During the frozen winter of 2003 in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, Ahmad Chalabi was waiting for the United States to invade his country. He was reading, among other books, a biography of Gertrude Bell, prima inter pares of the British founders of modern Iraq. The book, Desert Queen by Janet Wallach, included a passage that Chalabi liked so much he read it aloud to me beside an open fire at his safe house in Sulaimaniya. In the anecdote he selected from Desert Queen, Miss Bell was listening to the aged Abdul Rahman al Gailani, who, as the Naqib of Baghdad, was a respected Sunni Muslim religious figure. The Naqib addressed her as “Khatun,” or Lady (from the Turkic word for a noblewoman), in Baghdad on February 6, 1919, two years after Britain conquered the old Abbasid capital but before it had presented its plans for postwar government. Speaking in Arabic, he said to her,
Your nation is great, wealthy and powerful…. Where is our power?… You are the governors and I am the governed. And when I am asked what is my opinion as to the continuance of British rule, I reply that I am the subject of the victor. You, Khatun, have an understanding of statecraft. I do not hesitate to say to you that I loved the Turkish government when it was as I once knew it. If I could return to the rule of the Sultans of Turkey as they were in former times, I should make no other choice. But I loathe and hate, curse and consign to the devil the present Turkish Government. The Turk is dead; he has vanished, and I am content to become your subject.
Chalabi was gambling that the Naqib’s stance toward the British in 1919 would serve as the model for Baghdad’s reception of his American allies in 2003. However, even in 1919, the Naqib was in the minority. A year later, most of the population of what became Iraq took up arms against the British. Yet Miss Bell had chosen to listen to the Naqib, albeit selectively. Washington too preferred, over more skeptical Iraqis, the assurances of Chalabi’s friend and political ally Kanan Makiya, who told George Bush that the Iraqi people “will greet the troops with sweets and flowers.” As events unfolded, Iraq’s greeting consisted more of bombs than sweets.
Washington’s ideologically charged neoconservative coterie possessed little knowledge or understanding of the Middle East, allowing it to dismiss the easily predictable consequences of invading and occupying Iraq. (There were precedents it might have heeded: In the 1980s, in particular, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, most of them Shiites who could have been expected to sympathize with revolutionary Iran, died fighting the Iranian invasion.) But a woman as intelligent and informed as Gertrude Bell lacked the alibi of ignorance. She had traveled around the country for years, and she knew it better than almost any other Westerner. Her design to force the Arabs–both Sunni and Shiite–and Kurds into an artificial state under British dominion was doomed to plunge the country into war. She, along with the other competent British Arabists in the Baghdad administration, refused to see the inevitable fallout of imposing the son of Britain’s wartime ally, Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca, upon them in 1920. Even the Naqib had warned her that he “would rather a thousand times have the Turks back in Iraq than see the Sharif or his sons installed here.”
Bell imagined that Hussein’s son Faisal, who had fought for the British against Turkey during World War I and been expelled from Syria by the French afterward, would be acceptable to most Iraqis. While the Kurds were unlikely to welcome an Arab head of state under British tutelage, she believed that the Shiite Arabs would see in Faisal a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through their much-revered Ali and that the Sunni Arabs would take him as one of their own. The Naqib, whose advice she ignored, had warned her, “The Hejaz is one and the Iraq is one, there is no connection between them but that of the Faith. Our politics, our trade, our agriculture are all different from those of the Hejaz.” It was her intention to make Iraq governable by creating what the British would call the “two majorities” out of three communities. The theory allowed any group to combine with another, allowing the two to constitute a majority. Thus, Arab and Kurdish Sunni Muslims could dominate the Arab Shiites; conversely, if the two Arab communities, Shiite and Sunni, combined, they would have a majority over the Kurds. Iraqis were never able to exercise majority rights because cliques, mainly but not exclusively Sunni Arab, governed the country under the British, the monarchy and the Baath Party without reference to majority rule or any other notion of democracy. When elections were finally held, under the American occupation, the Sunnis boycotted them–leaving the Shiites and Kurds to constitute the government, a combination that defied ethnic and religious differences that the British had not anticipated.