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Remembering Iraq: Britain's Favourite Punching Bag Printer friendly page Print This
By T.J. Coles. Axis of Logic
Axis of Logic
Wednesday, Apr 10, 2013

Editor's Note: This is the second report of T.J. Cole's series, "Remembering Iraq" which he began prior to the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. We published the first of this series on March 18 of this year:

Remembering Iraq: Part One
The Occupation Ten Years On
(includes photo essay)

- Les Blough, Editor
Axis of Logic

Mesopotamia, Cradle of Civilization

Karbala Province, Mesopotamia

The occupation of Iraq by US and British forces, beginning 19 March 2003 and continuing indefinitely (the US has built permanent military bases there), did not occur in a vacuum. Ever since British trading ships, navigated by military personnel, sailed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the late-1830s, Britain, followed by America, has bombed, shot, supported dictators in, and occupied, the country.


Bringing "Civilisation" to the "Sons of Lawlessness"

Britain entered Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in 1837. "A new country has thus been opened to navigation, to commerce, and to civilisation", the Editor of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London declared.
1 Following 176 years of "commerce" and "civilisation", the Red Cross reported:

"Decades of conflict and economic sanctions in Iraq have caused deep scars, leaving the country’s infrastructure unable to cover the needs of a growing population. Ongoing violence in many areas affects the lives of Iraqi civilians and continues to hamper the country’s recovery. Basic public services, especially health care, are at risk from the prevailing insecurity".2

In 1839, the Nitocris invaded Mesopotamia, accompanied by two armed vessels. A couple of years later, the firm Lynch & Co. was founded in Baghdad for navigating the Tigris. The purpose was "carrying the British mails and maintenance of friendly relations with the tribes, protection of British trade and shipping" to and from India, "and survey and observation work … [F]or the success of the expedition a friendly attitude from those sons of lawlessness was essential", wrote R.E. Cheeseman in The Geographical Journal.3

In an effort to undercut Germany's railway-based Drive to the East, Britain occupied Iraq as part of its operations in World War I. The British High Commissioner’s Staffer to Iraq, B.H. Bourdillon, explained how, "in November, 1914, we captured Basra. We went there chiefly, I presume, to protect the Anglo-Persian oil-fields upon which our navy was so largely dependent".4

Historian G. Gareth Jones wrote: "by early 1916 the Foreign Office was becoming convinced that the oilfields of Egypt and Mesopotamia must be developed after the war by British companies".5 Historian E.P. Fitzgerald went on to explain that, "three weeks after the war ended, [French] Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau abandoned France’s rights to Mosul and ceded control of all northern Mesopotamia to Britain".6

Spanking the "War Baby"

Once Germany and France were out of the oil picture, brute force was used to make Iraq safe for the foreign oilmen. "The first [RAF] report from Baghdad described an air raid that caused wild confusion among the natives", wrote historians Lindqvist and Haverty Rugg. One airman reported: "Many of them jumped into a lake, making a good target for the machine guns".7 Bourdillon explained at the time:

"…the British public, even the more intelligent sections of it, regard Iraq in the light of a rather unattractive war baby of highly suspicious parentage … Consequently, they take very little interest in the child and, are constantly expecting it to be naughty. When it fulfils these expectations they take a rather unseeming delight in spanking it. We have had a good many spankings in the last five or six years, and we have honestly felt that some of them have been rather undeserved."8

One such "spanking" was the suppression of the 1920 Shia-Kurdish uprising. In 1991, Shias and Kurds would again attempt an uprising, betrayed this time by collaboration between Britain, America, and Saddam Hussein. During the 1920 uprising, Britain used chemical weapons against the civilians, according to a US Air Force report.9 War Minister Winston Churchill said: "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes".10

In order to subdue resistance, historian A. Vinogradov noted, "the British set fire to whole villages and settlements that lay along the demolished railway. … The British Army had surrounded Karbala and cut off its water supply, forcing its surrender". Najaf was "full of refugees from the rural areas surrounding it" and "was given an ultimatum to surrender or be bombarded".11 Kurds and Shias "now know what real bombing means", said the RAF's Bomber Harris.12

After Iraqis demanded genuine elections, Britain’s High Commissioner, Sir Percy Cox, "responded by banning the two [opposition] parties, closing down their newspapers, and expelling their leaders", wrote historian Adeed Dawisha. [13] History repeated itself in 2010, when it became clear that the Western-installed al-Maliki Government was banning, jailing and executing political opponents, and murdering journalists.

