Vol. 24 No. 19 · 3 October 2002

Iraq Must Go!

Charles Glass considers the history of ‘regime change’ in the Gulf

3314 words

There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.
John Buchan, Greenmantle (1916)

As Lloyd George’s wartime Director of Information, John Buchan urged Britain to support an incomprehensible Eastern war with the cry: ‘The Turk must go!’ At the beginning of 1916, the Turk was not going anywhere: he held fast at Gallipoli, driving off the Allied landings in January, and accepted the surrender of a British Mesopotamian invasion force at Kut, south of Baghdad, in April. The Turkish war was both unsuccessful and unpopular. In the view of the new Imperial General Staff that Lloyd George created, it was also unnecessary. The generals preferred to concentrate their forces against the Hun and didn’t give a damn about Johnny Turk. As for the public, they had difficulty setting aside a century’s propaganda to the effect that the Ottoman Empire was a vital British interest – that the Turk, in other words, must stay.

Until the Great War, Johnny Turk was a plucky fellow who maintained order between the Suez Canal and India. If he chopped off a head or a hand from time to time, it was to keep the tribes in their proper place. Buchan, who shared the anti-native and anti-semitic prejudices of his time, did not explain how the Turk had changed his spots since the days when a British fleet restored Ottoman rule to Syria and saved the Sultan’s Crimean estates from the Tsar. Turkish dominion, in common with imperial rule throughout most of history, was as brutal and as beneficent as it needed to be to survive. It was far more cruel than the Egyptian regime installed in Syria by Ibrahim Pasha in 1832 and removed by Britain in 1841. At the time of the British policy change, it was no more ruthless than it had been during the Anglo-Turkish alliance against Russia from 1853 to 1856. Yet Turkey now had to relinquish the empire it had ruled for four centuries. Not because the Turk was brutal, but because Britain, along with its French and Russian allies, coveted the Ottoman domains.

Lloyd George wished to acquire two provinces above all: Palestine, on behalf of Jewish Zionists from Europe, for whom the fundamentalist chapel-goer had a messianic sympathy, and Mesopotamia – with Baghdad at its heart – for its oil and its position as the Arab world’s frontier with Persia, Afghanistan and India. (Some things have not changed.) Although the twin campaigns in Mesopotamia and Syria, which included Palestine, were similar Allied land-grabs, the differences were significant. Syria’s population sought independence from the Sublime Porte, Iraq’s did not. Syria wanted to remain united; Iraq for the most part preferred to retain separate identities for Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs. Britain would divide Syria, and unite Iraq.

After General Townshend surrendered Kut on 29 April 1916, Buchan and the rest of the propaganda unit at Wellington House mobilised opinion for the liberation of Turkey’s non-Turkish subjects. They published horror stories of Turkish rapine, some true, but many fabricated like those of German atrocities in Belgium. These tales prepared the public for another go at the Turk – and a second attempt at Baghdad. Sir Stanley Maude invaded from the Persian Gulf, advanced north and concentrated his superior force to capture the city in March 1917. The British declared Maude the liberator and later erected a statue of him in the grounds of what would become the British Embassy.

Maude extended the fight north to Kurdistan and Mosul, and Britain began the organisation – indeed, the creation – of modern Iraq. Sir Percy Cox, his chief political officer, who later became the High Commissioner in Baghdad, and his assistant, Gertrude Bell, intrigued among the tribes and urban notables to bolster British rule: the unsought emancipator had come to stay. To administer a greater Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq, the British imposed a centralised system on peoples accustomed to the autonomy afforded them by Ottoman weakness. ‘It was evident,’ David Fromkin wrote in his fascinating study A Peace to End All Peace (1989), ‘that London either was not aware of, or had given no thought to, the population mix of the Mesopotamian provinces.’

Gertrude Bell was certainly familiar with the population mix of both Syria and Iraq. She was the daughter of a County Durham baronet whose fortune came from coal. At the age of 31, with a First in history from Oxford, she left Britain to study the tribes of Arabia. She befriended desert sheikhs from Jerusalem to Persia, learned Arabic and returned to Baghdad with the new rulers in 1917. An ardent member of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League with Mrs Humphry Ward, she believed that an Englishwoman, however unqualified to vote for a Member of Parliament at Westminster, could direct the affairs of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turcomans and Jews. ‘I’m getting to be a dab hand at Arab politics,’ she wrote to her stepmother, Florence Bell, from Baghdad.

