Background to Iraq – slaves to our history

kingghaziIraq seeks its Independence.
Iraq has a long history which goes back to the dawn of writing and even the Garden of Eden. Abraham journeyed from Ur. The Babylonian Empire rose and fell here, and after another two millennia and more, it was subject to the Arab Islamic conquest in the mid 7th century, and Baghdad became the capital of the Islamic world for another five centuries . It was sacked by the Mongols, suffered the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and was the focus of a rivalry between the Safavids of Iran and the Ottoman Turks from which the latter slowly assumed control. During the 19th century its population fell to five million from earlier figures of thirty million or more, but it remained a culturally rich area well capable of independence. As the twentieth century beckoned Iraq was looking for freedom from the Ottoman Empire and a new start.

The First World War and the Empire.
Our European War, the First World War, was fought throughout much of the globe, and it was also fought in Iraq. When the War arrived the Ottoman Empire sided with the Germans and Austrians. It fought tenaciously at Gallipoli, but gradually lost control of its territories including Iraq as the central powers were defeated. The war in Iraq was a major confrontation. The British moved in from the Gulf with some success and with support by the Kuwaitis. They were in Basra by November, 1914. In April, 1915 the British were successful in the battle of Shaiba, but in November that year they were surrounded at Kut, and under siege in December and early 1916. On the 29th April, over 13,000 soldiers surrendered and became captives. But in December 1916 British forces resupplied at the port of Basra advanced on Baghdad and General Maude and his troops captured Baghdad and some 15,000 Ottoman soldiers. Right at the end of the War British troops advanced into Mosul and captured the oilfields near there. So the First World War in Iraq was a major front. The British lost 92,000 soldiers in the area while the Ottoman Empire lost over 300,000 troops. Of course, many of those soldiers were from India and other parts of the Empire. Overall the cost of the War in Iraq was some £40 million, and it was carried through partly so that Muslims in other areas would not get the idea of revolting against the British. Strategically, Iraq was also seen as key to an overland route to India and part of a grand colonial design. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Britain’s empire in the East could grow yet more. Germany had been a rival planning a railway to Baghdad, but now that threat was gone and Britain had it all its own way, with a little accommodation to the French. The War in the East was a great imperial victory.
But the Americans, and native populations around the world were beginning to have a different view of Empire. A grand British Empire was not now so straightforward. The “Indian Mutiny”, as we called it, happened in 1857 and many people now knew that the Indian people should have their independence. The Boer war and concentration camps did not receive much approval, even in Britain, and people were beginning to question colonial savagery by the British, French, Belgians. Perhaps nations had the right to govern themselves.

T.E. Lawrence and Charles Doughty: being a guest.
The key British figure in the fight against the Ottoman Empire was T. E. Lawrence who worked with tribes and rulers in Palestine, Syria and Iraq to defeat the Turks throughout the region and was seen as the hero of the war in that area. He was a different figure, absorbing the cultures of the vast Arabian area, and coming to see things from their point of view, seeing that of course they needed and should have self government. He was one of a group of British people who understood the Arab people not in terms of power, but in personal terms. He depended in part on the great Charles Doughty, who earlier wrote Arabia Deserta, a travelogue of the desert people of the great space between Arabia, Syria and Iraq. From Doughty he got information, perspective and a sense of these desert people. It is worth dwelling with Doughty for a moment. In his introduction to the book, Lawrence writes,
“I have studied it [Arabia Deserta] for ten years, and have grown to consider it a book not like other books, but something particular, a bible of its kind…[Doughty] had many things against him. Forty years ago the desert was less hospitable to strangers than it is today. Turkey was still strong there, and the Wahabi movement had kept fanaticism vivid in the tribes. Doughty was a pioneer, both as European and Christian, in nearly all the districts he entered. Also he was poor. He came down a lone man from Damascus with the pilgrim caravan, and was left behind at Medain Salih with scant recommendation. He struck out into the desert… They tell tales of him, making something of a legend of the tall and impressive figure, very wise and gentle, who came to them like a herald of the outside world. His aloofness from the common vexations of their humanity coloured their imagination. He was very patient, generous and pitiful, to be accepted into their confidence without doubt. They say he seemed proud only of being Christian, and yet never crossed their faith. He was book learned, but simple in the arts of living, ignorant of camels, trustful of every man, very silent. He was the first Englishman they had met. He predisposed them to give a chance to other men of their race, because they found him honourable and good. So he broke a road for his religion. He was followed by Wilfrid Blunt and Miss Gertrude Bell, other strong personalities…No country has been more fortunate in its ambassadors. We are accepted as worthy persons unless we prove ourselves to the contrary by our misdoings..”
