Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2005  



Charles Glass On Mosul


by Milo Clark






(Swans - May 23, 2005)  Charles Glass is a scholar devoted to Middle Eastern studies. His trilogy will soon be completed with publication of The Tribes Triumphant. Tribes with Flags came out in 1990 and was followed by Money for Old Rope in 1992.

Each issue of the London Review of Books (LRB) features a usually engaging end piece neatly set off with a two point rule and called the "Diary."

The Diary of LRB 16 December 2004 (1) reports Glass's then recent visit to Mosul, Iraq on the borderline of northern Iraq and the territories under Kurdish control since the early 1990s. Maps related to the just completed Iraqi election have been widely published showing this area to be contested between what may become a central government and Kurdish assertions of control.

To be grasped in its present context, the creation of Iraq from within the once Ottoman Empire is only partially an accident of post World War I European politics engendered by the ill-advised Ottoman-German alliance.

In modern history, Britain, France, Germany, and Czarist Russia had long jockeyed and danced around and over the lands roughly bordered by the Balkans and Russia to the north; Afghanistan to the east; the Mediterranean Sea to the west; and Suez, Egypt, and the Arabian Sea to the south.

Germany lost position by losing WWI. Russia was diverted and temporarily unseated from the table by the Bolshevik revolution succeeding the Mensheviks who succeeded the Czar in 1917.

Secret negotiations were in process by 1915 to carve up the decaying Ottoman Empire. Even though Allies in the struggle against the Kaiser's Germany, Britain and France easily shed their wartime relationships to restore centuries of animosity and bickering.

Mosul, in context, is a place in a land totally, totally and far, far beyond understanding or within relevant experience of the vast majority of Americans.

First of all, Mosul is old, old, old. Old when history defined as written records first ebbed and flowed across, beyond, and within. At the time of Troy, about 1,300 B.C.E., Mosul was probably under Hittite control. Ancient Assyrian influences still held sway as did its predecessors linking back into pre-history. Its peoples are yoked to the ancient lands.

The Tigris River, which has its headwaters in what is now central Turkey and by which the roots of civilization (and patriarchy) were watered, flows through Mosul. Thus, the peoples of Mosul have come and gone much as the tides of the seas. Nearly 3,000 years after Assyria and the Hittites, the Mongol hordes swept through, leaving their still indelible stamp on the region.

In the immediate years after WWI, Britain and France, then, with a nod to the upstart USA, sliced up the fallen Ottoman Empire in a classically exploitive mode. Might made right. Power politics were rampant.

The French had long maintained a presence in the eastern Mediterranean, offering a buffer of sorts and annoying the key players in the Great Game around the region, Britain and Russia.

Czarist Russia, especially since Peter, the Great of the early 1700s, kept a steady pressure southwards.

Britain, imperial interests always paramount, fiercely protected access through the region to India. See the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907 by which spheres of influence in the region were delineated. Notice that the French were not involved.

As was common, neither Britain nor France showed the least interest in or compunction to involve the people of the region.

The geography of the region is, overall, rather uninspiring. In modern military terms, it tends to be good tank country. To the south of Mosul and easterly down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf is mostly plateau and desert. To the north and east, the largely Kurdish areas tend to be hilly and then more sharply mountainous. Scalding in summer; frigid in winter; hard scrabble country.

Glass aptly names the Sykes-Picot Agreement by which Britain and France divvied up the Middle East as "infamous." The French delegate to this very secret process, François Georges Picot, first claimed the Mosul area based on its relative proximity to Damascus and the fact that there had once been French schools in Mosul.

The first general outline, while Russia was still an actor, envisioned Russia coming south below the Caspian Sea (roughly as agreed in the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907). French control was sketched across toward Afghanistan to form a buffer north of British interests in unfettered access to India. At that time (1915), Britain was secretly uninterested in Mosul.

Two events intervened. The Bolshevik assumption of power in Russia and the discovery of oil in the Mosul-Kirkuk areas.

Glass says, "The exclusion of Russia and the inclusion of oil made Mosul a more attractive proposition for Britain. However, it was not until 1925, [...] that Britain added Mosul and Kurdish areas north and east to the newly minted state of Iraq," roughly coterminous with ancient Mesopotamia.

With nary a nod to local considerations, much less questions of ownership vesting locally, France was bought off with a 25% interest in Iraqi oil. It was another ten years (1934) before oil began to be exported, however.

