Lessons from the past #3

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Posted by Andreas from dtm2-t7-1.mcbone.net ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 11:31AM :

In Reply to: Lessons from the past #2 posted by Andreas from dtm2-t7-1.mcbone.net ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 11:30AM :

Imperialism and Iraq: Lessons from the past

Part Three

By Jean Shaoul
31 May 2003

Britain provided Faisal with RAF bombers, armoured car squadrons and
officers to lead the local conscripts, with which to respond to any
insubordination on the part of the local population. Any uprising was
handled by the bombers, which first dropped warning leaflets on the
illiterate villagers and then bombed property and livestock. Bombing was
even used to terrorise the peasants into paying taxes.

One the largest offensive operations mounted by the RAF was in 1923-24 in
Southern Iraq. The tribal leaders responsible for collecting taxes from the
semi-nomadic tribesmen and the peasants, who had become increasingly
impoverished due to the diversion of the water channels by the most powerful
sheikh, refused to pay up. The RAF was ordered to bomb the area in order “to
encourage obedience to the government”.
Over a two-week period, 144 were killed and many more were wounded. It was
by no means an isolated incident. The RAF was used repeatedly in 1923-34
against the Kurds in Mosul province, who rebelled against taxation and

One officer who had seen duty in the North West Frontier—no stranger to
British brutality—feared that air control would only serve to inflame the
situation: “Much needless cruelty is necessarily inflicted, which in many
cases will not cower the tribesmen, but implant in them undying hatred and a
desire for revenge. The policy weakens the tribesman’s faith in British fair

But the British played anything but fair. One report to the Colonial office
described an air raid in which men, women and children had been
machine-gunned as they fled from a village. The politicians took care to
ensure that the British public never learned about that incident.

Without the RAF, the regime could not have lasted, as Leo Amery, the
colonial secretary, acknowledged. “If the writ of King Faisal runs
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,” he said.

But since the RAF could not carry out normal internal security and the
British required Iraqi treasury resources be spent on suppressing its own
people, Faisal had to create an army. The army was to serve as an important
means of advancement and social power base, providing the government or
whoever controlled the army with enormous coercive powers. The degree of
social discontent may be gauged by the fact that by the end of the 1920s,
when the RAF had largely subdued the rebellious tribesmen in southern Iraq,
the government was still spending 20 percent of its revenues on the army and
17 percent on the police.

Having established a regime that could secure the supply of oil, Britain
could now dispense with Mandate rule and move to a treaty relationship that
retained its substance. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty gave Iraq formal political
independence while retaining British control of foreign, defence and
economic policy with military bases and a system of advisors. Iraq became
“independent” in 1930 and was admitted to the League of Nations as a full
member in 1932. But while the end of the Mandate gave the ruling clique a
freer hand to do what they wanted within the country, real power rested with
Britain and the Iraqi people knew it.

Britain overthrows a nationalist government

During the 1930s, the Sunni ruling clique’s dependence upon Britain became
ever more difficult to square with popular sentiment. The Iraqi nationalists
resented the IPC’s control of Iraqi oil, while the peasants and urban
workers became increasingly impoverished. British policy in Palestine—its
support for a Jewish homeland, Jewish immigration and the suppression of the
Arab Revolt 1936-39—served to inflame tensions even further.
This led some of the Iraqi politicians and the military that had become
increasingly powerful making and breaking governments to orientate towards
Nazi Germany. In part this was due to a belief that it would free Iraq from
the hated British, but in part it expressed political sympathy with fascism
and its exploitation of anti-Semitism, fuelled by the situation in Palestine
and the British cultivation of the Jewish financiers in Iraq. This was
further exacerbated with the arrival in Baghdad in 1939 of Hajj Amin
al-Husseini, the Palestinian nationalist leader, who had fled from the

The most prominent of the pro-German faction were pan-Arab nationalist
Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and army officers known as the Golden Square, while
the most prominent supporters of the British were Nuri al-Said and the
regent for the four-year-old Faisal II. The regent, Faisal II’s uncle, was
appointed on the death of the anti-British King Ghazi in a road accident in
1939 in which it was widely believed that the British had a hand.
Under the terms of the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, Iraq was bound to support
Britain and break off relations with Britain’s enemies. When Britain
declared war on Germany in 1939, Prime Minister Nuri al-Said immediately
broke off relations with Germany—a deeply unpopular move. But he was unable
to persuade the cabinet to declare war on Germany or break off relations
with Italy. In March 1940, he resigned as prime minister but served in the
government of his pro-German rival, Rashid Ali.

By 1940, British positions in the Middle East were becoming increasingly
beleaguered. Fascist Axis troops threatened Egypt and the Suez Canal. With
the fall of France, French forces in Syria and Lebanon were under the
control of the Vichy government. With Axis troops on Iraq’s doorstep, the
British feared that Germany would invade Iraq and Iran upon which they were
dependent for their oil supplies and wealth.

