Global Policy Forum

Deceit and Duplicity:


By T Rajamoorthy*

Third World Resurgence
March-April 2003

The attempt by the US and Britain to project their occupation of Iraq as an act of 'liberation' is consistent with the pattern of deceit and duplicity that has characterised Western intervention in that country. And if history is any guide to the present, this latest imperial adventure will meet the same fate as earlier ones.

Commentators on the invasion of Iraq have pointed out that when Bush, Wolfowitz and Negroponte recently declared that US troops had entered Iraq 'as liberators, not as occupiers', they were simply echoing a familiar refrain that has accompanied Western interventions in the Middle East since the time of Napoleon.

As is now well known, when the British General Sir Stanley Maude invaded Iraq in 1917 during the First World War and initiated the process of the colonisation of that country, he too claimed that 'our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies but as liberators'.

As if to ensure that their message to the people of Iraq was clearly understood, in November 1918 the British (together with the French) issued a declaration (called the Anglo-French Declaration) which purported to set out their vision for the future of Iraqi and other Arab peoples formerly ruled by Ottoman Turkey. Their goal, they proclaimed, was 'the complete and final liberation of the peoples who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of national governments and administrations that shall derive their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous population'.

These pious pronouncements about 'liberation' and the right of peoples to self-determination were, of course, public declarations. In private discussions, British government Ministers and advisers expressed very different views about the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination. Only a month before the Anglo-French Declaration was proclaimed (i.e. October 1918), as British troops reached the outskirts of Mosul, at a meeting of the Eastern Committee of the British War cabinet, some of the key British officials who were to shape British policy in the Middle East revealed what they really thought about 'self-determination'.

Among those who attended this meeting were the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour (of Balfour Declaration fame), Lord Robert Cecil, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and T E Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia').

At the meeting Mr Balfour expressed the view that 'it would be unwise to become pedantic about self-determination because it was inapplicable to 'wholly barbarous, undeveloped and unorganised black tribes'; to which Lord Robert Cecil added the bewildering warning that while self-determination should be 'an indication ... we should not attempt to leave it to the populations to say, because you would have the most awful rows if you did that ...' Lawrence at any rate had an understandable point of view: 'Self-determination has been a good deal talked about. I think it is a foolish idea in many ways."1

Exercise in Cynicism

The Kurds of Iraq unfortunately took the Anglo-French Declaration at its face value and welcomed the British troops as liberators in the autumn of 1918. Their leader, Sheikh Mahmud al-Barzani, took the Declaration so seriously that it is alleged that he kept a copy of the Anglo-French pledge in an amulet as a talisman. Within six months of the Declaration, he had proceeded to exercise the promised right of 'setting up of national governments and administrations' deriving 'from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous population', by establishing a Kurdish state in the north.

In May 1919, however, Britain sent her troops to crush the fledgling Kurdish state. The Kurds were obviously to be 'liberated' from certain aspirations which the British could not entertain! The Kurds resisted fiercely and although the revolt was put down ruthlessly, British rule in Iraq continued to be punctuated by a series of Kurdish revolts.

The British attitude (or for that matter, Western attitude as a whole) to the Kurdish question was to remain throughout, an exercise in cynicism, a matter of pure expediency. As one American historian explained, the British had originally toyed with the idea of a British-protected Kurdish state because 'the support of Kurdish aspirations could be used as a lever of pressure on recalcitrant Kemalist Turkey, on Iran and especially on Iraq, in which the percentage of Kurds was higher than in any other country'. Subsequently, however, they abandoned this because it was too explosive. However, as the same historian noted, 'This did not mean that friendship with the Kurds was thrown overboard. On the contrary, it continued to be cultivated, especially on the local level, by various British agents, both in Iraq and in Iran. This served [among other purposes] ... to keep the Kurdish question as a tactical reserve in case of difficulties with Baghdad or Teheran.'2 (emphasis added)