This then was the choice:- to be guests of these people or to be colonial overlords, to be humane or to go in with a gun. T.E.Lawrence fought with them against the Ottoman Empire, respected them deeply and was respected by them.He promised the rulers in the area that independence would follow at the end of the War and he thought the British Government had also agreed the same thing.
Indeed, he had good grounds for so doing. It was strongly stated in the Anglo-French Declaration made on the 9th November, 1918 as the Ottoman Empire fell and the Great War ended. It said:
“The object aimed at by France and Great Britain in prosecuting in the East the War let loose by the ambition of Germany is the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.
In order to carry out these intentions France and Great Britain are at one in encouraging and assisting the establishment of indigenous Governments and administrations in Syria and, Mesopotamia, now liberated by the Allies, and in the territories the liberation of which they are engaged in securing and recognising these as soon as they are actually established.
Far from wishing to impose on the populations of these regions any particular institutions they are only concerned to ensure by their support and by adequate assistance the regular working of Governments and administrations freely chosen by the populations themselves. To secure impartial and equal justice for all, to facilitate the economic development of the country by inspiring and encouraging local initiative, to favour the diffusion of education, to put an end to dissensions that have too long been taken advantage of by Turkish policy, such is the policy which the two Allied Governments uphold in the liberated territories.”
This is a strong, clear and hopeful document. It cannot be misunderstood. This is the British Parliamentary translation. But all was not as it seemed. A secret agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was negotiated between November, 1915 and March, 1916 and signed on 26th May, 1916 which carved up the area among the great powers. The French had the mandate for Syria and Lebanon and the British for Palestine and Iraq. President Wilson had intended Versailles to be the great treaty of national self-determination and independence following the American model of 1776, but the old colonial powers in part thought differently. Lloyd-George and Clemenceau met a few weeks after the Anglo-French Declaration on 1-4th December, 1918 and agreed on the spheres of influence which were to be exercised in a quasi-colonial way, with no immediate move to full independence and in denial of the Anglo-French declaration. Lawrence, betrayed by the British Government, was cut off from the people he loved, and later died.

Arabs and Jews.
Another part of the post war agreement was the Balfour Declaration that the Jews should have a homeland in Palestine. This partly arose out of Christian and Jewish Zionism and also out of anti-Semitism in Europe, including Russia, and in the Middle East. Balfour published a letter saying that this aim was government policy but this was not fully communicated to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. The letter of the 2nd November, 1917 was as follows:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The promise was for a home and not a state, though some of the people behind the declaration, like Leopold Amery, Lloyd George and Alfred Milner saw the possibility of Palestine becoming a Jewish Commonwealth when the Jewish population in the area had become a majority. However, the Palestinians did not much like part or the whole of their country being given away by a colonial power. They could give away Kent if they wanted to, but Palestine had been mandated near independence, and Britain was again exceeding its brief in a quasi-colonial way.
It is worth hearing the words of the Muslim-Christian Association in a petition a day after a Zionist Commission parade on the 3rd of November, 1918.
