Britain and Iraq: A Long-Term Relationship

In the modern world, Iraq is seen by most Britons and Americans as a mortal enemy, and Saddam Hussein the evil dictator who has to be removed. Few people are only aware of Iraq, however, because of the last Gulf War 1n 1991, and because of the recent threat Iraq has presented. The country of Iraq, though, has a much longer history and a much longer relationship with Britain. Modern Iraq was actually formed by Britain in 1920, and the consequences and legacy of that action have a direct influence on the problems we see today, as Iraq has gone from ally to arch enemy. The history of Iraq and Britain’s relationship with that nation is worth investigating more closely.

Iraq was originally known as Mesopotamia, and is a country of great historical and Biblical importance. For instance, Baghdad is quite close to the Biblical site of Babylon. As a country, Mesopotamia generated great interest for the major European powers in the 19th century, particularly because of the untapped oil all around the Middle East. In Mesopotamia, there were three main provinces Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, and they were part of the Ottoman Empire which sided with the Germans during World War I. This meant that when war broke out in 1914, Mesopotamia was enemy territory, and Britain was concerned about the security of their current oil supplies in the Middle East. They also saw a chance to gain control over the oil supplies in Mesopotamia, as the country was now a legitimate target. A British invasion occupied the province of Basra in 1915, but an attempt to take Baghdad was a miserable and disastrous failure that forced the British and Indian armies to surrender to the Ottoman Turks in 1916. A new invasion force did capture Baghdad in 1917, and by the end of World War I, Britain also had control of the province of Mosul. With the end of the war and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Mesopotamia lacked direction. The Arab inhabitants hoped for independence, but Britain (under some American influence) was not easily going to give up control of Mesopotamia, and more specifically its oil supplies

Oil was a vital commodity for the British. Simon Schama notes that during his first stint as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, it was Winston Churchill who decided to have all British naval ships run on oil, and as a result, did a deal with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which happened to be a British dominated company. To get sufficient oil meant Britain had to secure a permanent presence in the Middle East, which is why Britain was so keen to hold protective mandates in Palestine, Iraq, and Jordan. Britain also dreamed of securing a direct transport link to India. Under the supervision of the League of Nations (now the United Nations), Britain was given the mandate to administer the provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which in 1920 became known as Iraq.

The people of this new Iraq were not particularly happy about the situation; they felt they had been betrayed by not being given the independence they had been promised, so they revolted. It was a bloody revolution and Britain was forced to take a hard line to put the revolution down. Killing and bombing had to be used in many instances to quell the revolts; yet, this did not stop the growth of Arab Nationalist movements in Iraq. Britain gave Iraq a national government, but it was assisted by British advisors. King Faisal was also made the new monarch of Iraq. He had just been kicked out of Syria and needed a new throne, but he was seen as nothing more than a puppet ruler (Lowe, 1989:502). Britain hoped the move would give Iraq a sense of independence, and give them an Iraqi ruler they could work with. Norman Lowe notes that he was a good ruler, and hostility to Britain and Faisal was lessened by their success in preventing Turkish claims to the province of Mosul.

However, the Arabs still wanted true independence, but the British could not afford to leave, especially after 1927 when new giant oil fields were discovered near Karkuk. The oil rights were given to the Iraqi Petroleum Company, which happened to be a British dominated company. Yet, by the same token, the British could not risk further revolt. So Iraq was given gradual independence with formal independence being gained between 1930 and 1932. Britain did retain influence and a military presence in the region until the revolt in 1958 so to some, independence was seen as nothing more than a hollow gesture. Most people were in little doubt about who really ran the country.

The three provinces of Iraq were united as one country, but it was an unhappy mix of religious and ethnic groups such as the Kurds and the Shi who had little desire to be part of one country or to be ruled from Baghdad. Derek Hopwood notes that the Iraqis resented the arbitrary borders imposed on them which did not include Kuwait, an area which they believed belonged to them. So already we see the foundations been laid for the Gulf War of 1991.

