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History of Iraq could be helpful

For developing perspective on Iraq, it is helpful to investigate the country’s origin.

According to Janet Wallach in Desert Queen, Gertrude Bell drew the lines that became the borders of Iraq. Later, Great Britain installed Faisal as its king.

Bell, a brilliant British woman, gained extraordinary influence in the Arab world. On the other hand, as Oriental Secretary in the British Foreign Office, despite a strong sympathy for Arab aspirations and clear devotion to Faisal, she worked primarily in the interest of the British Empire.



Another British advocate of Faisal was T. E. Lawrence, a scholar who began studying and traveling the region (on foot, in native garb) well before World War I. While deeply affected by Arab aspirations, Lawrence, too, acted as an agent of British interests (and suffered deep anguish as a consequence of his divided loyalties).

In his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence provides vivid descriptions of the land, its peoples and their tribalism and the many prominent Arab leaders and their complex relationships. Lawrence describes Faisal’s position among these leaders. Before Faisal’s installation as king in Iraq and an earlier short-lived period installed by the British as king of Syria, he had been but one powerful Arab leader among many.



In determining the borders of Iraq, why would Gertrude Bell, knowing the peoples of the region, seemingly ignore the ethnic and sectarian differences dividing them? Is it mere coincidence that she extended Iraq’s borders from oil-rich areas in the south to oil-rich areas in the north? That’s not likely. As Daniel Yergin describes in The Prize, then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill had converted the British Royal Navy from coal to petroleum just prior to World War I.

As exemplified by the above, a reading of the history of this part of the world since the beginning of the 20th century presents the repeated efforts of the great world powers of the time to dominate the region, the ultimate failure of those efforts and the gradual ascendance of indigenous control. Such a reading provides some understanding of the complexity of the cultures and societies within Iraq. Also, it provides some understanding of the resentments, fears and aspirations of Arab peoples.

Our government’s efforts in Iraq might be considered less objectionable for advocating democracy and elections rather than constitutional monarchy and the imposition of a ruler. However, the history of the region suggests that the attempt to dominate the area militarily today is no more likely than were past attempts at domination to succeed in permanently stabilizing the region.


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