“We have noticed yesterday a large crowd of Jews carrying banners and over-running the streets shouting words which hurt the feeling and wound the soul. They pretend with open voice that Palestine, which is the Holy Land of our fathers and the graveyard of our ancestors, which has been inhabited by the Arabs for long ages, who loved it and died in defending it, is now a national home for them… We Arabs, Muslim and Christian, have always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries… but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation…ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.”
Of course, there are two sides to this question. Jews had faced pogroms. But the motivation for the Balfour Declaration identifies the problem. Commentators agree that the main impetus to making the declaration was to bring the Jewish lobby in the United States firmly on board for the United States War Effort. The United States declared war against Germany on the 6th April, 1917. On the 5th May the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour addressed the United States House of Representatives eulogizing democratic institutions, and on the 18th July Lord Rothschild drafts the first version of the letter. So the formulation of the Balfour Declaration was partly about politics in Washington and London rather than a direct concern for persecuted Jews. If the motivation is in the wrong place, the outcome is likely to be as well. Carrying out this policy required a great deal of goodwill in the area and was likely to be difficult. It became more difficult because of what followed.
Churchill and the British War against Iraq Independence.
At the end of the War Iraq was mandated to the United Kingdom for military rule by the League of Nations. The terms of the Class A Mandate were set out in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. They were deemed to “… have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.” Iraq was a Class A mandated territory. The understanding in this arrangement was that mandated territories would quickly move towards independence.
Yet, the British occupation did not honour this principle, but sought to stay in control. The oil in the area was likely to be strategic for the oil companies and the Navy. In the language of the time, we had an interest in the area. The Iraqis were looking forward to independence and did not much like being occupied in a way which did not accord with the Mandate. A lot had fought to be rid of the Ottoman Empire and did not expect it to be replaced by the British. They thought they could govern themselves, but were not given the chance. In the Spring of 1920 they began peaceful requests for a route to independence. These escalated into coherent protest. There was agreement between Shia and Sunni groups about independence. Three anti-colonial groups formed – The league of Islamic Awakening, the Muslim National League and the Guardians of Independence and representatives were chosen to represent the case to the Civil Commissioner, James Wilson in May. He dismissed the possibility and in June armed opposition began which soon spread. By the end of July the Iraqis controlled most of the area round Baghdad and also much of the area to the North. David Omissi describes it thus.
“The revolt shook the very foundations of British rule in Mesopotamia, and brought about major changes in political and military policy. The rising, mainly a response to British tax policy, began in Rumaitha in early July and insurrection was general along the lower Euphrates by the middle of the month. After a column composed mainly of the 2 Manchesters was almost entirely destroyed by a rebel ambush, a division of Indian reinforcements was hastily summoned to Basra, but the first of these reserves did not arrive until 7 August. The situation was at its most serious during the last week of August when the rebellion spread to the upper Euphrates and to the countryside around Baghdad: there were also the first signs of unrest in Kurdistan. At the height of their effort the tribesmen fielded about 131,000 men, of whom perhaps half were armed with modern rifles. Their leaders were drawn mainly from those groups whose power had waned under British rule: Shia mujahids, former Ottoman civil servants and ex-officers of the Turkish armies. The leading Arab patriots in Baghdad and the wealthy merchants of Basra, men with more to lose, stood aloof and awaited the event. For the British the crisis had passed by mid-September but heavy fighting went on until the end of the following month.” The Kurds were organising their own rebellion at the same time, so the British Government was upsetting almost everyone.
