The 1941 Coup d’État and the Second British Occupation in Iraq

The 1941 Coup d’État and the Second British Occupation

The demise of Bakr Sidqi, instigated by a powerful clique of Arab nationalist army offi cers, known as the Golden Square, brought the army into politics and changed the tenor of civilian-military relations. Henceforth, all nonmilitary politicians would have to heed the army. When the al-Madfai government resigned in 1938, largely because it was considered suspect by the offi cer corps, the veteran politician Nuri al-Said stepped in, but even he had to be circumspect in his relations with the army.

Al-Said’s prior public announcements on Palestine, in which he tried to broker a resolution during the Palestinian general strike of 1936 that would “bring all sides together . . . within the framework of a larger Arab federation of the Fertile Crescent, led by the Hashemite dynasty” (Tripp 2000, 97), provided him with the Arabist aura that satisfi ed the Golden Square.

The death in 1939 of King Ghazi in an automobile accident projected al-Said even more fi rmly in power, since his experience was seen as a valuable asset to the young regent, Prince Abdulillah, who was chosen as the protector and adviser of the infant Faisal II (Tripp 2000, 98–99).When World War II (1939–45) broke out, the British put pressure on al-Said to “sever diplomatic relations with Germany, to intern all Germans, and to give whatever assistance Great Britain would require under the terms of the [Anglo-Iraqi] Treaty” (Tripp 2000, 99).

But Iraq’s deliberate neutrality throughout the war soon gave way to a more nationalistic, anti-British stance, which eventually brought into power Rashid Ali al-Gailani, himself allied to members of the Golden Square. In April 1941, as a result of civilian encroachment on what was seen as army prerogatives, the Golden Square, together with General Amin Zaki, the acting head of the general staff, moved against civilian politicians and, eventually, the monarchy itself.

As the army took over Baghdad, the regent, joined by loyal politicians such as al-Said, alMadfai, and Ali Jawdat al-Ayyubi, left for neighboring Transjordan.Rashid Ali’s government was immediately challenged by the British; they believed they had the justifi cation to land troops in Iraq, although the clause in the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty they depended on was ambiguously worded. In the event, they did land troops in Basra. Spurred on by the offi cers of the Golden Square, Rashid Ali sent Iraqi troops to counter the British deployment.

A short but bitter war erupted, which the British won in May. With the defeat of Rashid Ali’s government, the regent and al-Said were once again welcomed to Baghdad. In 1942, alSaid’s government declared war on the Axis and put on trial three of the four army offi cers who most represented the Golden Square; they were executed, although Rashid Ali al-Gailani escaped to Germany and later on made his way to Saudi Arabia.