How Gertrude Bell and Great Britain created Iraq in 1916

While claimed by the Iraqis as one of their own, Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and spy, was an agent for her own country, advancing the interests of the British to secure influence, and oil, in Iraq, and to counter the efforts of Germany to position itself as a beneficiary of the decline of the Ottoman Turks, who had lost their hold over the Balkans and were quickly losing their control over the Arabs.
As a member of the Arab Bureau, the British intelligence office in Cairo during the war, she, along with her countryman T.  E. Lawrence, helped rally the Arab revolt against the Turks from 1916 to 1918, arming the Arabs and promising them an independent Arab state. As the revolt unfolded, diplomats secretly agreed to carve up the Middle East into French and British spheres in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an accord named after the envoys who wrote it.
In her time, she was considered more influential than Lawrence over British policy in Arabia. But in the decades since, it was Lawrence who went on to greater fame, burnished by his own book, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” and an Oscar- winning movie that immortalized his role.
“She wanted to keep a low profile, while Lawrence wanted to have as great a profile as he could get,” said Janet Wallach, who has written a biography of Miss Bell.

“This lie to the Arabs is why we have these problems today,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a descendant of King Faisal, who became the leader of Iraq, under a British mandate, in 1921.
He continued, saying that the problems of today’s Middle East are, “a result of the European colonial avarice.”

Some critics, including Saad Eskander, director of Iraq’s national library and archives, point to Miss Bell’s legacy in empowering a Sunni elite as a new political class, at the expense of the majority Shiite population, and say it helped set the conditions for today’s rampant sectarianism. “She wanted the British to make a deal with the Sunni elite at the time, at the expense of the rest of the population,” he said.

Still, with some reverence, Mr. Eskander calls her “the first lady of Iraq, the real queen of Iraq.”

She died here, two days before her 58th birthday in 1926, in an apparent suicide from an overdose of sleeping pills, a manner of death that was kept silent at the time. A local newspaper reported, “She was working late on Sunday, as she is known to be a hard worker, and in the morning she was found dead.”

The truth is that the dream of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Iraq has been unfulfilled. The Americans encountered the same problems Bell did in trying to forge a national consensus from a disparate patchwork of ethnicities (Arab and Kurd) and sects (Sunnis and Shiites).
“The problems we face now are the same problems we faced after World War I,” Mr. Eskander said. “We are trying to form an identity. Is it an Arab state? An Iraqi state?”
Then and now, he said, “there is nothing to unite the Iraqi people.”

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