The military administration published a newspaper in Arabic in June 1917. ‘It is called the Arab,’ Miss Bell wrote, ‘because it is the first paper published under the new order of Arab liberty.’ Its editor was another Arabist, St John Philby. In July 1917, Britain prepared to assault the western flank of Ottoman Arab territory in Syria. The campaign began with the Arab capture of Aqaba in July, and it included three hard-fought battles to enter Palestine through Gaza. By Christmas, the British were in Jerusalem. The Syrian campaign under Allenby, unlike Maude’s onslaught on Iraq, relied in part on local allies for military and political support. A network of Jewish spies run by the Zionist Aaron Aaronsohn and an Arab revolt under the Hashemites of Mecca both contributed to Allied successes on the battlefields of Syria. The Syrians – who included Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, non-Zionist Oriental Jews and many Eastern Christian sects – believed Britain’s promise to Sherif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca that an Allied victory would leave them independent and united. By the time Britain’s other promises became known – granting Palestine to European Jewish Zionists in accordance with the Balfour Declaration and what would become Lebanon and mini-Syria to France (the French zone under the Sykes-Picot agreement included Mosul, until Britain discovered its oil and placed it inside British Iraq) – it was too late.

After the Armistice, the Mesopotamian tribes waited to see what the Peace Conference in Paris would offer. Miss Bell’s grasp of local public opinion was perfectly consonant with her belief that a British-run newspaper was part of the ‘order of Arab liberty’. ‘On two points they are practically all agreed,’ she declared. ‘They want us to control their affairs and they want Sir Percy as High Commissioner.’ To ensure that the views of Baghdad’s tea party set prevailed over all others, Britain refused permission for Woodrow Wilson’s Commission of Inquiry into public opinion in Turkey’s former provinces to enter Iraq. Instead, the King-Crane Commission confined its investigations to Syria, where it found the population overwhelmingly in favour of the two goals Britain had specifically excluded: independence and unity. In the event of their having to accept a mandate – a term invented by Jan Smuts at Paris to disguise what would in fact be protectorates or colonies – the Syrians asked that the mandatory be the United States. Syria was actually carved into four mandate territories – mini-Syria and Lebanon under the French, Transjordan and Palestine under the British. Not for the last time, the Western powers ignored Arab public opinion and imposed their will.

In May 1920, Britain assumed the League of Nations Mandate to govern a united Iraq within its new borders. Rebellion followed in June. In a display of unanimity that shocked the British, who had trusted the efficacy of Winston Churchill’s formula – ‘dividing up the local powers so that if we have some opponents we have also at any rate some friends’ – all of Iraq’s people fought the British. The Shiite religious leaders in their holy redoubts of Najaf and Karbala declared a jihad. The Arab and Kurdish tribes attacked British troops, and the famed Arabist Colonel Gerald Leachman was killed. A Times leader asked how long Britain would impose on Iraq’s population ‘an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want’. T.E. Lawrence, who had helped to muster the Arab tribes for Allenby’s war in Syria, wrote in the Sunday Times: ‘We have killed ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely populated.’

Miss Bell wrote to her father at the height of the rebellion that ‘we cannot leave the country in the chaos which we have created, no one can master the chaos if we can’t.’ By September, she was in despair: ‘We are now in the middle of a full-blown Jihad.’ She asked a question that should occur to anyone who now seeks to manage the future of Iraq: ‘How can we, who have managed our affairs so badly, claim to teach others to manage theirs better?’ Britain banned all meetings in mosques, imposed a 10 p.m. curfew, after which violators could be shot, and despatched troops from the Indian Army. More important, it sent aircraft.

Managing Iraq’s affairs was becoming both difficult and costly. Churchill, who left the War Ministry and succeeded Lord Milner as Colonial Secretary, had devised a cheaper strategy that he now imposed, using bombers and armoured cars without ‘eating up troops and money’. The air squadrons in Iraq launched one of history’s first full-scale aerial bombardments of a civilian population; they also used poison gas. British bombers at Habaniya airbase outside Baghdad became the fulcrum of the RAF’s ‘air bridge’ between the Mediterranean and India – a cost-effective way of controlling natives, who had neither aircraft nor air defences.

