Anglo-Iraqi War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Having become Iraqi prime minister through a military coup, Rashīd ՙAlī al-Kaylanī sought aid from the Axis Powers against British forces landing in Basra. The RAF responded to Iraqi troop movements with bombing runs, and, with reinforcements from Transjordan, the British occupied Baghdad and Mosul, thus securing oil reserves and a pro-British Iraqi government for the remainder of World War II.

Summary of Event

Although Iraq had become an independent monarchy in 1932, Great Britain continued to exert considerable influence over the nation’s political affairs throughout the 1930’s. Iraqi nationalists opposed this influence, and pan-Arabists Pan-Arabism[PanArabism];Iraq Nationalism;Arabs saw Great Britain as the principal obstacle to a unified Arab state across the Middle East. Particularly hated was the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty Anglo-Iraqi Treaty (1930)[AngloIraqi Treaty (1930)] of 1930, which gave London veto power over Iraqi foreign policy decisions, as well as control over the Iraqi army. The treaty also allowed British forces to be stationed in Iraq. British Empire;World War II Anglo-Iraqi War (1941)[AngloIraqi War (1941)] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Middle Eastern campaign Postcolonialism;Iraq Anticolonial movements;Iraq [kw]Anglo-Iraqi War (May 2-June 13, 1941)[AngloIraqi War] [kw]Iraqi War, Anglo- (May 2-June 13, 1941) [kw]War, Anglo-Iraqi (May 2-June 13, 1941)[War, AngloIraqi] Anglo-Iraqi War (1941)[AngloIraqi War (1941)] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Middle Eastern campaign Postcolonialism;Iraq Anticolonial movements;Iraq [g]Middle East;May 2-June 13, 1941: Anglo-Iraqi War[00230] [g]Iraq;May 2-June 13, 1941: Anglo-Iraqi War[00230] [c]Colonialism and occupation;May 2-June 13, 1941: Anglo-Iraqi War[00230] [c]World War II;May 2-June 13, 1941: Anglo-Iraqi War[00230] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 2-June 13, 1941: Anglo-Iraqi War[00230] Kaylanī, Rashīd ՙAlī al- Ḥusaynī, Amīn al- Ghazi I ՙAbd al-Ilāh Nūrī al-Saՙīd Grobba, Fritz Cornwallis, Sir Kinahan Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Middle Eastern military campaign Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military]

With the outbreak of World War II, Iraq assumed great strategic importance for Great Britain because of its geographic location and its oil reserves. An anti-British government came to power on April 1, 1941, through a coup d’état organized by four military leaders known as the Golden Square, who restored the nationalist Rashīd ՙAlī al-Kaylanī to the nation’s premiership. Rashīd ՙAlī had been prime minister on two earlier, extremely brief occasions, from March 20 to October 29, 1933, and from March 31, 1940, to January 31, 1941.

Anti-British resentment in Iraq had been cultivated for decades by the educational reforms of the ardent pan-Arabist Sāti ՙal-Husrī, director general of education, and by propaganda from the widely popular Muthanna Club of Baghdad, which opposed partitioning Palestine between Jews and Arabs. However, such pan-Arab sentiment, largely Sunni in motivation, made the Shia and the Kurds into pronounced minorities in Iraq, dividing rather than unifying the populace. Iraqi nationalists therefore focused upon the nation’s ancient Mesopotamian heritage and upon secular identity, adopting in this attitude Western ideas, and were sometimes led to take a more ambivalent attitude toward cooperation with Great Britain. On the other hand, since the British relied upon political elites and powerful tribal sheikhs to govern, left-wing reformers such as members of the Iraqi Communist Party were drawn toward the more egalitarian rhetoric of the Soviet Union.

Pro-German attitudes had particular strength in the army, where it was hoped that Iraqi military might could accomplish for Arab unification what Prussian might had done for German unification in the last century. During World War I, moreover, many Iraqi officers had served in the Ottoman army as allies of Germany. The paramilitary youth groups of the Futuwwa movement could also identify with Nazi heroic virtues.

After 1932, the Iraqi army repeatedly became involved in political matters and pushed for alignment with the Axis. Pan-Arabism was also furthered in 1933 by the death of King Faisal I, who had been put into power by the British. His dashing son, Ghazi I, supported the Palestinian cause and advocated annexation of Kuwait, which—again, by analogy with German expansionism—he likened to the Sudetenland. Germany’s successful annexation of the Sudentenland under the 1938 Munich Agreement would then seem to validate Iraqi ambitions to absorb Kuwait as well.

In 1936, a coup Revolutions and coups;Iraq led by General Bakr Sidqi Sidqi, Bakr drove into exile the pro-British Nūrī al-Saՙīd, architect of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty. However, a series of coups in 1937 and 1938 led to the assassination of Sidqi and put Nūrī back in power. The reckless Ghazi was killed in a car accident in 1939, widely suspected to be the result of a Nūrī-British plot, and with Faisal II only a minor, the former king’s cousin and brother-in-law, ՙAbd al-Ilāh, was appointed regent. With the outbreak of World War II, Iraq severed its ties with Germany.

During these political struggles, pressure mounted on the Iraqi government to seek military assistance from Italy or Germany. Amin al-Ḥusayni, the mufti of Jerusalem, arrived in Baghdad in 1939 after being exiled from Palestine. However, overtures to the Axis Powers for assistance either to eject the British from Iraq or to enable a second Palestinian rebellion were met with ambivalence. The Third Reich was using Palestine for the forced emigration of Jews and, moreover, wanted to placate British fears of German Middle Eastern expansion in order to pursue its goals in central Europe.

