Global Policy Forum

The Impact of Western Imperialism in Iraq, 1798-1963


By Geoff Simons

The Link
December 2002

See the full text of the article here: The Making of Iraq


Iraq, under the Ottomans, had remained one of the most backward regions of the Turkish empire: it was poorly governed and underdeveloped, with Ottoman interests generally focused elsewhere. The appointed walis (governors) had problems trying to discipline the desert tribes and the settled Kurdish communities in the north of the country. But, although the area remained backward, the Europeans were becoming increasingly aware of the region's potential strategic and commercial importance.

As early as 1798 Britain had dispatched a permanent agent to Baghdad, a small response to Napoleon's supposed intention to march across Mesopotamia to India. In 1836, the British government decided to fund an expedition to explore the possibility of using steamboats to navigate the Euphrates from its source in Syria to its outlet on the gulf; by the 1850s the possibility of expanding the railway communications in the region was being considered. Russian expansion in Persia represented a threat to British communications in the Middle East, and so a plan for the Euphrates Valley railway to link the Mediterranean to the gulf stimulated much official thought. The British focus on protecting the colony of India concentrated attention on Mesopotamia, apart from any additional or strategic benefits that Iraq might offer.

Between 1900 and 1902, ships totaling 478,000 tons called at Basra, and the vast majority of these flew the British flag. Britain supplied 65 percent of the Mesopotamian market, most of such trade being cloth exported from Manchester. Within Iraq itself British merchants controlled much of the carrying trade; e.g., the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company, established in 1859, was a British family concern. The British Consul General at Baghdad maintained his own steamer, the Comet, on the Tigris and was protected by his own Sepoy contingent of Indian soldiers.

The discovery of oil in the region in the late 19th century soon focused British attention on Kuwait as a vital strategic area. Thus on January 23, 1899, the secessionist Sheikh Muba-rak, wanting Kuwait to withdraw from the Ottoman vilayet of Basra, one of the chief administrative divisions of Turkey, signed an agreement with Britain guaranteeing British protection in return for an assurance that neither he nor his heirs would "cede, sell, lease or mortgage, or give for occupation or for any other purpose a portion of his territory to the government of any other power without the previous consent of Her Majesty's Government." Kuwait was properly a part of Iraq, but it suited Britain and the upstart Mubarak to pretend otherwise.

The collapse of the Ottoman empire during WWI served to intensify British, French, and American efforts to control the Middle East. On April 27, 1919, at the San Remo Conference, Britain and France agreed to monopolize all Middle Eastern oil, excluding the United States on the ground that the U.S. excluded all non-American interests from areas it controlled. Baghdad had fallen to the British in 1917, and at the end of the war the British forces were in control of most of Iraq. It was soon plain that Britain and France would ignore promises of Arab independence.

The notorious Sykes-Picot memorandum, approved by the British and French cabinets in early February 1916, carved up the region in a way that largely conformed with the mandates authorized by the new League of Nations a few years later. That this is far from forgotten history for Iraqis was underlined in an October 25, 2002 New York Times article by Daniel Wakin who reported that the idea of a U.S. role in a post-Saddam Iraq "summons up angry emotions in a region where sensitivities about the colonial past run deep. When asked about American plans for Iraq, people here evoke the Sykes-Picot agreement…".

Britain and France then set about deciding what was to be done with their new quasi-colonial territories. The French, as expected, kept Syria and Lebanon, with the British controlling Palestine and Mesopotamia. On November 2, 1916, the followers of Sharif Hussein of Mecca proclaimed him "King of the Arab Countries," a title that was immediately rejected by Britain and France. But in 1921, the London strategists, with Meso-potamia renamed Iraq, saw advantage in planting Hussein's son, Feisal, as the puppet king of Iraq. Soon afterwards, Sir Percy Cox, the British Political Representative in the gulf, was busy drawing up the frontiers between Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

Accounts of his efforts are revealing. At one point, he lost patience with the negotiations, upbraided ibn Saud, the future king of Saudi Arabia, and quickly drew lines on the map to settle the issue. In a different mood Cox may well have created different frontiers in the Middle East. As it was, the frontiers between Iraq and Kuwait had been determined at the whim of a British official.

Resentful of their new colonial status, the Arabs struggled to resist the military occupation by the colonial powers. It was an unequal contest. Arab casualties numbered in the thousands and Winston Churchill, British Colonial Secretary, is quoted in David Omissi's "Air Power and Colonial Control" as saying "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against un-civilized tribes."

Nor was it only the Arabs who were treated in such a fashion; Wing-Commander Gale, of the 30th Squadron of the Royal Air Force, later observed: "If the Kurds hadn't learned by our example to behave themselves in a civilized way then we had to spank their bottoms. This was done by bombs and guns." And another Wing-Commander, Arthur Harris, the architect of the bombing of urban centers in WWII, added: "The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."

British technology was able to produce a range of hideous weapons for use against the defenseless Arabs and Kurds: phosphorus bombs, war rockets, metal crowsfeet to maim people and livestock, shrapnel, liquid fire, and delay-action bombs.