Likewise, the USA (meaning the Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company), which wanted Mosul in Turkey for better access to its oil, was also bought off for a 25% share. A little more research shows just how complicated and convoluted are present day oil practices and policies under the occupation. It also gives context to the snarly mess of sanctions against Saddam.

Glass takes us back to local actualities post WWI. Mosul was at the northern edge of Arab population and interests. To say "Arab" in this context neither suggests nor implies any solidarity or uniformity of such interests. Arab tribes jockeyed for position constantly -- a key point then and now.

"Beyond Mosul were non-Arabs -- Kurds, Turks, Yazidis and Christians." In the 1920s, Mosul had close to two million people in its immediate area, ". . . half Arab and the remainder were Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians and Turcomen," Again, these rough classifications do not imply solidarity or uniformity of positions. Glass and others conversant with area history understand thoroughly the tribal basis of the region.

Glass goes on to outline some of who killed whom only to be crushed in return.

In 1933, Mosul's Assyrian Christians demonstrated to protest house arrest of their patriarch. The monarchy's minister of defence, a Kurdish general, ". . . crushed them in a manner that Saddam Hussein would later emulate."

"The bloodshed in Mosul destroyed the belief of Iraq's first monarch, King Feisal I, in the country that Britain had assigned him to govern: 'There is still -- and I say this with a heart full of sorrow -- no Iraqi people but an unimaginable mass of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever,' Feisal I wrote in March 1933."

All-in-all, Iraq suffered nine coups before Saddam Hussein. Feisal's grandson, Feisal II was deposed in 1958. The quasi-socialist reforms proposed by the coup leader, General Kassam, ignited the Mosul area's landlord tribes, especially the Shammars and the Kashmoulah family.

"Today [2004], the Shammar's tribal leader, Ghazi Yawer, is interim president of Iraq; and Dureid Kashmoulah is governor of Mosul's Nineveh province, appointed by Yawer's government. (There may be more going on in Iraq than the American military, which says its troops are fighting 'bad guys', is aware.)"

"In 1959, as later under Saddam, Mosul provided between a quarter and a third of Iraq's officer corps and much of its secret service."

So much for American assertions and media assumptions that Baathist influences and power are centralized in the "Sunni Triangle" north of Baghdad and Saddam's tribal core around Tikrit.

Glass cites Hanna Batutu's modern history of Iraq, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978), which covers the time up until Saddam's seizure of power.

Of the 1959 events around Mosul, Batutu writes:

"For four days and four nights Kurds and Yezidis stood against Arabs; Assyrian and Aramaean Christians against Arab Muslims; the Arab tribe of Albu Mutaiwat against the Arab tribe of Shammar; the Kurdish tribe of al-Gargariyyah against Arab Albu Mutaiwat; the peasants of Mosul country against their landlords; the soldiers of the Fifth Brigade against their officers; the periphery of the city of Mosul against its centre; the plebeians of the Arab quarters of al-Makkawi and Wadi Hajar against the aristocrats of the Arab quarter of ad-Dawwash; and with the quarter of Bab al-Baid, the family of al-Rajabu against its traditional rivals, the Aghawat."

And you think, you are told, that Iraqi differences are primarily religious!

In 1959, then CIA Director Allan Dulles told Congress, "Iraq is now the most dangerous spot on earth." What did he mean in the context of that time?

Glass adds, "Given this background, no one should be surprised that the Baath Party began regrouping in Mosul while the American occupation forces were demolishing Fallujah."

"Now, the Baath has its tentacles in both the resistance [...] and in the government the Americans have appointed. The interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is not the only former Baathist in the new order. Some analysts say that the two wings of the party are fighting each other. [...] Others believe the two factions are cooperating to seize power when the Americans leave."

Recently, Glass states, "insurgents" seized most of Mosul's police stations taking not only weapons but also ". . .thousands of uniforms, with which they will be able to establish bogus police checkpoints."

Americans already employ Kurdish units to counter other Iraqi's actions against them. "Becoming America's Gurkhas will not endear them to the Arabs."

Twice before in Iraq's short history, America has incited and then abandoned the Kurds (1975 and 1991). Local memories are very long, hundreds of times longer than America's total history.

While the Kurdish areas, under American air cover, largely liberated themselves in the early 1990s and do not consider themselves to be occupied in the same sense as more southern areas, when Glass left Mosul last year after Fallujah, American armored cars patrolled the streets. Most "insurgents" had left -- at least for then.

An ending? Kurdish official Sadiq Zavati says, "It's just beginning."


1.  London Review of Books, v. 26, n. 24, 16 December 2004, pp. 34-35.  (back)

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Published May 23, 2005