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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Iraq and Habbaniya

30 April to 30 May 1941

Theatre: Middle East
Area: Iraq
Players: Allies: Iraqforce, comprising two brigades of the 10th Indian Infantry Division; Habforce, based in Transjordan (Palestine), comprising 4th Cavalry Brigade, 1st Battalion Essex Regiment and Arab Legion. Iraq: Four infantry divisions and one mechanised brigade of the Iraqi Army.
Outcome: A pro-Nazi coup in Iraq prompted a British invasion to restore territorial rights and safeguard Allied interests.

Although Britain gave Iraq its sovereignty in 1930, it retained rights of allegiance and access in the event of war. Before the outbreak of war, the British presence in Iraq was reduced to two RAF bases; one at Shaibah, near Basra, and a flying school at Habbaniya, west of Baghdad.

Despite its obligations, when war broke out the Iraqi Regent could not control his pro-Nazi Prime Minister, Rashid Ali. On 31 March 1941, warned of an imminent coup, the Regent escaped to asylum on HMS Cockchafer. On 3 April, Ali seized power. His coup cut a vital air link and land route between India and Egypt. It also endangered Allied oil supplies and threatened to spread dissent across the Middle East. The Allies could not allow it.

After a brigade of the 10th Indian Division landed at Basra on 30 April, Ali assembled a force to attack Habbaniya. However, it had since been reinforced and easily repulsed the attacking Iraqi force.

London decided that proper action was required and hastily assembled Habforce to march on Baghdad from Palestine. The Iraqi defences were no match and, after crossing 800km (500 miles) of desert, Habforce reached Habbaniya on 18 May.

Churchill then ordered it to march on to Baghdad. Despite Iraqi resistance, it reached the outskirts of the city on 30 May. To avoid prolonged and bloody street fighting, a British interpreter phoned Ali's headquarters and bluffed, exaggerating the British strength. Ali panicked and fled for Persia and, the next day, the pro-British Regent regained the throne.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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