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British Relations with Iraq

By Derek Hopwood
Your questions answered

'The author of British Relations with Iraq', Derek Hopwood has been taking questions on his article from readers all over the world. Here is a selection, with his responses.

What is the history behind Iraq's claim to Kuwait?

Matthew - Sweden; Jonathan - USA; Dileepa - New Zealand; Nathan - UK; Bob - USA; Jyrki - Finland

Kuwait owes its importance to its position at the head of the Gulf and to its oil reserves. These advantage led Iraq to claim Kuwait as an integral part of its territory. Iraq's argument is that Kuwait used to be part of the Ottoman province of Basra; since present-day Iraq, as successor to the Ottoman Empire, was created by incorporating Basra along with other provinces, Iraq therefore has a claim on Kuwait, which is really only a part of Basra.
To counter this, Kuwait claims that since the eighteenth century it has been a separate entity ruled by the Arab tribal family of the Al Sabah, which in 1899 signed a treaty with Great Britain to protect it against Ottoman designs. In reality Ottoman Basra had had very little control over Kuwait and the Al Sabah always insisted they were independent. I personally think the Iraqi argument is weak, and rests on a dubious interpretation of that period of imperial history when the Ottomans exercised a very tenuous control over Kuwait.

Did the British actually use gas in their attempts to suppress the Iraqi revolt in 1920?

Elen - Italy; Douglas - USA; BJ - USA; Jolyon - USA

DH: I am myself not sure whether Britain actually used gas on the tribesmen. I used to believe they did but the latest source I used (Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire) says on p.400 'By September the local commander, General Sir Aylmer Haldane, was beginning to get the upper hand (in putting down the Iraqi revolt), although he was still desperate enough to clamour for large supplies of poison gas. It was not needed, for air power had given his forces the edge whenever the going got tough.'
The author refers to a report in the Public Record Office. The British government admitted that questionable methods had been used in Iraq, but it was glad they were not noticed because of the troubles in Ireland at the time. These methods included machine-gunning fleeing tribesmen from the air. Several thousand Iraqis were killed.

I was reading an article recently by someone close to the US administration who has suggested that if Iraq is occupied, it may be "encouraged" (as was Yugoslavia) to change its name to Mesopotamia. This would, in his view, remove the stigma of Iraq's turbulent history and 'reconnect the country to the birth of civilisation'. I was wondering if you had any views on this and its likelihood?

Robert - Northern Ireland

DH: I do not think it would be a good idea to rename Iraq in this way. Mesopotamia is a Greek word. An Arab country needs an Arabic name. Iraq was the name for a 7th century Arab settlement in the area and therefore has a long historical pedigree. Not Iraq's past but its future is the problem.

I am quite interested in knowing more about rise and (possibly forthcoming) fall of Saddam Hussein - how he was encouraged by Americans and the Europeans during the Iran/Iraq war, and why. Do you think he can still survive if he negotiates a 'behind the scenes' deal with the British and Americans?

Umesh - Singapore

DH: The West supported Saddam, as he was the enemy of the West's enemy Iran - i.e. the enemy of my enemy is my friend. When he foolishly invaded Kuwait he became the enemy of the West's ally and had to pay the price. It would be better for all concerned if he left the scene and allowed the Iraqis themselves to build the future of their own country with outside help but not interference.

Why were the Kurdish areas split between three countries?

John - UK

The Kurdish areas were not really split, as there had not been a united Kurdish state. The Kurds in Iran are rather separate from those in Turkey and Iraq.

Would it have been better if after World War One, Iraq had been divided into three states? Would this be an option should invasion [by the US et al] take place? I am thinking especially of the Kurds in the north.

Colin - UK

Splitting up the country would not really work now with oil in the north, administration in the centre and ports in the south. Some kind of federal system would be much better which is what I think the British should have introduced in the first place.The Kurds in the north certainly deserve greater autonomy (and freedom from persecution).

What, in your view, are the implications of British, or European intervention in Iraq today?

Jane - Barbados

What are the implications for present day Britain? I think we should be very careful about getting involved in Iraq, as a long occupation would be very difficult, costly and possibly dangerous. It does not at all follow that the Iraqis would welcome Britain and the US as liberators from Saddam.

In hindsight wouldn't it have been better for the West - in terms of future relationships with the Islamic world - if we'd helped Iran rather than Iraq?

Graham - UK

I do not think it would have been better to have helped Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Both sides were armed by outsiders (US and others) and it would have been better not to have interfered at all. Then perhaps there would have been fewer casualties.

Why does your text imply by omission that Iran was an "innocent" victim of chemical weapons? Didn't they also use chemical weapons against Iraq during the war?

Isn't it true that Iraq was upset over Kuwait's refusal to forgive or even restructure Iraq's debt from the war with Iran, a war that Kuwait itself desperately wanted, fearing its own Shi'a majority?

Isn't it also true that Iraq was upset by Kuwaiti slant drilling that was allegedly 'stealing' oil from beneath Iraq?

Isn't your rhetoric that Iraq occupied Kuwait 'before the outside world could stop them' a bit bold considering that the United States, and perhaps other major powers, were aware of the Iraqi troops massing along the Kuwaiti border and of the likelihood of invasion - and yet refused to warn Iraq that invading Kuwait would have consequences?

Andrew - USA

Your points about Iraq's war debt and about the 'illegal' drilling are correct, concerning the reasons for Iraq invading Kuwait.
Kuwait does not have a Shi'a majority. In fact there are very few Shi'is in the state.
Many Arab states supported Iraq against Iran because they feared the exportation of the fundamentalist Iranian 'threat' to their own countries. I have not heard that Iran also used chemical weapons.
In reply to your final point, I think Kuwait was foolish not have made some concessions to Iraq. But even so I think many people were surprised when the invasion actually took place, although Iraq claimed it had been given the green light by the US.

You give the impression [in the feature article] that Iran lost the first Gulf war, while the reality was actually a stalemate, which both sides realised, and so they opted for peace.

Moshe - USA

The Iran-Iraq war did, in one sense, end in stalemate; although Iran with its Revolutionary Islamic ideology was very much against ceasing fire, as it meant admitting that 'Islam' had failed to defeat a secular Iraq. Khomeini compared this to taking poison. Also the Iranians were suffering heavy losses in throwing young soldiers against the weapons of the Iraqis.

Published: 2003-02-10

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