Global Policy Forum

British Colonialism and the Kurds in Iraq: 1926-1930


By Peter Sluglett

The following text is an excerpt from Britain in Iraq: 1914-1932 (London: Ithaca Press, 1976

pp. 182-194

On 21 January 1926, three days after the passage of the 1926 Anglo-Iraq Treaty, there was a Debate in the Chamber of Deputies on the implementation of the Frontier Commission's report in so far as it affected the Kurdish areas of Iraq: the Prime Minister, ‘Abd al-Muhsin al-Sa'dun, had declared roundly:

‘Gentlemen! This nation cannot live unless it gives all Iraqi elements their rights … The fate of Turkey should be a lesson to us and we should not revert to the policy formerly pursued by the Ottoman Government. We should give the Kurds their rights. Their officials should be from among them: their tongue should be their official language and their children should learn their on tongue in the schools. It is incumbent upon us to treat all elements, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, with fairness and justice, and give them their rights.'

By the time of the 1930 negotiations, virtually nothing had been done by any Iraqi Government to convince the Kurds that their problems were being sympathetically considered, let alone being actively solved. It was only six years since the Kurds had been offered an autonomous Kurdistan, under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres: in 1926 they were being offered a special regime and limited autonomy: by 1930 even this had been whittled away.

In the spring of 1926, the situation in the Kurdish areas was generally quiet. Continued peace depended partly on the goodwill of Shaikh Mahmud, and also on the provision of some kind of local administration which would be generally acceptable to the Kurds while not veering too close to the sort of local autonomy which would offend susceptibilities in Baghdad. The adoption of Kurdish for official, judicial and educational purposes, and the employment of their own officials, were desired by most Kurds, though some expressed a preference for the reorganisation of the Kurdish area into a single administrative entity under a British supervisory officer.

In Baghdad, there were two schools of thought on Kurdistan and Kurdish affairs, the Arab and the British. The Arab ministers and officials at the ministries most directly concerned (generally Education, Justice and Interior) tended to dismiss the Kurdish problem as having no foundation except in the minds of the British advisers, anxious to weaken national unity. For their part, the advisers accused the ministers and officials of deliberately ignoring the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, and whether or not the pledges had been forced out of a reluctant Iraq Government, the fact remained that the pledges had certainly been made, and that the Kurds were waiting for them to be carried out.

There were of course problems, particularly surrounding the official and educational use of Kurdish: there was little written literature, and a whole series of school text-books would have to be prepared. The language was divided into a number of dialects which were fairly widely differently from one another. However, as Lionel Smith remarked, such problems could be overcome: ‘It is true that there is no standardized Kurdish. We must standardize it.' He suggested that there should be two secondary boarding schools in the area, one at Arbil and the other at Sulaimaniya, where the basic language of instruction should be Kurdish, but where Arabic should also be taught so that pupils could go on to higher studies at an Arabic-medium institution. In contrast, the Minister of Interior, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Qassab, remarked that although Kurdish had been taught in some schools, it was of such little practical use that even the parents were not enthusiastic:

‘(He) suggested that an order should quietly issue with regard to the Mosul Liwa schools that the Arabic textbooks should be used, as being better drawn up and more suitable for the purposes of instruction, and that wherever the pupils do not understand Arabic the teacher should explain and translate to them in the Kurdish tongue. He thinks there would be no clamour over this. New schools in the Mosul Liwa should have instruction in the Arabic tongue.'

