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The British occupation of Iraq in the early 20th century
Imperial law and disorder

May 30, 2003 | Page 8

WITH THE United Nations Security Council vote last week, it was official. The U.S., along with its ally Britain, are the official occupiers of Iraq.

But this isn't the first time that the country has been the focus of imperial conquest and occupation. In the early part of the century, Britain sets its sights on Iraq, waging a brutal war and occupation that bears many similarities to the U.S.-British intervention today. DONNY SCHRAFFENBERGER tells the story of this ugly chapter of British imperialism in Iraq, and the resistance from below that it sparked.

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IN THE run-up to the First World War, the major European powers--Britain, France and Germany--vied for control of the Middle East. Britain and its ally France had carved up most of the world and its resources, and they wanted to keep the newly emerging powers like Germany constrained.

So when the First World War broke out in 1914, it was not only fought in the trenches of Belgium and France, but also in the Middle East. Besides fighting the Turks--an ally of Germany--in Turkey and Palestine, Britain's war was also waged in Mesopotamia, the future Iraq.

Throughout 1915, the British advanced to the gates of Baghdad from their base in Basra in southern Iraq. Yet, instead of the British army winning an easy victory, they were repulsed, forced back down to the city of Kut and entrapped in a Turkish siege of the city.

The British forces were forced to surrender more than 10,000 troops to the Turkish army at Kut on April 29, 1916. The British army suffered almost 22,000 casualties trying to relieve Kut from the siege.

Eventually, the British regrouped and, on March 11, 1917, took Baghdad. Ironically, at the same time that the British were imposing their rule in Baghdad, the Russian working class was overthrowing centuries of tsarist tyranny.

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AFTER THE Turks left Baghdad, looting reportedly broke out in the city. Eleanor Franklin Egan, an American writer for the Saturday Evening Post, was on the scene to report on the British occupation of Mesopotamia. In her book, The War in the Cradle of the World, published in September 1918 before the First World War ended, Egan--without realizing it--exposed the hypocrisy of British rule.

Egan regarded the British soldiers as noble teachers for aspiring American imperialists. "When the Turks left, anarchy was let loose in the city, and at the moment the British entered chaos reigned, while bands of murderous Arabs were looting the bazaars and scattering terror in every highway and byway. This state of affairs lasted just as long as it took British patrols to march through the streets and no longer, while a few subsequent hangings and imprisonments, and the excellent conduct of the British troops, served to restore almost at once the complete confidence and serenity of the people. British occupation of Baghdad was regretted by nobody but the defeated Turks and the offscourings of Arabian tribes who were halted in their criminal pursuits by the immediate establishment of British law and order."

Egan visited a prison recently taken over by the British. She gazed on a group of condemned prisoners who pleaded with her to personally ask for an appeal on their death sentences. Egan then conversed with the British warden. "Who are they?" she asked.

"All men condemned to death."

"But they have been tried in the usual way, have they not?"


"What were their crimes?"

"Murder mostly--though a few of them were caught giving information to the enemy."

"Then what can they hope to gain by such an appeal?"

"Oh, nothing. It is an Arab habit to make appeals..."

Nonetheless Egan commended British justice throughout the book. The British would demand that the Iraqi villagers point out those guilty of stealing, and when the people would not name names, the British would retaliate. "Then a flying column marches out and administers what is humorously described as 'a little injustice.' That is, they burn a reed-hut village or two and maybe gather up some plunder on their own account in the form of flocks and herds. "It is a cheerful little game, but it is very rapidly losing its popularity among the Arabs."

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NO WONDER that after a few years of British rule, an uprising known as the Great Iraqi Rebellion of 1920 broke out. More than 60,000 British troops occupied Iraq in 1920 when the rebellion began. The British originally offered the Kurds and the Shiites self-government on November 7, 1918, but instead installed a pro-British Sunni Arab on the throne without consulting the Kurds and the Shiites.

The rebellion began in Kurdistan but quickly spread throughout the country in June 1920. Small British garrisons were surrounded and wiped out. The rebels, fighting with modern rifles and machine guns, were not easily subdued. In August 1920, the resistance declared a provisional Arab government.

There were numerous hard-fought battles. On October 13 at Rumaitha, 3,000 rebels dug in and stood up to a daylong attack by a British brigade. The British used artillery and the Royal Air Force (RAF) to bomb the rebels.

The British eventually suppressed the rebellion--but at a cost of 1,040 killed and missing soldiers and 1,228 who were wounded. The Iraqi resistance lost an estimated 8,450 people in its failed attempt to kick out the British.

Winston Churchill, that lover of Empire, explained, "How Mesopotamia could be held by armoured cars clanking across the Chaldean plain and by bomb-laden airplanes searching the recesses of the Kurdistan mountains." Also, to keep the occupied peoples in line--not just in Iraq but in other parts of the British Empire--Churchill argued, "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.

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THROUGHOUT THE world, colonial people were beginning to rise up against the victorious French and British governments. Sections of the British ruling class wanted to rule their expanded empire on the cheap, mainly through the application of air power--an argument that still rages today among modern imperialists. The use of the new weapons of war--the tank, the plane and poison gas--would be debated and used with deadly effect.

The lie that the First World War was fought for democracy and the right for nations to self-determination bore bitter fruit in the years to follow. "Squadrons of the Royal Air Force had already been active in policing Iraq and Kurdistan before the start of the Arab rebellion in 1920..." writes Geoff Simons in Iraq: from Sumer to Saddam. "Today in 1993, there are still Iraqis and Kurds who remember being bombed and strafed by the RAF in the 1920s."

Wing Commander Arthur Harris, who would later authorize the destruction of whole cities in the Second World War, learned his trade in Iraq. "The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage," Harris said in 1920. "Within 45 minutes, a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."

The British conquerors would rule Iraq for 14 years, and later come back during the Second World War. Once again, Iraq is under occupation.

On May 22, the New York Times reported that British Lt. Colonel Tim Collins "stands accused of punching, kicking and threatening Iraqi prisoners of war to force information from them and for opening fire needlessly to intimidate civilians." No doubt he, and his American compatriots, would make a dead imperialist like Churchill proud.

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