Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian Christians

A long history of tense Iraqi nationalism climaxed when the members of an Assyro-Chaldean Christian community were slaughtered and their homes were looted and burned by Iraqi troops and mostly Kurdish and Arab tribesmen.

Summary of Event

After the Assyrians sided with the British and against their Turkish overlords in World War I, the British forces (the dominant power in Iraq between 1920 and 1932) had several thousand Assyrians resettled as refugees from the Hakkâri Mountains in Anatolia, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire. The Assyrians had been in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and they had enjoyed a special status as a millet (a term essentially equivalent to “nation”). After the empire’s dissolution at the end of World War I, the Assyrians became a homeless minority, and they were eventually resettled by their British patrons in several villages near the northern Iraqi town of Mosul. These villages included Dahuk, Zakhu, and Simmele. [kw]Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian Christians (Aug. 11-13, 1933)
[kw]Slaughters Assyrian Christians, Iraqi Army (Aug. 11-13, 1933)
[kw]Assyrian Christians, Iraqi Army Slaughters (Aug. 11-13, 1933)
[kw]Christians, Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian (Aug. 11-13, 1933)
Simmele Massacre
[g]Iraq;Aug. 11-13, 1933: Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian Christians[08390]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 11-13, 1933: Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian Christians[08390]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 11-13, 1933: Iraqi Army Slaughters Assyrian Christians[08390]
Sidqi, Bakr
Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII

However, the Assyrian Christian refugees, who had arbitrarily been planted among the area’s native Muslim Kurds, came to be viewed as British protégés or clients. Indeed, the Assyrian intrusion had been sponsored by the British, and many of the officers among the British-sponsored Iraq enlistees were Assyrian militiamen doing guard duty at Britain’s two Royal Air Force bases, which Britain retained after Iraq was given formal independence in 1932. These troops had even been used to put down Arab Shiite and Kurdish revolts against the British authorities in the 1920’s. However, Iraq’s position on the strategically important route to India and its large oil reserves (which were exploited by the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company) meant that the British government had a vested interest in remaining in the country.

The twenty-five-year-old Assyrian patriarch Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII was obstinate and not given to compromise, and this further complicated the situation. Indeed, Mar had long been agitating with Iraq’s central government and the League of Nations (of which Iraq had become a member when it achieved independence) to agree to Assyrian administrative autonomy in a compact national enclave in the northern region. The Assyrians’ wish was motivated by a fear of being overpowered by other ethnic groups after independence and by the relative loosening of British control (and therefore protection of the Assyrians). Their desire, however, was perceived by the Iraqi government and many of its citizens as an uninvited intrusion into Iraqi sovereignty and an attempt to prevent national unity. The Assyrians became the targets of deep resentment, especially by the Kurds, who saw the Assyrians as intruders in Kurdish territory.

On August 4, 1933, a number of violent clashes began to erupt in this tense environment. They were largely confined to conflicts between Assyrian Christians on one hand and Muslim villagers and tribesmen—mostly Kurds—on the other. In the latter part of July, 1933, armed bands of Assyrians had crossed the Tigris River into Syrian territory, where they sought permission to establish a sanctuary. French authorities in Syria would not approve such a settlement, however, and they eventually forced the Assyrians to choose between being disarmed and interned or returning to Iraq.

During the Assyrians’ return to northern Iraq, Kurdish forces under the general command of Colonel Bakr Sidqi confronted these armed Assyrian militiamen and tried to disarm them. The most intense clash occurred in Simmele from August 11 through August 13, 1933. Other confrontations occurred in neighboring villages. While the well-armed Iraqi soldiers did most of the killing, the Kurdish tribesmen did most of the arson and the looting of Assyrian property in Simmele and other towns, including Dahuk, Amadiyah, and Shaikhan. Apparently, Sidqi had obtained permission from higher authorities to retaliate with an iron fist, a move supported by much of Iraqi public opinion. Indeed, the Assyrians were represented in the Iraqi press as a threat to Iraq’s national integrity and as pawns in a strategic part of the country. Following the Simmele event, Sidqi was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, and he became a national hero. The army was soon engaged in a “pacification” program involving restless minorities.

