The Iraq Exclusion Zones in 1992

Iraq: the historical background to the exclusion zones

by Brendan Clifford

Iraq was put together just over seventy years ago to form a British colony. It was composed of three provinces of the Ottoman Empire which Britain had destroyed in a four year war. It consisted of the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra in the south, Baghdad in the middle, and Mosul in the north. There was no underlying unity between these provinces which marked them out as a distinct political entity. They were put together because in the course of the war Britain had conquered Basra and Baghdad and was governing them by military administration and because it wanted Mosul for the oil and was able to take it while Turkey was in disarray after the war.

Immediately after the United Nations war on Iraq, David Howell, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, said that perhaps Iraq was not suitable to function as a state and should be broken up. And, insofar as there has been any semblance of purpose discernible in British foreign policy since the beginning of last summer, it is the break-up of Iraq.

While Iraq is still formally recognised by the United Nations as a state, it has, in practice, been broken up into three regions roughly corresponding to the three provinces from which it was put together. There are now two “exclusion zones”, one in the north and one in the south, in which the authority of the Baghdad Government is overruled by the air power of the United Nations – the United Nations being now for all practical purposes the three Western Vetoist powers on the Security Council, America, Britain and France.

The implication of these Exclusion Zones is that Iraq is to be dismantled. A state in which there are no-go areas for the Government is simply not a state.

The establishment of the “exclusion zone” in the south without specific Security Council authorisation has been justified on the ground of “customary international law”. The precedent in customary law for the Exclusion Zone in the south is the establishment of the Exclusion Zone in the north last year.

It has now been declared by the highest legal authority in world – the caprice of the United States Government – that there is a basic right in international law for one state to interfere in the affairs of another for humanitarian purposes, i.e., to stop a state from oppressing its own people. As a legal principle that would authorise pretty well every state in the world to invade every other state.

On the basis of this ‘customary international law’ Jack Lynch would certainly have been justified if he had sent his army across the border into Northern Ireland in August 1969, or in January 1972.

But of course this ‘customary international law’ has no independent institutions before which cases can be pleaded, and no executive power by which judgements can be enforced. (What semblance there was of an international apparatus of justice was blown away in the 1980s when the USA treated the International Court of Justice with contempt after it had given judgement against it in the Nicaragua case.) Customary international law is therefore only a fancy name for the law of the jungle, and rights under it are only available to the strongest beasts in the jungle.

America cannot be held chiefly responsible for this latest escapade against Iraq. Bush made war on Iraq last year in the manner of a street brawl, as if it were a personal confrontation between himself and Saddam Hussein. He has recently been in need of diversions from the domestic affairs on which his re-election campaign was floundering. But these factors seem to have inhibited him from resuming the military conflict with Saddam, rather than encouraged him. The ulterior motive was too obvious. But his  hesitations were overcome by Britain and France, the former colonial powers in the Middle East – two states with powerful armies and uncertain political orientation.

Two Godfathers of Revisionism by Padraigh O’Snodaigh (1991) is a propagandist work in favour of nationalism in general. It includes the following comment on Arab nationalism:

“To American Presbyterian missionaries, whose Beirut school was the foundation of the American University of Beirut, is given the primacy in the start of ‘modern secular nationalism’… Other sources of modern Arab nationalism were the reigns of Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim Pasha in Egypt and Arab reaction to the Young Turks, best known to most through T. E .Lawrence, if •much over- romanticised’ by him.

“Shlomo Avineri [a modem Israeli historian – Ed.] shows Jewish nationalism to have many similarities to the mid-nineteenth century scene… But the socialism of Herzl and Nordau left its mark on the outcome in the Holy Land:

’…while Jewish nationalism was relatively successful in imbuing its ideology and praxis with a vision of social transformation, Arab nationalism remained mainly political and by ignoring the social dimension was unable to achieve a degree of social cohesion comparable to the one achieved in the social structures of Israel… Zionism thus became the only migration movement with a conscious ideology of downward social mobility.’

“By contrast, ‘Arab nationalism remained almost exclusively political, had very little to say about the problem of social structures and hence was almost completely unsuccessful in effecting the transformation of Arab society that would have been necessary for political independence to be more than a hollow crown.’

