Iraq was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire. It was not known as Iraq at this time, it was the collection of three vilayets of the empire: Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, sometimes referred to by the British as Mesopotamia. It was physically close to the centre of the Ottoman empire and so at times it was closely linked to the fate and direction of the this empire. However, poor communications and infrastructure meant that at other times its policies could be quite remote, detached and autonomous from that of its overlords. Iraq's first contact with the British was through the English East India company. Iraq lay on one of the communications routes between India and Britain and so naturally acquired an interest for the company. Iraq also had a sizeable population and economy; large enough to support commercial enterprises in the region. It was for these reasons that the English East India company set up a factory in the port of Basra in 1763. The factory was not entirely a success as political events saw the Persians temporarily take Basra. In addition, Kuwait offered its deep water port as a viable commercial alternative with access to the Ottoman empire but lying outside of it. This meant that the English East India Company did not have to worry so much about the state of Britain's political relations with the Ottoman empire but could still take advantage of the trade in this part of the world.
The Mamluk rulers of Iraq did not have much love for their Ottoman overlords and so tried to cultivate increased economic and political links with the British. In 1798, they allowed a British agent to be appointed to the court in Baghdad and this was closely followed by the opening of a British Consulate there in 1802. This helped to stimulate British trade and commercial activity in the area, particularly with regards to textiles, but also with the new technologies of the nineteenth century: Steamships and the telegraph were just two of the state of the art technologies provided by the British. The Mamluks were overthrown in 1831 and direct control from Constantinople was reestablished, but commercial and economic links to the British and Europoean powers had become so well established that they were maintained by most of the subsequent governors of the province.
European influences were also felt at a deeper level as reforms were instituted by various rulers of Iraq. Land, administrative and legal reforms all helped the economy to develop along more Western lines as they turned the older tribal leaders and sheikhs into land holders and profit seekers. The flip side to this development was the way in which traditional craftsman were left exposed to the mass production techniques of British and European companies.
For most of the nineteenth century Britain was content to take commercial advantage of this part of the Ottoman Empire with no administrative costs or worries. However, by the turn of the twentieth century the Ottomans had decided to diversify their economic allegiances with the European powers and had left the British traders and companies in a dangerously precarious position. One manifestation of this policy was a series of high profile projects conducted in collaboration with the Germans. The most famous of which was the Berlin to Baghdad railway built in 1899. Stronger economic links almost inevitably led to stronger political ties as the Young Turk revolution of 1908 openly looked towards the Germans to provide a model for Ottoman political and economic development.
The strategic value of this part of the world was also increased by the discovery of oil in the south of Russia. European governments and companies were falling over themselves to gain concessions and political leverage in this part of the world. The stakes were further raised by the British themselves as the Royal Navy declared that it was abondoning coal powered ships in favour of oil powered ones. Oil was becoming a vital commodity.
Taken together, by the outbreak of the first world war the British were already extremely anxious about the strategic fate of this part of the world, especially as it still lay on one of the key communications axes with India. When war did break out, the British were swift to conduct a campaign to defend these vital interests.
Establishment of Formal Relations
When the Ottomans formally declared themselves allied to the Germans, the British planned a campaign against the Ottomans starting in Basra. They landed troops in Basra in 1914 and advanced up the rivers towards Baghdad. Initially, conscript Arab regiments gave little resistance and General Townshend advanced as far as Ctesiphon just outside of Baghdad. However, the Ottomans reinforced themselves with regular army units and soon had the tired and diseased British forces besieged in Kut. The British capitulated some 160 days later.
The following year the British tried again with a new campaign much more thoroughly planned and organised. In 1917, they successfully reached Baghdad and by the end of the war they had managed to advance as far as Mosul, this meant that they had control of the three Ottoman Vilayets which would form the basis of Iraq.
Imperial politics in this part of the world had become a complicated affair as the British and French had made and broken promises with all sorts of leaders, tribes and communities fighting the Ottomans. At first, it was thought that many Arabs would support the British as they had done whilst fighting the Ottomans during the war. However, it soon became clear that these Arab nationalists were not keen to replace one imperial overlord for another. 1919 confirmed the extent of the political chicanery and intrigue the British and French had entered into when they were declared by the League of Nations to be the countries responsible for administering vast tracts of what was previously the Ottoman Empire. Few Arabs were convinced that this was anything other than imperialism by another name. The murder of a British officer in 1919 gave the first indication of this political dissatisfaction. This murder was dealt with by arrests and police action against a number of political groups. This in turn led many Arabs into a series of street demonstrations and strikes that soon descended into an outright rebellion. The British lost control of much of the countryside for nearly three months and only reconstituted order through extensive use of air and land units.
