During World War II, Iraq was a key source of oil for the British. Britain did not control Iraq directly, but for nearly a decade it safeguarded its interests by treaty obligations and the cultivation of friendly governments. After the fall of France in 1940, however, all of this was in peril. An unfriendly government in Syria, combined with German diplomatic encouragement, emboldened anti-British politicians, led by Rashid Ali el-Ghalani, to oust the pro-British regime; the result was a brief episode of the war in Iraq and Syria as Britain moved to secure its interests.
British power in Iraq dated back to World War One, when British forces captured it from the Turks. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Iraq was placed under British control by mandate, but as early as 1921, the British began a gradual process of relaxing their control. In 1921, the Iraqis were permitted to choose a king, who became Faisal I; the following year, Faisal signed an alliance pact with Britain that was to last for twenty years. This effectively supplanted the earlier mandate. 1930 saw a further refinement of the relationship: Iraq was to receive political independence, which in fact followed in 1932, while Britain would be guaranteed to enjoy certain military considerations, including free movement for British military traffic through Iraq when necessary and the control of airbases at Habbaniya and Basra.
Some in Iraq opposed this policy from the start; one notable opponent was the Muslim Brotherhood. Rashid Ali el-Ghalani (or al-Gailani) was one of the founding members of this party. A lawyer and politician, Rashid Ali had served actively in the opposition role, and sometimes held key government posts, even twice serving as prime minister. The circumstances then, however, were not yet suitable for any radical action.
King Faisal died in 1933; his son, Gahzi, died six years later, leaving a small child as King Faisal II. Emir Abdullah served as regent for the three-year-old king. Changes were also going on in the outside world; that same year, World War Two began in Europe, and in the following year, France fell to the Germans. The French government was replaced by a pro-German regime operating out of the city of Vichy, and French colonies and possessions all across the globe had to decide whether they would side with the Vichy government or the Free French government in exile headed by de Gaulle. The neighboring territory of Syria sided with Vichy, creating an avenue through which pro-Axis forces could operate into Iraq.
German diplomatic overtures found ready partners. Rashid Ali and the Muslim Brotherhood were willing conspirators, but separately, four army colonels gave thought to ousting the current government in order to avoid being drawn into the war to fight for the British; calling themselves the Golden Square, they too heeded the Axis intrigue, expecting to receive support through Syria. More generally, anger at the British grew in Iraq in response to the efforts of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who had been compelled to leave Palestine in 1937 and worked closely with the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq.
The spring of 1941 seemed the right time to act. Axis forces were on the offensive in North Africa and in Greece and Yugoslavia, and the British were struggling to maintain their grip on the Mediterranean. With the expectation of German support coming through Syria, Rashid Ali and the Golden Square drove out the regent and Prime Minister Nuri es-Said on April 3, characterizing the new regime as a “government of national defense.” Rashid Ali immediately oriented his government towards the Axis, seeking aid from Germany and rejecting Iraq’s treaty obligations toward the British military.
For Britain, more was at stake than the goodwill of a distant state. Iraqi oil was more vital than ever in wartime, and the British mustered such forces as they could, as quickly as they could, to ensure that their interests were preserved. Two weeks after the coup, the British sent a brigade of Indian troops to land in the south and to begin to secure the oil fields and the oil pipeline from Iraq to Haifa. By the end of the month, advance units had reached as far as the Habbaniya airfield, not far from Baghdad. One battalion of Indian troops settled in at Habbaniya to support the airbase.
Iraqi forces responded with an attack on Habbaniya on May 2. The attack was premature; most importantly, the Germans were unable as yet to provide air cover for the attack. On the other hand, the proximity of British forces to Baghdad probably made an early clash unavoidable. As it so transpired, British air assets enabled the defensive force to seize the initiative, driving the Iraqis back on May 5.
Meanwhile, the British cobbled together a unit of divisional strength, colloquially dubbed “Habforce” from its Mandate in Transjordan. Habforce entered Iraqi territory on May 13, one day after German air assistance landed in Mosul from German bases in newly-conquered Crete. On the 14th, the British sent bombers to attack Damascus, and on the fifteenth, the Germans sent aircraft there as well. Habforce traveled through the desert to Ramadi, and from there they ensured the security of Habbaniya before marching on Baghdad.
The Iraqis sued for peace on May 30, while Rashid Ali escaped. The remainder of the Iraqi government agreed not to offer resistance to British forces in Iraq, and to reject further ties to the Axis. The following day, the British formally took control of Baghdad, and the British were to maintain a military presence in Iraq for the remainder of the war. Some of the British strength, notably Habforce, was immediately sent for further action into Syria, which was invaded on June 8. The French in Syria capitulated on July 14 after an unexpectedly dogged defense.
In Iraq, the regent and the former Prime Minister returned and helped to create a new government, which officially took power in October. Some fifteen months later, Iraq joined the war on the Allied side. As for Rashid Ali, he initially took refuge in Persia, but that fell under Allied control in September, and like his ally, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, he spent the rest of the war in Germany. He was unable to return to Iraq until 1958.
It is often supposed that the world was simpler during World War II, as opposed to the Cold War and the world of the early twenty-first century. The Iraqi coup in 1941 seems more like one of many such uprisings to occur in the Middle East, Latin America or Africa during the Cold War, responding to the influence of America or the Soviet Union. In other respects this incident resembles the circumstances of the contemporary Middle East, in which political and religious influences merge in often violent action. The reality is that the world worked in much the same way; it was only the attention of the world that focused on other priorities.
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