Another Bad Deal for Baghdad

By Karl E. Meyer, a former member of The Times editorial board, the editor at large of World Policy Journal and the co-author, with Shareen Blair Brysac, of Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 17/06/08):

With only perfunctory debate, the Bush administration is pressuring a divided Iraqi government to approve a security agreement that could haunt Washington’s relations with Baghdad for years to come. The “strategic alliance” that President Bush is proposing eerily resembles, in spirit and in letter, a failed 1930 treaty between Britain and Iraq that prompted a nationalist eruption in Baghdad, a pro-Nazi military coup and a pogrom that foreshadowed the elimination of Baghdad’s ancient Jewish community.

The outline of the deal, which has not been made public, has been described by a high-level Iraqi insider, Ali A. Allawi, a moderate Shiite who was a post-invasion finance minister. Writing this month in The Independent of London, Mr. Allawi noted a disturbing parallel between the proposed alliance between the United States and Iraq and the earlier treaty that formally ended Iraq’s post-World War I status as a British mandate.

“The treaty gave Britain military and economic privileges in exchange for Britain’s promise to end the mandate over the country,” Mr. Allawi wrote. “The treaty was ratified by a docile Iraqi Parliament but was bitterly resented by nationalists. Iraq’s dependency on Britain poisoned Iraqi politics for the next quarter-century. Riots, civil disturbances, uprisings and coups were all features of Iraq’s political landscape, prompted in no small measure by the bitter disputations over the treaty with Britain.”

Under the 1930 pact, Iraq had to consult Britain on security issues and allow it the use of Iraqi airports, ports, railways and rivers. Two major military bases were leased to the British, who were empowered to station their forces throughout Iraq. British personnel were granted immunity from local prosecution.

Almost 80 years later, the Bush administration seeks a startlingly similar arrangement. While not formally a treaty (having been carefully crafted to avoid the requirement of Senate ratification), the wide-ranging pact that the United States proposes nearly replicates the 1930 accord. According to press reports based on leaks from the Iraqi Parliament, the pact envisions giving the Americans rights to as many as 58 military bases and control of Iraqi airspace. It would grant immunity from Iraqi laws to American military personnel. And it would empower American officials to detain suspected terrorists without the approval of Iraqi authorities.

The agreement, which Washington is pushing Baghdad to sign by July 31, would replace the United Nations mandate that now authorizes the American occupation. Iraq would be freed from Security Council sanctions and would benefit from continued American military and economic aid. Iraq could also receive as much as $50 billion in blocked assets, dating back to the first gulf war, that are now held by the United States.

The 1930 treaty was followed by Iraqi independence and then more than a score of coups, countercoups, massacres and rebellions. Many Iraqis objected to British collusion with the ruling Sunni elite, and protested the use of British warplanes to suppress tribal uprisings. The legal immunity given to British forces generated even more resentment, a history detailed by Elie Kedourie, a British scholar born in Baghdad.

The nationalist uprising culminated in an Axis-backed putsch in April 1941, when Iraqi colonels exploited these grievances to seize power bloodlessly. Following the only pro-German coup in the wartime Middle East, British forces rushed to Baghdad to oust the leaders, who fled as Allied troops approached.

To preserve the fiction that Iraq’s liberation was indigenous, however, the British held back from crossing the Tigris and entering downtown Baghdad. That May, absent any occupying authority, two days of looting and rioting broke out as the capital’s Jews were celebrating the festival of Shavuot, while the British troops looked on. This pogrom, called the farhud, claimed hundreds of lives and presaged the wholesale destruction after 1948 of the largest and oldest Jewish community in the Arab Middle East.

After its 1930 treaty with Iraq, Britain proved unable to ensure order during the decade of nationalist tumult that followed. Rarely has the proverb about repeating history been more vividly signaled.