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Posted by Andreas from ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 11:28AM :

In Reply to: Shit...A Headline From 70 Years Ago!!! posted by Wild Iraqi from ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 9:28AM :

Blah, Blah - Wuff, Wuff: Now the Real Info

Later we can have then an INFORMED discussion, at least.


Imperialism and Iraq: Lessons from the past

Part One
By Jean Shaoul

29 May 2003

Anyone looking at the events today in Iraq cannot but be struck at the
obvious parallels with what happened there in the first half of the
twentieth century.

The roll call of imperialist powers with an interest in the region was
similar, but the dominant imperialist power at that time was Britain not the
United States. British armed forces invaded Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then
known, in 1914 with promises of freedom—from the Turks. But the promises
were just for public consumption. Behind the rhetoric lay, as ever, material
interests—oil. Like the US today, the British vigorously denied any such

The military odds enjoyed by the British army were also just as favourable.
And after a war to “liberate the Arabs” from Turkish control, came not
freedom, but a British occupation.

Then too, horrific aerial bombing marked the occupation. Then too, there was
a series of sordid deals between the imperial powers—the US, Britain, France
and Italy—over how the spoils of war should be divided up as Britain sought
to steal a march on its so-called allies, with the League of Nations
(forerunner of the United Nations) shamelessly endorsing the carve up.

More importantly, defence of its oil interests meant British rule over Iraq
in all but name—under a League of Nations Mandate until 1932, and later as
the power behind the throne, with the Iraqi people bearing the financial
burden of Britain’s war, occupation and rule.

British rule finally ended in 1958, when massive street demonstrations
threatened to get out of control, and the army stepped in, overthrew the
monarchy, seized power and took action to gain control of Iraq’s oil.

It is instructive to examine this earlier period and the role the
imperialist powers played in shaping the political, economic and social
conditions in Iraq. While all the powers sought to control the oil resources
of the Middle East, it was only after the deaths of millions of workers in t
he first imperialist world war and countless acts of skullduggery that the
British were able to establish their hegemony.

Such an analysis confirms that far from liberation and any progressive
future, the US occupation of Iraq in the aftermath of the most recent Gulf
war bodes only the return to direct rule and control of country’s oil
resources by imperialism—this time by the US with Britain as its junior

Imperialist interests in Mesopotamia before World War I

The first imperialist power to establish itself in the Middle East was
Britain. Its initial connection with the region was the result of its
interest in protecting the route to India and Indian trade. To this end,
British naval forces mounted repeated attacks on the Arabian coast and by
the 1840s established colonial possessions in the Persian Gulf and Aden.
Britain’s domination of the coast opened up the hinterland to Western

Mesopotamia, as the three vilayets or provinces of Basra, Baghdad and the
predominantly Kurdish Mosul that make up modern day Iraq were then known,
had been the easternmost part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries. A
backward rural economy, many of its peoples were semi-nomadic. By the end of
the nineteenth century, the opening of the Suez Canal and the development of
river transport by the British had led to Mesopotamia’s increasing
integration into the wider capitalist economy. The Basra province became
ever more important for the export of cereals and cotton to Manchester and

At the same time, there was an increasing interest in the region’s oil
resources. While it had been known for thousands of years that certain areas
in Mesopotamia and Persia, as Iran was then known, contained oil springs and
seepages, apart from primitive local uses there was no developed industry.

European interest in exploiting Mesopotamian and Persian oil commercially
began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when capital began to
flow into the region. Permission for numerous explorations was sought from
Constantinople, often under cover of archaeological excavations. The
Anglo-Persian Oil Company discovered the first commercially exploitable oil
in southern Persia in 1908.

While British and Indian trade dominated the region, accounting for 75
percent of the total, German capital began to pour into
Mesopotamia—particularly after Germany won the concession to build the
railway from Turkey to Baghdad in 1903. Since the intention was to carry it
on to Basra and Kuwait, this would have created a direct link between the
Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf and posed a strategic threat to Britain’s
position in India.

The railway took on an additional significance after the discovery of
commercially exploitable oil in Persia, since the concession included
exclusive rights over minerals in the 20 kilometres on either side of the

With the start in 1904 of the British Royal Navy’s conversion from coal to
oil, which made transport both cheaper and faster, the government sought
supplies that were nearer than the Gulf of Mexico and had a more long-term
future. The British government’s advisors believed that since the exports
from the main oil producers were set to decline, the oil majors would be in
a position to dictate terms to the Royal Navy upon which the Empire
depended. Over the next 20 years, government policy increasingly focused on
the need to control both the sources and suppliers of Britain’s oil. The
government therefore provided full diplomatic support to British nationals
in their bids to secure oil concessions in Mesopotamia.