It is difficult to disentangle any consistent ‘Kurdish policy' on the part of the Residency or the Colonial Office until 1930, when it became essential that the Kurds should be seen to be fully integrated members of the Iraq state. Over the four years between 1926 and 1930, Shaikh Mahmud, technically exiled from Iraq, had occasional meetings and frequent correspondence with the Administrative Inspector, Sulaimaniya, the Adviser to the Ministry of Interior, and the Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner. Officially, the British authorities had insisted that only aformal ‘dakhala' (submission) to King Faisal and an undertaking to live peacefully on the Persian side of the frontier would satisfy both Iraqi and British requirements. In the summer of 1927, Shaikh Mahmud came to Baghdad and have an undertaking in this sense, promising also that his eldest son, Baba ‘Ali, would be sent to Victoria College in Alexandra. He was to be allowed to enjoy the income from his estates in Iraq, provide, again, he did not enter the country. Yet in January 1928 the SSO Sulaimaniya reported that Shaikh Mahmud was making a prolonged tour among the Jaf on the Iraqi side of the frontier, and throughout that spring had frequent meetings on Iraq territory with the local Administrative Inspector and the mutasarrif. He was put under no restraint, never arrested, and apparently never even ordered to leave the country. In the following year, three weeks after being reminded by Clayton that he must keep out of politics, Muhmud was sent a present of 1000 shotgun cartridges, presumably for shooting game, paid for out of secret service funds! His reply to Clayton's letter is interesting:

‘Don't think that my obedience to the British Government is for the sake of my properties … our obedience is to the British Government however and not to Iraq. Please think of this point for a moment. If we were entirely obedient to Iraq, would that suit you? If you were to order us to be perfectly obedient in all matters to Iraq then in this as in other matters we should obey you. Then we should act according to their orders and you would not be able to blame us for the consequences…'

In November 1929, Captain Gowan, the Administrative Inspector, Sulaimaniya, described a meeting with Mahmud at which the latter asked for a larger subsidy, and later in the month noted that the Shaikh had complained to the qaimmaqam of Sharbazhar that two of his men had been arrested for theft. Gowan told Mahmud ‘in future no notice will be taken of any complaints written by you to qaimmaqams or mudirs direct, but only if they are sent first to the mutasarrif or myself.'

It is not clear how far the Arab officials in Baghdad were aware of these cordial relations, but there is obviously some foundation for Arab suspicions that the British were pursuing a clandestine policy, if not of alliance, at least of generous accommodation with Shaikh Mahmud. Such suspicions may help to explain the evident hostility on the part of Baghdadi politicians and civil servants towards anything which smacked of concessions to Kurdistan, which were normally attributed to dark British designs on the fragile unity of the country.

By the spring of 1927, the Iraq Government had shown no signs of implementing the promises given by ‘Abd al-Muhsin. Bourdillon complained to the Prime Minister that there was no sign of the promised Kurdish translation bureau (which was to deal with laws and school text-books) and that no progress had been made on the projected Decauville railway linking Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya. The Government seem to have thought that they would do best not to commit themselves: Edmonds remarked:

‘Nobody denies that the practical application of the solution to the Kurdish problem bristles with difficulties, but all efforts are concentrated on not overcoming them.'

Thus, when challenged that there were no teachers in schools in Kurdistan, and the Ministry of Education replied that there were no qualified men available, Edmonds pointed out that none were being trained. Similarly, there were no textbooks for the schools, but none were being produced.

Gradually, however, some sort of movement began to take shape. In April 1929 some of the more daring Kurdish deputies, including Isma'il al-Rowanduzi, Jamil Baban (Arbil), Hazim Beg (Mosul), Muhammad Beg Jaf (Kirkuk), Muhammad Salih and Saifullah Khandan (Sulaimaniya) presented a formal list of grievances to the Prime Minister. They complained that no tangible progress had been made on the Frontier Commission's proposals, and pointed especially to the lack of educational facilities in the area, not simply in the Kurdish language, but the generally poor provision of schools and teachers. They suggested further that Dohuk should be the headquarters of a ‘Kurdish Liwa' which would include the Kurdish qadhas of Mosul (‘Aqra, ‘Amadiya, Zibar, Zakho and Dohuk) and that the administration of Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk, Arbil and ‘Dohuk' should be under a general inspectorate presided over by a distinguished Kurd. Finally, they suggested that Tapu Registration should be encouraged by waiving Tapu fees for two years.

