The Early British Presence In Iraq


During the 16th and the 17th centuries, in order to check the Safari Shahs of Persia, the Ottomans gradually incorporated the lands making up present day Iraq into their empire as the three Mesopotamian provinces of: Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra . The British East India at the time had opened up trade with India. As the BEI made it impossible for the natives of Basra to compete they combined their interests with the East India trading houses, the partnership ensuring their survival.

In 1914 Sayyid Talib ,the governor, approached the British asking that Basra be incorporated within the British Empire. The British declining and moving him to India where he stayed until 1920. In 1914 the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force was landed at Basra and at the end of November 1914 defeated a Turkish force at Sh’aiba ,on April 1915 advancing fifty miles to the outskirts of Baghdad by the end of November. A Turkish counter attack drove them to Kut where in April of 1916, after a siege of four months, the entire army surrendered. In March 1917 Baghdad eventually fell to British forces. Kirkuk was not occupied until 1918 resulting in the destruction of the Turkish 6th Army, the Ottomans now suing for peace. The British then moved on to Mosul demanding its surrender ,the Ottomans protesting that it was not part of Mesopotamia and so not covered in the original surrender agreement. The British persisted and Mosul was eventually placed under their control.

In 1920 there was an armed revolt by the Kurdish chiefs who captured towns on the Persian border .The Shaiks of Kut and Amara regions due mainly to fact that their land holdings were due to the largesse of the British, refused to take part. This gave them time to regain control of the whole area which was accomplished by the end of October 1920. With the surrender of Najaf and Karbala the revolt was over for a cost of two thousand Iraqis dead and five hundred British.

In 1923 the British became aware that the Shaik Mahmud of the old Mosul province had plans to incorporate it into Kurdistan under the protection of the Turks. In March the British attacked the Turkish forces, and the northern chieftains supporting them with the Royal Air Force. After repeated attacks British and Iraqi forces re -occupied the town of Sulainaya in July of 1924,Shaik Mahmud fleeing to Persian frontier where he occupied himself with guerrillas attacks upon British and Iraqi forces, until his capture in 1931.

The Anglo Iraqi treaty was signed in 1930 giving the British control of the Habbaniya airbase outside of Baghdad, and the Shu’aiba base outside of Basra ,including all of its facilities. In the event of war the treaty stipulated that Britain had the right to move troops through Iraq ,Iraq’s equipment and military advisors also having to come from Britain .Riots and demonstrations in Kurdish areas occurred in 1932 leading to new fighting which pinned down large parts of the Iraqi Army .Again the Royal Air Force was called to help suppress the revolt and within one month Shaik Mahmud sued for peace.

Insurrections and RAF counter measures occurred spasmodically until the coup of 1941.This was the golden age of the biplane ground attack era allied with the RAF armoured car squadrons, one of their members ,the famous Lawrence of Arabia, going under the alias of Aircraftman Ross. Stationed at Habbaniya were eighty or so elderly training aircraft consisting of 32 Audaxes, 29 Oxfords, 9 Gladiators, 8 Gordons and 1 Blenhiem of 'The No 4 Flight Training School'. Most were only capable of carrying 25lb bombs and approximately a third subsequently proved unserviceable or unsuitable for combat. Apart from these the only other available Aircraft at RAF Habbaniya capable of carrying heavy Bomb loads were the three heavy unwieldy biplanes Vickers Valentia's of the Communications Flight.

Another coup ,which unlike the others was aimed at the regent who directed the Iraqi armed forces. Britain ,in order to test the new government ,asked permission to land troops. The Iraqis agreed in a limited way. Troops were landed at Basra ,the Iraqi government countering by stationing troops on the hills over looking Habbaniya air base .The Iraqi commander informed the British commander that all air activity must cease and that aircraft landing and taking off would be fired at .The British countered by stating that the Iraqi troops must be withdrawn or a state of war would exist between the two countries. There was no withdrawal and the British attacked driving the Iraqis to Baghdad ,and after two days of fighting, taking up positions in and around Falluja.Britain called in troops from India and assembled a force in Transjordan .Iraqi Prime minister Rashid Ali saw a chance for a more general assault upon the British and so asked for help from the Axis powers. Germany and Italy enlisted the aid of Vichy France who sent in weapons and small arms and about thirty warplanes to Mosul ,which played but a small part in the campaign.

Britain built up forces in Basra cutting off Baghdad from the north. Although numerically superior the Iraqi army could not withstand the British military power ,British troops soon on he outskirts of Baghdad ,the Iraqi government disintegrating with the relentless British advance upon the capital. Not only did not the tribes respond to the call for jihad , the Kurds and the Shia’a not only ignoring the call but instead fighting alongside the British against the Sunni fascists as they were so against their Sunni neighbours.

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