How Britain created Iraq
Britain set up Iraq in 1922. The area had been three separate provinces-Basra, Baghdad and Mosul-which were part of the Ottoman Empire run from Turkey. Britain's rulers wanted the territory after oil reserves were discovered there in the late 19th century. The Anglo-Persian oil company had drilling rights across 500,000 square miles in the region.
Britain seized its chance during the First World War to occupy Basra and Baghdad. The allied powers defeated Turkey alongside Germany. As Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, said, 'The allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.'
He said he wanted the Persian Gulf to become a 'British lake'. Britain and France had drawn up a secret deal in 1916, the Sykes-Picot Treaty, where they agreed to divide the Arab territories among themselves. The Bolshevik revolutionary government in Russia revealed it in 1917. It showed that Britain and France had no intention of granting the Arabs' hope for independence.
This was despite the call Britain had made during the war for the Arabs to revolt against the Turks. The Arab revolt and the promises made by Britain's rulers are shown in the film Lawrence of Arabia. The British military moved quickly to subdue Iraq. The RAF bombed Kurdish areas in northern Iraq in 1919 and 1920 where there were uprisings against British rule.
Arthur 'Bomber' Harris said, 'The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within 45 minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.'
Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war, said, 'I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.' The League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations, allowed Britain and France to carve the Middle East up. Britain got a mandate to run Iraq (now made up of all three provinces) and Palestine in 1920.
It drew up the borders creating Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in 1922. The main aim in creating Kuwait was to prevent the new Iraq from having access to the Gulf-this could have allowed it to threaten British dominance. Britain then manoeuvred to install a ruler in Iraq who it could rely on. A Foreign Office official said, 'What is wanted is a king who will be content to reign but not govern.'
The new Middle East department of the Colonial Office, headed by Winston Churchill, decided to install Emir Faisal ibn Hussain as king of Iraq. Faisal had not set foot in Iraq before he was made king in 1921. British administrators ensured laws were passed to favour the ruling class of large landowners who came from the minority Sunni population. They rigged elections to the puppet parliament.
Britain and the US formed the Iraqi Petroleum Company, which got the right to drill in every part of the old Ottoman Empire in 1928.
King Faisal was under constant pressure from ordinary people, who hated British rule.
Britain finally granted Iraq independence in 1932 after a wave of strikes and protests the previous year. The British High Commission admitted the situation 'reveals surprising lack of support for the present government, and unpopularity of King Faisal. Republican cries have been openly raised in the streets.' But Britain retained a stranglehold on power in Iraq, keeping control over oil and maintaining air bases.
Even most of Iraq's upper classes were excluded from power. There were repeated coup attempts. Each faction that seized power used the British-equipped and Brithish-trained army to crush opposition. Iraq's rulers were prepared to use that force against workers and to defend British oil interests. Some 5,000 workers went on strike in the Iraqi Petroleum Company for higher wages.
The strike united workers across ethnic and religious lines. The government sent in mounted police who killed ten workers at a mass meeting. After the Second World War Britain withdrew its troops, deciding to rely on puppet rulers to defend its oil interests.
Popular unrest and strikes grew throughout the country as the gap between rich and poor widened. The cost of living increased fivefold between 1939 and 1957. Some 80 percent of the population were illiterate in 1958. The pro-British monarchy in Iraq was a bulwark against radical change in the Middle East.
It was at the centre of opposing the radical movement of Gamal Abdul Nasser, which overthrew the British-backed monarchy in Egypt in 1952 and which preached radical change uniting all Arabs against imperialism. The Baghdad Pact in 1953 was a NATO-sponsored agreement among states in the region, led by Iraq, to contain Nasserism.
The rulers of Britain and France were thrown into panic when they failed to stop Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal in 1956. The 'Suez crisis' provoked a wave of anti-British agitation throughout the region. The Iraqi monarchy fell in 1958 to a military revolt led by Abdul Karim Qasim.
Qasim made popular promises of land reform and negotiations for a greater share of the oil wealth. Britain sent troops to neighbouring Jordan. The US sent troops to Lebanon. They were desperate to crush the Qasim government and turned to the Ba'athist Party (which Saddam Hussein now leads) to spearhead right wing resistance in Iraq.
The CIA backed a Ba'athist coup in 1963. The head of the CIA in the Middle East, James Critchfield, said, 'We regarded it as a great victory.'
How the US and Britain backed Saddam
Saddam Hussein first gained notoriety when he attempted to assassinate Qasim in 1959.
After the Ba'ath Party seized power from Qasim their national guard attacked working class areas and murdered thousands of Communists and trade union militants. Although the Ba'ath Party was booted out by its former allies in the military after just six months, it seized power again in 1968. Western oil companies offered their cooperation to the new rulers.
The Ba'athist regime posed as anti-imperialist, but it did not champion the cause of the Palestinians. In 1970 King Hussein of Jordan launched his Black September assault on Palestinians in his country. There were 15,000 Iraqi troops in Jordan. They did nothing to help the Palestinians who were butchered.
The Iraqi regime courted support from both superpowers. In the early 1970s the US relied on Israel, Saudi Arabia and the pro-Western Shah of Iran as its principal allies in the Middle East. The Shah, with US backing, armed Kurdish rebels in Iraq, while putting down his own Kurdish population.
Iraq and Iran signed a treaty in 1975. Saddam Hussein put down the Kurdish insurgency without a murmur from the West, and consolidated power in 1978. The US swung firmly behind him when the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran in 1980, with Western support. The US was terrified by the Iranian Revolution. The bloody eight-year war saw Saddam use poison gas against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians. There was no outcry from Western governments.
At the end of the war John Kelly, the US assistant secretary of state, visited Baghdad to tell Saddam Hussein, 'You are a force for moderation in the region, and the US wants to broaden her relationship with Iraq.' Saddam was so confident of support from the US that he believed he had its agreement to invade Kuwait in 1990.
But that risked upsetting Western interests in the Middle East. So the US turned against him. The US and Britain have helped create every oppressive regime in Iraq and orchestrated the removal of the one government that had some popularity. We should not let them interfere today.