After the fall and occupation of France in 1940, Germany also hesitated to promote Arab rebellion against Vichy-controlled Syria. At the same time, Italy had colonial interests in Libya and Abyssinia, and Germany initially deferred to its Axis partner in the Middle East and North Africa. However, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s troops failed to make progress against the British in Egypt, the Wehrmacht believed an anti-British coup in Iraq would benefit its war strategy, and the German envoy in Baghdad, Fritz Grobba, was instructed to pursue this goal.

On April 1, 1941, the members of the Golden Square Golden Square (colonels Salah al-Din al-Sabbagh, Kamil Shabib, Mahmud Salman, and Fahmi Said) brought about the Rashīd ՙAlī coup, driving Nūrī (now foreign minister) and the regent from the country. The new government under Rashīd’s restored premiership pushed for closer ties with the Third Reich. One of the coconspirators, Yunis al-Sabawi, had in fact started an Arabic serial publication of German dictator Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf (1925-1926; English translation, 1939) in 1933. Nevertheless, the new prime minister, Rashīd ՙAlī, promised to honor the 1930 treaty that allowed Great Britain military transit across Iraq. On the other hand, British ambassador Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, who had been removed from an advisory role by Rashīd some years previously, rebuffed Iraqi proposals to achieve an equitable diplomatic compromise, believing they were simply tactics to forestall an inevitable break in relations.

In accordance with the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, British troops often landed in Basra on their way to Palestine and Egypt, and in April, 1941, preserving this route was considered a military imperative. Cornwallis promised to give full recognition to the Kaylanī government once he received permission to march imperial troops through Iraq, and Rashīd accepted this request, but with heavy restrictions upon the number of troops in transit. Accordingly, British prime minister Winston Churchill instructed the army to cease reporting that number to Baghdad. He also decided to build up a concentration of troops at Basra.

As the British strategy became evident, Germany finally agreed to make arms available to Iraq. With their campaign in the Balkans slowed and with the invasion of Russia code-named Operation Barbarossa planned for late June, however, the Germans had few resources to spare. In the meanwhile, convinced that Britain intended to occupy Iraq, Rashīd and the colonels decided to mount an armed resistance, and nine thousand troops were sent to encircle the British air base at Hawr al Habbānīyah (Lake Habbaniyah).

On May 2, the Royal Air Force (RAF) began to bomb Iraqi positions, soon destroying the meager Iraqi air force. The next day, Hitler approved plans to provide as much military assistance as possible to Iraq, and Grobba returned to Baghdad on May 11. Berlin also came to an agreement with the Vichy government to allow some fifteen thousand rifles, four cannons, two hundred machine guns, and other French military hardware to enter Iraq. Germany and Italy promised further military support, including aircraft, but Iraqi resistance was crushed before most of it could arrive.

North of Basra, Iraqi troops destroyed railroad and telegraph lines and blew up dams along the Euphrates River, but British reinforcements from Palestine under the command of General George Clark soon captured Al Fallūjah. By May 30, the British were at Baghdad, but when Cornwallis delayed the entrance of British troops into the city, some 150-180 Jews were murdered in a pogrom known as the Farhūd. Mosul fell on June 13, essentially ending the conflict. Nūrī was once again in power by October, 1941.

The Iraqi defeat—entailing the loss of some two thousand soldiers—arose both because Iraq’s army could not delay the British advance long enough for Axis military assistance to arrive and because the Axis failed to respond rapidly enough to numerous requests for aid. Rashīd ՙAlī and the mufti of Jerusalem spent most the rest of the war in Berlin competing for Nazi attention. While the four colonels behind the coup were captured by the British and eventually executed in Baghdad, Rashīd escaped the collapsing German Reich, eventually receiving asylum in Riyadh. He returned to Iraq after the Iraqi Revolution (1958).

Significance

Churchill believed that Hitler’s failure to intervene more forcefully in Iraq represented a squandered German opportunity, since control of Iraq’s fuel resources and strategic location could have contributed significantly to the Nazi war effort. As it was, the “second British occupation” built up internal cohesion and constitutionality in Iraq, but in the long run Anglo-Iraqi relationships were not strengthened. The leaders of the Iraqi army were executed, making them martyrs in the eyes of many soldiers, who would achieve revenge in the revolution of 1958, which placed the Baՙth Party in power. Well into the twentieth century, Baghdad had been known for its prominent Jewish population, but almost all Jews were expelled from Iraq in another farhūd of 1950-1951, which some scholars argue arose from lingering frustration over the failure to repel the British and defend Palestine a decade earlier. Anglo-Iraqi War (1941)[AngloIraqi War (1941)] World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Middle Eastern campaign Postcolonialism;Iraq Anticolonial movements;Iraq

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirszowicz, Lukasz. The Third Reich and the Arab East. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966. A diplomatic history told from the perspectives of Allied, Axis, and Middle Eastern countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khadduri, Majid. Independent Iraq, 1932-1958: A Study in Iraqi Politics. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. A political history by an author who interviewed many key participants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Important text by a leading authority on modern Iraqi history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Reeva S. Iraq Between the Two World Wars: The Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Examines the Ottoman, military, educational, and political factors leading to the Iraqi solicitation of German support.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Solh, Raghid el-. Britain’s Two Wars with Iraq: 1941, 1991. Reading, Berkshire, England: Ithaca Press, 1996. A comparison between Britain’s two wars against Iraq, with an excellent presentation of the Iraqi point of view.

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