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Iraq 101: It isn't pretty

There are four decent histories of Iraq for the general reader, two by professors, two by journalists. They are not exactly bestsellers. One is ranked 33,827 in sales by Amazon.com, and the others come in at 91,905, 99,935 and 830,433. One has garnered 20 reader reviews, the others, six, one and zero. (By contrast, recent books by Michael Moore and Ann Coulter have received 1,151, and 1,986 reviews, respectively.)

The St. Petersburg Library System has two of the books. When I last looked, only one of the six copies was checked out. No copy of any of the four books was checked out of any branch of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Library.

As the Iraqi elections approach, the story they tell is worth considering. In case anyone had any illusions that peace and prosperity reigned in Iraq before Saddam Hussein seized power, these books will dispel them.

Iraq was cobbled together by the British out of three Ottoman provinces with very different populations _ Baghdad, Mosul and Basra _ to secure the region's oil fields and access to the Persian Gulf. In 1932, Iraq was granted independence as a constitutional monarchy under Faisal I, third son of the ruler of Mecca and, supposedly, a descendant of Mohammed, but with no ties to the country.

The constitution was modeled on Belgium's from 1831. It didn't work. Before the pro-British monarchy was overthrown, 57 governments reigned in Baghdad. There were more than half a dozen revolts and nearly as many coups.

Iraqis battled fiercely among themselves in defense of their respective ethnic groups, religions and, above all, their tribes. No one felt passionately about Iraq. Even the foreign dynasty claimed support as pan-Arab nationalists. What united most Iraqis was resentment of the British. Occasionally, this spilled over into attacks on Nestorian Christians and Jews, hundreds of whom were massacred.

Things did not improve under a republic. During the first 3 1/2 years of military rule, there were 27 coup attempts. Though the new regime tried to create an Iraqi national identity by reviving symbols of ancient Babylonian culture, it could not begin to eradicate the deep divisions among Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.

Long before Saddam turned to poison gas, revolts by Shiite and Kurdish tribes were put down with great brutality; villagers resisting conscription were repeatedly attacked by planes and tanks. The uprisings were inevitable: The Sunnis, with about 20 percent of the population, carefully excluded the other groups from power _ and from a proportionate share of the oil revenues that began flowing in after World War I.

Things didn't change when the 20th century's poisonous ideologies took root. There was a large communist party and many fascist sympathizers. (Old-fashioned liberals _ believing in limited government, individual rights and the rule of law _ were in short supply.) But in the end, the socialist Baath Party, controlled by Sunni clans from Tikrit, seized power after 10 years of military rule.

What the Baath Party had going for it was not its eclectic mix of 19th century European ideas, but its masterful organization and utter ruthlessness. Secret, autonomous cells, ready to kill and torture on command, were set up throughout the country. Saddam Hussein, the party's chief enforcer, quickly pushed his way to the top. The rest of the story is familiar: decades of murder and megalomania.

Will next Sunday's elections prove to be a decisive break with the past? Traditionally, conservatives have been regarded as pessimists, liberals as optimists. Conservatives respect traditions and mistrust change; liberals want to break with the past. And given their different temperaments, conservatives have historically been wary of foreign entanglements; liberals enthusiastic about remaking the world. But when it comes to Iraq, the roles are reversed. Optimistic conservatives see the glass half-full. Liberals are the half-empty folks.

Optimists and pessimists would profit from looking at one or more of the histories of Iraq, as would anyone who's simply curious about the place where U.S. soldiers are being killed nearly every day. Nation-building is always a gamble, and the historical record can at least give us a sense of the odds we face. The four books gathering dust in the public libraries are by Sandra Mackey, Phebe Marr, Geoff Simons and Charles Tripp.

Jeff Lipkes is working on a book about World War I. His last book is ranked 2,464,518 on Amazon.com.

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