British Relations with Iraq

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

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.

' 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

World War One

A photograph that shows a Turkish soldier taken prisoner in Mesopotamia by the Allies in 1917
Turkish soldier taken prisoner in Mesopotamia by the Allies, 1917
The Ottoman Empire, which included the provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, entered World War One on the side of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary), and immediately became a target for British imperial ambitions.

Winston Churchill conceived the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli as means of occupying Constantinople, while others, largely in India, favoured sending invading Allied forces via a longer route through Basra to Baghdad. They believed the area was suitable for colonisation, and thought an invasion would meet little resistance.

'...the British decided to push on towards Baghdad.'

In India a substantial Anglo-Indian army was raised, which landed in Basra in November 1914. The local defending forces soon fled, and the British decided to push on towards Baghdad. They totally miscalculated the strength and determination of the Turkish (Ottoman) forces, however, who trapped them in a terrible siege in Kut al-Amara on the Tigris. The Anglo-Indian force surrendered in April 1916 and many of the soldiers perished in prisoner-of-war camps. New British forces eventually arrived in Basra in greater numbers, and by March 1917 were able to capture Baghdad.

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.

The rise of the army

A 1934 photograph showing an Iraqi Army inspection
An inspection of the Iraqi Army, 1934
In fact Iraq remained a satellite of Britain for the next three decades, under the terms of a treaty signed the same year (1930), which included the retention of British military bases and an agreement to train the Iraqi army. Ironically, this army became a breeding ground of resentment against the British presence, particularly amongst new nationalist officers. They deeply resented both the British policies in Palestine and the local civilian politicians, who were seen as British puppets. After the death of King Faisal in 1933 the country was virtually ruled by a group of colonels who saw themselves as the future liberators of an oppressed Iraq.

'They deeply resented both the British policies in Palestine and the local civilian politicians...'

During World War Two the British were once again dragged into Iraq - to protect the oil fields in the north and to put down a pro-Nazi coup amongst the army officers. Some 3,000 Iraqi troops were killed, and 3,000 nationalist officers were purged. The British remained to support the monarchy, and a pro-British prime minister, Nuri al-Said, was in place until, in 1958, monarch and politicians were swept away in a vicious nationalist army revolt.


Photograph of Saddam Hussein in 1970, at the time of his rise through the Revolutionary Command Council
Saddam Hussein in 1970, at the time of his rise through the Revolutionary Command Council
The leaders of the coup were the Free Officers, young Arab nationalists of the type of Gamal Abd al-Nasser in Egypt, who were determined to right all the wrongs of imperialism and in particular to expel the Zionists from Palestine. Other grievances included the position of borders between Kuwait and Iran.

In 1961, after Kuwait had gained independence from Britain, the Iraqi leader, General Kassem, claimed it as an integral part of Iraq and concentrated his troops on the frontier, with the intention of taking it by force. Britain was ready, however, and dispatched troops stationed in the Gulf region to dissuade the Iraqis from armed conflict. The crisis was settled temporarily by a coup in Baghdad that overthrew Kassem, and was organised - it would seem - with the help of the United States. Iraq agreed to recognise Kuwait, but continued to make claims for an adjustment of the borders - claims that were to be the cause of further trouble in the future.

'...Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq in the name of the Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party...'

In 1979 the most aggressive and tyrannical of the Iraqi officials, Saddam Hussein, seized power in Iraq in the name of the Arab nationalist Ba'ath Party, a secular organisation devoted to achieving the unity of all Arabs. Saddam's aims included the elimination of Israel, Arab unity under Iraqi leadership, and the rectification of previous wrongs - and he was a man with sufficient fire to try to put these aims into practice.

Saddam Hussein sees Iraq as the successor of the ancient empires of Mesopotamia and himself as another Nebuchadnezzar, fit to assume the mantle of leader of the Arabs and of the strongest power in the region. His energetic policies have included building up a large army equipped with an array of conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. One aim has been to try to equal the strength of Israel, and one use of the army's weapons was in the attempt to defeat the rebellious Kurds in the north of the territory, who were gassed by Iraqi forces.

'...he sees Iraq as the successor of the ancient empires of Mesopotamia...'

The 1979 Islamic revolution in neighbouring Iran offered Saddam, so he believed, the opportunity to invade Iran when the country was in a weakened state. This invasion would stifle the potential threat of revolutionary Islam, assert Iraqi hegemony and readjust the borders between the two countries. In September 1980 Iraqi troops crossed into Iran, but the quick success Saddam had hoped for turned into a bloody conflict that lasted eight years. During this period the west, Germany, Britain, France and the United States all armed Iraq - in an effort to create a bulwark against the spread of the Islamic threat. Help was given to develop all kinds of weapons.

The invasion of Kuwait

Photograph showing an Iraqi soldier as he takes cover, during the Gulf War
An Iraqi soldier takes cover during the Gulf War
The Iranians finally cracked, after terrible losses and when faced with weapons of mass destruction (poison gas) and missiles. Iraq had become the major power in the region, although after much suffering. Saddam's ambitions widened. He called for the elimination of the American presence in the Gulf, and for the extinction of Israel. To finance his aims he needed greater wealth and once again Iraqi eyes turned to Kuwait. This time, in 1990, Iraqi troops occupied and annexed the emirate - before the outside world could stop them. Meanwhile Iraqi historians expended much effort in trying to prove that Kuwait had always been an integral part of Iraq.

'He called for the elimination of the American presence in the Gulf...'

It took an enormous effort by United Nations forces, led by America, to expel the invaders. From being an ally of the world, Iraq became an outcast and every effort has been made by the United Nations to force Saddam to give up the weapons originally supplied by the west. Another invasion seems likely. Will British troops be seen once again in Mesopotamia?

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.

Find out more


A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp (Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Mesopotamia by Julian Reade (British Museum Press, 1991)

Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East by Fred Halliday (I. B. Tauris, 2003)

Kurds, Arabs and Britons: The Memoir of Wallace Lyon in Iraq, 1918-1944 edited by D. K. Fieldhouse (I. B. Tauris, 2001)

Iraq: Power and Society edited by Derek Hopwood, Habib Ishow and Thomas Koszinowski (Ithaca Press, 1993)


United Nations News Centre []

UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office []

The White House []

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Published on BBC History: 2003-02-10
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