In 1911, an Anglo-German consortium (Royal Dutch Shell, the entrepreneur C.
S. Gulbenkian, the (British) National Bank of Turkey and Deutsche Bank)
secured an exclusive concession from Turkey to exploit all the oil within
the empire’s borders. The Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), as it soon became
known, merged with Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1913, with the
ownership shared between British, German, Dutch and Gulbenkian interests. In
August 1914, after protracted negotiations, the British government took a
majority shareholding in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the forerunner to
BP, now Britain's largest corporation) for £2.2 million, thereby gaining the
oil rights to Mesopotamia as well and further strengthening its interests in
the region.

At the same time, numerous other international groups had begun to seek oil
concessions around Baghdad and Mosul. These commercial tensions played a
crucial role in precipitating World War I at whose heart lay the division of
Turkey’s eastern lands. As far as Britain was concerned, the fact that new
sources of oil, a resource so vital to the Empire, lay outside its
boundaries led to the inevitable conclusion that the Empire must be

Britain seizes control of Mesopotamia in World War I

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, British imperialism’s “Eastern
Policy” had been based on propping up the bankrupt Ottoman Empire as a
bulwark against Tsarist Russian expansionism. But when World War I broke out
and Turkey joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria, British policy
underwent a complete change.

Fearing that at Germany’s behest Turkey would hamper oil supplies and trade,
the British authorities in India sent an expeditionary force to Basra to
prevent Turkey from interfering with British interests in the Gulf,
particularly its interests in the oil fields in southern Persia. This was to
turn the Middle East into an important theatre of war. It became explicit
policy to break up the Ottoman Empire and bring its Arab territories under
British control.

After a series of ignominious defeats, it became clear that taking control
of the Turkish territories was not going to be a walk over. So Britain
entered into a series of cynical, fraudulent and mutually irreconcilable
agreements designed to secure Turkey’s defeat and further her own commercial
and territorial ambitions in the region.

First, Britain calculated that an Arab uprising would be invaluable in
attacking and defeating the Turks from the south, and opening a route into
Europe from the east, thereby breaking the bloody stalemate in the trenches
in Flanders. Its initial contacts were with the Hashemites, a desert dynasty
in Hejaz, now part of Saudi Arabia, which controlled the Muslim holy places
of Mecca and Medina and sought to replace Ottoman rule with their own.
Britain reasoned that such an alliance would prove useful in securing the
loyalty of its Indian Muslim conscripts in the Mesopotamian Expeditionary
Force whom it was using as cannon fodder in its war against Germany. The
disastrous defeats at Gallipoli led the British to accept the conditions
spelt out under the Damascus Protocol: British support for the Arabs in
overthrowing Turkish rule in return for Arab independence for the
territories now known as Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and
Saudi Arabia. In 1915, they made an agreement with the Hashemite Sherif
Hussein of Mecca, promising independence in return for their support against
the Turks.

Secondly, at the same time as Britain was using the Arabs to further its
aims, it was facing rival claims from her wartime allies, France and Russia,
for control over the Ottoman Empire after the war and was forced to cut a
deal with them. In May 1916, Britain signed the Tripartite Agreement, better
known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, according to which Russia would get
Istanbul, the Bosphorus and parts of Armenia. France would take what is now
Syria and Lebanon while Britain would take Baghdad, Basra and Trans-Jordan
(Jordan). Britain evidently took her eye off the ball when she ceded part of
the potentially oil-rich Mosul province to France, and spent the next period
trying to bring Mosul into her own sphere of influence. Palestine would be
separated from Syria and placed under an international administration and
its ultimate fate would be decided at an international conference at the end
of the war. Only in the most backward and impoverished part of the region,
the Arab peninsula, would the Arabs be given independence.

Needless to say, the peoples affected by this disposition would have no say
in deciding their future and the terms of the treaty were kept secret. After
the Russian Revolution, when the Bolsheviks published the secret agreement
to expose the imperialists’ conspiracies against the oppressed peoples of
the region, Sherif Hussein demanded an explanation. But right up to the end
of the war, the British and French promised full independence to the Arabs.

“The end that France and Great Britain have in pursuing in the East the war
unloosed by German ambition is the complete and definite freeing of the
peoples so long oppressed by the Turks and the establishment of national
Governments and Administrations deriving their authority from the initiative
and free choice of the indigenous population,” stated the joint Anglo-French
declaration of November 7, 1918. “France and Great Britain have agreed to
encourage and assist the establishment of indigenous Governments and
Administrations.... And in the territories whose liberation they seek.”

