From Baghdad we drove north through Tikrit, the home town of the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, to Irbil. I had been invited by the Iraqi government to Baghdad where several other foreign journalists were also to gather. It was early — maybe February or March — 1980 and I was then working for the [...]

Sunday Times 2

Mess in Iraq coming home to roost


From Baghdad we drove north through Tikrit, the home town of the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, to Irbil.

I had been invited by the Iraqi government to Baghdad where several other foreign journalists were also to gather. It was early — maybe February or March — 1980 and I was then working for the Daily News.

Irbil is the beating heart of Iraq’s Kurdish minority, a territory close to the Turkish border and one the Kurds even then called Kurdistan though, perhaps, not publicly.

This was a restive minority that Saddam Hussein had put a lid on to keep them quiet.

The official from the Iraqi information ministry accompanying me pointed proudly to the TV antenna on almost every rooftop. It was a sign, he said, of the prosperity of the Kurdish minority. They were doing well under Saddam Hussein who looked after all his people even though the Kurds caused the regime trouble now and then.

When we stopped to quench our thirst and the official headed out to the washroom, I asked the man running the cafe about the plethora of TV aerials I had seen and whether this was a sign of the Kurdish community’s prosperity.

He virtually whispered in my ear and said that TV sets were provided free to every household by the government. The reason, he said, was this allowed the government’s propaganda messages to reach the Kurdish people. Many Kurds switched off the TV at particular times to avoid government news.

Today there is an autonomous Kurdistan. But if what is happening in Iraq today, as ISIS, the Sunni organisation which has renamed itself Islamic State after proclaiming a “caliphate” continues to battle the Shia majority still in control in Baghdad, Iraq could end up as divided as Gaul in Caesar’s time.

Much of the troubles in modern Iraq could be traced to the US-UK invasion of that state in 2003. Tony Blair, the then prime minister of Britain and one of the architects of that Anglo-American invasion of a sovereign state, today denies any responsibility for the violence that has engulfed part of Iraq.

During a TV talk show in London last month Blair tried to absolve himself saying the 2003 invasion is not to blame for the shambolic situation in Iraq today.

But others in the Blair government at the time parliament voted for Britain’s intervention in Iraq in support of the US, such as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and foreign secretary David Miliband are distancing themselves from the catastrophe that is Iraq.

Current Prime Minister David Cameron cannot wash his hands of responsibility for the invasion either. The Conservative Party that he now heads and Foreign Secretary William Hague, who not too long ago led the Tories and subsequently was shadow foreign secretary, voted in support of the war.

As we know now and suspected in 2002-2003, the publicly stated reason for invading Iraq was surely false. The reason given then was that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that could be launched within 45 minutes of the order being given. That such an arsenal available to him threatened western interests in the region.

That, of course, was found to have been cooked up to justify the invasion whose objective was something else. For long it has been debated here whether Tony Blair misled parliament or was himself misled by intelligence reports he was fed.

On whichever side of the court the ball might drop, the fact is that despite mounting public pressure and street demonstrations involving a million protestors or more, Blair and his government committed Britain to join George Bush in the invasion of Iraq.
Whether it was to destroy Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of WMDs that have not been discovered to date or to get rid of Saddam himself and effect regime change is more or less academic today.

What matters is that the western invasion of Iraq tore that country apart. Saddam was indeed a despotic ruler and did kill thousands of people including Kurds who were gassed.

But two questions need to be asked. After more than a decade after the invasion is Iraq a better and a more secure country than it was under Saddam?

Has neo-imperialist adventurism from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya to Egypt to Syria, sometimes in the name of democracy and sometimes to get rid of troublesome leaders, not brought more instability and violence to the region?

In fact it is not just these more recent examples of the resort to force that have increased considerably the instability in the region threatening even the pro-western rulers there, but historical wrongs dating back to almost 100 years that have left the Arab people rightly distrustful of western intentions and western promises.

I refer to the Perfidious Albion — as Britain was once called — and the promise held out to Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca. He was assured that full independence would be granted to the Arabs if they launched a revolt against the Ottoman empire in support of Britain which Sharif did in 1916 at the height of World War 1.

