IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Is history repeating itself?

With the transition of power to a hand-picked Iraqi leadership, the United States is following the pattern of a previous transition of power by British leaders decades earlier. NBC's Richard Engel looks at what can be learned from the history of the "Mesopotamia question."
Iraqi women wait while U.S. soldiers search a home during a weapons raid in the Yarmouk section of Baghdad on Sunday.
Iraqi women wait while U.S. soldiers search a home during a weapons raid in the Yarmouk section of Baghdad on Sunday.Jim MacMillan / AP
/ Source: NBC News

After a particularly brutal day of bombings in Baghdad an Iraqi friend recently asked, "Are the Americans so smart that they have a plan for Iraq that's so complicated that I don't understand it, or are they so stupid that they have no plan at all?"

I relayed the details of a conversation I'd recently had with an American officer who told me his 2003, pre-war battle simulations — elaborate computer games in which he and other commanders pretended to be the "left hook" and "the tip of the spear" destroying Iraqi army units in digital blips — ended once Iraq was defeated. "And then what?" he wondered out loud.

My Iraqi friend refused to believe it, insisting that the United States must have a secret, genius plan to serve its long-term interests in the Middle East. "If America weren't clever, how could it be a great power?" he asked rhetorically. But great powers have misunderstood Iraq before, and, like the Americans, struggled to administer this deeply divided country.

It took British forces four years (November 1914 to November 1918) to defeat the armies of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Sultan, Mehmed V, as leader of the Islamic empire, had called for a jihad against the invading infidels, warning Muslims who refused that they would be "exposed to the wrath of God" and "great misfortunes."

The Sultan's battle cry, however, had little effect in Iraq, much to the disappointment of the Ottomans' Germans allies. Many of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, then as now about 50 to 60 percent of the population, refused the jihad of the Sunni Muslim sultan and didn't fight.

Iraqis Shiites were accustomed to running their own affairs — the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad were effectively self-supporting city-states, living off business brought by pilgrims from the region (mainly Iran) and Khomus, chartable donations Shiite Muslims make directly to support their religious leaders.

Saddam's jihad
In 2003, Saddam Hussein, also a Sunni Muslim, declared a jihad against the invading infidel American forces. As before, Iraqi Shiites paid it little attention to it. After all, Saddam had massacred tens of thousands of Shiites, strangled the flow of pilgrims to Karbala and Najaf (prohibiting nearly all visitors from enemy Iran) and blocked the clergy's ability to collect and distribute money.

Many Sunnis also ignored Saddam's call, both because he lacked religious credentials (Saddam tried to bolster his Islamic status after the 1991 defeat with stunts like building huge mosques and, allegedly, in 1997 ordering a Quran written in his own blood; it was never reported how much blood he supposedly donated to write the 336,000 word, three-volume set), and because he'd driven the country to ruin.

But after Iraq fell, both the British and the Americans were faced the looming question the U.S. commander had asked, "What next?" In 2003, the Americans' first step was to impose direct rule, just as the British had done more than 80 years earlier.

The British "civil commissioner" Sir Arnold Wilson formed a 25-member consultative body, drawing from Baghdad notables, most of whom were Sunni Muslims who'd benefited under Ottoman rule and understood its operation.

Effectively, these were the Iraqis the British at the time felt most comfortable dealing with; they were mostly wealthy, educated and experienced in government administration. Perhaps, not surprisingly, they were rejected by large sectors of the Iraqi population, not least by the Shiites who felt there were once again being dominated by the Sunni minority, about 20 percent of the population.

In May 2003, the American equivalent to Sir Wilson, the US "civil administrator" Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, took charge of what became known as the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) — the American occupation government. Amb. Bremer quickly appointed a 25-member governing council to advise him.

Like their British predecessors, the Americans selected Iraqis with whom they were comfortable, drawing largely on western-educated Iraqi exiles —- many of whom, including the interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, had long relationships with the CIA and British intelligence. The US administration favored secular Iraqis over religious leaders and insisted that women also be included. The intentions may well have been noble, but results were disastrous. Many Iraqis immediately accused the council of being foreign, corrupt, detached and self-serving. Militants assassinated female governing council member Akila Hashimi outside her home two months after she took office.

