The British Campaign Against the Ottomans in Iraq and the Birth of the Mandate (1914–1920)
The story of Iraqi independence begins, paradoxically enough, with its incipient development under colonialism. World War I saw the emergence of two military alliances, one comprising Britain, France, and Belgium; the other, Germany, Austria, and Ottoman Turkey. However, Britain and France fought on two fronts: Europe and the Middle East.
Britain’s interest in the Ottoman Empire and the greater Middle East as a whole had been nurtured for more than a century. On the strategic front, the British coveted Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf because they acted as a buffer to British India by protecting India’s western ﬂ ank. Economically, British interests in Iran grew in direct correlation to the rise of Iranian oil production. Meanwhile, sightings of oil in northern Iraq conﬁ rmed that the territory had great potential value in the future.
For those reasons, the British (and the French) were intent on striking wartime deals with Arab and Middle Eastern allies to subvert Ottoman inﬂ uence from within, thus achieving their political and economic objectives in the process.Certain sectors of Iraqi society were affected by Arab nationalism; they sought independence from Ottoman rule especially after the Young Turk period saw a revival of a pan-Turkish ideal that minimized Arab contributions to the empire.
The Young Turks’ program was a European-inﬂ uenced reform movement against the autocratic rule of Sultan Abdulhamid II begun in the late 19th century and that culminated with the Revolution of 1908, which centered on restoring the constitution and involved nationalist army ofﬁ cers. During the war, the class of notables of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire largely stayed on the sidelines if they did not actively side with the Ottomans. Only a small but inﬂ uential class of intellectuals, Arab ofﬁ cers trained at Ottoman military schools, and key members of the landholding and merchant class attempted to work actively for change.
Making expedient alliances with the British and French, they began an inchoate but eventually united movement to win independence from the Ottoman Empire. Knowing their weaknesses and relying on the strengths of other countries, Syrians, Iraqis, and Hijazis negotiated both with the British and the French in order to receive arms, money, and training to defeat their Turkish overlords.
The Arab Revolt, spurred on by a Hijazi notable descended from the House of the Prophet, Sharif Hussein bin Ali (1855–1931), became the chief symbol of anti-Ottoman resistance in 1916, which spread from Arabia to Syria to what was to become Transjordan. Signiﬁ cantly, the major group in support of Sharif Hussein’s campaign against the Turks was drawn from the Iraqi-born Ottoman ofﬁ cers who had seceded from the army to join his ranks.
It was the British attack on southern Iraq, however, that galvanized the Ottoman front in the East. The British completed the ﬁ rst stage of the war against Ottoman Turkey after Indian Expeditionary Force “D” occupied Basra on November 22, 1914. Having secured the access routes to the Abadan oilﬁ elds in southwest Iran (in which the AngloPersian Oil Company had a big stake) and reassured their Arab shaykh allies in the Gulf of their commitment, the British then decided to take on the capital, Baghdad.
Lulled into complacency by the Ottomans’ lack of a serious defense of Basra, the British War Ofﬁ ce, India Ofﬁ ce, and Foreign Ofﬁ ce gave conﬂ icting advice to their general command in the ﬁ eld to continue upriver and invest the Iraqi capital as soon as possible. Much to British chagrin, the Ottomans rallied; at the famous battle of Kut, the Ottoman army surrounded the British forces of Major General Charles V. F. Townshend and besieged them for 140 days until the latter, depleted of resources and on the edge of starvation, surrendered unconditionally on April 29, 1916.
Eventually, a new British commander, General Sir Frederick S. Maude, began a painstaking attempt to retake central Iraq, and his patience and skill produced results. Defeating hastily called tribal armies and plotting his strategy with care, Maude and his forces entered Baghdad as a “liberating” army on March 11, 1917. After he died in Iraq of cholera, Maude’s place was taken over by yet another British general who continued to push northward.
Despite the armistice with Ottoman Turkey, which came into effect on October 30, 1918, the British were able to bully the Ottoman general in northern Iraq to withdraw his troops from Mosul after the end of hostilities. Although Mosul’s status within Iraq was not legally settled until 1924, the British incorporated the city within their rapidly expanding sphere of control in a de facto sense. By 1918, the British had occupied most of the country from south to north and east to west the Ottomans had been defeated, and Iraq was now on the cusp of a new era.Despite British military successes, however, their political problems had just begun.
During the Mesopotamia campaign, a civil administration for Iraq was established in paciﬁ ed areas. Based on the Indian administrative model, it was tempered by indirect control, a novelty that did not sit well with many British administrators, accustomed as they were to the direct government of the Indian masses (Sluglett 1976, 16–17). U.S. president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for a new world order (ﬁ rst promulgated before the U.S. Congress in January 1918 and then at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference) and his focus on the right of self-determination had rendered outright imperialism an archaic and immoral practice.
Points 5 and 12 of Wilson’s program directly affected British policy in the Middle East. Point 5 declared: “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”
More speciﬁ cally for Iraq, point 12 stated: “The Turkish portions of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” Thus, British administrators were forced to revise their road map to Iraqi rule.The two chief administrators in Iraq in the 1920s were Sir Percy Cox and Arnold Talbot Wilson. Both of them were gradually converted to the idea that indirect rule meant a form of Iraqi participation, however symbolic.
Yet, their conversion had taken far too long. In 1920, shortly after the mandate for Iraq was awarded to Britain by the League of Nations, a large-scale, well-organized, and devastating uprising took the British completely by surprise.Iraq was a restive place and becoming even more so under an arrogant and unfeeling British administration that, in Wilson’s words, had characterized Iraqi leaders seeking independence as a “handful of ungrateful politicians” (quoted by Lewis in Metz 1990, 34).
And while Britain’s assorted enemies in the country were not politically integrated by any stretch of the imagination, individual leaders were quick to realize that combating the new foreign overlord required extraordinary and unprecedented measures. One of these measures entailed the active solidarity of all Iraqis against the colonizer. And so, in the years just after World War I, anticolonialist secret societies sprang up in Najaf, Karbala, Kut, Hillah, and, most important, Baghdad.
In Najaf was Jamiyat an-Nahda al-Islamiya (the League of Islamic Awakening), whose members included tribal leaders, journalists, landowners, and ulama. A second organization was al-Jamiya al-Wataniya al-Islamiya (the Muslim National League), whose purpose was to prepare the people for widespread rebellion. The Haras al-Istiqlal (Guardians of Independence) was a Sunni-Shia coalition made up of ulama, teachers, civil servants, merchants, and military ofﬁ cers.
Thus, when the uprising came about Sunnis, Shiis, and some Kurds, townsmen and farmers, tribesmen, army ofﬁ cers, and civilians came together in a historic mass movement against British rule. In Iraq, at least, the 1920 revolt has become the stuff of legend. It had as its backbone the Shii mujtahids (clergy) of the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, especially Grand Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shirazi (d. 1920), who inspired the tribes of the mid- and Lower Euphrates with a fatwa (legal opinion), as a result of which Iraqi tribesmen rose against the British, pitting their overwhelming numbers against the military superiority of the Royal Air Force (RAF).
It was not an equal match. Many Iraqis were killed, and it is reported that it was in this period that the ﬁ rst use of poison gas against tribesmen was approved by the British command (Abdullah 2003, 129). Meanwhile, pockets of ex-Ottoman ofﬁ cers, all of Iraqi origin, engaged the British at battles such as that of Tel Aafar in northern Iraq. Finally, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, Sunnis and Shiis prayed at each other’s mosques in Baghdad, and nationalist poetry spread like wildﬁ re in both the urban and rural districts.
The uprising of 1920 cost the British an inordinate amount of money (almost £40 million) and incurred heavy British and Indian casualties. Partly as a result of Parliament’s disquiet at the level of fatalities incurred, as well as Britain’s fraying alliances in Iraq itself, a quick about-face became imperative.
An appointed council of Iraqi notables headed by the elderly shaykh Abdul-Rahman al-Gailani, the head of the ashraf (descendants of the Prophet) and a respected Sunni religious scholar, was hastily put together after intense consultations between the British and select Iraqis.
Surprisingly, the majority of the members of the new provisional government were Sunni; in fact, as political historian Charles Tripp notes, “one feature of the new state structures which became immediately apparent was the absence of any Shi’i appointees to senior administrative positions, save in the ‘atabat (holy cities)” (Tripp 2000, 45).In fact, the reliance of the British on the Sunni ex-Ottoman ofﬁ cers and notable class to the detriment of the Shii majority in Iraq became the pattern followed by Iraqi governments for 83 years.
But this lopsided arrangement was not yet recognized as a deﬁ nitive blueprint for Iraq in 1921, and the broad cohesiveness of Iraqi sects and ethnicities continued to be manifest in a united political platform. For instance, both Sunnis and Shiis called for an Arab Islamic state governed by a monarch bound by a constitution. Eventually, they got their wish in the person of emir Faisal bin al-Hussein (r. 1921–33), the second son of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, leader of the Arab Revolt in 1916.
At the Cairo Conference in 1921, convened by the colonial secretary, Winston Churchill (1874–1965), and attended by two Iraqi participants (Jaafar al-Askari, the minister of defense, and Sasun Hasqail, the minister of ﬁ nance), agreement was reached on offering the throne of Iraq to Faisal bin al-Hussein. Formerly king of Syria but expelled from that country by the French in 1921 (France had received a League of Nations mandate over Syria and Lebanon), Faisal was seemingly the best choice for the post.
Scion of the House of the Prophet, active participant in the Arab Revolt, and a man who had come to terms with the British presence in the Middle East, he was also the candidate that most Iraqis allied with British-controlled Iraq seemed to prefer. Although the single-question referendum that legitimized him in power was obviously manipulated (it was claimed that 96 percent of Iraqis approved of Faisal as king), this did not stop the British juggernaut, and Faisal became king of Iraq on August 23, 1921.