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When you chase the winds of Mideast history the view is often obstructed by sandstorms and mirages. Within that obscurity we find Iraq, whose history swirls around all who enter. In the twenty-first century, the world once again finds itself buffeted by those ancient winds, blinded by future promise and oblivious to its past. But unless we thoroughly understand Iraq’s past, we will never find the answers to the recurring tragedies and conflicts of that all-important region. We won’t even know what questions to ask.
We are of course confronted by one dominant question above all others. Iraq—Mesopotamia—was the Cradle of Civilization. The region enjoyed a several-thousand-year head start on the rest of humanity. What happened? How did that society become so victimized and so victimizing, so oppressed and so oppressive, so impervious to its own potential and so entangled with the rest of an exploitative world? No one will understand Iraq, or this question, unless they start at the beginning—the very beginning. That is what I did, probing 7,000 years of Iraqi and Mesopotamian history, from the dawn of civilization to the moonless nights of the Gulf Wars, thus allowing me to assemble a tragic epic as sweeping as the story of mankind itself.
Hence, I begin with an apology. I wish I could have written more. But it was not possible to write or publish a book that rightly should be ten times bigger. Therefore, my work first and foremost became a task of filtering the facts of this monumental history. Indeed, every one of my 18 chapters could have yielded its own thick volume. Every chapter is, in fact, an invitation to read more about these compelling eras, from the rise of civilization, to the conquest of Islam, to the destruction by the Mongols, to the neglect of the Ottomans, and finally to the discovery by the West that Iraq was the indispensable key to its commercial success. What was the basis for that commercial success? Answer: the region’s inherent geography and geology gave rise to a crossroads for conflict, conquest, and commerce that has endured through the ages—not because of the people but because of the land they walked on.
In consequence, our story cannot be confined to Iraq—that is, the three provinces between the two rivers that the ancients called “Mesopotamia.” What happened in the boardrooms and war rooms of London, Paris, Washington, Constantinople, Bombay, Berlin, Jerusalem, Cairo, Teheran, and even in rural Pennsylvania, dictated the realities for the people of Iraq and those who ambitiously intersected with them. Therefore, my investigation encompassed not just the annals of the territories of Iraq, but also the tumultuous inside stories of colonial, political, religious, and commercial upheaval that caused nearly every action and reaction in that country.
To assemble this challenging story, I recruited a team of some 30 researchers (see Acknowledgments) working in the United States, Canada, England, and Israel accessing original documents and obscure materials in some 20 archives and other repositories, as well as nearly 50 libraries in five nations. This includes the private files of British Petroleum, Turkish Petroleum, Anglo-Persian Oil Company, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and Iraqi Petroleum, all of which are organically connected entities. The result was a trove of some 50,000 documents, plus hundreds of scholarly books and journal articles that ultimately yielded the dots that connected into a recognizable line. Ironically, in many cases, that line runs in circles. In Iraq, history not only repeats itself; the unstoppable repetition constitutes the very nature of its history—and likely its future.
Although we probed back to antiquity, my team used the most advanced twenty-first century technology I have yet seen. At any given time, up to a dozen researchers were working in various archives and libraries in such cities as Coventry, London, Washington, or New York. Telephone calls in archives and libraries are strictly prohibited. Instead, we used cell phone text messaging, laptop computers and wireless PDA to share real-time discoveries about corporations, officials, and themes. For example, we might trip across an obscure executive’s name while reviewing documents in an oil company archive; that name was text-messaged out to others standing by at the Public Record Office and the British Library or other repositories where the lead was pursued, with new information coming back to track down further information in the oil company files. Sometimes this international exchange could be accomplished in just moments.
To bridge the gap between cities, we created a private password-protected intranet site where files and information were posted so researchers in various cities could view them just moments after they were discovered. In many cases, we used books so rare that only one copy might be available in London’s library system, or only a few copies anywhere in the United States. For example, an obscure volume of published diplomatic papers of Iraq from the 1950s was found in St. Louis. Needed pages of this book and others were scanned by researchers and posted on their private websites. We could then print them in my Washington office.
In addition, modern databases and digital collections allowed us to instantly search the actual page images for key words in diplomatic correspondence, newspapers and journal articles hailing back more than a century. This new digital capability is startling and has redefined historical research. Moreover, because researchers were located in various time zones, research could be done in the Pacific evening or European morning and be ready for us in Washington when we woke up.
As is usual in my works, a hair-splitting, triple-checking documentation team labored with me to footnote nearly every paragraph. Behind every footnote is a folder. Within every folder sit the documents supporting every fact.
The scale of my research is important not because of its technology but because it demonstrates how difficult it is to mine the true facts about Iraq’s history, going beyond legends and superficial explanations. Indeed, we often found that the most accepted story or scholarly account was incorrect or could not be verified, especially when traced back to documents and sources. This was important because so much of Iraq’s turbulent story is shrouded in shifting mysteries and “almost facts.” In fact, there are so many “almost facts” in Iraq’s history that the arguments over who actually owns Iraq’s oil, where the Iraqi borders lie, and even who the Iraqi people are, create their own saga. This saga of conflicting efforts by outsiders and insiders alike to impose facts upon the people and the land is the saga of Banking on Baghdad. The clash of cultures, corporations, religions and governments, each fortified with its self-endowed primacy, fuels the fires that never stop burning in Iraq. The quality of mercilessness in Iraq’s history is limitless in all its dimensions. In a country defined by corporate monopoly, cruelty was a commodity freely traded.
To be sure, this book is not politically correct, but it is as historically accurate as humanly possible. In that respect, a few words are needed about some of the companies, ethnic groups and religions depicted in the book. First, a word about Moslems, Christians and Jews. We delve into the formative centuries of each religion—the first 200 to 300 years. Islam clearly emerges as violent, conquering and intolerant in its formative years. I never quoted from the Koran, the Torah or the Holy Scriptures because all those books can be quoted at will to support any violent or pacific intention desired. Instead, I relied solely upon historical facts—in other words, what the founding fathers and mothers of the religions actually did at the time. If anyone wants to transfer those events to modern-day communities and draw conclusions, they are more than wrong—don’t use this book as an excuse.
A word is needed about the Turks. The society created by the Ottoman sultans and then the Young Turks is no longer part of the modern Turkish mindset. Turkey today stands as a beacon of democracy at the doorstep to the Moslem Middle East.
A word is also needed about British Petroleum, formerly Anglo-Persian Oil Company and Anglo-Iranian, as well as a partner in Turkish Petroleum. BP literally shaped the commercial, political and military consequences in the modern Middle East. But that imperialist oil company no longer exists, the British government no longer owns part of the firm and BP’s outlook is now one of openness. BP cooperated in every aspect of my investigation, granting me unrestricted access to the sensitive papers I sought in their archives, and went above and beyond in providing documents. Do not judge the company today by their founders of five to ten decades ago. BP’s model of openness is one for other former colonial corporations to emulate.
Indeed, with few exceptions (see Acknowledgments), I was granted unfailing cooperation by all the governments, corporations, organizations, and individuals contacted. There is now an understanding that the continuity of Iraq’s history must overtake the misleading fragments our world has been given over time.
In each of my books, I have stated that if you cannot read my entire book, do not read it at all. I am not interested in partial stories. Such fragments have plagued Iraq for centuries. Indeed, the value of this book is not in the specific chapters but in how they link together, the continuity and sad repetition they document. Therefore, once again I ask readers to read it all or not at all.
Whether driven by a belief in one all-powerful God or one almighty dollar, those who have been banking on Baghdad have invested their blood and tears in a single region, and we need to understand how and why.
Copyright © 2004 – 2018 Edwin Black