When Britain restored its position in Iraq, it gave the Iraqis a ruler. Prince Feisal, the son of Hussein bin Ali, had fought in Syria with Lawrence against the Turks. The Arabs declared him King of Syria in March 1920 with his capital at Damascus, but the French expelled him the following July. Churchill, Sir Percy and Miss Bell agreed he would make an ideal ruler for Iraq: he was revered locally for his ancient lineage going back to the Prophet and he was dependent on British arms. They staged a dog-and-pony-show arrival in Baghdad to make it appear that Iraqis had invited him. Sir Percy wrote in 1927, without irony, of the ‘popular tributes’ to Feisal and the referendum, from which the Kurds of Suleimaniya ‘abstained’ (it was a boycott). The plebiscite, the precursor of hundreds since in the Arab world, produced a miraculous 96 per cent majority in favour of crowning Feisal King of Iraq. Meanwhile, Britain gave his brother eastern Palestine and called it the Emirate of Transjordan.

Cox’s self-deception was perhaps deeper than that of his faithful handmaid, Miss Bell. Even by 1927, he did not understand why the Iraqis had rejected British rule. Writing that it was ‘extraordinary’, he added: ‘The mere terms “mandatory” and “mandate” were anathema to them from the first, for the simple reason, I am convinced, that the words translate badly into Arabic, or rather were wrongly rendered in the Arabic press when they first emerged from the Paris Peace Conference.’ The Arabic press at the time was British, or subject to British censors. The Arab’s editor, following the return of St John Philby to serve Sheikh Abdel Aziz ibn Saud in forging his new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was Miss Bell herself. ‘I’ve written three articles . . . about the League of Nations and the Mandate,’ she gushed in a letter to her father. Perhaps the Arabs’ objection had more to do with the reality of occupation by Britain than with whatever word Miss Bell used to disguise it.

‘When the thorny Shiahs rioted, when the Kurdish aghas got out of hand, it was usually the hulking bombers from Habaniya that restored things to their grumpy normal,’ James Morris wrote in The Hashemite Kings (1959). At the same time, Britain had established a native Army with British and former Ottoman officers to supplement the RAF in controlling opposition to the new order. The goal was to protect both oil production and imperial communications. The country’s ‘backbone’, as Feisal called his Army, succeeded for the most part in both tasks. It had not been designed to protect Iraq’s borders or to engage in foreign adventures, as it did in Palestine in 1948, its first mission against anyone other than its own people, and again in Iran, with American approval, in 1980. It had functioned more effectively as an instrument of internal coercion, massacring Kurds in the north in the 1920s, slaughtering Assyrian Christians around Mosul in 1933 and bombing Baghdad itself in 1936 during the first of many putsches.

The Army turned against the British in 1941, partly as a result of events in Palestine. Iraqis resented a British order that was displacing Arab peasants in Palestine to make way for Jewish settlers and refugees from Europe. They sympathised with the Palestinian Arabs, who followed the Iraqi example by staging a revolt of their own in 1936. A few Iraqis went to Palestine as volunteers. In 1939, the revolt was crushed and the leader of the Palestinian nationalists, Haj Amin al-Husseini, fled to Baghdad. There, his anti-British propaganda affected both the public and nationalist Army officers. These officers seized power with the idea of imposing an anti-British politician, Rashid Ali al-Gailani, as Prime Minister, expelling the British and inviting help from Nazi Germany. RAF bombers at Habaniya defeated Iraq’s Army, which was never strong enough to challenge its creators. Britain toppled Rashid Ali al-Gailani and hanged four of the putschist generals known as the Golden Square.

Baghdad had the world’s oldest, and one of the richest, communities of Jews, descendants of the Babylonian captives who elected to remain in the Fertile Crescent rather than return to the wastes of Judea. The Balfour Declaration had specifically stated that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the political and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ That the rights of Palestine’s ‘non-Jewish communities’, over 90 per cent of the population, suffered for the creation of a Jewish national home is no secret. The ‘rights and political status enjoyed by Jews’ in Baghdad would also be forfeit with the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Palestine and Iraq would affect each other’s destinies at crucial intervals from the time of the British conquest to the era of Saddam Hussein and Ariel Sharon.