At the same time, the police reports noted that the desire for decentralisation in Kurdistan was ‘almost universal', and Clayton informed the Prime Minister that he was in constant receipt of petitions and madhbatas from the area. The High Commissioner himself was not in favour of the proposed ‘Dohuk Liwa' or any separatist suggestions, but asked the Prime Minister to take urgent practical steps to remedy the deficient educational facilities in the area. In the following month Cornwallis and Edmonds sent notes on the Kurdish question to the Residency, underscoring the obstructive attitude of successive Ministers of Education. They also criticised the Director of Education for Mosul, fiercely anti-Kurdish, who was also in charge of Arbil and Kirkuk. Edmonds favoured the ‘Kohuk Liwa' scheme on the grounds of administrative efficiency: on the question of officials and civil servants, he was inclined to make the Kurdish language rather than the Kurdish race the criterion for employment in Kurdish areas. As a preliminary to any major administrative reform, however, he stressed the need for the immediate reorganisation of the educational districts, and, once more, the translation bureau which had been promised since the beginning of 1926.

Against this background Britain's announcement of unconditional support for Iraq entry into the League, issued in September 1929, caused serious concern in Kurdistan, misgiving which turned into consternation when it was known that the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty contained no formal safeguards for Kurdish interests. At the Residency, in the early part of 1930, Young was faced with embarrassing requests for enlightenment on the question of who would be available, when Iraq entered the League in 1932, to underwrite the regime which had been promised (but showed no signs of being created) for Kurdistan. Reports from the North indicated a variety of developments. In Kirkuk, the local Kurdish nationalists felt that they had been cheated by Britain: they had been promised a Treaty with 25 years' British protection, and they were now to be cut off after six. In Abril, Kitching felt that the Government's attitude was causing such discontent that British forces would be compelled to intervene. He was certain that the Iraq Government would ‘cease to exist in the mountains of this liwa early in 1932.' None of the Administrative Inspectors or Special Service Officers considered that an organised revolutionary movement was in existence or being constructed, but all felt that some positive action on the part of the Iraq Government should not be delayed any longer.

As a result of these representations, and of a conference of the local British official and the British staff in the Ministry of Interior in mid-March, Cornwallis put up a note on the Kurdish question for the new Minister of the Interior, Jamil Midfa'I, containing what the conference had considered to the minima which would satisfy the Kurds. Apart from transfers of individuals, Cornwallis and his colleagues requested that the Kurdish areas should be made into a single educational inspectorate, that a Kurdish Assistant Director-General should be appointed to the Ministry of Interior, that all court proceedings where Kurds were concerned should be in Kurdish, that police and all officials in the Kurdish areas should be able to speak the language, and that Kurdish should be the official language of Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk and the designated parts of Mosul, and one of the official languages of Kirkuk. They also asked for the incorporation of a recognisably Kurdish symbol into the national flag, and, as ever, a translation bureau.

Following this and other pressures from British official sources, the Government promised a policy centred round a Local Languages Law, in a policy statement at the beginning of April 1930. In spite of constant pressure from the British authorities, this law had still to be drafted by May 1931, and when it eventually appeared was so emasculated as to be almost unrecognisable.

We have already seen that the omission of any direct mention of Kurdistan in the 1930 Treaty had caused grave concern in the north. Cornwallis hoped that the publication of the Treaty might serve as a suitable occasion for the Government to re-emphasise its pledges to the Kurds, and to set in motion a proper programme which would satisfy the aspirations of the Kurdish moderates. At a meeting of the Cabinet on 17 July, the ministers considered the details of the suggestions put forward by British officials which had occasioned the blanket pronouncement of intent issued three months earlier. Most of the measures requested were agreed to, including the creation of an Educational Inspectorate for the Kurdish areas, the appointment of an Assistant Director-General in the Ministry of Interior, with two translators directly under him, the training of police officers in Kurdish, the criterion of language rather than race as a qualification for employment in the Kurdish areas, and the principle that all judicial procedures in the area should be conducted in Kurdish.

