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British Relations with Iraq

By Derek Hopwood
Limestone carving showing King Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC), at the North Palace in Nineveh, Mesopotamia
Limestone carving showing King Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC), at the North Palace in Nineveh, Mesopotamia ©

Iraq changed from being a western ally to an arch enemy in two decades. With British troops currently active in the region, Derek Hopwood unravels the two countries' shared history, and reflects on other periods when British troops have been on Iraqi soil.

An ancient civilisation

The present state of Iraq was founded by Great Britain in 1920, on land of great historical antiquity, then known as Mesopotamia. The country lay between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates - and was the birthplace of the ancient civilisations of Sumeria, Babylon and Nineveh.

'This was the glittering city of the Arabian nights and of Harun al-Rashid.'

The present capital of Iraq, Baghdad, lies near the site of Babylon and was founded by the Arab Abbasid dynasty in the eighth century AD. This was the glittering city of the Arabian nights and of Harun al-Rashid, which in 1258 was destroyed by the invading Mongols and became a rather provincial backwater until it was conquered again, this time in 1534 by the Ottomans, who made it the chief city of the province of Baghdad.

Eventually, separate provinces of Mosul to the north and Basra to the south were created. These three provinces looked out in different directions. Mosul - a mountainous region largely inhabited by fiercely independent-minded Kurds - looked north to neighbouring Turkish Anatolia. Baghdad faced across the deserts to Syria and east to Persia. Finally Basra, at the head of the Persian Gulf, looked seaward as far as India.

'...by 1914 there was growing anxiety about the security of the Persian oilfields...'

In the 19th century Europeans (largely the British) began to take an interest in exploring, surveying, spying and trading in Mesopotamia, as well as in navigating its rivers. And by 1914 there was growing anxiety about the security of the Persian oilfields on the other side of the Gulf - these were the fields that supplied the Royal Navy.

Map showing the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra
Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra 

Published: 2003-02-10



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