Charles Glass

Mosul, said by some to be modern Iraq’s second and by others its third most populous city, was originally awarded to France as part of Syria under the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement. François Georges-Picot, the French delegate at the secret negotiations that divided the Ottoman Empire into British, French and Russian satrapies, laid out France’s dubious claim to Mosul and the area around it. Foreign Office notes of secret discussions in London on 23 November 1915, ‘Results of second meeting of Committee to discuss Arab question and Syria’, report that M. Picot stated his view that ‘France would never consent to offer independence to the Arabs’ and claimed all of Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Mosul, Diyarbekir and Cilicia for France. (After the war, France took Syria and Lebanon. Palestine and Mosul went to Britain. Turkey held Diyarbekir and Cilicia.) An unnamed India Office official said that, until twenty years before, Mosul vilayet had been attached to the districts of Basra and Baghdad, both claimed by Britain. According to the minutes, ‘M. Picot replied that it was impossible to consider the situation of twenty years ago as affecting the situation much today; that the French claim to Mosul consisted in the fact that since about twenty years the French had had schools there; that many of the inhabitants spoke French and were imbued with French interests.’

The connection between schools and foreign conquest was new to international law, but states have occupied other countries for less – Iraq and its illusory weapons of mass destruction being a modern example. Britain, it turned out, did not want Mosul in 1915. ‘In secretly planning to take Mosul, Picot was unaware that Kitchener and Sykes were secretly planning to give it to him,’ David Fromkin wrote in A Peace to End All Peace (1989). ‘They wanted the French sphere of influence to be extended from the Mediterranean coast on the west all the way to the east so that it paralleled and adjoined Russian-held zones; the French zone was to provide Britain with a shield against Russia.’ Two events cancelled French claims to Mosul. The first was the Russian Revolution two years later that took Russia out of the war and thus deprived it of Ottoman spoils. The second was the discovery of oil near Mosul. The exclusion of Russia and the inclusion of oil made Mosul a more attractive proposition for Britain. It was not until 1925, when the League of Nations dismissed Turkey’s claims to its former province, that Britain added Mosul and the Kurdish areas north and east of it to the newly minted state of Iraq. France was persuaded to forget Mosul’s French teachers, schools and Francophone Arabs in exchange for a 25 per cent share of Iraqi oil that had been confiscated from Deutsche Bank.

Another claimant to Mosul’s oil had to be placated. Sir Arthur Hirtzel, head of the political department at the India Office, wrote in February 1919, as the final touches were put to the postwar settlement, that ‘it should be borne in mind that the Standard Oil Company is very anxious to take over Iraq.’ The United States wanted Mosul to remain in Turkey, which would have given it better access to Mosul oil than Britain would have. To appease America, Britain granted it a 25 per cent stake in the oil – a more generous tranche than the US gave Britain of the contracts doled out after their joint 2003 invasion. Thus Mosul was purchased for Iraq by Britain from its French and American allies with oil belonging to Arabs.

Hanna Batatu, whose The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (1978) is the most comprehensive modern history of Iraq up to the time Saddam Hussein seized it, called Mosul ‘an Arab rampart projecting into territory’ which the Kurds ‘considered their own’. It is perhaps the most cosmopolitan, and reactionary, city in Iraq. Astride the River Tigris, it was the northernmost reach of the Arab conquest. Beyond Mosul were non-Arabs – Kurds, Turks, Yazidis and Christians. Mosul was the limit of Arab territory in the north, just as Persia was to the east and Spain’s frontier with France in the west. The Arabs lost Spain in the 15th century, but they did not lose Mosul.

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