Not working effectively
But it was Bremer's administration and the US military that ultimately ruled, although this split power structure — divided between the CPA and armed forces — never seemed to work efficiently.

Emblematic of their relationship, CPA offices were often housed on military bases, usually stuck in the back where soldiers wouldn't have to pay attention to them. What the CPA and the military had in common, however, was an apparent lack of information about that country they were managing and where they were leading it.

Over the past year, the CPA consistently relied on the guidance of westernized Iraqis who share (or at least say they do) the American vision for a free, democratic, pluralistic, secular (although this is rarely mentioned) Iraq.

The CPA was in effect talking to itself. The military on the other hand had a vastly different picture of the country, but which was also limited. Officers gleaned most of their intelligence from local translators, the interrogations of suspects and details picked up while out on patrols. One could easily argue that the military's information was significantly better than the CPA's, but its scope was often too narrow to guide policy. Army and Marine units were primarily interested in the names of people who were trying to kill U.S. servicemen and women in their particular neighborhood.

Units based in Falujah, for example, would certainly have a detailed understanding of the power dynamics and the politics among the sheikhs and family clans in the area, but not necessarily know anything about Shiite and Kurdish dreams of autonomy, or historic rivalries between Iraqis of Persian and Arab descent, or a thousand other prejudices and ambitions that Iraqis have in Sulimaniya, Basra, or the divided city of Baghdad.

For a year, the military has fought its local fights, while the CPA doled out money — where and how much remains a mystery — to build democracy while most people complained they wanted jobs and to be able to walk the streets without fear of being kidnapped.

The CPA also struggled to push the governing council, falsely assuming the body it created represented the Iraqi people, to make significant political decisions that would affect the future shape of the country and its relations with the United States, which, one might argue to its credit (but perhaps ultimately to its detriment) it consistently refused to do, largely in part because of the protestations of the Shiite Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

It might come as some consolation that the British faired little better when they tried to directly rule Iraq, a nation they cobbled together from three distinct Ottoman provinces Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, regions which remain distinct today.

The main challenge to the British came from the Shiites, not surprisingly because British policy favored the Sunnis. (It should therefore also not be surprising that the Americans face most of their problems from the Sunnis because U.S. policy supports "democracy" in Iraq, which the Shiites believe, as the majority, favors them.)

In 1920, the Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed al-Shirazi, issued a fatwa from Karbala declaring that working for the British was a sin. Shiites began to stage protests and demand elections for an independent government.

In June, the civil commissioner, Arnold Wilson, agreed to elections for a "constituent assembly," but again made the unpopular choice of Sunni Muslim, ex-Ottoman bureaucrats to organize the voting process. The Shiites continued to mount growing demonstrations, and by the end of June fighting broke out. Ironically, June 30th -- the original deadline for the end of American direct rule in Iraq in 2004 — is the date Iraqis celebrate their 1920 revolt against British occupation.

After the Shiite revolt, Britain abandoned direct rule and created an Iraqi monarchy, giving the throne to King Faisal, a Sunni little known in Iraq but to whom Britain owed a favor for his, and his family's, role in the 1916 Arab revolt in the Hijaz. Ultimately, Faisal and his descendents ruled Iraq for nearly four decades until the monarchy were deposed by a military coup in 1958 that eventually led Saddam Hussein to power.

On Monday, the United States handed the reigns of power to a little-known Iraqi exile with credentials that fit the American vision for Iraq: Ayad Allawi, a British educated, secular Shiite whom the CIA once considered an "asset."

But unlike King Faisal, Allawi is not intended to be a permanent solution for Iraq. He is only slated to rule until general elections set for January 2005, the results of which many Iraqis, especially the Shiites, hope will ultimately settle what the British called "the Mesopotamia question."

It's probably safe to assume there will be many power struggles, including bloody ones, along the way.