One takes responsibility for what one quotes uncritically, as O’Snodaigh quotes Avineri. Which means that the anti- revisionist’ O’Snodaigh here regurgitates a variety of British propaganda. It is ludicrous to suggest that Jewish nationalism united the Jews because it had a socialist element, and that Arab nationalism failed to unite the Arabs because it was “exclusively political .

Britain and France were the governing states in the Middle East after the destruction of the Ottoman framework. They decided the territorial shape of its politics. They used their massive preponderance of military power to Balkanise the Arab world.

Zionism, on the other hand, was a conquering, colonising nationalism in the Palestine area. Britain made it an imperial gift of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine, helped it to dispossess the natives, and sat idly by in 1947 while Russia and America, the victorious powers of World War Two and the masters of the United Nations, established Israel as a sovereign state in which every Jew in the world had greater rights than the Arabs whose ancestors had lived there for centuries.

In the development of the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century, many feudal characteristics which still survived in Scotland were sloughed off. Migration and settlement in a hostile region naturally cause certain hierarchical features of the society of origin to be discarded. This applied in the Zionist colonisation, with the additional factor that Jews of many different nationalities had to be fused into a new nation.

The case with the Arabs was altogether different. They had been the occupants of the region for more than a thousand years. They had lived within the Ottoman framework for five hundred years. They lived within a strong traditional culture – or rather, a variety of strong traditional cultures. The state framework was oppressive in certain respects – it would not have been a slate otherwise – but in other respects it was immensely tolerant, and within it people could engage in very different ways of life side by side with each other. And despite the American University and other influences, there was in fact very little in the way of Arab nationalism until Britain decided to stir it up for military purposes in 1916.

Such Arab nationalism as existed in 1914 was confined to a small stratum of intellectuals within the Ottoman administration. It lacked both popular support and a definite aim.

For a generation before 1914, Britain had its heart set on incorporating the Middle East into the Empire so that it would have a continuous land empire from India to Egypt. It had made an agreement with Russia about Persia, and by 1912, maps were beginning to show Southern Persia as a westward continuation of Britain India. It had acquired navigation rights on the

Euphrates. And it had made a secret treaty with a sheikh on the Gulf, subverting his allegiance to his legitimate sovereign, and preparing him to become the ‘state’ of Kuwait.

But its plans for the Middle East were in danger of being spoiled by Germany, which not only declared that the Ottoman Empire was a great civilisation which ought to be preserved as part of the order of the world, but was helping to modernise the infrastructure of the Ottoman world by constructing a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad and Basra, with a branch line through Palestine to Mecca. The Baghdad Railway was undoubtedly a major consideration inducing Britain to make war on Germany in 1914

Britain declared war on Turkey in November 1914 and its Indian Army immediately sprang at Mesopotamia, captured Basra, and expected to race up to Baghdad with little effort

Basra was one of the main centres of Arab nationalism. The centre of the nationalist movement there was Said Talib, a very influential figure in the local society, extensively connected with both the merchants of the town and the chieftains of the countryside, and a great admirer of Britain. On the declaration of war, he approached the British authorities with a view to making an alliance with them to liberate Mesopotamia. He was rebuffed because Britain wanted to gain Mesopotamia by clear right of conquest, and that right would be prejudiced by an alliance with Arab nationalists. And Said Talib was not only rebuffed, but was deported.

But the expected easy victory did not materialise. The initial British advance was rolled back by the Turks, and the war in Mesopotamia became almost as static as the war in France. And then the Gallipoli invasion was bungled. Britain therefore began to construct what it has rejected in 1914. It seduced the local governor of Mecca from his allegiance to Constantinople and fostered the ‘revolt in the desert’. The Sharif of Mecca, supplied with British armaments and advised by a bizarre Irishman, Lawrence of Arabia, issued a reactionary manifesto against the secular reforms introduced by Constantinople and went into rebellion. The Sharif’s manifesto was discreetly ignored, and the revolt was skilfully nurtured until in the latter stages of the war it approached the status of a general Arab revolt.

The Arab leaders had an agreement with the British Government, which they understood to mean that they were the equal allies of Britain in the war against Turkey, and that victory would mean for them the establishment of an Arab state. But Britain at the same time made a secret agreement with France and Russia for the share-out of the Ottoman Empire. Russia was to have Constantinople. France was to have the northern part of what the Arab Revolt imagined was going to be the Arab state – what was later balkanised into Syria and Lebanon – and Britain itself was to have what became Iraq, Jordan and Israel. And Lawrence, knowing this to be the case, deceived the Arabs into believing that they were fighting for an Arab slate.

