The terrible history of meddling

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The Independent Online
THE LETTERS on the crumbling white stone of her tomb in the little cemetery beside Iraq's Ministry of Industry are hard to decipher. When you pick them out they read Gertrude Bell. Bell was Oriental Secretary to the High Commission for Iraq, and the most famous British traveller and writer about the Arab world before TE Lawrence.

She died in Baghdad in 1926 from an overdose of sleeping tablets, though it was never clear if she took them accidentally or on purpose. She is, going by the number of biographies written about her, the one half-remembered representative of the British Mandate over Iraq - established following the defeat of Turkey in Mesopotamia in 1918, after four years of fighting in which the British army lost 100,000 men.

Not far away from Bell's grave is a tombstone to Charles Cowley, whom the inscription says was killed on 26 April 1916, in an attempt by the steamer Julnar to force its way up the Tigris to relieve the British garrison besieged at Kut. In fact Cowley's end was a little nastier than the tombstone reveals and even more dramatic.

Born in Baghdad, Cowley, along with his family, ran the Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company. In the last days of the siege of Kut, one of the great British disasters of the First World War, he volunteered to use his knowledge of the shifting shoals of the Tigris to take the Julnar, a steamship protected with steel plating and loaded with 270 tons of supplies, to try to break through to Kut. This was doubly dangerous for him as the Turks considered him a renegade because of his long residence in Baghdad.

The Julnar got close to Kut, but the Turks had stretched a hawser across the river, which fouled the ship's propeller. The Julnar drifted towards the bank, where it was stormed by Turkish soldiers. The captain and most of the crew were killed. Cowley was taken prisoner and murdered on the riverbank.

These casualties of Britain's moment in Iraq have greater significance than mere Imperial nostalgia. The British hegemony in the wake of the First World War victory in many ways resembles the control exercised by the United Nations since the Gulf war. The bureaucracy administering the embargo on Iraq from New York controls the Iraq economy and the standard of living of every Iraqi.

The Canat hotel, the UN headquarters in east Baghdad, plays a similar role to the old British High Commission. The UN agencies around the capital have extraordinary power. They largely control the oil-food plan under which Iraq can export some oil, but expenditure is controlled by the UN.

In the zones where Iraqis are not allowed to fly, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation has to hire Bulgarian pilots to fly ageing Polish-built helicopters to spray the crops.

Britain, and the UN 70 years later, suffer from the same problems in Iraq. Both wanted to exercise semi-colonial control on the cheap.

Bell successfully advocated importing Faisal I, son of the Sherif of Mecca, whom few Iraqis had ever heard of, to be the country's first Arab king. British troops were withdrawn, but he was backed by RAF bases east of Baghdad and in Basra.

In fact, the UN role in Iraq is reaching a crisis for reasons little understood outside the country. The UN thought that if enough food and medicines were distributed to fend off famine and epidemics all would be well. But the indices of infant mortality and malnutrition have scarcely declined.

This is because the Iraqi infrastructure is collapsing. This year there are power cuts of six to 10 hours even in central Baghdad. The Mesopotamian plain is flat, so without electricity, water and sewage cannot be pumped. Extra food and medicine make no difference if Iraqis are drinking increasingly polluted water.

In the Iraqi countryside the breakdown in electricity supply is even worse than in Baghdad. Farmers are said to be doing well out of the present crisis because the government is paying high prices for their crops.

We went to Babil province, 80 miles from Baghdad, to see Sheikh Hatem al-Jeriyan, who farms 1,500 acres from a brick fortress built by his grandfather.

But even Sheikh Hatem admitted that times were bad. The one topic of conversation in Iraq is the terrible summer heat, far hotter than usual this year. He had moved into a house in a nearby town "because at least here there is five hours electricity a day". In the country there is just one hour and sometimes nothing.

Because of the heat, Baghdad functions mostly at night. From nine in the evening the pavements are thronged. Iraqis are deeply social and like eating out, despite sanctions. Many restaurants have closed, particularly on Abu Nawwas Street beside the Tigris where Iraqis once used to eat river fish baked on an open fire.

But a new restaurant quarter has opened up at a village called Kreat, on the river north of Baghdad. Some restaurants are on the riverbank, others are on pontoons floating on the Tigris. Even here, every half hour the electricity goes off, plunging the riverbank into darkness.

In their different ways, both Bell and the UN got it wrong. The British hegemony in Iraq ended in 1958 when members of the royal family, tainted in Iraqi eyes as British puppets, were shot by rebel army officers as they fled their burning palace.

The predominant influence of the UN Security Council over Iraqi affairs may also be withering. It has always required a degree of Iraqi co-operation. The present disaster and the apparently endless continuation of sanctions means Iraq has little left to lose.