By this time, with telegrams of protest being sent in considerable number to the League of Nations, the problem had ceased to be confined to Iraqi politics. The League had stated in January 1930 that Iraq's entry would be welcomed in 1932, but one of the conditions for entry would be that ‘effective guarantees be secured for the observance of all Treaty obligations in Iraq for the benefit of racial and religious minorities…' and the volume of discontent in Kurdistan was likely to attract unfavourable attention in Geneva. Accordingly, early in August, the Acting High Commissioner and the Acting Prime Minister, Major Young and Ja'far al-‘Askari, made a tour of the Kurdish areas to emphasise the evils of separation and to demonstrate the complete unanimity of British and Iraqi policy towards Kurdistan. In the course of the tour, Ja'far made several speeches (on the lines of the Cabinet decisions of 17 July) which gave the impression that these measures had already been put into effect.

The tour was not a success, particularly in Sulaimaniya, the centre of the strongest sentiments for Kurdish separatism. Guns and picquets of the Iraq Army had been placed on the hills above the town, and machine guns were clearly visible on the rooftops of the houses. Furthermore, it was only when Young returned to Baghdad that he realized that Ja'far's statements about the Language Law, justice and officials were promises for the future rather than descriptions of what had been done. As a result, Young undertook to forward, with his official blessing, petitions to the League signed by leading citizens of Sulaimaniya complaining that the Iraq Government was not implementing its policies as it claimed:

‘I am telling the Regent and the Acting Prime Minister that unless I am satisfied immediately that policy which I have publicly endorsed on behalf of H.M. Government is carried out in spirit as well as letter I shall be obliged to recommend that in forwarding Sulaimaniya petition to the League, H.M Government should explain that my announcement (i.e. on tour in Kurdistan) was made under a misapprehension and that the Iraq Government are not in fact carrying out their programme.'

At the same time, Cornwallis issued a stiff memorandum to his minister, Jamil Midfa'I, who had been incensed by the Sulaimaniya petition and had removed the popular mutasarrif, Taufiq Wahbi. Cornwallis pointed out that the Kurds were quite capable, if sufficiently provoked, of causing the Iraq Government the greatest embarrassment. He had always been apprehensive of trouble, in the form of some sort of Kurdish rising, but was particularly anxious that it should not arise as a result of mismanagement on the part of the Iraq Government. Although Midfa'i was angry with the Sulaimaniya leaders, he should not forget that they had telegraphed their warm approbation of the proposed Lanuage Law when it had been mooted in April. Unfortunately the good effect had been spoilt by the Prime Minister's announcement that language and not race would be the test of employment in Kurdish areas in the future. The choice remained: the Government could either suppress the moderate Kurdish leaders or try to win them over. Cornwallis recommended that all the proposals which had been made should be put into effect immediately with the maximum publicity, and a number of Kurds appointed to senior positions. If this failed, he pointed out, the Iraq Government could consider themselves completely vindicated.

By early September 1930, the Colonial Office had become aware of the gravity of the situation, and furthermore that attempts at concealment of its serousness from the League might give rise to grave embarrassments in the future. Young was informed that H.M. Government required some concrete evidence of the Iraq Government's good faith, (such as publication of the Local Languages Law). When the Prime Minister (Nuri) returned from Europe, he should be told that the law must be published, that the present anti-Kurdish attitudes must be eliminated from the Cabinet, and that the policy already given publicity should be put into immediate effect. When this telegram arrived at the Residency, Sturges noted "this strengthens our hand considerably."

Although London was now realising the gravity of the situation, there was little, short of the Iraq Government actually carrying out the promised policies, that could be done to avert serious trouble in Iraq. In Sulaimaniya, Taufiq Wahbi had been removed by the Ministry of Interior in mid-August because of his evident sympathy with the leader of the Sulaimaniya moderates had voted in a body in July to boycott the forthcoming elections. While Taufiq Wahbi remained in Sulaimaniya, Shaikh Qadir felt safe from outside pressures, but when he was replaced by Ahmad Beg-i-Taufiq Beg, Qadir turned once more to his brother-in-law for help. Ahmad ordered the election of the inspection committee to go ahead, and a detachment of the Iraq Army was brought in to supervise the proceedings. On 6 September, there was serious rioting as a result of the army's attempt to force the holding of the election. One soldier and fourteen civilians were killed, and a large number of civilians, including Shakh Qadir, were arrested. Two days later, Midfa'I was at last persuaded to sign a memeorandum on Kurdish policy to be sent to the mutasarrifs of the Northern liwas, instructing them to act in accordance with the provisions of the Draft Local Languages Law which had still not been published. The Acting High Commissioner telegraphed to London:

‘Apart from the fact that the Iraq Government are not in the modd to reconsider concessions to the Kurds at present I consider that any concession, such as the publication of the Local Languages Law at this moment would be interpreted by the Kurds as a result of the violent tactics adopted at Sulaimaniya. I propose to confine myself for the time being…… to ensuring that justice is done to those arrested as instigators of the riot and to impressing on the Iraq Government the fact that the riot at Sulaimaniya must not alter the general policy of conciliation.'

The immediate result of the incident at Sulaimaniya was to bring Shaikh Mahmud back into the arena of Kurdish politics. Eleven days after the riot he crossed the frontier into Iraq, sending his son Baba ‘Ali to inform the mutasarrif and Administrative Inspector of Sulaimaniyq of his arrival, professedly on a visit to perform condolence ceremonies with some of the Pizhder chiefs. In fact he was building up support among the Pizhder and the Avroman tribes. The Acting Hihg Commissioner admitted that it might seem strange that no action was taken to restrain the Shaikh, but he believed that it was up to the Iraq Government to take the initiative, as Mahmud could always slip back across the Persian frontier. The Iraq Army would have great difficulty in resistin him successfully without the help of the R.A.F. and it was therefore desirable to wait until the situation had actually deteriorated.

Mahmud did in fact return to Persia after some weeks in Iraq, but in the course of his stay he complained bitterly to the High Commissioner about the shootings in Sulaimaniya. In mid October he wrote that the Kurds ‘from Zakho to Khaniqin' were united in wanting separation from Iraq and independence under British protection. He asked that those who had been imprisoned in Sulaimaniya should be released, and also for an extensive administrative reorganisation of the area. By this time such pleas fell on deaf ears: the Residency and the British officials could not support Iraq's candidature for the League and at the same time be seen to be encouraging a rebel against the Government's authority. Thus a message was sent from Baghdad to Sulaimaniya informing the Shaikh that the Government considered him an outlaw and would under no circumstances listen to his demands. The only acceptable course would be the Shaikh's surrender and the dispersal of his forces. At the end of the year it seemed extremely likely that Mahmud would be leading an uprising against the Government in the spring, and petitions from Kurdistan were pouring in to the Residency in his favour. Two months later the Administrative Inspector Mosul confirmed that most of the important aghast in his liwa had also pledged their suppor tot Mahmud. Edmonds wondered how this threat would be dealt with: ‘The Iraq Treasury is empty and I imagine that the R.A.F. budget has been considerably curtailed since the halcyon days of Sir John Salmond when the R.A.F. still had to make good.

In the middle of October the Residency returned to the charge, in an attempt to find out how far the ‘promises' had been implemented since Young and Ja'far had made their tour in August. On the face of it, things seemed to be improving: on 24 August Salih Zaki of Chamchamal had been appointed Assistan Director-General in the Ministry of Interior, in charge of Kurdish affairs, with two Kurdish translators; on 30 Semptember Saiyid Nuri Barzinji had been made Inspector of Kurdish schools. However, the Local Languages Law had still not been published in the aftermath of the Sulaimaniya incident and it was feared in London that awkward questions would shortly be asked at Geneva.

Such fears were well-founded. Major Young, appearing on Britain's behalf before the Permanent Mandates Commission in November, was given something of a rough passage. The Chairman of the committee, pointing out the instability of the Iraq Government as indicated by the numerous changes of Cabinet, also wondered whether the Mandatory was actually fulfilling its duties in respect of Iraq:

‘If the British Government had definitely decided to recommend Iraq for entry into the League in 1932, then it must inform the P.M.C. of the reasons which had led to that decision. Every time, however, that the P.M.C. asked for these reasons, the accredited representative of Great Britain merely urged it to wait until the moment arrives.'

There were other serious considerations facing the Colonial Office and the Residency at this time. In December, Humphrys informed London that the Iraq Government were preparing their own comments on the Sulaimaniya petition, and they had pointed out to him that:

‘…..the policy pursued by them in the administration of the Kurdish districts had never been the cause of dissatisfaction among the Kurds and that this had been indicated in the annual reports submitted to the League by H.M. Government.

They quoted passages from the 1925 and 1926 reports:

‘The system of employing Kurdish officials in Kurdish districts has long been accepted together with the use of the Kurdish language in the schools, and local correspondence is conducted in Kurdish if desired. In respecting Kurdish susceptibilities the Iraq Government has rightly comprehended that a united state can be built up of divers elements and has set an example among Near Eastern Countries.' ‘Everywhere in the Kurdish areas, officials, with very few exceptions, were Kurds, and the Kurdish language was the official language of the courts and schools. The policy enunciated by the Prime Minister on 21 January 1926 has been loyally carried out by all departments and accepted by the Kurds themselves.'

Humphrys continued:

‘I do not know whether Your Lordship intends to transmit these comments of the Iraq Government to the League with the final comments of H.M. Government on the Kurdish question, but it appears to me that if the League are to be presented with document which show a divergence of view between the British and Iraq Governments on the manner in which the Kurds have been handled in the past, the effect upon the League will be most unfortunate.'

Some new line of argument had to be found, therefore, which the British and Iraq Governments could present to the League in an attempt to explain why, if the British authorities had painted so rosy a picture of Kurdistan in the past, signs of obvious discontent should be appearing in 1930. Humphrys argued that a possible escape lay in arguing that the Frontier Commission's recommendations had become unworkable, because these had been made at a time when the promises of Sevres were still very much alive in Kurdish minds. He suggested that further petitions should not be forwarded to the League until the Mandates Commission had intimated whether or not they concurred in the Iraq Government's new policy, embodied in the Local Languages Law, which had been issued on 11 November.

However, the League wsa by now even more concerned about the situation in Kurdistan. On 22 December, the High Commissioner received the Mandates Commission's comments on the petitions which it had received so far. They recommended that the plea for an independent Kurdish Government under the League should be rejected, but invited the cooperation of the Mandatory to ensure that the ‘legislative and administrative measures designed to secure for the Kurds the position to which they are entitled are promptly put into effect and properly enforced. Further, they asked H.M. Government to consider measures of guaranteeing Kurdish rights after the termination of the Mandate.

As the High Commissioner had realised, the British authorities were now in an extremely embarrassing position. Nothing in their previous reports to the League had given the slightest sign that all was not well in Kurdistan, but they were now faced not only with evident and widespread dissatisfaction in the area but even the strong possibility of an armed uprising. The Iraq Government claimed that this was the result of pandering to the Kurds, while the British authorities claimed that, on the contrary, it was the result of not taking Kurdish demands seriously enough. For its part the Iraq Government seems to have realised by the end of 1930 that Britain was not only anxious to be able to leave Iraq in 1932, but that failure to do so because the League judged Iraq incompetent would reflect highly unfavourably on British integrity at Geneva. Thus of all the parties the Iraq Government was in fact in the strongest position: provided the threat posed by Shaikh Mahmud could be satisfactorily dealt with, and that any suggestion of a League Commissioner could be headed off, it was difficult to see how Iraq ran the risk of much more than a rebuke from the League if the Kurds were not satisfied after the end of the Mandate. They also know that H.M. Government was extremely sensitive, because of relations with Turkey and Persia, to any insinuation that Britain was attempting to return to the conditions of the Treaty of Sevres. Provided the Government could make paper concessions, and continue to procrastinate, no serious attempt to resolve the Kurdish problem seemed necessary.

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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.