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Imperialism and Iraq: Lessons from the past
By Jean Shaoul
30 May 2003
The following is the second in a three-part series. Part One was posted May
29 and the concluding part will be posted May 31.
At America’s insistence, the Paris conference in January 1919 took the
decision to place all the former Turkish provinces under the supervision of
the League of Nations. They would become “A” Mandates that would provide an
Open Door for trade. Between 1919 and 1923, the European powers went on to
make a series of secret and squalid deals among themselves, reneging on all
their promises to the Arabs and imposing their own rule on the indigenous
peoples in order to control the region’s resources. They carved up the
region into 16 small states in their own interests, with no regard for
geographic, historical, social or economic factors—thereby dividing the Arab
people, laying the basis for dozens of territorial conflicts in the future
and creating inherently unviable states.
To cite but one example in the context of Iraq, Britain took a deliberate
decision at the Uqair Conference in 1922 to draw up the borders of Iraq,
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in such a way as to deny Iraq a major outlet to the
Persian Gulf, limit its influence in the region and make it dependent upon
In 1920 at San Remo, the imperial powers dealt out the title deeds to the
Middle East among themselves as though they were playing a game of cards.
France got the mandates for Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got Iraq,
Palestine and Transjordan. They issued new currencies linked to the franc
and sterling areas that served to disrupt the trading relations within the
newly fragmented region. Britain and France would hold the mandates for a
limited duration, not as colonising powers, but as guardians to an underage
ward with the League of Nations acting as the board of trustees. As a
consolation prize for losing Mosul as had been agreed under the Sykes-Picot
agreement, France got a 25 percent share in the TPC, the company set up to
exploit Iraq’s oil deposits.
The Russian Revolution in October 1917 played a crucial role in undermining
British plans for the Middle East. It is impossible to overestimate its
impact on the working class and peasantry throughout the world. It provided
not only a source of inspiration to the oppressed masses of the East to
throw off the yoke of centuries of oppression, but also the backdrop to
Wilson’s advocacy of “self determination”—which was aimed in part at
countering the influence of communism due the Bolsheviks’ advocacy of
independence from imperialist control while also restraining the European
powers in US imperialism’s interests.
Bitterly disappointed with the peace settlement and President Wilson’s
Fourteen Points, however, the Arab nationalists had no more time for the new
mandate brand of imperialism than the old. Faisal—the son of Sherif Hussein
of the Hejaz who had led the Arab Revolt in return for Syria—went back to
Syria and declared independence in 1920. The French army defeated the
uprising and drove out Faisal.
This uprising served to spark Arab Revolts in Jerusalem and southern and
central Iraq against British military and civil rule. The occupation regime
soon disintegrated and Britain only re-established control by means of large
troop reinforcements, fierce fighting, brutal suppression and the use of
aerial bombardment. The total cost to the British Treasury was £40 million.
According to British estimates, 8,450 Iraqis were killed or wounded while
the British suffered more than 2,000 casualties.
A cynical comment by Viscount Peel, under secretary at the War Ministry,
gives some indication of the savagery with which the revolt was put down. He
said that he was glad that the “sentimentalists” at home had been so
distracted by the Black and Tans in Ireland that they had failed to notice
what was going on in Iraq. The use of aerial bombardment was to become the
preferred means of forcing the population into submission for simple reason
that it was much cheaper than maintaining a land-based army.
British substitute local collaborators for direct rule
The Arab revolt showed that direct rule was no longer a financially feasible
proposition. Without a government that was sufficiently acceptable to the
population, tax collection would be impossible and the state would go
bankrupt—jeopardising British investments of £16 million and the oilfields,
not yet in production, valued at £50 million. Some form of concession would
have to be made if the peoples of the East were not to form an alliance with
Bolshevik Russia and put an end to the British Empire.
So Britain began casting around for a formula that would provide the
necessary fig leaf. In essence, it resolved itself into a search for a local
ruler and cultivation of social layers that could be relied upon to conceive
their “self determination” as being synonymous with serving Britain and so
prevent a genuine struggle for national liberation.
His Britannic Majesty’s Government soon found a solution. At the Cairo
conference in March 1921 it was decided that the sons of Sherif Hussein, who
had been promised but deprived of an independent Arab nation, would serve as
puppet kings and rule on Britain’s behalf. Abdullah was rewarded with the
newly created semi-nomadic state of Trans-Jordan while his brother Faisal,
recently driven out of Syria by the French, became London’s preferred
candidate for the Iraqi throne.
