Saddamism after Saddam

Charles Glass

I foresee that man will resign himself each day to more atrocious undertakings; soon there will be no one but soldiers and bandits.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’

John Bagot Glubb, a young lieutenant bearing wounds from the war in France, arrived in Mesopotamia in 1920. His assignment was to command armed patrols through the desert of what would become, under its first Western occupier, Iraq. The British bureaucracy, he observed, had yet to decide what to do about bedouin raiding. The desert tribes derived a part of their revenue from brigandage against other tribes, pilgrims and travellers. While there was general agreement that the tribes ought to be discouraged from attacking non-bedouin innocents in the desert, Glubb noted, a few officials ‘adopted a more sporting standpoint. Raiding, they said, was the bedouin national sport, like league football or county cricket.’ (Donald Rumsfeld appears to have taken a similarly sporting attitude to recent looting in Baghdad, although his tolerance would presumably not encompass looting by the poor of presidential palaces and museums in, say, Washington DC.) The British as occupying power duly published Rules for Raiders, a booklet with regulations for ‘every foreseeable situation’. A section in which the bedouin were to record the dates of raids, number of raiders and goods seized, rather like a weekend shooting log, was to be returned to British police posts for inspection. Glubb, who later commanded Jordan’s Arab Legion and earned the title pasha, wrote in Arabian Adventures: Ten Years of Joyful Service that ‘large numbers of the booklet were printed in Arabic and the RAF was asked to fly all over the desert and drop bundles of the leaflets on every nomad camp … Alas! The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley. The Ministry had overlooked one point, namely, that no bedouin could read.’

Glubb’s soldiers nonetheless had a go at enforcing written orders on illiterate nomads, increasing the friction between the new governors and their unwelcoming subjects. There was already a rebellion against British rule underway in most of the country, the suppression of which required the RAF to drop more than leaflets (98 tons of explosives, to be precise). The attempt to organise tribal raiding in the same way as county cricket soon faltered. ‘Rules for Raiders was withdrawn,’ Glubb lamented, ‘authorised raiding was pronounced a failure and soon the fiat was to go forth – “tribal raiding must cease.”’ Before long the British troops withdrew from the desert and ‘the district subsided once more into anarchy.’ That is, the tribes resumed the regulation of their own affairs, leaving the British to concentrate on the cities, towns, ports, borders and, most important, oil. This seemed to suit everyone, except possibly the 90 per cent of Iraqis who were not bedouin.

Before the British fabricated Iraq from the Ottoman governorates of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, they created an Iraqi Army. The Army was to be the backbone of the new state, and its primary function would be to assist Britain’s integration of the three provinces into a new country for which its inhabitants evinced no enthusiasm. The United States, self-proclaimed heir to dominion over the Arab world, is now finding its way through the imperial morass. American Armed Forces secured the oil, the pipelines, the oil ministry, the airbases and the ports. They left the museums, the palaces, the hospitals and the libraries to looters, just as the British left the desert to brigands. Like its British progenitor, the American imperium on the Euphrates seeks to give enough power to local levies to spare US soldiers from permanent police duty in Iraq, but not enough for them to challenge America’s regional hegemon, Israel, on the battlefield. America seeks an elusive balance with the Iraqi Armed Forces it is creating: too little power and Iraq will fall to its Shiite majority; too much and Israel will bash it down to size.

You are not logged in