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September 21, 2005

The Making of Iraq, Chapter One

So you've never heard of Gertrude Bell. Right?

Me, either, until a few weeks ago, when a friend recommended I read Desert Queen, a 1996 Bell biography by Janet Wallach. By the time I finished, I thought I was reading current news and analysis out of the Middle East, rather than the musty story of a woman dead some 80 years now.

Gertrude Bell, you see, is the person who sat down with a table full of maps and literally drew the lines that defined "Iraq" out of the chaos left when the Ottoman empire collapsed in World War I. The maps she worked with were the best available -- her own, meticulously created during 25 years of wandering the deserts, mountains and valleys of Mesopotamia, first as an archeologist and later as an agent of British Intelligence.

The wanderings also, remarkably, left the English lady the confidante of countless tribal, subtribal, family and religious leaders in this male-dominated Islamic world.

She cut quite the figure. Though she traveled "alone," it was only in the sense that she was the only Caucasian around. Her entourage included the servants, cooks, porters and camels necessary to deal with her tents, supplies, wardrobe and dinnerware. Playing hostess for the leaders of whatever tribal lands she happened to be in, she wore formal dinner dress and served expertly prepared meals at tables laid with silver dinner service and set up in carpet-floored tents.

Warring tribes would cease their battles long enough to pass her safely from one land to the next.

It was the politically attuned Miss Bell who championed Faisal, of the Hashemite family of Mecca, as the man who could make "Iraq" work. It was the un-religious Miss Bell who convinced her friends among the tribes to lend Faisal their support in building a secular state. It was Miss Bell who, in the end, convinced British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill during the Cairo conference of 1921 that a Faisal-led "Iraq" offered the Empire the best way out of the bloody, expensive mess in Mesopotamia.

At conference's end she was overjoyed.

As Ms. Wallach writes, "Almost everything she had wished for now had a chance of coming true. The country would consist of all all three vilayets --Baghdad, Basrah and Mosel; the Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Christians and Kurds would be united under a Sharifian king; and Iraq, rich, prosperous and led by Faisal, would prove a loyal protege of Britain. If Gertrude could bring it all off, it would be ... a model for the entire Middle East." (Hear the echoes.)

Faisal became king in 1921. But he, with his British advisors, was seen in many quarters as (hear the echoes) nothing more than the agent of a foreign occupier. Torn, he wanted the British to go, but (hear more echoes) he couldn't maintain power without them. If they went, the "country would be eaten alive, the carcass torn apart by townsmen, tribesmen, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Turks all fighting for a piece of the territory."

After much turmoil, the British did eventually go and "Iraq" did survive as a secular state, though otherwise hardly as Miss Bell envisioned. Faisal, his son and grandson held the throne until 1958, when began the series of coups and counter-coups that eventually brought Saddam Hussein to power.

Now, again, "Iraq" is threatened by divisions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Now, again, whether government should be secular or sectarian clouds the political question. Now, again, the government in Baghdad stands only with the backing of a foreign power intent on making the country "a model for the entire Middle East." Hear the echoes.

For a time, Miss Bell was so intimately involved in Faisal's affairs that the world press referred to her as "the uncrowned Queen of Iraq," but her political influence faded and she spent the last few years of her life as the new nation's director of antiquities. Drawing upon her archeological background, she amassed and catalogued the foundation collection for the national museum in Baghdad. It was looted in the wake of the American invasion in 2003.

She died in Baghdad in 1926, at age 57, of an overdose of sleeping pills. Her closest friends believed it was suicide.

Posted by jcb at September 21, 2005 03:22 PM


I had read about the "mess" Winston and Gertrude made in Iraq and now we are there and will probably do the same. As a veteran of Vietnam I see things happening that are eerily similar thougy not yet as deadly.

Posted by: Dennis Hamilton at September 29, 2005 03:56 PM