The 1920 Shi'ite Revolt

But while Kurdish resistance was almost a permanent feature of British rule in Iraq, it was the Shi'ites who led what was perhaps the first national revolt against British rule. The spark that triggered the revolt was the news from the San Remo Conference that despite the earlier British and Allied pledges of liberation and self-determination for Iraq, the country was to be a mandated territory of the British ('mandated territory' was a euphemism for a colony). What is astonishing about the 1920 revolt, centred in Najaf, was the role of the Shi'ite ulama in not only mobilising the Iraqi masses, but in forging a united front with the Sunnis in opposition to British colonialism. 'For the first time in many centuries, Shi'ites joined politically with Sunnis and townsmen from Baghdad and tribesmen from the Euphrates made common cause. Unprecedented joint Shi'ite-Sunni celebrations, ostensibly religious but in reality political, were held in all the Shi'ite and Sunni mosques in turn: special maulids, Sunni ceremonial observances in honour of the Prophet's birthday, were on occasions followed by ta'ziyahs, Shi'ite lamentations for the martyred Husain, the proceedings culminating in patriotic oratory and poetic thundering against the English.'3

In order to unite the two communities, the agitation was also focused on the disgrace to Arab honour and the deep humiliation inflicted on a proud people by the imposition of colonial rule - a point encapsulated by the following lines from a poem by a Sunni poet:

'O you the people of Iraq, you are not orphans to seek guardianship [a mandate] for Iraq. You shall no longer enjoy the water of the Tigris if you are content with humiliation and oppression.'4

The revolt began in May when two British soldiers were killed, and by July the whole country was up in arms against the invaders. Even with the 130,000 troops at their command in Iraq, the British found it impossible to put the revolt down. Reinforcements had to be rushed in and poison gas ('weapon of mass destruction') was requested to quell the revolt. When the British finally managed to crush the revolt in October, they had suffered some 2,500 casualties.

The revolt was to leave a permanent imprint on the emerging polity. And in view of current attempts by the Western media to portray the latest invasion of Iraq as the liberation of the Shi'ites long suppressed by a Sunni-dominated state, it is essential to underscore British culpability in designing this polity. It was the British, in their drive to undermine the power of the Shi'ite majority, who fashioned and designed the modern Iraqi state with the entrenched Sunni minority at its helm. 'Later generations of Iraq [Sunni] politicians,' wrote a British official in summarising the revolt, 'may appreciate the gratitude they owe the British for saving them from [Shi'ite] Najaf.'5

The process of fashioning this state began after the revolt when the British imported Faisal Hussein, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca - a man who had never previously set foot on Iraqi soil - and arranged for a 'spontaneous movement' for him to become the King of Iraq. After some deft footwork, they had him elected as the ruler by a majority of 96.8% - a feat equalled only by Saddam Hussein several decades later. This monarch and his hangers-on, together with a small urban group and powerful tribal leaders from the countryside, constituted the foundation of what was to become an overwhelmingly Sunni-dominated state.

But ultimate power lay in the hands of British advisers whose 'advice' had to be accepted at any cost; and even after Iraq became nominally independent in 1932, it was the British Embassy which called the shots. The crucial role of British military power in propping up this structure was graphically explained by a British Cabinet Minister in 1925 when he remarked that: 'If the Writ of King Faisal runs effectively throughout the Kingdom, it is entirely due to British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the whole structure would immediately fall to pieces.'6

It was this colonial regime that undertook after the 1920 revolt the measures necessary to undermine the power of the Shi'ite religious establishment. Since the majority of the Shi'ite mujtahids were of Iranian origin, immigration laws were amended to provide for the deportation of foreigners who were engaged in 'anti-government' activities. This power was ruthlessly exercised to break the power of the Shi'ite clergy opposed to British rule. These measures also had the effect of severing the links between Iraqi and Iranian Shi'ites. Moves were also taken to restrict and curb the incomes of Shi'ite clergy from traditional sources such as charities and pilgrimages. Shi'ite educational institutions lost their independence and were brought under state control. As a result of these measures, power slowly gravitated away from the Shi'ite cities of Najaf and Karbala to Baghdad. By 1925, Shi'ite clerics rarely intervened in politics.

