Understanding Iraq : The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation
Iraq will continue to be a major issue and involvement for the United States into the foreseeable future says William R. Polk, former member of the State Department's Policy Planning Council and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago. Iraq sits on the world's largest supply of oil, and with the world's energy requirements continuously rising, Iraq will play an ongoing role in the global economy and the political environment throughout the Gulf region and the Middle East. Polk's concise, authoritative overview of Iraq's history shows how the pattern of outside intervention was established first by the Ottoman Turks and the Persian Safavids and later by England, Russia, and Germany. After World War I came British rule, followed by a brief and uneasy period of independence that sparked Iraqi nationalism, leading Saddam Husain to power with American military and financial aid and covert CIA involvement. The Iraq-Iran War and the invasion of Kuwait was followed by the Gulf War, the sanctions period, and the Bush administration's decision to invade.
In this tightly crafted book, even the introductory note on words and spellings makes for a lesson in misunderstandings. Not only have occupying armies, officials and journalists not known the local language, Polk observes, but because Arabic is grounded in religious and historical texts, outsiders have missed the allusions that inform Iraqis' perceptions. Polk's history of ignorance reads like a portent. As the events in his history of Iraq from the Sumerians to the U.S. war of 2003 unfold in chronological order, they read like historical echoes of Iraq's present. The effect is haunting, and Polk's knack for understatement-he describes the recent American tactic of dismissing the Iraqi military but allowing them to keep their weapons as "maladroit"-only adds to the feeling of dread. But Polk, a scholar of the Middle East and former adviser to John F. Kennedy, stops just short of a fatalistic view of history. In one of the clearest prescriptions for success in Iraq yet to emerge, Polk calls for "American political courage" in allowing Iraqis to re-establish neighborhood associations to run social affairs and provide security. These associations not only inspire more genuine political participation than voting or constitutions, he says, but are a natural part of Iraqi tradition and culture. Unlike current American policy, which, he says, inadvertently invokes the post-WWI British occupation by focusing on rulers and symbols and neglecting the citizens, Polk calls attention to the reality of human relationships. With this war's death toll already at over 100,000 people, Polk notes that virtually every Iraqi has lost a parent, child, spouse, cousin, friend, colleague or neighbor. To achieve true peace in Iraq, the U.S., he argues, must acknowledge the brutalizing effect of those deaths and rebuild the trust that he thinks has been eroding for centuries. Agent, Sterling Lord Literistic. (On sale Apr. 10) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 28, 2006
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Excerpt from Understanding Iraq by William R. Polk
Ancestors of inhabitants of today's Iraq began to emerge from the long shadows of prehistory about twelve thousand years ago. We cannot see them clearly, but we have some notion of how they lived. Gathered in groups of fifty or so people, they ranged along the slopes of the mountains that divide modern Iraq and Syria from Turkey. They did not live in permanent villages but sheltered under lean-tos that were covered with the skins of animals. The men hunted wild animals while the women gathered wild grasses from which they extracted the seed and pounded them into digestible bits.
Using crude sickles, faced with flint chips, they scoured the valleys to collect every edible thing, and, driven by hunger, they ate everything they found. Where archaeologists and paleobotanists have made studies of their campsites, they have found more than a hundred different kinds of seed. Animals and seed were usually plentiful, but each day brought risk. Their besetting fear must have been famine. Although on average their lives were reasonably easy, they lived literally hand to mouth, so a chance break in the weather might send the wild animals on which they depended out of reach or cause wild grasses to wither.
As they hunted or gleaned one area bare, whole clans would pick up their few possessions and move to a new location. Often they left caches of seed behind in clay-lined baskets or pits to which they planned to return. It is astonishing, in these circumstances, that they left a rich legacy: they became our first farmers.
No one knows exactly how they began this revolutionary new venture, but the agricultural revolution was probably partly accidental. From time to time, someone, perhaps a child, spilled a basket or dropped a handful of seed. Probably also, at least some of the caches of seed they left in storage pits or clay-lined baskets got rained on. Much, of course, would have just rotted. But, over the long years, some would spout into what modern gardeners call "volunteers." Watching this, the tribesmen and particularly the women -- would naturally find it convenient that the volunteers were in or around their camps and waterholes where they were easy to collect.