BAGHDAD, Iraq—A senior British diplomat long ago figured out what has become one of the enduring dilemmas of the U.S. occupation of Iraq: that the presence of a foreign army can undermine efforts to establish a new government.
It's "difficult to be burning villages at one end of the country by means of an (occupation) Army, and assuring people at the other end that we really have handed over responsibility to native Ministers," the diplomat, Gertrude Bell, concluded.
Bell wrote that report 85 years ago, as what was then Mesopotamia was struggling to rebuild after World War I and create an independent state that the British would call Iraq.
Fast-forward to today and Bell's observations have an uncanny contemporary feel to them. In letters to her parents while in Iraq, Bell documented the difficulties that Britain faced in forging Iraq into a coherent nation.
Those difficulties have turned out to be nearly identical to problems faced today by U.S. and Iraqi leaders: religious and ethnic division, how to train a new Iraqi army, extremism and how to withdraw foreign forces quickly. Probably for that reason, Bell and her letters have attracted renewed interest amid a nostalgic feeling among Iraqis that if the U.S.-led coalition only had someone who understood them like Bell did, the post-Saddam period might have turned out better.
Unlike U.S. officials, Bell lived in close contact with the Iraqis. She learned Arabic, traveled much of Iraq on horseback and lived in an unguarded Baghdad home that was open to visitors.
She swam in the Tigris River and often started her morning with a horseback ride through the city. The new Iraqi leadership decided the future of the country in her home while drinking tea.
"The British depended on Ms. Bell because of her knowledge of the Arabs and of the country and its tribes. She loved the Iraqis," said Mohammed Youssef Ibrahim, a history professor who published a book about Bell in 2003. The post-war period "would have not been the same today had the U.S. had such a figure," he said.
As insightful and influential as Bell was, Iraqis still debate her intentions. Some believe Bell—who drew the map of Iraq for the British—purposely made the state too weak to stand independent of Britain. Others said she was committed first to the Iraqis.
Whatever her motives, she was obsessed with the Iraqis. "Waking and sleeping, I am absorbed by what lies to my hand," she wrote to her parents, "and the countless interviews, which I conduct daily with turbaned gentlemen and tribesmen and what you please, seem to me to matter more than anything else in the world."
The British never intended for a woman to lead their efforts in Iraq, particularly in a culture dominated by men. But Bell, who had explored much of the Middle East, was an intelligence officer during World War I, and she had impressed her colleagues. Shortly after the British were handed Mesopotamia as a World War I spoil, Bell headed to Baghdad to serve under Sir Percy Cox, the British high commissioner of Mesopotamia.
She arrived in 1920, and like the Americans 80 years later, discovered Iraq was split deeply along religious and ethnic lines, although in roles reversed from today's. The majority Shiites—now the mainstay of the U.S.-backed government—at that time refused to work with an occupying force, while the Sunnis—the backbone of today's insurgency—concluded that collaboration with the British was the way to control the new state. They were right.
The Sunnis then tried to keep the Shiites out of the government. Sunnis today have accused Shiites of doing the same thing to them.
"The present Government which is predominantly Sunni isn't doing anything to conciliate the Shiahs," Bell wrote in a January 1921 letter.
"They are now considering a number of administrative appointments for the provinces; almost all the names they put up are Sunnis, even for the wholly Shiah province on the Euphrates, with the exception of Karbala and Nejd (Najaf) where even they haven't the face to propose Sunnis. ..."
Bell met with Shiite leaders as British politicians drew up various plans to bring them into the new government. But the Shiites largely rejected it, especially after the ayatollah said they shouldn't work with a non-Muslim government.
Just like U.S. officials today, Bell felt one sect shouldn't dominate the new government.
"If we can make them work together and find their own salvation for themselves, what a fine thing it would be. I see visions and dream dreams," Bell wrote in one letter.
President Bush drew the same conclusion in a January speech. "Compromise and consensus and power-sharing are the only path to national unity and lasting democracy," he said.
Under pressure from the British, the Sunnis put Shiites in a handful of nominal positions and a fragile government was seated.
The British chose Faisal, a king from Arabia from the Hashemite clan, which claims to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad, as Iraq's new king. To introduce the outsider to his subjects, Bell traveled with Faisal around the country before the British placed him on the throne. In a trip from the southern city of Basra to Baghdad, Bell introduced Faisal to every tribal leader along the route, said Ibrahim, the history professor.
Like Iraqis today, many rejected having an outsider appointed by foreigners rule their country.
Extremism emerged. Tribal leaders, who were much stronger than they are today, rebelled against the new Iraqi government and the British forces in a remarkable parallel to today's insurgency.
Bell addressed her concerns in a 1922 letter to her father: "It is pretty clear that the extremists are alarmed by the determined attitude of the moderates and I fancy they have every reason for being so. ..."
In another: "The main thing is to get the extremists and moderates to work together. At present the one is always on the alert to break the head of the other—I use the Arab idiom."
British forces also sought to create an Iraqi army. They too trained Iraqi forces, but found that they had to stay and prop up the new government.
"Early on, the Iraqi army's creation was not to defend its borders, but to defend the government's authority in the country, very much like today," said Sharif Ali bin al Hussein, a descendent of King Faisal.
Even Bell at times misread how quickly the new government could become established. In one 1920 letter, she predicted British forces would withdraw by 1922.
It took decades before the Iraqi army could stand on its own. Indeed, even after Iraq received formal independence in 1930, it continued to lean on the British military into the 1930s.
And then there's the ever-strained relationship between the Kurds and Arabs. The Kurds believed then, as now, that they were entitled to an independent state. They had an autonomous region and refused to give that up, just like today.
Bell couldn't persuade them: "Sulaimaniya has refused, on a plebiscite, to come in under the Arab Govt. and is going for the present to be a little Kurdish enclave administered directly under Sir Percy. ... The population is wholly Kurdish and they say they don't want to be part of an Arab State."
Bell died in Baghdad and is buried in what was a British cemetery here. Most of the tombstones around her, some representing her colleagues, are cracked and eroding.
And so was Bell's until last month, said Ali Mansour, the cemetery caretaker.
A woman came by two months ago and cleaned up Bell's site, planting trees at her gravesite, including one palm tree at each corner.
The woman was Tamara Chalabi, daughter of Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite who, like King Faisal, was brought to Iraq by a Western power to lead the country. She placed a small marker at the grave, saying she cleaned up the site because of Bell's contributions to Iraq.
In the end, Bell had a limited view of what occupation authorities could accomplish.
"Long Life to the Arab Government. Give them responsibility and make them settle their own affairs and they'll do it every time a thousand times better than we can," Bell concluded in 1920, right as she began her ascension as the uncrowned Queen of Iraq.
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha Al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.