Historian Cara W. F. Hyson titled her article on the last plebiscite in the Middle East "It is still 1918 in Iraq."
In 1918, just before coming to the wolves' dinner table in Lausanne to devour the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the British War Cabinet instructed Arnold Wilson, the British Civil Commissioner in Baghdad, to conduct a plebiscite, asking the local rulers in the former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul what kind of leader they wanted over in their new country. This British officer conducted the plebiscite with the help of his secretary (and the real mastermind of new Middle East map) Gertrude Bell and her "good friend" Thomas Edward Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia"). Hyson, in her article on this "lost" plebiscite writes that almost all contemporary historians rely on Wilson's role in the post-war creation of Iraq, but none of them - she says - has read Wilson's records! Should they have read it, they would have seen that Arabs, Kurds and Turks - Sunnis or Shiites - "desired no change of regime," (that is to say the continuation of Ottoman rule, and only a "minority favored an Arab Amir under British guidance." (You can find two volumes of Wilson's records in the online library of Kurdipedia.org.)
The League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) and the British tried to conduct many more surveys later on, hoping to obtain different results; but none turned to be as comprehensive as Wilson's. The British not only lost the plebiscite, but unfortunately, also the records still remain lost!
Great Britain occupied Mosul in violation of the 1918 Armistice. As a response to the occupation the last Ottoman Parliament included the area into what later became known as the Turkish National Pact in 1920 -"the Turkish lines on the sand."
Endless British surveys, plebiscites, envoys and spies, and its search for an Arab sheikh who would "do as bidden" were actually not to create a regime to the tastes of the locals. Wilson, Bell and Lawrence were successful in presenting themselves "not as British imperialist" but "as ethnically aware and sympathetic to the Arab cause." But at the end they were able to produce such a ruler: Feisal, a Sunni Arab and Hashemite, as the legitimate ruler of Iraq."
The "Mosul question" was disputed first between Britain and the Ottoman Empire and later between Great Britain and Turkey. For the British, resolving it was the sole aim of the Lausanne Peace Conference in 1922-23. Turkish delegates were there to return home "with an officially recognized country." The Ankara regime had just abolished the sultanate to prevent its participation in the peace conference.
The deputy delegate of Ankara, Dr. Rıza Nur (first education minister of the new regime) in his memoirs claims that the British delegation was dictating the French, Italian, Japanese, Romanian, Serbian and Greek delegations "what to approve, what to object": "They all were figure-heads and we were faced only with Lord Curzon [the British Foreign Secretary and the coordinator of the conference]. According to Dr. Rıza Nur, the cabinet instructed the Turkish delegation, "to forsake Mosul and Kirkuk if necessary to obtain the peace," which, it finally did.
It was not only the Ankara representatives "fighting" with the British; the U.S. delegation also sided with Turkey and finally had the Mosul dispute deferred to the League of Nations. The U.S. government obtained a good share in the Mosul petroleum company from Britain before the world body managed to handle the Mosul Question two years later. Eventually the League of Nations ruled that neither Turkey nor Britain had any right to control the area. Yet the powers that be were able to create a new country in the area, and Turkey signed the Ankara Agreement with Iraq (1926) to draw the borders between the two countries. Neither before nor during the talks with Iraq can you find a speech in Parliament or a newspaper article on how Turkey was swindled out of Iraqi oil.A couple of weeks ago President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - even though in passing - mentioned that the Lausanne Treaty was not a victory for Turkey. You notice that a floodgate has opened since then: In the first week about 600 articles appeared in national newspapers; there were at least 45 discussion programs on TV. In the second week, these numbers were almost doubled. All those articles and the discourse on TV were how Turkey lost Mosul and Kirkuk and what kind of leadership they would like to see in the area.
As Wilson recorded in his final report in Mosul: The Sunni Kurds who inhabit two-thirds of the [Mosul] division are still "strongly anti-Arab." The regional Turks (Iraqi Turkmens), whose number has increased tremendously in the last decade despite the Gulf War, should also be considered sharing the same sentiments with Kurds.
But the actions and intentions of the U.S.-led 63-country coalition in Iraq are perceived as putting the region under Shiite Arabs. The coalition leaders as well as the western media see the Sunnis as the major source of Islamic radicalism and the Shiites as the only power that can redress this calamity.
In Iraq, it is still 1918, indeed.
About the author
Hakkı Öcal is an award-winning journalist. He currently serves as academic at Ibn Haldun University.