Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Same Donkey, Different Saddle

Haifa Zangana, an Iraqi-born surrealist artist who was a political prisoner under Saddam Hussein's regime, comments on the transfer of "sovereignty":
In Iraq, we have an expression: same donkey, different saddle. Iraq's long-heralded interim government has now formally assumed sovereignty. Official labels and tags have duly changed. The US administrator will now be an ambassador, while Sheikh Ghazi al Yawar and Iyad Allawi, US-appointed members of the former governing council, are to be known as president and prime minister.

To formalise the change, the UN has already issued a resolution under which "multinational forces" will replace "US-led forces". On the issue of control over US troops, the message is clear: the US forces are there to stay only because "Iraqi people" has asked them to. But which Iraqi people? Do they mean the new administration headed by the CIA's Iyad Allawi? And why does all this sound strangely familiar?

In Iraq we don't just read history at school -- we carry it within ourselves. It's no wonder, then, that we view what is happening in Iraq now of "liberation-mandate-nominal sovereignty" as a replay of what took place in the 1920s and afterwards.

On April 28 1920, Britain was awarded a mandate over Iraq by the League of Nations to legitimise its occupation of the country. The problems proved enormous. The British administration in Baghdad was short of funds, and had to face the resentment of the majority of Iraqis against foreign rule, which boiled over that year into a national uprising. In the aftermath, the British high commissioner had to come up with a solution to reduce the British loss of lives.

A decision was taken to replace the occupation with a provisional Iraqi government, assisted by British advisers under the authority of the high commissioner of Iraq. Finding a suitable ruler was not easy.

On the August 21 1921 Gertrude Bell, Oriental secretary to the high commissioner, wrote to her father about the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis. She mentions some of her Iraqi "pals" and enemies, descendants of whom are playing similar roles in Iraq today: "Muzahim Pachachi (the one who made the speech in English at our tea party at Basra). And another barrister whom you don't know, Rauf Beg Chadirji, a pal of mine. And still more splendid was one of the sheikhs of the northern shammar, Ajil al Yawar; I had seen him in 1917 when he came in to us". Then she refers to "Saiyid Muhammad Sadr ... a tall black bearded alim (cleric) with a sinister expression. We tried to arrest him early in August but failed. He escaped from Baghdad and moved about the country like a flame of war, rousing the tribes."

To the British government, control of Iraq's oil was a necessity. Iraqi national liberation movements called for "Istiqlal al Tamm" -- complete independence -- which was regarded by the British as "the catchword of the extremists". Any protest against the British-imposed monarchy was similarly regarded as the work of "extremists".

In 1930 a new treaty was signed which aimed to satisfy Iraqi aspirations for the coming 25 years, but the British retained their power, through military bases, advisers and control of oil. The monarchy proved an oppressive regime under which many opposition leaders were executed and thousands more were imprisoned. Elections were managed, corruption was widespread, bombing and military force was used against popular uprisings, chemical weapons were used against the Kurds. Popular uprisings followed in 1930, 1941 1948, 1952 and 1956. Between 1921 and 1958 Iraq had an astonishing 38 cabinets, some of them only lasting 12 days. The mainstay of a corrupt and docile regime was the presence of British forces on the ground. Is this what present-day Iraq has to look forward to? ("Iraqis Have Lived This Lie Before," The Guardian, June 29, 2004)
By the way, Britain, like the United States, uses the first-past-the-post system in national elections, which puts even sharp critics of liberal imperialism like Zangana into a predicament reminiscent of life under dictatorship:
I hesitated, but still voted Labour [in the 2001 elections]. What choice did I have? Now the US is pushing for a massive assault on Iraq, and Blair is one of the few leaders willing to offer troops. Can it be true that the man I voted for is now preparing to "liberate" Iraq, in the same way he liberated Afghanistan, by ensuring the death of thousands of civilians? Is it true that he is relying on the Iraqi National Congress, a group set up in the early 90s with CIA help, and now funded by the State Department? Does he know that they are loathed by most Iraqis? . . .

When I hear Tony Blair speak on Iraq, I am reminded of my old landlady, who asked me, politely, in the late 1970s, about home. I explained a little about the government there and how it doesn't give a damn about people. She listened attentively then, in a nice, gentle way, said: "Next time, don't vote for him dear." (Zangana, "Bombs Will Deepen Iraq's Nightmare," The Guardian, September 17, 2002)
Come to think of it, the aforementioned Iraqi proverb, "Same Donkey, Different Saddle," is a perfect description for the perennial results of electoral politics in Britain and America.

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