At the end of the war, the Arab state was proclaimed at Damascus, and was crushed by the French. And a proclamation of independence in Baghdad was crushed by the British.

As well as the Arab nationalists who had been nurtured as cannon fodder by the British, there was an Arab independence movement in the centre of the peninsula led by Ibn Saud, which fought its own very effective war without European allies. As the Turkish forces retreated and the Arab nationalism fostered by Britain was put down by Britain and France, the Saudi movement was poised to establish a very large Arab state. It was bottled up by British machine guns and bombers, but it succeeded in taking the western part of the peninsula where the Revolt had begun.

But for the systematic process of balkanisation militarily enforced by Britain and France in 1918-21, it is likely that two or three Arab states would have been established in the Middle East, where there are now over a dozen states.

Mesopotamia was conquered from the base of British India and was organised as a colony by the competent Indian administration. It was taken for granted that it was to be governed as a colony, but in 1920 it was suddenly decided that it was to be nurtured into a nation-state. Sir Arnold Wilson, the competent colonial governor, was replaced by the ‘Arabiser’, Sir Percy Cox, and his mentor, Gertrude Bell.

The miscellany of territories and peoples assembled to be the colony of Iraq was one of the most unsuitable regions of the world for development as a nation-state. Those peoples had lived more or less at ease with each other within the tolerant framework of the Ottoman Empire, and might have continued to live their variegated lives with considerable freedom as a region of the British Empire administered by the Indian civil service. But Britain decreed – apparently for no sounder reason than that it was hijacked by its own wartime deceptions about nationality – that Iraq was to be nurtured into a nation-state, and take its place within the British sphere of interest.

The colonial administrators, who had taken a great deal of trouble to find out what Iraq consisted of, saw this ‘nation- state’ policy as a form of political lunacy. Many of them returned and attempted to persuade public opinion that the new policy was disastrous. But English public opinion was no longer capable of taking an intelligent interest in British imperial affairs. The publications of those Mesopotamian colonialists are, however, a unique source of information about the social composition of Iraq.

The destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a colossal work of political vandalism. It was the most suitable framework for social development in the Middle East. The next best framework of good government would have been an Arab state of the greatest possible extent. An overall Arab state, excluding only the Saudi development, might easily have been established on the basis of the Arab nationalist enthusiasm of 1918. An extensive stale might have preserved much of the diversity which flourished within the Ottoman Empire and would have required the minimum of nationalist cultural regimentation. The third best option would have been a colonial administration, which might have let things be to a considerable extent within each of the colonial territories. The worst option was the balkanisation of the Middle East into several states with the requirement that each of them should develop a separate nationalism. Britain in its infinite wisdom decided on this worst course.

In 1918, the Arab world-or an influential stratum of it which might have guided the rest – was eager to learn about modern things from Britain. By 1921 Britain had taught it that democracy was a species of public fraud.

The ‘Arabists’ won control of imperial policy from the colonisers and decided that Iraq should become, within the British sphere of influence, a nation-state in the form of a kingdom. The king was to be elected. Said Talib had returned from exile at the end of the war and had resumed his connections with town and country in Southern Iraq. He was very likely to win the kingship election, and he was the best person to establish an executive kingship as a nucleus of national development in Iraq. But the imperialist Arabists had other plant. Promises had been made to the Sharif of Mecca in 1916 and they pretended to feel themselves in honour bound by them. (Occasional honour has played a great part in the decline of the British Empire.) The Sharif’s son, Faisal, had been driven out of Damascus by the French, and his home territory of Mecca was under threat by the Saudis. Britain therefore decided to make him king in Baghdad. But he stood very little chance of winning an honest election against Said Talib.

Some weeks before the election in 1921, Said Talib was invited to take afternoon tea with Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. He was persuaded against his belter judgement to accept the invitation. As he was leaving the Governor’s residence after tea he was kidnapped and deported to Ceylon.