But a secret Anglo-French pact more popularly known as the Sykes-Picot agreement after the two officials who negotiated it, left the Arabs holding only a broken promise.

Britain then under Lloyd George, went back on its word as the British and the French carved out the post-war spoils. So was born the modern Middle East — Iraq, Lebanon and Syria followed by Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Denied the independence promised if the Arabs rose in support of Britain, it is scant wonder that ISIS — if one might still call it that for consistency and to avoid confusion — has used the Sykes-Picot agreement and the resultant perfidy as a rallying call for recruits to its jihadist movement.

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against militants of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), taking part in training at a Baghdad camp. Reuters

Just recently Cameron said that at least 400 British citizens appear to have joined the fighting in Syria and possibly in Iraq too.

Now Cameron fears that the jihadists might unleash their terror on the streets of London or elsewhere in the country, as they did nearly 10 years ago on 7/7 when bombs went off here in central London in tubes and buses.

Are Cameron’s fears, like those of some others who on twitter express their worst fears of terror on the streets, blown way out of proportion?

Sir Richard Dearlove, who was the chief of MI6, Britain’s intelligence organisation, at the time of the Iraqi invasion, believes so. If he is correct, then the British people and the thousands of refugees that have settled in Britain can walk around freely, untouched by the events in Iraq and rising jihadism.

Sir Richard sees the unfolding events in Iraq differently. Addressing the Royal United Services Institute, the London-based security and defence think tank, he said the conflict was “essentially one of Muslim on Muslim”.

Given the comments made by Prime Minister Cameron about the numbers of British Muslims — some of them born here — who have joined the fighting in Syria and elsewhere, Sir Richard’s attempts to characterise this as simply a war between Muslim sects needs to be examined further.

One can understand the former MI6 chief’s attempts to minimise the threat to Britain from jihadists. After all it was under his watch that the intelligence reports, some of which came from MI6, went to make up the great dossier (which one journalist called “sexed up” ) which Blair used to justify going to war.

So those involved in that unfortunate invasion, which is perhaps the biggest British foreign policy error since Suez nearly 70 years ago, would wish to deny any connection between the Iraq invasion of 2003 and what is happening there today.

Moreover, the fact that ISIS specifically refers to the Sykes-Picot agreement, officially called the Asian Minor Agreement, in its efforts to win adherents to its cause, obviously has implications for Britain.

It is the duplicity of Britain at the time that makes the Sykes-Picot agreement a central issue and is used as a clarion call to Muslims, particularly in Europe, to join its ranks to avenge its perceived as a great betrayal.

So to say therefore the British people have nothing to fear from any jihadist backlash and the threat to them is highly exaggerated, appears to be to hide a truth that the British should be aware of and have a right to know.

I might add here that on returning to Colombo after that visit to Iraq and Kuwait, I wrote a long article in the Daily News which was headlined, if I remember correctly, “Alarm bells ring in the Gulf”.

In it I said that it would not come as a surprise if war broke out between Iraq and Iran. The signs were there. Saddam Hussein, by then a leader acceptable to the west, was being supplied with technical know-how and ingredients to make chemical and biological weapons.
The reason was that the Shah of Iran, for many years propped up by the US as the guardian of the Gulf to safeguard western interests, had been overthrown in the 1979 Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

This was a tragic blow that Washington in particular, could and would not countenance. Seen as a threat to western interests and pro-western rulers in the region, the west was ready to use Saddam — never mind his been a despot and all that — to wage war on the new Shia Muslim leadership in Teheran.

But as soon as Saddam proved to be more ambitious than was acceptable to the west and became a threat to western interests, it was time to overthrow him.

The same happened to Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi who Blair tried to cultivate in later years hoping that he would be a bulwark against what was seen as Islamic terrorism.

While right now there are attempts by those who supported the Iraq invasion of 2003 to distance themselves from their share in it, Britain and the outside world are still awaiting the release of the Chilcott inquiry report into Britain’s role in that war.

Given the history of similar inquiries and the attempts by officialdom in London and Washington to suppress some of the conversations and correspondence between Blair and Bush about going to war and the plans for it, much vital material might not see the light of day.

Some say it will be a whitewash as other reports have been. Only time will tell. But then it’s been a long time waiting for it.

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