They then had to figure out how to sell it to the Iraqi people. This was
achieved by the simple expedient of arresting and deporting Sayyid Talib,
the rival candidate for the post, after which no one else wanted the job. A
staged-managed referendum returned the desired 96 percent of the vote in
favour of accepting Faisal as king and he was duly installed as the monarch
in August 1921.
All that remained was to settle the terms of Britain’s relationship with
Iraq. While the Mandate was not abrogated, as Faisal demanded, the
Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of October 1922 gave Iraq control over its internal
affairs subject to Britain’s overriding control of finance, defence, foreign
policy and advisors. The terms of the treaty were so blatantly biased in
Britain’s favour—as the negotiations over the oil concessions and the TPC
would show—that it was to take a year of unmitigated pressure and bullying
by Britain for the King and Cabinet to agree to it. It was to take a further
two years of threats and heavy-handed tactics in the face of fierce
opposition from the nationalists before the Constituent Assembly passed it.
The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty marked the beginning of a new kind of colonial
policy, the reliance on collaborators, and the end of the period of direct
British rule in Iraq.
Oil and Britain’s dealings with Iraq
Oil—though still untapped—was undoubtedly one of the major preoccupations of
the British, as the war, with the drastic shortage of oil by 1917, had added
to their concerns. After the war, the collapse of Germany, the dismemberment
of Turkey, the rival claims of France and the commercial demands of the
Americans made the situation more complicated. The Iraqi people were the
losers in the horse-trading that followed.
In practical terms, the main issues that Britain and Iraq had to resolve
were the boundaries of the Iraqi state—the Mosul frontier—and the terms of
the oil concession for the Turkish Petroleum Company, originally made up of
British, German and Dutch interests. This provided the often unspoken
backdrop to the interminable wrangling of the American, British, French and
Italians at the international meetings in the years following the war.
Insofar as oil was rarely mentioned, it was because it was, unbeknownst to
the general public, the sine qua non of both the war and the peace
Under the San Remo Treaty of 1920, the British assigned the German stake in
the Turkish Petroleum Company to the French in return for relinquishing
their claims to Mosul. While the TPC had the concession for Mosul, virtually
no exploration had taken place during and after the war pending the outcome
of the ongoing hostilities against Turkey and the status of the disputed
Mosul vilayet, which the 1923 Lausanne conference did not entirely resolve.
Britain was determined to keep the oilfields within Iraq since the TPC’s
concession agreement included them and to control their development. Without
Mosul, Iraq was unviable and the southern Shi’a elite would outweigh the
ruling Sunni clique. With both Turkey and the local predominantly Kurdish
population opposed to this, the Iraqi elite—bereft of any independent
economic or military support—were totally dependent upon the British to
drive out the Turks and put down the Kurds. It was to take a sustained
effort by the Royal Air Force in 1924, including the bombing of the town of
Sulaimaniya, a Kurdish stronghold backed by Turkey that rejected
incorporation into the Iraqi state.
But Britain ran up against US oil interests: after all the Americans had not
entered the war to let Britain steal a march on them. British control over
oil in all the former Turkish territories, as agreed between Turkey and the
TPC before the war, was unacceptable. It would assure the British navy of
continued naval supremacy, undermine Britain’s dependence upon American oil
and challenge American economic domination over its European rivals.
The State Department, acting on behalf of the American oil corporations,
insisted that any annexations of territories acquired during the war be
governed in such a way as to assure equal treatment “in law and in fact to
the commerce of all nations”. In this context, this notion of equality was
nothing more than the desire of one imperial power to check the greed of
another. The US accused Britain of monopolising Mesopotamia’s oil resources
and Anglo-American relations deteriorated rapidly.
Given the US’s overwhelming economic superiority, Britain had no option if
it was to keep control of the oil: it had to surrender a share in the spoils
of war to the Americans. Britain made a private agreement to allow two
American corporations, Standard Oil of New Jersey and Socony Vacuum (later
Mobil Oil), to take an equal share in the Turkish Petroleum Company, soon
renamed the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC), alongside the stakes of the
French and the two British companies.
Thus, despite all its political power, Britain was unable to prevent the
French and the Americans from muscling in and taking a share in the TPC and,
as a result, now held a much diluted share in the TPC through the
Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Neither was Britain able to insist that the TPC
retained the rights to oil in the former Ottoman territories other than Iraq
as had been agreed with Turkey prior to the war. Given also the way that
Iraq’s southern boundaries were drawn up by the imperialist powers, this
meant that the Americans were later able to gain oil concessions in Saudi
Arabia and Bahrain.