Political circles in Iraq were thereby given to understand that it was the foible of their new imperial masters to do things under the appearance of democratic form, while determining the outcome in advance. They grasped the essential fact that the imperial will of Britain was that they should accept as king a stranger from a thousand miles away who knew nothing of Mesopotamia. There was a single candidate in the 1921 election. And he won!

Then came the British lesson in how a nation-state in the making should be policed. It was done by the heavy bombers of the RAF.

The unveiling of a Bomber Harris memorial this year has caused some of his policing activities in the Middle East to be noticed by the British media. But the entire Said Talib episode – an event of much greater importance in determining the political character of Iraq – has been written out of history. In the 1920s when the event was known fairly widely, there was an orchestrated campaign of character assassination against Said Talib. But Britain was able to ensure that the event was simply dropped from the record thereafter.

With the exception of a brief period in 1940-1941, Iraq, after the concession of make-believe independence in 1932, was governed by a British protege, Nuri Es- Said. Nuri’s historians naturally turned a blind eye to the Said Talib episode. Real Iraqi independence began with the overthrow of Nuri and the monarchy by the Baathists after they had been excessively compromised by Britain over the Suez adventure. But the Baathists have not made anything of the Said Talib episode, because they have taken to heart the lesson which Britain taught to Iraq then – that democracy is organised consent to strong measures of decisive government.

Iraq was granted nominal independence in 1932 and was entered into the lists of the League of Nations as a sovereign state. But it was granted independence only on condition of signing a treaty conceding a British right of overlordship.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Iraq, like Ireland, declared itself neutral. In 1941 Britain decided to invade Persia, and to pass the invading force through Iraq. The Rashid Ali Government did not deny the British right of military passage granted by the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, but insisted that the passage should be

supervised by the Iraqi Government. Britain rejected this and in effect reasserted sovereignty over Iraq. It made war on the Rashid Ali Government, overthrew it, and re-installed the puppet government of Nuri es Said. The British propaganda apparatus depicted Rashid Ali as a Nazi agent. And Churchill’s account of his invasion of Iraq in his war history is entitled, The Revolt in Iraq.

It would have been better if the miscellany of peoples in Iraq had not been put under the necessity of undergoing a nationalist development among themselves and a process of alienation from kindred peoples in neighbouring regions. But the powers that be in the world decided that ii should be so. The Baath party has accomplished much in the way of subjective national unification. But it has to progress against the disintegrative activities of the very states which decreed that Iraq should be a nation-state. The Kurds and the Shia arc urged to rebel. But, in urging these rebellions, the United Nations powers do not intend that there shall be a Kurdistan or that the Iraqi Shia should be free to attach themselves to Iran. United Nations incitement to insurrection is sheer mischief-making.

Turkey may bomb Kurdish villages in Iraq with the blessing of the United Nations in order to discourage Kurdish activities in Turkey. But Iraq may not now attempt to make its sovereignty effective in Kurdish areas. The constitutional structure of Iraq is being deliberately disrupted by the United Nations – and “a level playing field” established between a sovereign state and a regional rebellion against it – for no better reason than that President Bush chose to conduct the war over Kuwait as a personal showdown, Wild West style, between himself and Saddam.

The persistence of Saddam’s government, and the tenacity with which it has set about restoring the infrastructure which was deliberately destroyed by the United Nations, is inexplicable in terms of the United Nations propaganda. The Saddam government is clearly much more than a military dictatorship. A national will has been forged amongst this conglomeration of peoples thoughtlessly thrown together seventy years ago. America, Britain and France – who between them wield immense influence in the world – can stimulate marginal insurrection against Baghdad, but Baghdad remains the functional centre of Iraqi national development.

BBC reporting, which had been streaming its misrepresentation of Iraqi affairs for two years, finally perfected the lie on August 27th at 5 pm, when it said in a news report: “Saddam is a Sunni Muslim who regards the Shiites as his enemies.” If that was the case, Saddam would have fallen long ago. He survives because the will to national unity in Iraq centres on him, and because to overthrow him at the behest of the powers which have stirred up particularist insurrections would mean the end of Iraq and the beginning of a development on Yugoslav lines.

The formation of Iraq was an irresponsible use of imperial power. The current efforts to disrupt Iraq now that it has finally taken root compounds that irresponsibility.


This article appeared in September 1992, in Issue 31 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and