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18 September 2014
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British Relations with Iraq

By Derek Hopwood
The foundation of Iraq

A photograph showing Gertrude Bell, influential adviser to the British administration, on a picnic outside Baghdad, with King Faisal I
Gertrude Bell, influential adviser to the British administration, on a picnic outside Baghdad, with King Faisal I (second right). ©
By the end of World War One, British forces were more or less in control of the three provinces and a shaky British administration in Baghdad had to decide on their future. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed, leaving the former Arab provinces in limbo, and the colonial powers of Britain and France aimed to absorb them into their empires; however, the Arab and other inhabitants felt strongly that they had been promised independence.

'The Arabs claimed this was a veiled colonialism...'

Under strong pressure from the United States, a sort of compromise was evolved whereby Britain and France were given mandates for the administration of these provinces, under international supervision, by the League of Nations. The Arabs claimed this was a veiled colonialism, because there was only an indefinite promise of independence.

Iraq (the old Arabic name for part of the region) was to become a British mandate, carved out of the three former Ottoman provinces. France took control of Syria and Lebanon. There was immediate resentment amongst Iraq's inhabitants at what they saw as a charade, and in 1920 a strong revolt spread through the country - a revolt that was put down only with great difficulty and by methods that do not bear close scrutiny. The situation was so bad that the British commander, General Sir Aylmer Haldane, at one time called for supplies of poisonous gas.

Indiscriminate air power was used to quell the revolt of the region's tribesmen, methods the British admitted did not win them friends and, as one of them said, implanted undying hatred of the British among the people of the area, and a desire for revenge.

The mandate united the three disparate provinces under the imported Hashimite King Faisal, from the Hijaz region of Arabia. Apart from its natural geographical differences, the new Iraq was a complex mix of ethnic and religious groups. In particular the rebellious Kurds in the north had little wish to be ruled from Baghdad, while in the south the tribesmen and Shi's had a similar abhorrence of central control. In implementing their mandate, the British had certainly sown the seeds of future unrest.

'The British imposed a monarchy and a form of democracy...'

There were other contentious issues. The Iraqis deeply resented the borders imposed on them that cut them off from Kuwait, a mini-state that they believed to be a part of their country. These borders also meant that Iraq had only limited access to the waters of the Gulf. The British imposed a monarchy and a form of democracy but, even after the grant of formal independence in 1930, most Iraqis believed that the British really ruled the country.

Published: 2003-02-10

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