Britain's role in shaping Iraq

  • From: "" <editor_@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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  • Date: Thu, 6 Feb 2003 09:19:38 -0000

What to do about Iraq is hardly a new question for the UK. For it was
Britain that drew the map of Iraq, and it has never ceased to play a
significant role there. 
In the tumbledown city of Kut south of Baghdad, a half-flooded cemetery
is one of the few memorials to British control of Iraq. The tops of
gravestones stick out of the slimy green water which obscures the names
of some of the 40,000 British soldiers who died in Iraq in World War I. 
British rule over the three provinces which became present-day Iraq was
never happy. It started in 1915 when a small British army tried to
capture Baghdad from the Turkish army, but was driven back and forced to
surrender at Kut after a long siege. 
When a much-reinforced British Army finally defeated the Turks, the UK
was immediately faced with some of the problems still facing anybody
seeking to rule Iraq today. 
Captain Arnold Wilson, the British civil commissioner in newly captured
Baghdad, believed that the creation of the new state was a recipe for
He warned that the deep differences between the three main communities -
Sunni, Shia and Kurds - ensured it could only be "the antithesis of
democratic government". This was because the Shia majority rejected
domination by the Sunni minority, but "no form of government has been
envisaged which does not involve Sunni domination". 
Rebellion against British rule broke out in July 1920. The causes were
diverse. Arab nationalists wanted independence. Officials who worked for
the Turks were marginalised. The Shia clergy disliked the new
authorities because they were Christian. The tribesmen were resentful
that the British were more effective than the Turks in collecting taxes.

Civilian targets 
The centre of the revolt was the middle Euphrates. By the time British
rule was restored in 1921, some 2,000 British soldiers and 8,000 Iraqis
had been killed or wounded. 
In the wake of the rebellion, the UK tried to rule Iraq cheaply and at
one remove. 
Faisal I, a member of the powerful Hashemite family from Mecca, was
appointed king, but was always dependent on British support. He and his
descendents never succeeded in establishing their nationalist
credentials in Iraqi eyes. 
The British also wanted to reduce the cost of ruling Iraq by relying on
air power rather than expensive ground troops. It was a testing ground
for the Royal Air Force. 
Arthur "Bomber" Harris, who was to lead the bomber offensive against
Germany 20 years later, did not conceal the fact that he aimed at
civilian targets. 
Harris said in 1924 that he had taught Iraqis "that within 45 minutes a
full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its
inhabitants killed or wounded". 
Some other British leaders were equally blood-thirsty. After the revolt
of 1920, TE Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - wrote to the London Observer
to say: "It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions." 
Loosened ties 
Iraq became formally independent in 1932, but British influence, though
diminishing, remained important 
In 1941 Rashid Ali, a former Ottoman officer, became prime minister,
backed by four army colonels. 
Encouraged by Hitler's victories in Europe, the new government sought to
whittle away at British imperial control. Britain sent troops from
Jordan and India. Despite the rebels' hopes, German support never came
and Iraqi troops were defeated after a month's fighting. 
After World War II, the alliance with Britain carried increasing dangers
for the Hashemite government as the influence of Arab nationalism
increased throughout the Middle East. 
The last two airbases controlled by Britain were handed back to Iraq in
1955. But three years later, the last British influence was removed when
a military coup overthrew the Hashemite dynasty. 
In the subsequent power struggles, Saddam Hussein worked his way up
through the ranks - a rise supported by the West, anxious to preserve
its influence in the region. 
Source:  BBC

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