reminder that nothing has changed in the oil-rich part of the Arab world in a century and that the more things appeared to change, the more they have remained the same. Familiar to all those who have followed the events since Dubya’s invasion of Iraq is a rallying cry by Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Mahdi army” which had the US on edge in 2004: “Just give the order, Muqtada, and we will repeat the 1920 revolution.” This call by the Mahdi army to empower Shias and fight the Western presence in Iraq has earned the nearly successful Shia uprising against the British in 1920 a special place in Iraq’s current political folklore. For those who know little about the dramatic and historic events between the start of World War I and 1921, which changed the course of Arab history in Iraq and nearby, Rutledge’s scholarly work is a valuable education.
For the people of what is now known to us as Iraq and neighbouring areas, World War I did not end in 1918. The embers of conflict were merely suppressed from growing by the use of massive force by the then colonial powers, mainly Britain. Mosul nearly became Britain’s Waterloo in the 1920 revolt which Iraqis are glorifying today. So when Mosul fell into the hands of ISIL last week, history was not repeating itself, history was running its course after it was unnaturally interrupted by outside forces 94 years ago.
The dramatis personae in Rutledge’s narrative make for eerie reading. An oil company by the name of Anglo-Persian played a big role in the events in Mosul and its surrounding areas in the post-World War I period. In its current avatar that company now goes by the name of BP. Among other key players amid the potential oil fields in Mosul — and in nearby Basra, where the oilfields were already under British control — were Royal Dutch and Royal Shell. Britain spared no effort to suppress a revolt by ragtag tribesmen who only wished to preserve their nomadic ways and bedouin lifestyle. The colonial powers, on the other hand, were seeking to control the oil then as they are doing now.
If Indians who lived under colonialism smirk on reading that these tribesmen were called budhoos by the British, the smirk ought to be condoned. There was no joy last week in reading that Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, fell into ISIL hands, but it certainly showed that the tribes which continue to inhabit the plains of Iraq are no budhoos. Not then, not now. It required genius of some sort to bring together deadly enemies, Shias and Sunnis, in a common fight to drive out British occupation. A less charitable explanation is that the British were so hated by the local people that they were willing to temporarily sink differences that are part of their DNA even to this day.
What lies ahead? Rutledge recalls all sorts of promises of convenience made by the British to assorted sheikhs and their followers. The Whitehall then roped in other big powers and convinced them to follow in tow. Behind the backs of Arab tribes, the same land in nearby Palestine was at the same time being promised to Jews. History will not absolve those who made those promises unless they are fulfilled through a political process or the use of force as in Iraq now is inevitable.
The latest events are a rueful reminder of the maxim about fooling some people for some time but not all the people all the time. The British finally vanquished the tribesmen only because of the advantage of the Royal Air Force. Today the Americans are talking of using drones to contain the ISIL. The best illustration of how complex the situation is and how unpredictable the outcome promises to be is this: in Iraq, the ISIL is fighting to overthrow the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, while in Syria they want to see the back of the president, Bashar al-Assad. The Americans and the British and the rest of the West want Maliki to stay in power and Assad to vacate his office. If anyone can rationalize this contradiction, they may find the seeds of a solution there.