In 1933, King Faisal died and his son Ghazi took over, but Ghazi died in 1939. Subsequently, his son Faisal II was only three years of age when he inherited the throne. Without a real ruler, conflicts broke out all over the country. A group of colonels ran the disparate regions of the country, and they all saw themselves as future rulers. Arab Nationalism was growing, and anti-British feeling was still festering. The British role in stopping Palestinian revolt between 1936 and 1939 did not help matters. In World War II, there was a pro-Nazi coup in Iraq, which the British had to put down as well as ensure a pro-British monarchy and prime minister remained in place.

In 1958, there was an army revolt which removed the pro-British monarchy and government in Iraq. The British politically were no longer in a position to march into Iraq to stop the revolt, but they did place troops in Kuwait to prevent Iraq’s desire to regain what they saw as a lost province. Derek Hopwood argues that yet another coup in 1961 was influenced by America, and the new rulers of Iraq reluctantly agreed to recognise the independence of Kuwait.

In 1979, Saddam Hussein seized power for the Arab nationalists, who had a great desire to rectify what he saw as great wrongs imposed on his country and people, which of course included gaining control of Kuwait. Hopwood also argues that more than that, Hussein had always harboured a dream to unite the whole Arab world under his leadership which would make him the strongest power in the region, a state of affairs which many of Iraq’s neighbours such as Iran didn’t like. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran with weapons supplied by America and Britain. This war lasted 8 years with terrible losses and no real victor, and a million lives lost.

Saddam Hussein wanted to widen his influence in the Middle East and get rid of the American presence in the region. He needed to finance his grand plans, and so he made the decision to invade Kuwait in 1990 to gain control of their wealthy oil fields, under the pretence that Kuwait was historically part of Iraq. It was now that the world woke up to the threat to the Middle East Iraq and Saddam Hussein posed, not to mention the threat they posed to British and American access to oil in the region. Iraq, once seen as an ally of the West and a source of stability in the Middle East, was now public enemy number one. Iraq was given an ultimatum by the United Nations to leave Kuwait, when he didn’t comply, the aerial bombardment of Iraq began on the 16th January 1991, with a land assault beginning on the 24th February, but which lasted barely four days! The operation became known as “Desert Storm”. The United Nations Force led by America ousted Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, ending his plans for dominance of the region, but the big problem was Saddam Hussein remained in power. By 2003, as far as Britain and America were concerned, Saddam Hussein’s position as leader of Iraq was no longer tenable, and he had to be removed.

Britain and America’s interest in Iraq has always been dominated by their desire to ensure access to the region’s vast oil supplies. The failure to remove Saddam in 1991 can be seen as an attempt to end further slaughter, or perhaps more cynically as an excuse to ensure a continued military presence in the region. Without Britain’s desire for Iraqi oil, Iraq as a nation would never have existed, although the question remains whether Iraq should be thankful for this or not! It’s difficult to escape the possibility that the situation in Iraq could well be a problem of the West’s own creation. Iraq is another example of a nation created arbitrarily, with borders drawn on a map to suit political and colonial purposes in the aftermath of World War I. It is a nation that was created without consultation or even agreement of the people who had to live there. Forcing different ethnic and religious groups to live together within an artificial boundary would always create resentment, as it did in Palestine and Yugoslavia. The Iraqis believe Kuwait is their land, as it used to be part of their southern province of Basra. So their invasion of Kuwait in 1990 should have been no surprise; it is perhaps more remarkable that they didn’t invade sooner. From an outside perspective, Iraq’s claim on Kuwait is weak and the argument was nothing more than a feeble justification for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of another country. Yet, such disagreements are always bound to occur when borders are arbitrarily drawn and nations feel they have lost out as a result. There is also no way of knowing what will happen in the wake of Saddam. Can Iraq embrace democracy as the West hopes, or will the country fall apart because the different ethnic groups who were forced together under the Iraqi flag cannot find a way to live together in freedom? Only time will tell!