02/15/06 britain and iraq in 1919

In today’s excerpt - the West’s misunderstanding and mismanagement of Iraq circa 1919 in the immediate aftermath of World War I, as the Allied powers carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire.  The city of Mosul was a desirable prize because of the growing awareness of the value of oil, and the British were in a position to rule over it

“[Arnold] Wilson, like most of the British there, ...  had firm ideas about how the are should be ruled.  ‘Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul should be regarded as a single unit for administrative purposes and under effective British control.’  It never seems to have occurred to him that a single unit did not make much sense in other ways.  In 1919 there was no Iraqi people; history, religion, geography, pulled the people apart, not together.  Basra looked south, toward India and the Gulf; Baghdad had strong links with Persia; Mosul had closer ties with Turkey and Syria.  Putting together the three Ottoman provinces and expecting to create a nation was, in European terms, like hoping to have Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs in one country. ...

"The population was about half Shia Musilm and a quarter Sunni … but another division ran across the religious one:  while half the inhabitants were Arab, the rest were Kurds (mainly in Mosul), Persians or Assyrians.  The cities were relatively advanced and cosmopolitan;  in the countryside, hereditary tribal and religious leaders still dominated.  There was no Iraqi nationalism, only Arab. ...

"Arnold Wilson did not foresee the problems of throwing such a diverse population into a single state. …”


Margaret McMillan


Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World


Random House 2001


Copyright 2001 Margret McMillan


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