The 1958 Revolution

In July 1958 Brigadier Abd al-Karim al-Qasim and the Free Officers movement led an army revolt which developed into a revolution that swept aside the monarchy and the colonial political order.

Qasim had no political party of his own and it was the powerful Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) which provided him with a mass political base. Founded in 1934, the party had an impressive record of anti-colonial resistance and commanded widespread respect because of the tenacity with which it had pursued its struggle. In the 1940s and 1950s, its membership and support had expanded dramatically, particularly within the Shi'ite community. The tilt towards the Communist Party by the Shi'ite community has been explained as the response of a politically disenfranchised community from which 'the poorest of the poor' were drawn. In the 1960s the drift of Shi'ite youth towards the party was so alarming that the traditional Shi'ite ulama even issued a fatwa against those supporting or joining the party.

But despite this development, the real political struggle was not between the secular Communists and the religious Shi'ite opposition, but between the two main secular forces, the Communists and the Ba'athists - a struggle which also reflected the Sunni-Shi'ite divide as the Ba'ath Party was overwhelmingly a Sunni-dominated party. The latter also turned against Qasim after initially backing him because of his lukewarm response to pan-Arabism. After a failed assassination attempt in 1959 against Qasim (in which Saddam Hussein participated), most of the Ba'athist leaders fled the country. As a result the Communists emerged even stronger.

The growing strength and influence of the Communists however set alarm bells ringing in Washington. In 1959, the then CIA director, Allen Dulles, had already described Iraq as 'one of the most dangerous places on earth'. Fear of the growing influence and power of the Communists led the CIA to establish contacts with the exiled Ba'ath leaders to work out plans for the overthrow of Qasim. 'The plans to overthrow the Iraqi leader, led by William Lakeland who was stationed at the Baghdad embassy as an attache, represented one of the most elaborate CIA operations in the history of the Middle East.'7


On 8 February 1963, a coalition of Ba'athist and independent officers overthrew the Qasim regime. Ba'ath Party supporters took to the streets and their principal targets were the Communists. About 1,500 Communists died in street fighting nationwide and hundreds of others, including seven of the Party's 19 central committee members, were executed.

An interesting point about the CIA role in this coup was that, as in Indonesia in 1965, the Agency was instrumental in supplying the names of the Communists to be eliminated. This has been confirmed by different sources. For example, Qasim's foreign minister later told two analysts that 'the Iraqi Foreign Ministry had information of complicity between the Ba'ath and the CIA. In many cases the CIA supplied the Ba'ath with the names of individual communists, some of whom were taken from their homes and murdered.' King Hussein told a similar story to the Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal:

'I know for a fact that what happened in Iraq on 8 February was supported by American intelligence ... Many meetings were held between the Ba'ath Party and American intelligence - the most critical ones in Kuwait. Did you know that on 8 February, the day of the coup in Baghdad, there was a secret radio broadcast directed toward Iraq that relayed to those carrying out the coup the names and addresses of Communists there so that they could be seized and executed.'

Jamal Atasi, a member of the Syrian cabinet, who confronted the Iraqi Ba'ath exiles when he learnt about their secret meetings with the CIA, realised the significance of this development:

This was 'a push from the West and in particular from the United States for the Ba'ath to seize power and monopolise it and push away all the other elements and forces [i.e., both the Communists and the Nasserists]'.8

Revival of Shi'ite Opposition

This decimation of the ICP in 1963, coupled with continued persecution of Communists during the ascendancy of Saddam Hussein from 1968 onward, left a political vacuum which enabled the Shi'ite opposition to revive their strength. To be sure, the Shi'ite revival had already begun in the 1960s but there cannot be any doubt that the weakening of the Communist Party was a major factor in the renewed expansion of Shi'ite political influence. As the great scholar on Iraq, the late Hanna Batatu, explained in respect of the Shi'ite stronghold of Al-Thaurah in Baghdad:

' ... the deep wound inflicted upon the Communists in 1963, the course of compromise with the Ba'ath regime that their leadership steered from 1973 to 1978, and the departure into exile in 1979 of no fewer than three thousand of the Communist Party's hardened members left the disadvantaged of the capital with no organised means of protest and produced a void in the underground which the Da'wah and Mujahidin hastened to fill.'9

To be sure, there was no lack of setbacks for the Shi'ite opposition in the 1980s. The execution in 1980 of Mohammed Baqer al-Sadr, probably the most important Shi'ite opposition figure in modern Iraq, the ruthless repression coupled with the successful attempts by Saddam to woo and co-opt some of the Shi'ite establishment leaders clearly weakened the Shi'ite opposition. Moreover, the Shi'ite opposition was plagued by disunity and factionalism - a feature that has continued till today.

Despite all this, it has been clear to any serious observer that if the Ba'ath regime which had monopolised control over all aspects of social life fell, the group best positioned to emerge from the rubble would be the Shi'ite opposition with its clergy and institutions. In his essay written in 1985-86 on Shi'ite organisations in Iraq, Hanna Batatu posed the question of the future prospects of Iraq's Shi'ite movement. His answer was almost prophetic. Despite the setbacks of the 1980s 'Shi'ite themes and symbols remain powerful, and the Shi'ite opposition is poised to benefit if the regime of Saddam Hussein falters politically or suffers a serious military defeat.'10 (emphasis added)

In planning its invasion of Iraq, the US seems to have been oblivious to this factor; having unravelled Saddam's political order, it has now been forced to face this bitter reality. But it is not only the Shi'ite opposition that the US has now to confront. As in the 1920s, a growing pervasive unity that transcends the Sunni/Shi'ite divide is now evident. A mass movement is developing which is animated by a single demand: the US invaders must go!

In the face of this growing opposition, it is astonishing that the US can still harbour illusions that it can somehow stitch together a neo-colonial structure like the British did in 1921 and prop it up by force of arms.

But the British were to discover, somewhat painfully, that there is a limit to what can be done to prop up such structures. They made that shock discovery on 14 July 1958 when the whole political edifice that they had erected came tumbling down, and the British Ambassador had to flee for his life when the long-suppressed Iraqi people took to the streets of Baghdad. Hanna Batatu describes this moment of truth before the curtain finally came down on Britain's imperial enterprise in Iraq:

'Before very long the capital overflowed with people - shargawiyyas [those dwelling in mud-huts] and others - many of them in a fighting mood and united by a single passion: 'Death to the traitors and agents of imperialism!' It was like a tide coming in, and at first engulfed and with a vengeance Nuri's house [Nuri was the Prime Minister under the monarchy] and the royal palace, but soon extended to the British consulate and embassy and other places, and became so terrible and overwhelming in its sweep that the military revolutionaries, ill at ease, declared a curfew and later, in the afternoon, martial law. When in the end, after nightfall, the crowds ebbed back, the statue of Faisal, the symbol of the monarchy, lay shattered, and the figure of General Maude, the conqueror of Baghdad, rested in the dust outside the burning old British Chancellery.'11

*T Rajamoorthy, a senior lawyer of the Malaysian Bar, is one of the Editors of Third World Resurgence.


1. Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson (1969), The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, London: Nelson, p. 112.
2. George Lenczowski (1962), The Middle East in World Affairs, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, p. 266.
3. Hanna Batatu (1978), The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.23.
4. Yitzhak Nakash (1994), The Shi'is of Iraq, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 69.
5. Ibid., p. 72.
6. Peter Sluglett (1988), 'Iraq', in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 341.
7. Said K. Aburish (2001), Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge, London: Bloomsbury, p. 55.
8. Malik Mufti (1996), Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, p. 144.
9. Hanna Batatu (1986), 'Shi'i Organizations in Iraq: Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah and al-Mujahidin', in Juan RI Cole and Nikki R Keddie (eds.), Shi'ism and Social Protest, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 184.
10. Ibid., p. 200.
11. Hanna Batatu (1978), op.cit., pp.804-5.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.