When Baghdad Fell

The troops entered Baghdad amid loud celebrations. Thousands of prisoners were taken. Solemn words were spoken:

“People of Baghdad, remember for 26 generations you have suffered under strange tyrants who have ever endeavoured to set one Arab house against another in order that they might profit by your dissensions. This policy is abhorrent to Great Britain and her Allies for there can be neither peace nor prosperity where there is enmity or misgovernment. Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.”

This proclamation was issued by British General Stanley Maude, on the 11th of March, 1917.

Aside from striking a decisive propaganda blow for the Allies, the fall of Baghdad effectively brought to an end Turkish activity in the region. The defeat of the Turks in World War I meant the end of the Ottoman Empire. It did not mean the end of imperialism. The winners divided the loot among them, with the new League of Nations giving Britain a mandate to run Iraq, as well as Trans-Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Arab nationalists, who had hoped for independence in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and elsewhere, were bitterly disappointed.

But all was not well for the British after the fall of Baghdad. Captain Arnold Wilson, the civil commissioner in newly captured Baghdad, believed that the creation of the new state was a recipe for disaster. He warned that the deep differences between the three main communities – Sunni, Shia and Kurds – ensured it could only be “the antithesis of democratic government."

Arab nationalists wanted independence and tribesmen were resentful that the British were more effective than the Turks in collecting taxes. A rebellion against British rule broke out in July 1920. By the time British rule was restored in 1921, some 2,000 British soldiers and 8,000 natives had been killed or wounded.

Britannia ruled brutally. Arthur “Bomber” Harris (who was to lead the bomber offensive against Germany in World War II) did not try to hide the fact that he had aimed at civilian targets. Harris admitted in 1924 that he had taught Iraqis “that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or wounded." Winston Churchill, as British colonial secretary, agreed that aerial explosives were indeed a good idea. But wouldn’t aerial gassing be even better? As he put it, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes.” Others were equally blood-thirsty. TE Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – wrote to the London Observer: “It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions.”

In 1921 Britain installed the Prince Faisal as King of Mesopotamia. Britain controlled the country’s army, foreign policy and finances. King Faisal and his descendents never succeeded in establishing their nationalist credentials in Iraqi eyes. Arab nationalists wanted true independence, but the British were not inclined to leave. This was especially true after 1927, when new oil fields were discovered. The oil rights were given to the Iraqi Petroleum Company, which happened to be a British dominated company. By that time, the proclamation of General Stanley Maude was just a distant memory. The liberators acted as if they owned the place. In fact, they did own it.

April 16, 2003