Winston Churchill had been appointed Minister of War at the end of the War to clear up any unresolved problems, and he was not going to let go of any of the Empire. He had vast amounts of unneeded weapons left over from the War at his displosal. When he heard about local rebellions, he thought that aerial bombardment might be the answer to these disturbances and he sent in planes and dropped about a hundred tons of bombs on villages and troubled areas, an unheard of move outside the trenches of the Western Front. He engaged Hugh Trenchard to organize the bombing campaign and the Iraqis and Kurds were terrified into submission. The Air Minister, Lord Thomson, detailed how one district of “recalcitrant chiefs” was subdued in the Liwa region on the Euphrates in November 1923. He wrote: “As they refused to come in, bombing was then authorised and took place over a period of two days. The surrender of many of the headmen of the offending tribes followed.” Bomber Harris first learned his trade here. Churchill also suggested using gas from planes. As Catherwood points out, his impetus was largely to save money on the military; this was a quicker and more efficient way of ending the war than conventional troops. The Kurds were duly killed or subdued and also ceased their revolt. (In retrospect, perhaps independence to the Kurds then would have saved us all a lot of trouble.)
Churchill was happy to drop bombs on the natives to show them who was in charge. This move was quite momentous in two ways. First, for many the horrors of the Great War had led them to conclude that it was the War to End All Wars, and they wanted a full end to all military aggression. Churchill broke that barrier by carrying on with business as usual. Second, the idea of mandated rule became quickly distrusted; it was holding on to territory instead of launching countries towards democracy. Churchill faced a great deal of press criticism at home, partly because of the bombing, also because of the cost of the war and also because the war-time promises of independence had been broken. Quelling the rebellion cost some £20 million in 1920 just when Britain was trying to recover from the vast expenditure of the Great War. Churchill, the arch-colonialist, keen on a strategy for welding India into British control, was on the defensive and seen as a belligerent and dangerous politician.

The Post-War Client King.
Churchill set about rectifying the situation and trying to calm things down. He summoned a Conference in Cairo to sort out what should happen and it was agreed to appoint King Faisal as a client ruler. It is interesting how Churchill presented this move. “The main upshot as far as Iraq was concerned, was that the Emir Feisel was invited to proceed to Baghdad as a candidate for the throne of Iraq. Though not of Iraqi origin, he had very special qualifications for the post. He came of the Sharafinian family, which as guardians of the holy place at Mecca, commanded wide veneration throughout the Islamic world. His father, Sherif Hussein (afterwards for a time King of the Hejaz), had organised the Arab revolt against the Turks during the war.. He himself had fought gallantly on our side and had taken part in the various exploits of desert warfare with which the name of Colonel Lawrence will always be associated.” This is a politician trying to mend his reputation. But he is appointing someone “on our side”, a client king, and the king knew that his position as monarch depended on the British and therefore accepted what he could not change.. The threat of bombing remained if there was any trouble with the Air Force in Iraq increased to eight squadrons in 1921, and gradually the population quietened down accepting the British imposed status quo.
Thus, Faisal was chosen as king in a referendum and became the head of Government. During his time in power the representative institutions waned and the military became closer to the centre of government, partly because the British military were the power behind the throne. As well as the Iraqi army the British used Assyrian recruits as well. Churchill pointed out how the cost of the British Garrison dropped from £20m in 1921/2 to £5m in 1923/4 to £1.6m in 1927/8. This period after the Great War, when Churchill was organising fkingghaziighting the full length of the borders of the USSR to get rid of the Red Menace and in Iraq was where he learned another level of fighting war. He had already failed in backing the Dardanelles Campaign and was desperately trying to restore his reputation. But now he had brought Iraq back under control, and in his version of the history the Empire was back on track.

Oiling the Wheels
In the era after 1918 the British expected to dominate the oil territories of the Gulf area. They had an established position in Kuwait. As Fiona Venn notes, “In 1918, the Foreign Office stated that ‘It is imperative that . . . Great Britain should continue, as hitherto, to perform her special duties and to retain complete ascendancy in the Persian Gulf.’ It reiterated this belief in a 1926 general review of British foreign policy commitments.” At the time Kuwait was the most developed of the oilfields, but by 1927 it was clear that there was a major oil field in the Kirkuk region of Iraq. The Iraqis did not have the infrastructure, knowhow and independent access to markets to exploit it on their own, so the international oil giants were able to entrench and grow. The United States wanted to be in on the act, and they began bargaining strongly in the early 1930s. It was helped by the fact that Edwin Mellon, the Head of Gulf Oil, was also Ambassador to Britain and Britain might find herself defaulting to the States on its First World War debts. There were a variety of views in the Foreign Office and other departments, as Fiona Venn shows, but some accommodation was made to the Americans in Kuwait and also in Iraq.