This experience illustrated to the British that they needed to institute a more legitimate form of government if they were not to be involved in continuous guerilla campaigns and police actions. It was thought that the Hashemite ruler Faysal might provide sufficient legitimacy to allow the British to maintain some form of control over Iraq. He was descended from the Prophet Muhammed, which gave him impeccable Islamic credentials and he had fought the Ottomans which confirmed his Nationalist ones. On the downside, he was not from anywhere near Iraq. The British thought that this might actually be a useful handicap, as it meant that his legitimacy was not too strong that he might feel confident enough to desert the British. It was all a very finely based calculation that was discussed in detail at the Cairo conference of 1922. At this conference it was decided that a plebiscite would be held in Iraq to confirm whether the Iraqis wanted this leader imposed or not. The carefully conducted campaign endorsed King Faysal with 96 percent of the vote.
The British were quick to ensure their control over their new vassal by insisting on a comprehensive treaty and alliance with Britain and a constitution for the country along a British style constitutional monarchy and parliament. The treaty insisted upon commercial freedom, religious tolerance, and that all foreign, military, judicial and financial matters were to be taken by British advisers. The Iraqis would also pay half of the bills incurred by the British in Iraq. The treaty was a very one sided agreement.
The Hashemite monarchy was very much a British puppet, but even the King balked at the amount of power reserved by the British. It soon became a domestic political imperative for the King to regain some of the powers from the British. Protocols and treaties were negotiated and added in 1923, 1924, 1926 and 1927. However, these did not fully mollify many of the nationalists and tribal leaders who continued to agitate for independence. In 1929, the British finally decided to yield and started a series of negotiations that would leave them with control of foreign policy and 'common interests' and some air basesbut to hand most domestic matters to the Hashemite rulers. This treaty was agreed in 1930 and came into effect in 1932 when Iraq was allowed to enter the League of Nations as an independent nation.
Although technically independent, the Hashemite rulers were as dependent on British expertise and advice as they ever had been. With British advisers, their children schooled in England, British governors and nannies, the Hashemites remained as puppet leaders who were only allowed to control events in Iraq as long as those events did not encroach on British political or commercial interests. The amount of dependence on the British was emphasised by events in 1941, when Iraqi parliamentary leaders refused to back Britain in its war against the Germans. The British landed a force in Iraq and overthrew the elected government and replaced it with a pro-British government and one that was required to declare war on Germany. At the end of the war, the British retreated from direct control again, but still maintained considerable indirect leverage, and this remained the case right up until the Hashemites were finally overthrown in 1958.
Role within the Empire
Britains primary concerns for the control of Iraq were to maintain communications with India and to maintain the flow of oil in the region. As naval power was superceded by aerial power, the importance of Iraq actually increased rather than decreased. Air bases were now required to link Britain to her most important imperial possession; India. It was for this reason that the British so assidiously tried to maintain complete control over the air bases when negotiating for the technical independence of Iraq. There was also an elaborate scheme to have an airship base in Iraq as a staging post linking London to Delhi. This strategic importance was only eclipsed in 1947 when India was granted independence. By this time, the value of oil had increased in importance and so Iraq remained a vital strategic concern until the coup of 1958.
Economics of Empire
Britain invested a considerable amount of money and expertise in extracting oil from the region. However, its dominant political position also meant that it had extracted highly favourable commercial concessions for these activities. The Turkish (later Iraqi) Petroleum Company earned a great deal of money for the British owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company and also, after a series of protracted renegotiations, for the Iraqi government. A great deal of this money was spent on the armed forces, but some was also spent on public works projects such as irrigation schemes and infrastructural development. However, the amount of money flowing out of the country would be a constant source of embarrassment for the Iraqi leaders and a galvanising slogan for the nationalists.
Withdrawal from Empire
Britain's withdrawal from Iraq was a swift one. It came with the overthrow of the Hashemite regime that Britain had so assidiously cultivated over the years. The Hashemites had never fully gained legitimacy as rulers in the eyes of the Iraqis. They were regarded as little more than foreign rulers who followed every beck and call of their British masters. Constant tribal bickerings and uprisings weakened the government in outlying areas of Iraq, whereas in the main cities, political dissatisfaction was expressed in the ballot boxes and the free press that Britain had expressly created for the country. Political instability was a concern for the entire period of Hashemite rule, they regularly had to call upon the police and the military to maintain order in the country. The British and the Hashemites were so fully dependent upon one another that they both became even more alienated and distant from the Iraqi people; hatred for one institution translating into hatred for the other. The creation of Israel further inflamed passions and brought the British into even further disrepute. And events in Suez in 1956 also galvanised Arab opinion against the British and dented Britain's prestige and ability to defend its interests at the same time as it increased Arab self-confidence and self-importance. The British were in no position to help their puppet regime when the Hashemite King made his final call for help to protect him from the people that he purported to lead. Their all-embracing dependence upon one another meant that with the fall of the Hashemites, British power and influence dissappeared abruptly.
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