Relations between Britain and Iraq deteriorated rapidly as Rashid Ali
manoeuvred Iraq into a more neutral position in the war, bought weapons from
Italy and Japan and refused to grant British military forces landing and
transit rights as required under the treaty. The British forced him to
resign in January 1941, causing political uproar. The Golden Square officers
mounted a coup in April and Rashid Ali was returned to power. Nuri al-Said
and the Regent fled to Transjordan.

The new Iraqi government refused to allow the British troops to land in
Basra, in effect ripping up the Treaty, and declared a “war of liberation”
against the British. It was conceived as part of a wider pan-Arab attempt to
get rid of French rule in Syria and Lebanon and put an end to the prospect
of a Zionist state in Palestine.
The British denounced the government’s action as a revolt and sent forces
from Transjordan and India to Basra, overthrew Rashid Ali and restored Nuri
al-Said and the regent to power. After that, with British troops occupying
southern Iraq, the government cooperated fully with the British war effort.
The following year Britain was able to use it as a base from which to invade
Syria and Persia where it installed a pro-British government to support its
war effort. In 1943, Nuri al-Said’s Iraq declared war on the Axis powers.

Although the British despatched Rashid Ali and the Golden Square with
relative ease, the short-lived regime was significant because it
demonstrated how little popular support there was for Britain and its arch
collaborators Nuri al-Said and the royal family. The pro-British politicians
were henceforth spoiled goods as far as the Iraqi people were concerned.
They were forever tainted by their return to power by British bayonets. As
Louis explained in The British Empire in the Middle East, “The year 1941
represents a watershed in the history of the British era in Iraq, and its
significance is essential in understanding the nationalist rejection of the
treaty of alliance with the British in 1948 and the end of the Hashemite
dynasty ten years later.”

Britain’s decline in the Middle East—1946-1958

Although Britain emerged from World War II with its empire in the Middle
East intact, it faced very different conditions to those of 1939. The
pattern of oil production had changed dramatically and by 1951 the Middle
East was providing 70 percent of the West’s oil. Most of the world’s oil
reserves were believed to be concentrated in Saudi Arabia and the Persian

But at the same time as the region’s value was becoming ever more important,
Britain faced rising political ferment in the emerging working class. In
Palestine, Soviet and American backing for a Zionist state as a way of
undermining British influence in the region and the widespread horror at the
tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis had
paved the way for the United Nations vote in favour of the partition of
Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. It incensed the Arab
world. In Iraq, Egypt and Iran, where Britain’s highhanded actions in 1942
mirrored that against Rashid Ali, almost all social layers were desperate to
throw off the yoke of imperialist rule.

In Iraq, with their collaborators so thoroughly discredited, the British
sought out a new ostensibly more progressive stooge in the shape of the
first Shi’ite prime minister, Saleh Jabr. The British hoped he would
institute reforms, prevent social discontent from fuelling the growth of the
Iraqi Communist Party and forestall the overthrow of the regime. They also
tried to re-jig Anglo-Iraqi relations in a new treaty that would preserve
their military bases and access to the oil wells and serve as a model for
restructuring relations in the region.
The incoming Labour government under Clement Attlee was no more adept at
judging the political tempo in Baghdad than that of the arch imperialist
Winston Churchill. When the terms of the treaty that Saleh Jabr and Nuri
al-Said had agreed with Britain in January 1948—which would have extended
the hated 1930 Anglo-Iraqi Treaty for another 20 years—became known,
students, workers and starving townspeople poured onto the streets in
protest. The police were only able to suppress the riots with an orgy of
brutality that killed nearly 400 people in just one day. Nevertheless the
regent was forced to repudiate the treaty. Saleh Jabr resigned and the
incoming government inaugurated the most savage era of repression and
martial law. Britain’s model for restructuring its alliances in the Middle
East policy was in tatters.

In 1950, the rising nationalist tide brought about an agreement between the
US company Aramco and Saudi Arabia to share oil profits on 50-50 basis,
setting up a chain reaction throughout the Middle East. The following year,
the nationalist government of Mossadeq in Iran took steps to nationalise the
Anglo-Persian Oil Company, forcing the British companies that owned the IPC
to concede a 50-50 profit split with the Iraqi government or risk losing
both the oil and its stooges, Nuri al-Said and his ministers.

By 1952, Britain’s imperial interests in the Middle East were resting on an
even more fragile base. The Hashemite King Abdullah of Jordan had been
assassinated in 1951 and his son, mentally unstable, had ceded the throne to
his 17-year-old son, Hussein. In July 1952, the Free Officers under the
formal leadership of General Muhamed Naguib and the actual leadership of
Second Lieutenant Gamal Abdel Nasser had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy
and repudiated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty.