The evidence notwithstanding, in 1924 Foreign Secretary and arch-imperialist
Lord Curzon vehemently denied the accusation that “the trail of oil is all
over the question of Mosul and Iraq”. He said, “Oil has not the remotest
connexion with my attitude or with that of his Majesty’s Government on the
Mosul question, or the Iraq question, or the Eastern question in any
Once this sordid deal had been done over the heads of the Iraqi government
and the Kurdish people, the way was then clear for an agreement on handing
over Mosul to Iraq. With Britain holding all the cards, in March 1925 the
Iraqi government had no option but to sign a concession agreement with the
TPC on the most unfavourable terms to Iraq for the exploration of Mosul oil,
if the League of Nations’ arbitrators awarded Mosul to Iraq, which was now
inevitable. In July, Mosul was duly handed over to Iraq on the condition
that the Mandate lasted for a maximum of 25years or until Iraq became a
member of the League of Nations as an independent state. Seven months later,
in 1926, the Iraqi Constituent Assembly had no option but to agree to a
Treaty with Britain, whereby if Mosul was invaded again a sea-borne force
with aircraft carriers would attack Turkey. What was at stake was not Iraq’s
borders but its oil.
It was after these agreements that commercial oil exploration finally began.
The first oilfields opened at Kirkuk in 1927, although oil did not begin to
flow in commercial quantities until the late 1930s and large-scale
production did not start until the 1950s. Thus it was only when Britain had
taken political control by subjugating the masses and installing local
collaborators that oil exploration and production began in earnest. Far from
promoting development, the decades of rival imperialist intrigues, the war
and further intrigues had held up the commercial exploitation of the region’
s resources and prevented the region’s development.
British use RAF to keep Faisal in power
The security of Britain’s oil interests depended on Faisal and his regime,
which had little popular support.
The king and his government rested upon a narrow social layer: the
landowners, the old notables, leading merchants, the ex-Ottoman army
officers who had supported him and the tribal sheikhs or leaders. The
British had bolstered the power of the sheikhs by creating a legal system
specifically for the tribes, one of several ways they sought to constrain
the government’s freedom of manoeuvre. While the government tried to limit
the tribal leaders’ powers, it soon found that it had to ally itself with
them if it was to maintain control and came to rely increasingly upon the
sheikhs and landlords to administer and police their areas and collect the
Iraq’s finances were always insecure. First of all, it had begun its
existence with a huge deficit imposed by Britain under the Anglo-Iraqi
Treaty of 1922—whereby the Iraqis were required to contribute to the Ottoman
Public Debt Administration, the longstanding debts of the now defunct
Ottoman Empire to the imperialist powers. Even more importantly the British
demanded that they paid for the military equipment, stores and operations
against the Turks, as well as the cost of building a military railway that
had absolutely no commercial value to Iraq. Thirdly, the British demanded
that the Iraqi government spend at least 25 percent of all its revenues on
defence—a euphemism for putting down the insurgent tribesmen who were
revolting against their tribal leaders and British rule.
In other words, the price the ruling clique had to pay to maintain its
position was to bear the financial cost of imposing British imperialism—a
relationship that is replicated today in the US administration’s plans for
post-war Iraq that have been agreed by the United Nations.
This in turn was to be achieved by imposing intolerable levels of taxation
on a peasantry whose economy had suffered due to the disruption of trade
following the imperialist carve-up of the region and the landlordism
encouraged by the British. The British tightened the screws still further by
demanding that the government cut the wages of the few personnel that it had
in education, health, agriculture and incredibly even in irrigation in order
to balance its budget.
The ruling feudal clique was stuck between the rock of British imperialism
and the hard place of the impoverished population. The ensuing and recurrent
financial crises led to constant infighting within the ruling clique.
Between 1921 and 1958, there were 59 cabinets as whichever faction was on
the ascent brought its supporters into government. That these constant
changes involved only 166 people over the entire 37-year period provides
some indication of the extremely narrow social base of Britain’s client
state. By far the most prominent was Nuri al-Said, an Ottoman trained
officer who had served with Faisal, whose cabinet career spanned decades.
Faisal and his regime could not therefore have maintained control over the
insurgent masses without Britain’s new system of “air control”—the cheapest
and most efficient way of “pacifying” the country. It also had the merit, as
Britain’s chief of staff recorded, that “the terrain of Iraq forms an ideal
training ground and experimental sphere for the RAF and its strategical
value will increase from year to year.”
To be continued
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