The British failure in Iraq


How what happened back then is relevant to here and now


To loot the “black gold” of Arabia, the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill organised a special conference of the Middle East experts in March 1921 in Cairo which he himself dubbed as the conference of the “forty thieves”


The lesson of history is that we do not learn any lesson from it. This does not mean that we should stop studying it rather its study informs what actually happened in the past. It tells us about the causes, characters and outcomes. Let’s take the case of Iraq. The present state structure has been conceived and administered by the Americans after the overthrow of Saddam Hussain. We hear about the incompetence of politicians, sectarian divisions, religious extremism and terrorism in Iraq. This is the history in making and that is why we do not know for sure who is doing what, how and why. It is only when the dust of events settles down and the present becomes the past, we are able to analyse it with some certainty. The evaluation of the present American era in Iraq is the preserve of the future historians; however, we can look into the British era in Iraqi history from the end of the Ottoman rule after World War I to the shameful British flight from Iraq in 1958 through specialised works of historians such as Kwasi Kwarteng.

One wonders why the scorching deserts and the nomads of Iraq would attract the industrialised and modern people from the cold climate of Britain. While people from all over the world struggled to reach the best universities of the world in Britain, the best among the highly educated Englishmen from Eton and Harrow and Oxford and Cambridge dashed to serve in the sandy wastelands of Iraq. The importance of Iraq primarily lay in the discovery of oil which was regarded as the “fuel of future” because not only was it much efficient but also twice economical than coal. The Allies had won World War I due to the availability of oil in their territories otherwise they were no match to the German manpower and coal production. Before the War, Britain got 62 percent of its oil from the US, 20 percent from Romania and Russia while the rest from Mexico and the Dutch colonies in the Far East. Even during the War, the Allies were dependent on the US for 80 percent of their oil supplies and Britain wanted to end this dependence on the US. Therefore, before the War ended, Sir Edmund Slade, a retired British Admiral wrote a paper that emphasised upon the need to control the oil of Iraq, thus, the British War Cabinet declared the “retention of the oil-bearing regions in Mesopotamia and Persia… [as] a first-class British War aim.” Now we know why the San Remo conference in 1920 handed over Iraq as a mandated territory to Britain. Step by step, she increased her stranglehold through the treaties of 1922 and 1930 giving her “considerable latitude in matters of defence and administration” making her the most powerful external force in Iraq. In the garb of protecting the rights of the British citizens in Iraq, these treaties conferred vast powers in the hands of the British Ambassador.

To loot the “black gold” of Arabia, the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill organised a special conference of the Middle East experts in March 1921 in Cairo which he himself dubbed as the conference of the “forty thieves.” Once the plans for the plunder of Iraq were worked out, the next step was to create a class of willing collaborators among the Iraqis to assist the colonial administrators in their agenda. Naked British imperialism had to be camouflaged so it was propagated that the British believed in the Iraqis’ right to self-government but as they were not yet ready, it was the responsibility of Britain as the mandated power under the League of Nations to train the Iraqis till the time they were fit to govern themselves. Two British Orientalists that figure prominently in this “Iraqi Project” were TE Lawrence aka “Lawrence of Arabia” and Gertrude Bell. The British intention of prolonging the occupation as long as possible could be understood from a letter which Lawrence wrote to Mrs George Bernard Shaw in which he stated “As for Irak [sic] … some day they will be fit for self-government and then they will not want a king: but whether seven or 70 or 700 years hence, God knows.”

If democracy did not come to Iraq after World War I, it was because the obsolete institution of monarchy suited the British. Lawrence had befriended Faisal, the 38 year old son of the Hashemite Sharif of Mecca, during World War I and he was imposed upon the Iraqis as their king and legitimised by a specially arranged dubious plebiscite in which 96 percent voted for Faisal. Now we know that the victory of Faisal was not the victory of the people as it was made to look to the world but a personal victory for the British imperialists like Gertrude Bell who confided to her father in a personal letter in August 1921 that “We have got our king crowned.” Faisal did not rule the hearts of Iraqis; he was just a pawn in the hands of the British. In a private communication, Lawrence termed Faisal as his “very great pride,” “a person for the English-speaking races,” and “one of us,” and the Hashemites reciprocated by being overtly British in their tastes and styles. To continue their hold, the British ensured that Faisal II was brought up by a “proper English nurse maid” and a “proper English governess” thus he became Anglophile in his manners and learned to speak English “with an impeccable metropolitan accent.”