Against this background Nuri al-Said’s support for the British set him apart
as a traitor in the Arab world. He was thus forced to carry out an
unprecedented wave of repression, banning all opposition parties, closing
down the press and handpicking a parliament to rubberstamp his decrees. It
was under these conditions oil production finally surged ahead. Oil
production doubled in the five years after the war, while revenues increased
tenfold as a result of the Iranian crisis of 1951-53 and the 50-50 profit
share agreement with the IPC. They rose from 10 percent of GNP and 34
percent of foreign exchange earnings in 1948 to 28 percent and 59 percent
respectively in 1958. But instead of transforming the social conditions of
the ordinary working people, the revenues went on agricultural developments
that favoured the big landowners and swelled the bank accounts of the
corrupt politicians.

In February 1955, Nuri al-Said played host to the British-organised regional
security alliance of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq, known as the Baghdad
Pact, that completed a network of alliances spanning the southern rim of
Eurasia aimed at containing the Soviet Union. It represented a bid by the
British to offset their declining power and give them a say in regional
affairs. It was no more acceptable to the Iraqis than the 1948 treaty had
been. The other Arab countries would have nothing to do with it. Egypt’s
President Nasser, who was becoming a hero in the Arab world for his
opposition to the British, denounced the pact vehemently as an attempt by
Britain to assert its domination over the region and split the Arab world.

The Anglo-French military campaign in support of the invasion by Israel of
the Suez Canal in 1956, aimed at getting rid of Nasser and reinstating
Anglo-French control of Suez, outraged the Iraqi people. There were massive
anti-British demonstrations all over Iraq. No one doubted for a minute that
Nuri al-Said and the regent supported the British. Notwithstanding some
face-saving formal protests to Britain, the Iraqi government clamped down
violently on the demonstrations and once again resorted to martial law.

The Americans, in pursuit of their own national interests, forced the
British to withdraw. The Suez crisis was a turning point. It marked a
humiliating end to Britain’s hegemony in the region. Coming so soon after
the CIA’s coup against Mosaddeq in Iran, it left the US the uncontested
Western power in the Middle East. That in turn spelt the end of Britain’s
client regime in Iraq.

The opposition parties, including the Istiqlal (the nationalists), the
National Democratic Party, the Iraqi Communist Party and the small Ba’ath
Party, the Iraqi branch of the pan-Arab party founded in Syria, came
together to form a national opposition front. In July 1958, as tensions and
mass demonstrations against the regime mounted, a military group known as
the Free Officers overthrew Britain’s venal political agents, the Hashemite
monarchy of Faisal II and the government of Prime Minister Nuri El Said, in
a military coup. The royal family and Nuri were assassinated. Such was the
loathing of the ancien regime that his naked body was dragged ignominiously
through the streets of Baghdad until it was reduced to pulp.

Forty years of brutal exploitation and political repression by the British
and their collaborators had come to an end.

British imperialism had depended upon the political submission of the
colonial people, control of the political system and the ability to prevail
over or at least placate its imperial rivals. As the record has shown, it
was only with the utmost difficulty that the British maintained their rule
in Iraq in the 1920s and ’30s. By the late 1940s, although Britain had
emerged from World War II as the strongest of the second ranking military
powers, it was all but bankrupt and totally dependent upon American support
to maintain its imperial interests. By the 1950s, when American interests
diverged from Britain’s, Britain was edged or shoved out of Palestine, Iran,
Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Forty-five years on, the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime,
by the US with Britain as its junior partner, signifies the return of direct
imperialism and the most brutal forms of repression and exploitation that
the Iraqi people thought they had got rid of in 1958. It is already apparent
that many of the events of the past few months could have come straight from
the records of the first imperialist occupation of Iraq.

The lessons of history show firstly that the US will—with UN
endorsement—impose a military occupation fronted by some corrupt émigrés,
former Ba’athists and anyone else who can be bought to enable US
corporations to take charge of Iraq’s oil industry. Secondly, the US’s
determination to control the world’s most strategic resources will lead to
further invasions and occupations.

The re-emergence of wars and colonialism demonstrates more forcibly than
ever before the need to build a broad international movement against
imperialism and militarism. There is only one social force that can resolve
the crisis for mankind created by imperialist capitalism and that is the
international working class. It must fight for its own independent
programme—the reorganisation of the world on the basis of a socialist

Farouk-Sluglett, M., and Sluglett, P., Iraq since 1958: From Revolution to
Dictatorship, I.B.Tauris, London, 2001.
Gallagher, J., The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: the Ford
Lectures and other essays, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982.
James, L., The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Abacus, London, 1994.
Kent, M., Oil and Empire, Macmillan Press, London, 1976.
Louis, W. R., The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951: Arab
nationalism, the United States, and post-war imperialism, Clarendon Press,
Oxford, 1984.
Meljcher, H., The Imperial Quest for Oil: Iraq 1910-1928, Ithaca Press,
Sluglett, P. Britain in Iraq 1914-1932, Ithaca Press, London, 1972.
Workers League, Desert Slaughter: The Imperialist War Against Iraq, Labor
Publications, Detroit, 1991.
Yapp, M.E., The Near East since the First World War: a history to 1995, 2nd
edition, Longman, London, 1996.

-- Andreas
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