There the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) was formed with Shell, BP, French and American companies having roughly a quarter each. The British mainly thought of oil in terms of fuelling their battleships and aircraft, because the British motor car industry remained quite small and elitist, but in the States under the impetus of Ford and General Motors the need for oil for car transport was expanding more rapidly. Broadly, there was enough oil for world demand in this period, and so the oilfields were only slowly developed. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty guaranteed British interests in the area, partly because the British fleet commanded the Gulf and so the British oil interest was firmly established. Iraq was the main source of the wealth of Shell and BP, the great British petroleum giants. These companies had automatic access to government, especially when Conservative Governments were in power, and oil was to be a long term player in the area. It was not without significance that the two countries which controlled Iraqi oil from the beginning were also the ones which invaded in 2003.

The 1930s.
By this time the British policy of governing through the Sunni minority population had established a status quo. It coloured Sunni-Shia relations in the country with the latter feeling an underlying resentment which was to build over five decades or more, while the military became a Sunni cabal, formally working with the British, but really wanting to be rid of them. Iraq was technically made independent in 1932, though it remained in effect a British colony, with British military bases and strong protection of the oil installations and routes. A Treaty protected British bases and oil interests. Britain also had their own man in place, Nuri al-Said, who worked with the British and appointed his own people in the military and government whenever possible.
The new King Ghazi, son of Faisal I tried to move away from British control.. He had been Crown Prince since 1924. He was irked by being substantially being controlled from London. As he came to power in August, 1933, the Iraqi armed forces attacked Christian Assyrian groups living in the North East in what came to be known as the Simele Massacres. They were members of the ancient Nestorian Church, and had already been massacred in 1915 as part of the wartime fighting. They had trouble with the Kurds, partly because the British used them to fight their Kurdish neighbours. Tens of thousands died in 1915 and many more were relocated to refugee camps by the British. The massacre in 1933 was actually supported by King Ghazi and signalled a situation where the military were more or less in control to do anything.
In 1936 there was a coup d’etat overthrowing Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi. It was staged by Bakr Sidqi, acting Commander of the Iraqi Army. It was to be followed by six more coups in the period up to 1941. Sidqi was assassinated in 1937. By this time the country had moved from being a constitutional monarchy vaguely on the British model to being dominated by whatever faction in the Army happened to be dominant at the time. It was a massive failure in government reflecting the fact that the British had kept the military in control for a couple of decades and had prevented the moves towards representative independence after the Great War.
King Ghazi died in 1939 as a result of an accident involving a sports car. It may have been as assassination. His son, Faisal II succeeded him, although he was only four years old, and that further cemented the grip of the military on the country.

The Second World War.
When war was declared the Iraq Government broke off diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, but then Rashid Ali replaced Nuri al-Said (the pro-British figure) as Prime Minister. On the 31st March, 1941 when it looked as though Britain was losing the War and was weak, there was a coup removing all the British sympathising people including the regent for the young King. By treaty, Iraq was pledged to provide assistance to the United Kingdom in war and to permit the passage of British troops through Iraq. The British decided to attack, partly to prevent other groups getting ideas about revolting. They had small number of troops in Kirkuk and some planes and bases, but acted effectively. Forces were diverted from Malaya and by the 2nd of May, 1941 had attacked from their Basra and Habbaniya bases and captured substantial amounts of arms. Soon German arms arrived from Syria, but in another confrontation Fallujah was captured and defended and further north, Glubb Pasha, a British legend, led legionnaires to control the area. British forces moved forward to Baghdad again in control of the country until a British sympathizing Government was re-installed. British forces remained in Iraq until October, 1947 to protect oil interests. Far from being independent Iraq was once more under British military control.

