KUT, Iraq - The cemetery is overgrown with reeds similar to the ones that clutter the nearby Tigris River. Headstones lean at ghoulish angles, are broken like chipped teeth, or have collapsed altogether. Residents treat it as they would an empty lot, although it is filled with more than a hundred reasons why great powers administer Iraq at their peril.
It is the graveyard for British soldiers killed here during World War I, when London opened a Mesopotamian front against Ottoman Turkey, Germany's ally. While Britain ultimately prevailed and went on to exercise influence on Iraq for four decades, the costs of subduing the country were considerably higher than expected. Iraqis fighting as an Ottoman colonial militia and under German leadership inflicted tens of thousands of casualties on British troops, about 150 of whom are buried here in this city between Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.
Iraqi resistance to the British invasion, and its subsequent occupation, is well-studied history and to many Iraqis offers a vivid lesson to US officials now responsible for postwar Iraq.
"No one can govern Iraq but Iraqis," said Mualoom Farham, a history professor at Kut University. "The Persians, Mongols, Turks, British. Many foreigners have tried. Now it's the Americans' turn. Their liberation has turned into an occupation."
Resistance against US troops now managing a country still impaired by a lack of basic services like electricity and clean water has been on the rise. At least 26 American and six British soldiers have died as a result of hostile acts since May 1, when major combat in Iraq was declared over.
Sustained counterinsurgency raids have yet to neutralize a web of Saddam Hussein loyalists and religious fundamentalists. Grass-roots bitterness over what is perceived as American designs to rob Iraqi oil wealth and share it with Israel is widespread, and US officials worry it could worsen unless postwar shortages are addressed.
"At least the British had a plan," said Mohammad Taher, 78, a retired military officer in Baghdad. "They had a lot of experience with foreign occupation. The Americans don't have a policy."
Britain's World War I experience in Iraq, beginning with its costly first campaign that ended in disaster at Kut, offers a valuable study in the limits of great-power influence. After quickly taking Basra in 1914, an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force pushed toward Baghdad and occupied the city a year later, only to be driven back to Kut. A Turkish-led Ottoman force surrounded the city and squeezed it for 146 days.
British attempts to break the siege failed at the cost of thousands of men. A ransom of 3 million lire was offered the Turkish commander and rejected before the British surrendered, having lost scores of troops to starvation, disease, and exposure to temperatures that reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The defeat at Kut was among Great Britain's most painful setbacks in World War I and one of its biggest embarrassments in three centuries of empire-building. Iraqis regard the British capitulation as one of their proudest achievements. It has been immortalized in a song that celebrates how the Iraqis and Turks beat one of the most powerful armies.
The British regrouped and - with the Ottomans distracted by incursions in the east from Russia and Persia - reoccupied Baghdad in 1917. A triumphant Major General Stanley Maud, according to Kut University's Farham, declared to the people of the city the British had fought to liberate Iraq from autocratic rule, not to occupy it.
"The British remained for the next 40 years," said Farham. "More Iraqis know who General Maud was than the English."
Historically, foreigners had coveted Iraq for control of the land bridge linking the markets of Europe and Asia. With Britain's naval fleet now burning oil instead of coal, Iraq became a geological prize as well as a geographic one. In 1925, the British set up the Iraqi Oil Co. with US participation and aggressively developed the country's petroleum fields.
Britain also installed a pliant emir, King Faisal I of the Hashemite Dynasty, and ruled Iraq by proxy until 1958, when mobs of Arab nationalists murdered the then-king and his court. By the early 1960s, Britain and France were in full retreat from their Arab protectorates, leaving a vacuum to be filled by a fraternity of dictators that would count Saddam Hussein as a member.
The US government has said repeatedly it has no imperialist designs on Iraq. Iraqi oil is for the Iraqis, occupation officials say, and there will soon be established an interim authority that will choose a government elected by Iraqis, for Iraqis.
Soon after the fall of Baghdad, a delegation of British officials came to visit the cemetery. A maintenance crew had cleared away the rubbish that was obscuring many of the headstones, and a flagpole was installed on which the Union Jack was raised during a memorial. Members of the delegation viewed the few names on the headstones that had not been worn away or vandalized. They included Private W.J. Melton of the Norfolk Regiment, killed at age 22 on Jan. 13, 1916; gunner W. Hart of the Royal Field Artillery, who fell on Jan. 14, 1916; and Private J.W. Cuthbert, Royal Army Service Corp., dead Oct. 20, 1918.
A day after the ceremony, someone broke into the cemetery and pulled down the flagpole.