11/18/09 - occupiers and plebiscites

In today's excerpt - occupiers often manipulate plebiscites or other data to 'prove' that their new subjects support them. But that often masks a pending revolt. And so it was with the British occupation of Iraq (Mesopotamia) in 1917—which locals viewed as a British attempt to extend their empire—and the violent revolts that followed. Given Woodrow Wilson's world-shaking proposal in the aftermath of World War I that all people should be able to self-determine their own government such plebiscites had become especially crucial:

"On March 11th 1917, British and Indian soldiers of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF) marched into Baghdad and occupied it in order to restore order and halt the looting that had followed the city's evacuation by Ottoman forces the previous day. On March 12th, the [British] War Cabinet ... issu[ed] a proclamation to the inhabitants of Baghdad. This flowery document ... pledged that 'our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators'. ...

"After March 1917 the emphasis of [British] operations in Mesopotamia shifted ... towards the pacification of the British-occupied areas and the introduction and extension of civil machinery designed to regulate the mobilization and extraction of the manpower, food and fodder needed in ever greater quantities for the military. ... This involved the 'submission by political means' of local tribes and the visible downward penetration of British control to all levels of society. ...

"The logistical requirements of maintaining and supplying the MEF, which peaked at 420,000 combatants and non-combatants in 1918, made enormous demands on local resources of manpower, food and fodder ... causing great hardship to a populace already weakened by poor harvests in 1916 and 1917, and the commercial dislocation caused by three years of war. ...

"At the end of the war, Mesopotamia remained under British occupation. With President Woodrow Wilson and the peace-makers in Paris championing self-determination, the British administration in Baghdad sought to find 'up to date reasons' for continued British rule that would make them 'both indispensable to, and acceptable by, the native community', even as they entrenched themselves more firmly in the region. ... The British failed to identify the true degree of opposition to their presence in Mesopotamia. They manipulated and misrepresented the results of a plebiscite on 'local opinion' in 1919 to produce what one Cabinet member in London, Edwin Montagu, called an 'authoritative statement' to President Wilson and the peace conferences indicating popular local support for British policies.

"British demands for labour and foodstuffs continued throughout 1919 and 1920 and the methods of collection became more effective. They combined with the cumulative impact of food shortages, high price inflation and the introduction of taxation to create significant pools of discontent as British control became increasingly visible ... creat[ing] a multitude of grievances ... that eventually found their outlet in violent unrest. The speed and ferocity with which the [Iraqi] revolt took root and spread between July and October 1920 shook the foundations of British rule in Mesopotamia and necessitated a level of financial and military expenditure that London could ill afford at a time of significant discontent in India, Ireland and elsewhere. ...

"[Prominent among the revolt leadership was] a family called Sadr [whose grandson Moqtada al-Sadr is a belligerent in the current Iraqi War]."


Kristian Ulrichsen


'Coming as Liberators'


History Today


January 2007


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