The End of the Monarchy and Military Dictatorship
Britain retained its military bases until 1953 and King Faisal II, now grown up was the Monarch, but really a client king like his grandfather. During this period Britain and the United States thought they could move back into supplying Iraq with weapons, but they were wary of one another. The American arms companies wanted to be in there, preferably with aid which would help pay for the weapons, but began vying to sell arms to the Iraqis. Nuri al-Said was back in power and negotiating, hoping for aid to buy weapons. John Foster Dulles was impressed that the Iraqis were anti-Communist and the British still wanted to maintain their hegemony in the area. In February, 1954 the British and Americans concluded a secret agreement about how they would supply arms and military support to Iraq. For a couple of years they vied with one another to supply the arms, with Anthony Eden especially keen to retain the special link and keep the Americans out. Suddenly, it all changed
On the 14th July, 1958 there was a revolution against the monarchy, the British and the Americans. A military dictator, British-trained Brigadier-General Abd al-Karim Qasim, came to power. The King and Nuri al-Said were killed and the Iraqis started to look to the USSR for their arms. He in turn was overthrown by Colonel Abdul Salam Arif in February, 1963, who in turn was overthrown by the Ba’ath Party in 1968. The Ba’ath (rebirth) Party had its origins in Syria and was an pan-Arab Socialist party. Its most prominent move was between 1958 and 1961 when Egypt and Syria united as the United Arab Republic, but the split occurred in 1961 and a further split emerged between the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’ath Parties. The focus was Arab nationalist rather than Islamic. Ba’athist organisation was anti-democratic and strongly militaristic. Really, it was a continuation of the pattern we have observed since 1918 of military dictatorship mirroring the focus of the colonial powers. General Saddam Hussein gradually controlled the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council and became military dictator in July 1979 in a Sunni dominated government. He took a while to establish himself by killing off his rivals, and for a while the spotlight was on Iran, where Ayatollah Khomeini and the hostages dominated international concerns. Yet Saddam had already begun buying weapons wholesale with the country’s oil revenue and look set to become a great money spinner for the western arms companies. He was the classic military dictator, building up his own military position with the special Republican Guard as a crack force surrounding him. He was worried about an alliance between the Shi’ites in Iraq and those in Iran.

The trapped British colonial mindset.
A number of points arise from this history. First, Britain had a habit extending over half a century of interfering militarily in Iraq in a pattern of colonial control linked mainly to getting oil on the cheap. She would return to this pattern of behaviour. Second, the long military presence of the British in Iraq shaped the pattern of government so decisively that it was more or less inevitable that military dictatorships would follow, as they did. Third, Britain in seeking to control the government of Iraq to its own purposes repeatedly failed to let Iraq develop democratically and left it with retarded patterns of government involving militarism and a client monarch. Fourth, in its desire to have a military presence and supply arms, it encouraged a centrally militaristic view of government. Seeing King Ghazi in his uniform conveys that eloquently. Fifth, Britain’s engagement with Iraq has never been straight. It has always had other agendas, used the country to its own ends and manipulated the politicians to its own purposes. In the era of Saddam and Thatcher this became even more marked. Sixth, it has ignored the social complexities of the area – Kurds, Shia, Sunni, Assyrians, Christians and the problems of each of these groups. Finally, it has a long history of imperial superiority, believing that is has the job of sorting an area out, probably through fighting, of seeing the problems of Iraq but failing to see the problems caused by Britain. Sadly, dropping a hundred tons of bombs in 1920 pales into insignificance in the light of the devastation caused in Iraq in three wars dominated by our national self-righteousness. We have been locked in a colonial mindset for a long time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *