Global Policy Forum

The Royal Air Force in Iraq


By Peter Sluglett

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

Sluglett, a leading historian of modern Iraq, here discusses the British use of air power to impose colonial rule in Iraq. While officials in London sometimes expressed discomfort, military commanders and colonial officials bombed and strafed Iraqi villages to teach obedience and to force tax collection from even the poorest Iraqis.


The first aeroplanes of the Royal Flying Corps had arrived in Mesopotamia in 1916. In the first months, their use was confined to reconnaissance and guidance of artillery fire, but gradually the advantages of using aircraft in offensive operations became as apparent in the Middle East as they had become on the Western Front. The notion that aeroplanes had their uses in checking disturbances in areas considered impenetrable by ordinary troops began to gain currency. In April 1919:

"Bombing still continues to be carried out. No sooner has one area been subdued than another breaks out into revolt and has to be dealt with by aeroplane..all these tribal disturbances have been dealt with from the air... thus the Army has been saved from marching many weary miles over bad country and sustaining casualties."

The advantage of air control, its speed, its great savings in time, personnel and expense were to become increasingly obvious over the following years. Even traditional military men were brought round: General Haldane, Commander-in-Chief in Baghdad wrote to Churchill in Hune 1921:

"Indeed, I now think that had I had sufficient aircraft last year I might have prevented the insurrection spreading from beyond the first incident at Rumaitha."

As Secretary of State for War, Churchill instructed Trenchard to prepare a scheme for the maintenance of internal security for Mesopotamia. Churchill envisaged a series of landing grounds in the middle of defended areas, thus doing away with the long lines of communication which had bedeviled the campaign during the war. After a tour of the country, Sir Geoffrey Salmond, brother of the first Air Officer Commanding in Baghdad, concluded that the scheme was suitable in principle:

"It must be taken as an essential part of our position in Mesopotamia that the civil administration of this country is only possible because military force exists. The task which the RAF will be called upon to undertake is to maintain the status quo without imperiling the civil administration, even though the worst situation should arise, namely a general rising throughout the country, an improbable event."

In spite of Salmond's predictions, the improbable did take place: the insurrection began a few months later and heavy fighting and considerable loss of life resulted. Hence the arguments for the air scheme became even stronger, in terms of the general war-weariness and the desperate need for economy now pressing in upon Whitehall. Churchill, now Colonial Secretary, strongly advocated the policy, which was finally adopted in August 1921, and scheduled to take effect after October 1922. Britain's obligations as Mandatory power were to be carried out by employing squadrons of the RAF together with a number of armoured car companies and battalions of Levies. This garrison was under the Air Officer Commanding, who was himself responsible to the High Comminssioner and not to the Air Ministry. Apart from the saving of money involved, Trenchard considered that the air scheme was based on the principle that:

"..if the Arabs have nothing to fight against on the ground and no loot or rifles to be obtained, and nobody to kill, but have to deal with aeroplanes which are out of their reach they are certain to come in and there will be no risk of disasters or heavy casualties such as are always suffered by small infantry patrols in uncivilized countries."

However, the principles of air control were the subject of protracted controversy. The opposition put up by the War Office was largely based on lines of demarcation, but even within the Colonial Office misgivings were expresses which were in fact substantially justified during the period of the Mandate. One official asked:

"How far would it be legitimate or desirable for British Forces to help the Arab Government put down risings or to enforce obedience?....suppose the middle Euphrates area revolts against the Amir and pushes out all the Amir's officials and sets up a Shia administration: is the Mandatory to help restore the Amir's authority?"

Churchill informed Cox in June, 1921:

"Aerial action is a legitimate means of quelling disturbances and of enforcing the maintenance of order but it should in no circumstances be employed in suppor of purely administrative measures such as the collection of revenue."

an injunction which was to be largely honoured in the breach in the future.

In practical terms, the preservation of "internal security" was equivalent to extending the area of authority of the Iraq Government. In order to achieve this, parts of the country which were more or less anarchic and had rarely paid taxes had to be pacified. To the Kurds, and to the tribesmen of the Middle and Lower Euphrates, the policy pursued by Britain and the Iraq Government seemed in practice little different from that of the Turks. For the tribesmen, "Government" meant the twin evils of taxation and conscription, both of which they had almost succeeded in keeping at arm's length in Ottoman times. After the Occupation, it became clear that the Civil Administration was determined not only to impose taxes but also to collect them, and where the Iraq Government could afford to do so without damaging local susceptibilities, it also showed energy in this respect.

Inevitably, bombing developed into an instrument of repression. As a result of several operations in Iraq in 1923 and 1924, the Harmsworth and Beaverbrook presses, which were strongly opposed to any further British involvement in the Middle East, seized on the vigorous peacekeeping activities of the RAF as a further argument to "Quit Mesopotamia", and there were a number of embarrassing Parliamentary Questions. Lansbury fulminated against this Hunnish and barbarous method of warfare against unarmed people, but he was not alone in his attacks on the policy:

"Lord Curzon has interested himself in this question. I gather that Lord Curzon was not satisfied that there is any real difference between bombing for non-payment of taxes and bombing for non-appearance when summoned to explain non-payment of taxes."

In August 1924 the Labour Minister for Air presented to Parliament a Note on the Employment of the Air Arm in Iraq, apparently an attempt at a blanket answer to these criticisms. In described the circumstances under which RAF assistance could be requested, and the administrative procedures involved, emphasizing that aeroplanes were only to be used if all other mans had failed. The alternatives to air control were dismissed as impossibly unwieldy and expensive. The Note claimed that air defence was cheap, that it provided "a method of control more effective and less costly to life and suffering", and that it enabled bombing was about to take place, the local population was always warned in advance by leaflets being dropped to enable them to take cover, so that "the compulsion exercised by the air arm rests more on the damage to morale and on the interruption to the normal life of the tribe than on actual casualties."

Both the principles and the abuses of the system in practice are best illustrated by studying a single operation. The largest offensive mounted by the RAF in Southern Iraq during the 1920's was the action taken against the Bani Huchaim confederation in Samawa qadha in the late autumn and winter of 1923-24. In the autumn of 1923, the authorities attempted to collect taxes in the Samawa qadha for the first time for many years. There was no suggestion that there had been any serious unruliness or disorder in the area, and the fact that British Officers were able to tour freely confirms this. Glubb, who was then Special Service Officer at Hillah, discovered that the serious water shortage in the area was largely due to the diversion of the channels by Shal'lan abu Chon, the most powerful local sheikh who, like his associate Abd al-Wahid Sikkar, envisited the qadha and the mustasarrif was rarely seen. The tribes themselves were:

"exceptionally poor... it is a regrettable fact that Government at the moment presents itself to their minds as a kind of absentee landlord which never concerns itself with them except periodically to demand revenue."

Glubb suggested that it would be sensible to talk to the local leaders, listen to their grievances, and make whatever adjustments were possible.

At the same time, however, (as is evident from the dates of the letters) the Administrative Inspector, Diwaniyah, was recommending that punitive action should be taken for non-payment of taxes. Units of the Iraq Army and police were moved into position well before it was suggested that the "rebels" should be summoned to Samawa. The letter sent by the Ministry of Interior to the Administrative Inspector stressed that the latter should "be careful not to impose collection of revenue as the main condition since if it is found necessary to bomb them it must be for defiance of Government orders and not to increase the exchequer", the distinction which Lord Curzon had found so hard to appreciate.

A week or so later Moore, the S.S.O. at Samawa, made another tour of the area, listening to complaints:

"In each mudhif (tribal guest-house) we heard the same opinions and grievances that have been embodied in Captain Glubb's report...albu Jayyash in particular were loud in their praise of the old days when water was fairly distributed and a man could feel reasonably safe in his house."

Nevertheless, late in November, the sheikhs of several subsections of the Bani Huchaim confederation were "peremptorily'"summoned to Samawa at 48 hours' notice and required to give a deposit of money as surety of their tribes' good behaviour. Two of the three sheikhs who arrived confessed that they had long lost the ability to control their tribes, an answer which although considered unsatisfactory was more than likely to be true. The necessary guarantees could not be found, and arrangements were accordingly made for the RAF to bomb the area so as to encourage obedience to Government. The casualties may appear unimpressive by today's standards, but over a two week period 144 people were killed and an unspecified number wounded.

A few weeks after the end of the operation Glubb, perhaps the most perceptive observer of local conditions, wrote to Air Headquarters:

"It is regrettable but it appears almost inevitable that aerial action should be associated with the payment of taxes. First, the tribesman thinks of Government merely as an institution which periodically descends upon him demanding money. If he sees Government applying coercion to any individual to any individual or tribe he naturally concludes that it is with the object of extracting money. Secondly, the average minor Government official seems to have much the same idea of his duties…. The association of punitive action with the payment of taxes cannot be avoided. It can, however, be mitigated by constantly impressing on individuals that Government has no right to tax the community unless it gives something in return. I have very rarely heard an official take credit to himself for improving agriculture in his district, or public health."

A further acute analysis was written by another RAF Intelligence Officer in April 1924:

"The primary cause of the recent outbreak was the growing irritation at demands for revenue which the tribes' poverty and fecklessness makes them unable to meet. That they in fact have little or no money is reported from all sources, both official and unofficial. Whether they would pay if they had is another question, but it seems at least possible that they would squander less recklessly what little they get if they saw a more tangible return for their repayment of revenue. At present many of them feel that they are merely supplying pay for some tomato-eating Effendis in Baghdad."

Soon after the operation had ended, an official report was sent to London by the Air Officer Commanding in Baghdad. In a Minute on the report, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff suggested that before it was circulated to other Government departments, certain passages should be omitted, amongst which was the following:

"Although the tribes had been continually lawless and disobedient it appeared necessary before punitive action was taken that some definite instance of insubordination should take place."

The tone of the Minute itself is not reassuring:

"If this report as it stands were to get into the hands of undesirable people, harm might be done not only to the Air Force but also to the Government (i.e. H.M.G.) the whole operation might be regarded as forcing an unnecessary and unprovoked quarrel on the people in order that drastic punishment might be carried out at a time when no definite claim could be fixed on these people and when the country was quiet and the main communications working normally, even to the extent that; Political Officers could go. I think that certain paragraph should not be sent out without further consideration."

Later operations in the same area further suggest that these operations had simply been a form of exemplary punishment. In 1925, a squadron of aircraft was used to help the police in the sheep count, undertaken to collect the koda, or animal tax. The air diary records:

"This is the first serious attempt to exercise civil authority over the turbulent Bani Huchaim since the Samawa operations in 1923...It is interesting therefore to note that small police columns with aircraft co-operation were able to operate successfully on such a scale in this areas without encountering opposition."

If the first offensive had been in any way successful, it seems strange that two years had had to elapse before any further attempts were made to extend Government authority in the area. However, the deterrent effect had struck deep: in 1930 the S.S.O Diwaniya commented:

"Although only a few desperate criminals are now prepared to resist the police, whole sections of the tribes might assist their criminal relatives against the police were it not for the threat of aeroplanes bombing them. This form of punishment will always be remembered in the Samawa qadha."

Perhaps the most serious long term consequence of the ready availability of air control was that it developed into a substitute for administration. Several incidents during the Mandate period indicate that the speed and simplicity of air attack was preferred to the more time consuming and painstaking investigation of grievances and disputes. With such powers at its disposal the Iraq Government was not encouraged to develop less violent methods of extending its control over the country.

Although the RAF ceased in theory to assist the Iraq authorities to maintain peace within the country under the terms of the 1930 Treaty, the presence of British aeroplanes in the country after the end of the Mandate constituted a powerful deterrent to any attempts to disturb the status quo. During the Euphrates rising of 1935, due, as the Embassy knew, to long standing grievances over land tenure which had been cleverly exploited by the Baghdad politicians, the intervention of the RAF was urgently requested by the Iraq Army, and the aeroplanes were certainly made ready for possible action. Cornwallis, just ending his tenure of office at the Ministry of Interior, considered that the Government was lucky to escape so lightly:

"He was blackly pessimistic when the tribes around Rumaitha and Suq al-Shuyukh were up, and was inclined to prophesy that Hai, Nasiriyah and Hilla must all go too. Indeed it was a close thing. He thinks that one of the chief reasons for the restriction of the revolt to the two small districts was the RAF reconnaissance, and the (accidental) shooting down of our aeroplanes. This persuaded the tribes that we were on the Government side. He got this from some of the sheikhs concerned."

Only by safeguarding the interests of the Iraq Government could Briatin ensure the continuation of her own position in the country. Political power had to lie in the hands of those who, however grudgingly or resentfully, realized their own deep dependence on the British connection. Hence the RAF, in its task of preserving internal order was in reality merely propping one or other of the political groups who had combined to form the Government of the day. The presence of the Air Force made I possible for these groups to exercise an authority over the country that could only be dislodged by violence, and no opposition in the end could be effective against aeroplanes.

On the positive side, the RAF helped to ensure its own survival by demonstrating convincingly its cheapness and efficiency as a "peacekeeping force." But inevitably, as Curzon saw, its main effect was to terrorise parts of rural Iraq into paying taxes to the Government, and, as other observers closer to the ground were able to record, it was hard to discover what tangible benefits these unwilling taxpayers received. Without the Air Force the Government's ability to control the country would have been severely limited, if not impossible. Amery's comment in 1925 holds good for the whole of the Mandate period, and probably for some years after:

"If the writ of King Faisal funs effectively throughout his kingdom it is entirely due to British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces."

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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.