The British influence over the Iraqi royalty also seeped into the Iraqi governing class which blindly pursued the Western ways of life. In this way, it was quite disconnected from the man on the street whose socio-politico-economic conditions did not improve despite a remarkable increase in the Iraqi oil production that rose from 600,000 tons per year in 1934 to 6.5 million tons in 1950 as well as the significant increase in the oil revenues from 1.5 million pounds per year in 1941 to 5.2 million pounds in 1950. Despite the ever growing oil riches, no oil refinery from “where the real money could be made” was set up in Iraq and the rate of illiteracy remained well above 90 percent before 1950. Such neglect of education smacks in the face of the British imperialists who did not tire of boasting about Britain’s civilising mission in the colonised lands towards which she owed certain “moral and practical obligations.” These colonists insisted that the British rule in Iraq was better than the Ottoman rule. One such braggart, the foreign secretary Lord Curzon boasted in the House of Lords in 1919 that what Britain had done in the last two years could not be achieved by the Turks in the past five centuries.


The bloody end of the Iraqi monarchy manifested the impotence of the British and in the words of the historian Kwasi Kwarteng, the British project meant to lay the foundation of a stable government in Iraq proved nothing more than a complete failure


The British could not “civilise” the Iraqis because the former disdainfully avoided mixing with the latter. The “good governance” and the “golden rule” of the British were stoutly opposed by the Iraqi nationalists and the religious leaders. When no one in the world bothered to ask the Iraqis whether they wanted or not to be ruled by the British mandate, an Iraqi Shi’a cleric Sheikh Mohammad Shirazi issued a fatwa in 1919 that proclaimed that “a non-Muslim could not be allowed by Muslims to rule over the followers of the Prophet (PBUH)” and the next year he issued another one that forbade Muslims from accepting any office in the British administration of Iraq and doubled down by starting a revolt that was jointly waged by the Shi’a and the Sunnis in the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Baghdad, which Gertrude Bell described as a “full-blown jihad”. It raged for three months and could only be crushed by the two divisions of reinforcements brought from India in which 426 British and 8,000 Iraqis lost their lives and the cost to the exchequer amounted to 40 million pounds.

An equally threatening situation erupted during World War II when the Mufti of Jerusalem declared jihad in May 1941 directing every Muslim to take up arms against the British –“the greatest foe of Islam.” So frightened were the British that a memorandum was hastily prepared suggesting the destruction of Iraqi oil fields but the idea was shelved because there was no known means to destroy the oil fields as if only fifty oil wells were set alight, they could burn for ten years, hence it was decided to destroy the pipelines instead. Public protests continued to erupt in 1948 and ’52 against the rising living costs and poor wages in which hundreds of Iraqis were killed only to reignite over the Suez crisis in 1956 in Najaf and Mosul forcing the government to impose Martial Law in Baghdad. The end of the Iraqi government came two years later in a military coup in July 1958 in which the king and the crown prince were shot on the spot and the latter’s body was dragged for miles by an enraged mob before it was hung on a telephone pole in front of the Ministry of Defence.

Equally dreadful was the fate of the Prime Minister Nuri As-Said, who was also shot while fleeing dressed as a woman. The angry crowd dragged his headless, armless and legless trunk behind a lorry for quite a while after which it ransacked the British Embassy, burned the royal palace in Baghdad and forced the British into yet another shameful flight, exactly a decade after the British had fled the subcontinent in August 1947. There was an inkling of bad times to come when two decades back the British Consul in Mosul was hacked to death by the furious Iraqis on the suspicion that the death of the Iraqi King Ghazi in a car accident was the handiwork of the British which reminds one of the way the British General Gordon was killed in Khartoum about half a century back.

The bloody end of the Iraqi monarchy manifested the impotence of the British and in the words of the historian Kwasi Kwarteng, the British project meant to lay the foundation of a stable government in Iraq proved nothing more than a complete failure. Will the on-going American project of nation-building in Iraq meet the same fate? Only time will tell! Earlier on, after having secured the mandate to rule Iraq, Gertrude Bell tried to explain the British intentions to an Iraqi politician, Jafar Pasha al-Askari, at a dinner in Baghdad in October 1920 by arguing that “complete independence” was what Britain “ultimately wished to give” to the Iraqis to which Jafar Pasha had prophetically responded, “My Lady, complete independence is never given; it is always taken.” How different will it be in the case of the on-going American hold over Iraq can be anybody’s guess?