In fact, however, even close witnesses and experts disagreed on who fired the first shot and on the extent of casualties—which ranged from a few hundred to three thousand—and of property damage. Britain did not want to jeopardize its position in the newly independent Iraq, and so after the incident it obtained a generous whitewash for Baghdad at the League of Nations. The League had been briefed by Mar, who had stressed his people’s mistreatment, but Britain’s imperialist desire to secure Iraq’s cooperation proved more important than loyalty to the Assyrians.


The Simmele Massacre proved a dismal beginning to Iraq’s independent existence and did not bode well for future relations between Iraq’s Muslim majority and its non-Muslim—mostly Christian and Jewish—minorities. Unfortunately, distrust between the central government in Baghdad and the minorities would continue well into the future. The Assyrians’ connection with the British made them particularly vulnerable as both anti-imperialist and nationalist sentiments grew among Iraqis.

The Assyrian National Pact of 1932 Assyrian National Pact (1932) (created under Mar’s leadership) had defined the Assyrian minority as a separate nation and culture, but the Iraqi government came to consider them a threat to national integrity. As a result, Mar was stripped of his Iraqi citizenship and exiled to Cyprus, which at the time was a British colony. He later became a U.S. citizen.

Crucially, the slaughter of Assyrian Christians also marked the emergence of the Iraqi army onto the national scene, and the event helped the army claim a larger share of public funds and add recruits to its ranks. By 1936, Sidqi was staging his own coup d’état, although this upheaval would prove to be merely the first in a series of subsequent intrusions by the military into Iraqi political life. In turn, Sidqi’s assassination by ambitious army officers in 1937 was the first of many power struggles within the army. Massacres;Simmele
Simmele Massacre

Further Reading

  • Husry, Khaldun S. “The Assyrian Affair of 1933.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (1974): 161-176, 344-360. With its something of a nationalist, pro-Iraqi bias, this work contrasts with Stephen Longrigg’s and Ronald Stafford’s pro-Assyrian account of the 1933 event.
  • Longrigg, Sir Stephen. Iraq, 1900-1950. London: Oxford University Press, 1953. A renowned British historian expresses sympathy for the Assyrians’ plight despite what he considers to be the intemperate attitude of Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII.
  • Mansoor, Menahem, ed. 1900-1941. Vol. 1 in Political and Diplomatic History of the Arab World, 1900-1967. 16 vols. Washington, D.C.: NCR/Microcard Editions, 1972-1977. Includes a day-to-day report of the Assyrian disturbances in July and August of 1933.
  • Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Provides cogent analysis of several consequences of the 1933 massacre.
  • Stafford, Ronald S. The Tragedy of the Assyrians. 1935. Reprint. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. A senior British official in Iraq strives to provide an objective account of the Assyrian tragedy of 1933, explaining that the underlying problem was that, after alienating the Turks by mandating their departure from their ancestral homes, the Assyrians were not welcome by any other country.
  • Tarbush, Mohammad A. The Role of the Military in Politics: A Case Study of Iraq to 1941. London: Kegan Paul, 1982. A well-documented work that presents the Assyrian massacre as an important stepping-stone for the Iraqi army as it strove to become an important political power center in Iraq.
  • Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Explains the ambivalence of the Assyrians’ position in Iraq given their status as a minority religion, the reputation as uninvited intruders under British protection, and their subservience to the former imperial power as it continued to maintain a military presence in “independent” Iraq.

Muslim League Protests Government Abuses of Minority Rights in India

Great Britain and France Sign the San Remo Agreement

Great Iraqi Revolt

Treaty of Ankara

Oil Companies Cooperate in a Cartel Covering the Middle East

Rise of Commercial Oil Industry in Saudi Arabia