Most Westerners viewed the prospect of Iraqi independence with a racist mixture of alarm and disdain. Many would have agreed with Wing-Commander Gale when, in a televised interview for London's Channel 4 on July 6, 1992, he talked about the "gutter rats who were the Arabs – and they were gutter rats." Even Westerners disinclined to use such language were likely to assume that the Arabs did not know what was best for themselves; such a mentality, wrote John Glubb in "War in the Desert, An RAF Frontier Campaign," illustrated "the unconscious Western conviction that the peoples of the Middle East are incompetent to handle their own affairs".

In any event, Britain, tiring of its colonial role, soon prepared to abandon the mandate. It was important to preserve British interests in Iraq, but a puppet monarch would do the trick.

In March 1925, the first Iraqi parliamentary elections were held under British supervision, and Iraqi ministers became responsible for a two-chamber parliament. Already there were insistent Iraqi calls for complete independence. A 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty envisaged a final British withdrawal in 1932 and an Iraq seat in the League of Nations at the same time. Britain remained convinced that its enduring influence in a strong Iraq would preserve British influence in the Middle East.

The puppet King Feisal died in 1933, the year after independence, to be succeeded by his son Ghazi, who lacked authority. There were seven political coups between 1936 and 1941, and no scope for the emergence of independent political parties.

The effective military ruler General Bakr Sidqi seized power in 1936, only to be assassinated ten months later; and after a further brief period of turmoil the pro-West General Nuri al-Said took power, a repressive autocrat to whom the British had no objection. In 1939, King Ghazi was killed in an automobile accident and was succeeded by his infant son, Feisal II, under a regent. In March 1940, Nuri fell from power and Rashid Ali al-Gilani, sympathetic to the German fascists, seized control of the government. When France collapsed in 1940, Britain demanded more military bases in Iraq, a demand that Rashid immediately rejected. Hitler soon sent arms to Baghdad and dispatched German military advisors to help Rashid retain power. After substantial British attacks on the Iraqi forces, Rashid, despite Nazi support, was forced to flee into Iran. The pro-Nazi regime in Baghdad was at an end, Nuri al-Said was again installed as a puppet prime minister, and Iraq had fallen yet again under dominant British influence.

Throughout the period of the Iraqi monarchy -- a span of less than three decades -- a constant reshuffling of ministers produced 59 cabinets averaging only eight months each. On July 14, 1958, this period of turmoil ended when 200 "Free Officers," headed by Brigadier Abdel Karim Kassim, overthrew the monarchy. Feisal II and many of his supporters, men and women, were shot dead and the corpse of the pro-British former regent Abdul Ilah was dragged through the streets. Nuri himself tried to escape but was killed when his man's shoes were seen protruding from a woman's abba. At first he was buried in a shallow grave; later the body was dug up and repeatedly run over by municipal buses until, in the words of one eyewitness, it resembled bastourma, a sausage meat. There seems to have been no doubt that the United States and Britain would have invaded Iraq in 1958 had there been any chance of restoring the monarchy, but it was now clear that Hashemite rule was at an end in Baghdad. The Hashemite monarchy, with Western military aid, was managing to survive in Jordan, but the role of Britain in Arab politics was now massively diminished.

In June 1961, Kuwait ended its 1899 agreement with Britain, and soon thereafter declared its full independence. Abdul Karim Kassim refused to recognize the new state, claiming that Kuwait belonged to Iraq, a claim he based on a 1913 Anglo-Ottoman draft agreement that described Kuwait as part of the Ottoman vilayet or province of Basra, i.e., the land that later became Iraq. Kassim said he did not intend to use force to regain the province, although he never ruled it out. In the end he did nothing.

Various coups were attempted against Kassim between 1958 and 1963, when he was finally toppled by a former collaborator, Abdul Salaam Arif. On February 4, 1963, four days before the coup, Kassim revealed that he had received a threatening note from the U.S. State Depart-ment. On February 12, as thousands of Iraqis were being massacred following the coup, Le Monde reported from Wash-ington: "The present coup is not regarded as a menace to U.S. interests; on the contrary, it is regarded as a pro-Western re-orientation in the Middle East." And, on February 21, the Paris L'Express reported: "The Iraqi coup was inspired by the C.I.A."

The Kassim regime, the first republican government of Iraq, had been crushed, probably with the assistance of the West. Now the Iraqi Baath Party, the party of Saddam Hussein, was in power. Relations with the West, specifically the United States were improved; Kassim's claims to Kuwait were repudiated, and Kuwait's independence recognized. Saddam would have to wait years before becoming master of the Baath Party, but in the brutal theater of Iraqi politics he was already learning a ruthless pragmatism.

The 1970s saw increasing tensions between the Baathists and the other contending political factions. Saddam was rising quickly through the party ranks, learning that it would be helpful to cooperate with the C.I.A. and other covert American operators.

After the coup against Kassim, and his execution, the C.I.A. was quick to prepare lists of people to be assassinated by pro-West death squads. At this time, Saddam Hussein was one of several Iraqis who added names to the C.I.A. death lists, and upon his return from exile in Cairo, he reportedly involved himself in the torture and arbitrary execution of leftists who were perceived by the C.I.A. as representing a threat to American interests. Such anti-Communist credentials would endear him to Washington for most of the next three decades.


Geoff Simons has written four books on Iraq; his most recent, Targeting Iraq: Sanctions and Bombing in US Policy, was published in 2002 by Saqi Books.

Please read the full text of Geoff Simon's article here: The Making of Iraq

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.