Colonnaded thoroughfare Al Rasheed Street was built to commemorate the Ottoman victory in Kut al-Amara during the First World War before the scales tipped in Britain’s favour and the British troops drove Ottomans out with the help of Arabs
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq on the pretext of destroying non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), citing intelligence that turned out to be illusory. The invasion overwhelmed dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime and overthrew it. But it plunged the country into a protracted conflict and left over 100,000 Iraqi civilians dead.
Baghdad, Iraq’s capital once known for idyllic palm gardens, suffered the most from the conflict, which also turned it into a city of barricades to stave off repeated attacks when the country plunged into civil war after the invasion. The barricades made gridlock another major challenge for Baghdad.
As part of a group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in February 2016, we drove almost nonstop into Baghdad until checkpoints to thwart attacks began blocking the traffic near the fortified Green Zone. The traffic slowed to a crawl before it stopped altogether as we reached the Sinak Bridge.
We were stuck there for almost the same time it took us to reach Baghdad from Karbala, over 100 km away. It made more sense for us to explore the city on foot.
We walked straight down from the Sinak Bridge to cross into Karkh, the west bank of Baghdad, on our way to 12th-century saint Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani’s shrine crossing the colonnaded thoroughfare Al Rasheed Street en route. The street became a hub of entertainment with indoor cinemas for winter and open-air theaters for the summer months in the 1930s and 1940s.
Intellectuals and artists frequented Al Rasheed Street’s famous tea and coffeehouses, including al Zahawi café named after the 20th-century poet Jamil Sidki al Zahawi, a newspaper editor, philosopher, reformer, and a champion of women’s rights.
Ottoman governor Khalil Pasha built Al Rasheed Street in 1916 to commemorate the British capitulation in Kut al-Amara, about 160 kilometres from Baghdad, during the First World War. A third of the 13,000 British soldiers taken into captivity in 1916 died after the five-month siege of Kut al-Amara.
The 52 feet wide street was named initially after Pasha. It remains one of Baghdad’s major landmarks running from Babal Muadham in the north to Bab al Sharki in the south on the Tigris’s eastern bank. The street was built to facilitate the movement of troops directly through Baghdad bypassing a longer route around the city.
Completed within two months, the street was constructed after stretching parallel ropes straight along the desired direction and demolishing invariably everything in between with the exception of houses of influential people. By the time the street was inaugurated, it was much less straight than originally intended.
Months after Al Rasheed Street was opened as a commemoration of the Ottoman victory, the scales tipped in Britain’s favour. In March 1917, British troops drove out the Ottomans and marched through Baghdad. The Britishers walked over the site of the Abbasid era Sultan’s Gate, which was part of the city’s defensive wall. A citadel south of Bab al Muadham housed the British army and training ground.
The Kut al-Amara siege earlier prompted the British to rope in the Arab tribes and Arabists to form an intelligence operation, euphemistically known as an Arab Bureau. The bureau had the tribes join forces against the Turks in return for the promise of self-determination at end of the war.
The Arabs were taken in for a ride. The promise British diplomat Henry McMahon made to Sherif Hussein of Mecca in 1915 of an independent Arabia in exchange for help against the Ottoman Turks was meant to be broken. France and Britain would instead go ahead with the division of the Arab world that has since left a unified Arab nation elusive.
The borders were drawn to deepen schisms—between Kurds and Arabs; Shias and Sunnis in the case of Iraq. Arabs were pitted against each other through the patronage of one group at the cost of the other.
The British promised, wrote Christopher Hitchens in The Atlantic in June 2007, ‘an Arab government with British advisers’, but ended up imposing ‘a British government with Arab advisers in Iraq.
In neighbouring Lebanon, boundaries were drawn to ensure the country was a haven for Christians and Druze. They effectively left the Bekaa Valley on the Lebanon-Palestine border to Shias and Syria was carved out with Sunnis as the biggest sectarian group.
The arbitrarily-drawn boundaries changed the thrust of Arab politics. In a 2013 BBC article, Tarek Osman wrote it shifted focus from the building of ‘liberal constitutional governance systems’ to an assertive ‘nationalism.’
Weak public institutions and tiny civil societies it led to in countries such as Iraq made them susceptible to coups and instability since these states were handed over to rulers of choice, who relied upon repression and fear to maintain their hold.
British administrator Gertrude Bell installed the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq from the British Residency, where she lived at the entrance of Al-Rasheed Street in the heart of Baghdad. She groomed Emir Faisal of Mecca as Iraq’s king, showed him the country, introduced him to local elders, and explained tribal lineages and loyalties.
The monarchy managed to outlive Bell by three decades until Colonel Qasim led a group of nationalist military officers to overthrow it in 1958.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide