Global Policy Forum

British Colonialism and Repression in Iraq



Picture: Repairs of an armored car from No.1 Company in Iraq,
British Royal Air Force, ca. 1923 (IWM HU. 49856, Fagg Collection)

Britain set up a colonial regime in Iraq after a long military campaign during World War I. In response to Iraqi resistance, including a country-wide uprising in 1920, British forces battled for over a decade to pacify the country, using airplanes, armored cars, firebombs and mustard gas.

Air attacks were used to shock and awe, to teach obedience and to force the collection of taxes. Winston Churchill, as responsible cabinet minister in the early years, saw Iraq as an experiment in high-technology colonial control. Though officials in London sometimes had qualms about the violence, colonial administrators on the ground like Gertrude Bell expressed enthusiasm for the power of the imperial military enterprise.

Primary Sources Articles

Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916

The French and British reached this secret agreement in 1916 dividing Mesopotamia into zones of British and French influence in the event of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. This division of spoils - which also included a share for Russia - demonstrates the Allies' attitude towards the people of the Middle East and reflects their lack of sincerity when they promised self-rule. The British later ignored the agreement when they seized the oil-rich province in 1918.

The Proclamation of Baghdad March 11, 1917

British general Stanley Maude issued this proclamation shortly after his troops captured Baghdad in 1917. He announced "our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." He claimed that the Arabs, liberated from "Turkish oppression," were free to participate in their own civil affairs "in collaboration with the political representatives of Great Britain who accompany the British Army."

Anglo-French declaration November 8, 1918

In November 1917, the French and British signed the Anglo-French declaration and released it in the Middle East, partly to allay Arab fears about imperial ambitions. The French and British proclaimed the Arabs were now free to choose their own form of government and self-rule. However France and Britain imposed colonial rule, which continued for the next three decades.

A Report on Mesopotamia by T.E. Lawrence (August 22, 1920)

A 1920 newspaper letter by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) denounces brutal conduct by British colonial forces in Iraq during the revolt of 1920. (Sunday Times)

"The RAF Has Done Wonders" (1922, 1924)

Gertrude Bell, a British colonial official, describes in personal letters the use of British air power in Iraq in the 1920s, exclaiming that "the RAF has done wonders bombing insurgent villages." (Gertrude Bell Project)


British Control and Repression

Aeroplanes and Armored Cars: Imposing British Colonial Control on Iraq in the 1920s (1998)

In this brief excerpt from his book Colonial Empires and Armies 1815 – 1960, V.G Kiernan explains how Britain used armored cars with air support to impose its colonial rule. The armored and air units operated jointly under the command of the fledgling Royal Air Force.

British Air Power and Colonial Control in Iraq 1920 – 1925 (1990)

This selection, by historian David Omissi, describes emerging policy on the use of airplanes to attack Iraqi opponents of British rule. Planes would strafe and bomb villages that offered resistance to the ground forces. Winston Churchill, the responsible cabinet minister, proposed the use of mustard gas from the air as the cheapest means of controlling Iraq militarily.

The Royal Air Force in Iraq (1976)

Peter Sluglett, a leading historian of modern Iraq, here discusses the British use of air power to impose colonial rule. While officials in London sometimes expressed discomfort, military commanders and colonial officials used air attacks to teach obedience and to force tax collection from even the poorest Iraqis.

Baghdad and British Bombers (January 19, 1991)

Iraq is no stranger to aerial bombardment. In this article, historian David Omissi recalls the 1920s, when gas shells and explosives were used as part of the British colonial war against Iraq. (Guardian)

British "Nation-Building" and Treatment of the Kurds

The Kurdish Problem and the Mosul Boundary: 1918-1925

British historian Peter Sluglett writes about how the British colonial boundary of northern Iraq and the inclusion of the Kurds in the new state was inseparabe from the issue of oil. British claims to defend the Kurds was a matter of oil interests, not an authentic commitment to their rights.

British Colonialism and the Kurds in Iraq: 1926-1932

Peter Sluglett writes about the tangle between Arab nationalism, British colonial control and the aspiration of the Kurds for autonomy in colonial Iraq.

The Queen of Quagmire October 25, 2007

Rory Stewart explores the post WWI British mandate of Mesopotamia.  British representatives, aware of the unpopularity of occupation but unwilling to relinquish control, "muddled through" the task of "nation -building". The British considered their own strategic interests and military opportunities, rather than the welfare of the people of Mesopotamia, when including the oil-rich province of Mosul in the British controlled territory that became Iraq. (New York Review of Books)

Miss Bell's Lines in the Sand (March 12, 2003)

The Guardian describes the influential role played by Gertrude Bell, an archaeologist, linguist, and British colonial official, who helped shape British plans to carve out the boundaries of an Iraqi state "which was too weak to be independent from Britain."

Hanna Batatu on Iraq Elections (1978)

The great historian of modern Iraq, Hanna Batatu, describes parliamentary elections during British colonial rule. The British hoped that by staging these highly orchestrated elections they could marginalize the forces of secular nationalism. The excerpt also shows how the British relied heavily on the traditional rural leadership in Iraq as a conservative counterweight to nationalists.


Iraq, 1917 (June 17, 2004)

Robert Fisk contends that "Britain's 1917 occupation of Iraq holds uncanny parallels with today - and if we want to know what will happen there next, we need only turn to our history books..." Is the US repeating the British mistakes of 1917? Fisk asserts that "for Iraq 1917, read Iraq 2003. For Iraq 1920, read Iraq 2004 or 2005." (Independent)

Britain Tried First. Iraq Was No Picnic Then. (July 20, 2003)

Referring to the British occupation of Iraq, Lawrence of Arabia wrote that the public had been led "into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor." Veteran Middle East journalist John Kifner draws on the history of British colonialism in the Middle East to comment on the US occupation. (New York Times)

Deceit and Duplicity: Some Reflections on Western Intervention in Iraq (March-April 2003)

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, occupying powers in Iraq have expressed the right of Iraqi self-determination, but they have not allowed their lofty proclamations into practice. This article from Third World Resurgence gives a chronology of the Kurdish, Shi'ite and other uprisings that Iraq's occupiers brutally quashed.

Postmodern Imperialism (April 24, 2003)

A good way to understand US policy is to look at the era of European colonization. Today many problems are consequences of the British colonial past in the Middle East. (Le Monde)

Iraq: The Imperial Precedent (January, 2003)

According to British historian Charles Tripp, the US war for "regime change" in Iraq echoes the British invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914. Tripp takes examples from the modern history of Iraq to argue that US actions, like those of Britain at an earlier period, reflect the "logic of imperial power." (Le Monde Diplomatique)



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