Thirdly, in November 1917, Britain, intent on stealing a march over France
and securing her own interests in the region by holding on to Palestine,
made yet another commitment under the cynical subterfuge of humanitarian
concerns for the Jews. It issued the deliberately vague Balfour Declaration,
which “viewed with sympathy the establishment of a Jewish homeland in

With the aid of the Arabs, the British were able to reverse their
misfortunes and take Baghdad in March 1917, and later Jerusalem and
Damascus, from the Turks. The Arab Revolt against the Turks, led by Faisal,
the son of Sherif Hussein of Hejaz, was of strategic importance to the
British. It tied down some 30,000 Turkish troops along the railway from
Amman to Medina and prevented the Turko-German forces in Syria linking up
with the Turkish garrison in Yemen.

Perfidious as ever, British military forces in Mesopotamia ignored the
Armistice signed with Turkey at Mudros on October 30, 1918, and continued
their march north, capturing the predominantly Kurdish province of Mosul a
few days later. This was because it made little sense to keep the central
and southern provinces of Mesopotamia without the oil rich northern
province. Mosul was also important as an intermediate staging post on the
route to the Russian controlled oil-rich Caspian and Caucasian states.
Britain then expropriated the 25 percent German share in the Turkish
Petroleum Company, which was planning to develop the oilfields.

Thus, by the end of 1918, British forces from Cairo had conquered Palestine
and Syria and helped to drive the Turks out of the Hejaz. British forces
from India had conquered Mesopotamia and brought Persia and Ibn Saud of Nejd
in the Arabian Peninsula into Britain’s orbit. These forces pushed north
through Persia to hold the Caucasus against the Turks, while another force
moved north and fought the Red Army in support of “independence” for the
White-controlled, oil-rich states Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and
Daghestan, until forced to withdraw in 1920.

Promises of liberation prove fraudulent

With the victors forming queues to take over the former Ottoman provinces
and German and Austrian colonies in Africa and the Far East, the British
were determined to hang onto their conquests in the Middle East to defend
the trade routes to India and secure the region’s oil. They had set their
sights firmly on keeping Palestine, the three provinces of Mesopotamia,
renamed Iraq, ruling Kuwait from Iraq while maintaining their sphere of
influence over Persia and the southern and western coasts of the Arabian
peninsula. The Persian Gulf and Red Sea would thus become British lakes.

The central and southern provinces of Mesopotamia came under direct British
rule from India and were administered under military law pending a peace
settlement. Following the pattern set in India, the British turned to the
old tribal leaders, whose influence had declined by the end of the
nineteenth century, to collect the taxes and control the predominantly rural
population in return for long term security of tenure. This only served to
exacerbate landlordism, the impoverishment of the peasantry and the
deep-seated hostility to the British occupation. They also cultivated the
small but important minorities, particularly the Christians and the Jewish
community that played a key financial role and whose relations with the
British were to have important repercussions later with the rise of
Zionist-Palestinian conflict.

The Kurds in the newly captured Mosul province took the British at their
word and immediately set up an independent state that Britain spent nearly
two years brutally suppressing with British and Indian troops. The Royal Air
Force was sent in to bombard the guerrillas and Churchill, then Secretary of
State for War, approved the use of poison gas.

Mosul was to be incorporated into the Iraqi state, abandoning the idea of
Kurdish autonomy included in the Treaty of Sevres. In the words of one
British official, “any idea of an Arab state is simply bloodstained fooling
at present.”

But Britain’s plans to incorporate the Arab world into the Empire were
repeatedly thwarted. Firstly, her wartime Allies, particularly the
Americans, were determined to prevent her walking away with the lion’s share
of the spoils. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, issued in 1917 on
the eve of the US entry into the war, were the price that Britain and France
would have to pay for US support.

They signified a new world order in which America’s political and economic
interests would predominate over those of the old imperial powers. There
would be no secret diplomacy or annexations by the victors and former
colonies must have the right to self-determination. But above all else,
there would have to be an Open Door policy with respect to trade. That meant
an end to exclusive rights to resources and trade. In the context of the
Middle East and Iraq, what was at issue was the future of the oil
concessions the British had extracted from the Turks. The British viewed
Wilson’s policy as such a threat that they forbade the local publication of
the Fourteen Points, which only appeared in Baghdad two years later.

To be continued

-- Andreas
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