Iraq remained loyal for the duration of the Second World War. In the Cold War, it was asked to join a regional anti-Communist alliance modelled on Nato, to be called the Baghdad Pact. The Iraqis had already struggled with the idea that Germany, which was neither occupying their own country nor handing Palestine to another people, was their principal enemy. Now, having lost their part of the war in Palestine to the Israelis, they were informed by the United States that their principal enemy was the Soviet Union. Under King Feisal II, grandson of the first Feisal, and his Anglophile Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said, Iraq became the only Arab country to join the Pact, in 1955. A year later, Britain felt confident enough of the country’s steadfast opposition to Communism and, more important, to Nasser’s pan-Arabism, to close its last airbase on Iraqi soil. As for the continuing membership of a Western alliance, James Morris noted: ‘There was wisdom to the policy, and integrity, but there was one great flaw to it. It disregarded the people’s wishes.’

In 1958, the people expressed themselves, and the British were not there to stop them. When the Army, under Abdel Karim Kassem, embarked on a coup d’état, crowds in Baghdad dismembered the royal family and the Prime Minister. They invaded the British Embassy complex and tore down the statue of Sir Stanley Maude, the man who had liberated them against their wishes in 1917. Kassem became the first Arab leader to arm and train Palestinian fighters within their own military units. From then on, the Army or the Baath Party ruled Iraq more and more ruthlessly until both were routed by a professional assassin who had never worn a uniform. Saddam Hussein used both the Party and the Army, and more effectively, a secret police that kept watch on them both, to turn Iraq into a charnel house. In all his policies, his willing accomplices were Britain, the United States and, for a shorter time, the Soviet Union. He also built modern roads, hospitals and schools, and turned Iraq into the most literate and technologically advanced state in the Arab world.

When Anwar Sadat signed Egypt’s separate peace with Israel, Iraq sponsored Arab opposition to it. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, he offered to withdraw in accordance with United Nations resolutions, provided Israel withdrew from Palestine. This ‘linkage’, as Washington called it when it rejected the equation at the time, forced the US after the liberation of Kuwait to bring a reluctant Israel to the conference table with the PLO in Madrid – with certain safeguards for the Isaelis. In a way, the Oslo Accords, which have wreaked havoc with Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories since 1994, are Saddam’s doing.

Now, the slogan from Washington is ‘Saddam Must Go!’ If they study the record of their country’s support for the Iraqi dictator during the years of his most egregious crimes – the invasion of Iran, the illegal use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops, his bombardment of Iran’s cities, his atrocities against the Kurds, including the use of poison gas on Kurdish civilians at Hallabja – Americans may wonder what transformation he has undergone in order to become Washington’s most hated enemy. Saddam is the same dictator that Donald Rumsfeld, as Ronald Reagan’s envoy, met in December 1983 to propose resumption of the diplomatic relations that Iraq severed during the Arab-Israeli War in 1967. His former Foreign Minister, Tariq Aziz – now Deputy Prime Minister – received Rumsfeld on 24 March 1984, the very day the UN released its report on Iraq’s use of poison gases on Iranian troops. Saddam is the same killer whose deployment of similar gases against Kurdish civilians was denied by the American and British Governments in 1988. (Mrs Thatcher criticised Edward Mortimer of the Financial Times for his reports on Saddam’s activities, which she said were harming British business in Iraq. Similarly, the Pentagon denied an ABC News report in 1988 on Saddam’s biological weapons programme.) He is the same gangster to whom the US supplied satellite reconnaissance photographs, loans, dual-use technology and diplomatic support. He is the same mass murderer whom the US forgave, as it forgave Israel for a similar transgression with the USS Liberty in 1967, for bombing the American warship Stark in the Persian Gulf. The Iraqis themselves nearly overthrew Saddam in 1991, when Bush Sr called on them to rise up and then gave Saddam permission to use his aircraft – as the British had so often done – against them. Iraq’s helicopter gunships, many made in the United States by the Hughes and Bell aircraft companies, turned the tide in 1991. When the Kurds saw them overhead, they feared another chemical attack and fled en masse to Iran and Turkey. The Shiites in the south hid in the marshes, which Saddam drained, and in Iran.

Iraq has now attempted to pre-empt UN support for an American invasion by agreeing to allow the UN to inspect its weapons of mass destruction. Will that stop the war that the US Administration is seeking? And if not, will the Arabists of Washington do a better job in Iraq than Sir Percy and Miss Bell did?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences