In 2016, Iraq was reaping the bitter fruits of the adventurism of another westerner Paul Bremer, who fell back upon the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter a broad-based challenge to the American occupation and prepared the ground for ISIS to tap into resentment over the Sunni purge
Exactly a year before I visited Iraq as part of a group of journalists to cover the fag end of the war on ISIS, the Museum of Baghdad was reopened in February 2015. The museum was closed 12 years earlier in the aftermath of the American invasion.
Around 15,000 items were stolen from the museum during the war and almost one-third of them were recovered and restored before its reopening. British administrator Gertrude Bell founded the museum in the 1920s, covering 7,000 years of history of the region considered the cradle of civilisation.
The museum stood the test of time. But the rickety centralised state of Iraq that Bell helped create after the fall of the Ottoman Empire to ensure, as James Buchan noted in The Guardian in March 2003, it was ‘too weak to be independent of Britain’, was fraying at the edges in 2016.
Bell was among the archaeologist spies roped in for an intelligence operation euphemistically known as Arab Bureau in Cairo against the Ottomans when they entered the First World war as a German ally. Bell drew on the knowledge acquired as an explorer in the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia for the assignment.
Bell had travelled across the Arabian deserts on camelbacks and explored and photographed the region from Syria to the Persian Gulf. She mastered Persian, Arabic, and Arab history and culture and forged friendships by sharing bread and salt with the Bedouins.
It stood Bell in good stead and helped her convince Arab tribes to ally with Britain after the five-month siege of Kut al-Amara, about 160 kilometres from Baghdad, left a third of the 13,000 British soldiers taken into captivity dead in 1916.
The tribes joined forces against the Turks in return for the promise of self-determination at end of the First World War. The Arabs were taken in for a ride. The promise 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 and draw borders meant to deepen schisms. Bell subsequently installed the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq, which outlived her by three decades until Colonel Qasim led a group of nationalist military officers to overthrow it in 1958.
Bell’s legacy endured long after the Hashemites collapsed. Saddam Hussein’s nationalist Arab Ba’ath socialist party followed state policies Bell and her boss, British diplomat Sir Percy Cox, laid down in Iraq.
The policies, wrote James Buchan in The Guardian in 2003, included promoting Sunnis and other minorities over the Shia majority. The Shia clergy was repressed or expelled. Big landowners and tribal elders were bought off while air power was deployed as a form of political control.
In 2016, Iraq was now reaping the bitter fruits of the adventurism of another westerner Paul Bremer, the American diplomat who headed a provisional authority after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003.
Paul Bremer fell back upon the colonial divide-and-rule policy to counter a broad-based challenge to the American occupation. Unlike the British, who patronised Sunnis at the cost of the Shia to deepen divisions, Paul Bremer reversed the policy.
The Sunnis would now get the short end of Paul Bremer’s stick. They accounted for around 40 percent of Iraq’s population but suddenly found themselves excluded from positions of power.
Paul Bremer prepared the ground for ISIS, which tapped into resentment over the Sunni purge from military and bureaucracy in the garb of de-Baathification. He made the declaration of one’s sect mandatory for the issuance of documents. Quotas were now allocated in governing councils on a sectarian basis.
Ethnic tensions predated the American invasion. But Saddam, who built, wrote Buchan, ‘a prosperous despotism’ in the 1970s, kept overt sectarianism in check with Sunnis and Shias leading a fairly well-integrated existence, particularly in the bigger cities, under his 24-year rule.
A third of marriages in Iraq prior to Saddam’s removal were inter-sectarian. The mother of Colonel Qasim, the leader of the 1958 coup against the Hashemite monarchy that Gertrude Bell installed, was Shia. Many of the communists Qasim was closely allied with were also Shia.
Secularist Arab nationalist Ba’thism rose after Qasim was overthrown in the 1963 coup. Shias were prominent in the Ba’th Party leadership as many of them embraced Arab nationalism.
Iraq also had other thriving minorities. Political affiliation was largely based on secular ideologies. Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime had a significant Shia presence. Tariq Aziz, the most recognisable face of Saddam’s inner circle and key foreign policy advisor, was a Christian.
The shift in the political balance of power to the Sunni disadvantage and the loss of levers of the state as a result of Paul Bremer’s policies triggered sectarian tensions and violence. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose terrorist group was first rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq, then the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and eventually Islamic State, exploited the tensions.
The group launched a campaign of brutal terror—bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings. ISIS’s rise in 2014 further split Iraqi society and led to sectarian bloodletting until the terror group collapsed and lost territorial control three years later.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide