Beginning to Bloom

Joel Rayburn, an Army major, teaches history at the U.S. Military Academy.

A year ago, troops of the U.S.-led coalition moved into Iraq on their way to swiftly defeating Saddam Hussein’s armies. Since then, Iraq’s journey toward stability and democracy under U.S. tutelage has been painfully slow and difficult. So says a chorus of observers who reflexively transform not-unexpected obstacles to the establishment of an Iraqi government into major roadblocks. Typical was the New York Times’ judgment, after reports of a delay in the signing of the interim Iraqi constitution, that the U.S. occupation had failed both to deliver Iraq from “pervasive insecurity” and to devise a “satisfactory formula ... for creating the interim government due to assume power July 1.” But although the problems confronting the United States and its coalition partners in Iraq are complex, they are not new. The good news is that when measured against the only previous attempt at Iraqi democracy-building -- in the 1920s under the British -- the current effort compares favorably in virtually every way.

Britain’s experience in Iraq after World War I was strikingly similar to that of the U.S.-led coalition. From their capture of Baghdad in 1917 to their withdrawal from the League of Nations mandate in Iraq in 1932, the British struggled to build a stable state around the country’s ethnic, tribal and religious divisions. One of the most important events was the adoption of Iraq’s first constitution and the holding of its first elections.

Although promising elections in 1918, the British governors of Iraq didn’t begin drafting election laws until they assumed the League of Nations mandate in summer 1920. Not until a year later did the British install a constitutional monarchy under the non-Iraqi Prince Faisal, friend of T.E. Lawrence and leader of the Arabs’ so-called Revolt in the Desert. Another year passed before election regulations were published (May 1922). Meanwhile, the British army and air force had to suppress a nine-month insurgency involving as many as 100,000 Iraqis.

The British-sponsored elections rules were convoluted and often unfair. They called for two phases of voting in 14 separate districts; candidates were nominated in various ways. The regulations were stacked against the Shiites, who, though constituting perhaps 60% of Iraq’s population, were guaranteed no better than a plurality in the Iraqi constituent assembly. Jews and Christians, though small minorities, were allocated a certain number of seats. Iraqi tribes, which generally sought to undermine the central government, were effectively allowed to vote twice -- once when sheiks nominated candidates and once when tribesmen voted as individuals. When the leading Kurdish figure briefly declared himself king of an independent Kurdistan, the British enticed the Kurds back into the elections by decreeing that no Arab could be elected in a Kurdish area.


When the British administration and King Faisal opened the elections in October 1922, they immediately encountered opposition from Shiite clerics who demanded direct democracy. That halted elections for six months. In response, British officials declared the leading Shiite imams to be “citizens of Persia” and deported them. The entire Shiite clergy protested, then followed their leaders into exile.

With Shiite leaders gone, the elections resumed in July 1923. British officials manipulated the process at every turn to obtain an assembly that would not oppose their proposed constitution. They colluded with regional election officials to produce lists dominated by pro-British candidates. In the final tally, popular Iraqi nationalist candidates improbably received fewer votes than some Jewish and Christian candidates. Of the assembly’s 98 members, 74 were British-approved.

British troops had occupied Baghdad for almost seven years and Basra for nearly 10 when the elections closed in February 1924. The election process, which was interrupted three times by insurrections, had taken almost four years. Although the new assembly dutifully adopted the proposed constitution, the “democratic” experiment undermined the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. Iraqis distrusted their new government as a tool of the British, even after the British withdrew in 1932.

In contrast to Britain’s attempt to democratize Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition’s much-maligned postwar plan and timeline for constituent-assembly elections in 2005 are speedy and farsighted. In addition, they could not possibly produce results less fair or legitimate than those of the British election method, which sought to dilute Shiite voting strength. Furthermore, U.S. civil administrators in Iraq have not expelled critics -- especially Shiites -- as the British did. Nor have U.S. forces closed opposition newspapers or indiscriminately bombed rebellious tribes or villages. Finally, signers of Iraq’s interim constitution could at least say that Iraqis had a significant hand in its writing. The proposed constitution under the British mandate was written by a team of British legal advisors and thrust upon King Faisal complete.

The U.S.-led democratization effort in Iraq, then, has been quite successful despite problems, risks and poorly handled situations. Even the Islamist terrorists seem to agree. In a way, their horrific surge of violent attacks against civilian targets last week, from the drive-by shooting of aid workers to the powerful car bomb in Baghdad, is a sign of their desperation and fear that democracy is taking root in Iraq, and that their window for destabilizing the country is closing. The goal of a stable, pluralistic democracy seems reachable -- and we’ve been in Iraq only a year. If the pessimists read some history, they would learn that expectations of a swift conclusion to the Iraqi project are unrealistic and historically naive.