By Judy Cox
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Disaster when they last took Baghdad

This article is over 21 years, 2 months old
British generals thought they could easily plunder Baghdad when they occupied it in 1917. They were wrong.
Issue 1844

‘WE ARE coming as liberators not as conquerors,’ proclaim Bush, Blair and their generals. It is an appeal Iraqis have heard before. In 1914 British forces first landed in what is now Iraq. They too talked of liberation. They too ruthlessly pursued their own imperial interests.

British generals and bureaucrats thought they could easily subdue Iraq and plunder its oil. They were proved wrong. During the First World War the area was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. At first the British met little opposition from Arab armies who hated the oppressive empire they were defending. Sir Stanley Maude led British troops into Baghdad in March 1917. His successful invasion, after earlier defeats, was designed to secure the oil-rich and strategically important area.

Maude was dubbed ‘the liberator’-by the British, that is. Nobody asked the Iraqis what they thought. Many Iraqis wanted to see the back of the Ottoman Empire but they were wary of the British, especially when they discovered details of a secret plan to carve up Iraq and Syria between Britain and France. The Iraqis were right to be suspicious. Talk of ‘liberation’ soon turned to the harsh realities of a conquest.

Britain extracted a mandate to run Iraq from the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. One historian called this ‘a legalistic cloak of respectability for its partition of the Middle East’. The British created a colonial-style administration. It was run by Sir Percy Cox and his assistant Gertrude Bell.

These two upper class colonialists prided themselves on their deep understanding of the Arab people. Gertrude Bell wrote, ‘On two points they are all agreed. They want us to control their affairs and they want Sir Percy as high commissioner.’ She was wrong on both counts.

Bell declared the Iraqis ‘uncivilised tribes’ but she was confident they would learn to love her. ‘There is no doubt they are turning to us,’ she gushed in a letter in June 1920. Just one month later the Iraqi people united in revolt against Sir Percy, Gertrude Bell and the rest of the British.

Iraqis stormed garrisons, killed some British soldiers and captured some towns. The British unleashed terror against the rebels and punitive raids against the local population. A British colonel, Gerald Leachman, declared, ‘The only way to deal with the tribes is wholesale slaughter.’ T E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, wrote, ‘We have killed ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average-it is a poor, sparsely populated country.’

But repression simply deepened the revolt. It took five months and 8,000 Iraqi lives for the British to crush the rebellion. Minister for the colonies Winston Churchill moaned that subduing the locals was ‘eating up troops and money’. He discovered a cheaper method-dropping poison gas from aeroplanes. The British launched one of the first ever full-scale aerial gas bombardments on thousands of men, women and children. Churchill brushed aside those who questioned the morality of poison gas.

‘We shouldn’t be stopped by the prejudices of those who don’t think clearly,’ he said. ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.’ He declared that the gas had ‘an excellent moral effect’ on the locals. The British found it easy to kill Iraqis, but it was harder to kill the dream of Arab freedom.

After the rebellion an Arab leader with the slogan ‘Iraq for the Iraqis’ began to win popular support. He was dealt with in true British style. He was invited to take tea with Sir Percy, arrested and deported to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

The British imposed a king on Iraq. Only a few Iraqis had ever heard of Prince Faisal-and those who had didn’t want him as their king. The British installed him with great pomp and circumstance. They organised a vote in which 96 percent backed King Faisal, a result that would make many modern dictators blush.

The first thing King Faisal did was sign a treaty with the British giving them military and economic control over Iraq. But mass opposition to the British regime continued to run deep. The British established an Iraqi army, led by British officers, to make sure the local people were kept in their place.

In 1930 the British foisted a new treaty on Iraq which meant they could continue to keep troops in the region to protect their growing interest in Iraqi oil. This was the price the regime in London exacted from Baghdad before Britain ended its mandate over the area in 1932. The British maintained its influence in Iraq until tensions exploded in 1958.

The Iraqi army, which Britain had created, launched a coup. They killed the pro-British king and prime minister, invaded the British Embassy and tore down the statue of Sir Stanley Maude ‘the liberator’. In 1917 the British bragged that it took them only three days to take Baghdad and claimed the local population greeted them as heroes.

Today’s invaders would do well to remember taking Baghdad was just the beginning of their problems.

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