The Rise of Saddam

Iraq's first opportunity to free itself came after World War II with the rise of Abd al-Karim Kassem in 1958. Britain’s attitude to Kassem was initially ambiguous, waiting to see if he could become an ally. At a talk to the Royal Africa Society and Royal Commonwealth Society later that year, Lord Birdwood explained:

"... we hope and believe and we take Kasim at his word, that he does not intend at the moment to nationalise the oil … We have also to remember, of course, that the Iraq Petroleum Company is a matter of four nationals—ourselves, and the French, the Americans and the Dutch; and that they would all have to take some kind of concerted action if necessary."14

Kassem nationalised the oil and was deposed. A couple of years before Kassem’s murder, Britain invaded Kuwait under the pretext that Kassem was going to invade. The move was a transparent pretext to occupy Kuwait’s oilfields. Kassem was overthrown and murdered by Baath Party leaders, General Abdul al-Bakr (Prime Minister) and General Abdul Arif.

The coup was instigated by the CIA under William Lakeland and his hit-squad, the beautifully named Health Alteration Committee. During the coup, five thousand Iraqis were murdered, mostly political opponents and intellectuals. Saddam Hussein, whom Kassem exiled to Cairo, returned to join in the torture and murder. By the time the coup was completed, 14,000 political opponents had been jailed. History has again repeated itself, with the Western-installed al-Maliki Government imprisoning 30,000 political opponents, demonstrators, and dissenters, utilising British arms and training.15

Saddam Hussein appointed himself leader of the Baath Party in 1979. Britain and America immediately began turning Iraq into a heavily militarised country. The Guardian reported:

"A chemical plant which the US says is a key component of Iraq’s chemical warfare arsenal was secretly built by Britain in 1985 … Documents show British ministers knew at the time that the £14m plant, called Fallujah 2, was likely to be used for mustard and nerve gas production. Senior officials recorded in writing that Saddam Hussein was gassing his opponents".16

Journalist Jochen Hippler wrote that Iraq's chemical and biological warfare programme "depended on foreign suppliers and technicians. The deals typically involved a number of companies from several different countries whose activities were known to Western intelligence agencies". These included the US, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. Hippler added:

"One Kuwaiti official, speaking of Iraq’s practice of using false end-user documents, said Kuwait’s embassy in Washington regularly filed certificates for US-made equipment: "Of course, the stuff was going direct to Iraq, and everybody knew it—your government and mine."17

The British and American military-industrial-science-secret service complex created the bogeyman of Saddam Hussein to rule the region's second largest reserves of oil (second to Saudi Arabia), only to apparently turn on him years later as an excuse to terrify the Western publics into backing an invasion. The invasion soon morphed into permanent occupation.

It is fair to say that British Troops have never really
left Iraq since their insertion in the 1830's.



  1. Col. Chesney and W. Ainsworth, "A General Statement of the Labours and Proceedings of the Expedition to the Euphrates, under the Command of Colonel Chesney, Royal Artillery, F.R.S.", Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London,Vol.7, 1837, pp.411-439.

  2. Red Cross, "Iraq: Population racked by heavy burden of decades of conflict", 15 March, 2013,

  3. R.E. Cheeseman, "A History of Steamboat Navigation on the Upper Tigris", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 61, No. 1, January, 1923, pp. 27-34.

  4. B.H. Bourdillon, "The Political Situation in Iraq", Journal of the British Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 6, November, 1924, pp. 273-287.

  5. G.G. Jones, "The British Government and the Oil Companies 1912-1924: The Search for an Oil Policy", The Historical Journal, Vol. 20, No. 3, September, 1977, pp. 647-672.

  6. E.P Fitzgerald, "France’s Middle Eastern Ambitions, the Sykes-Picot Negotiations, and the Oil Fields of Mosul, 1915-1918", The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 697-725.

  7. Sven Lindqvist and Linda Haverty Rugg, "Bombing the Savages", Transition, No. 87, 2001, pp. 48-64.

  8. B.H. Bourdillon, "The Political Situation in Iraq", Journal of the British Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 6, November, 1924, pp. 273-287.

  9. W.D. Farr, "The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons", Counterproliferation Center, Steptember, 1999, Alabama: USAF,
  10. M. Gilbert, 1977, Winston S. Churchill, 1874–1965: Volume 4, 1916–1922, London.

  11. A. Vinogradov, "The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics", International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, April, 1972, pp. 123-139.

  12. Sven Lindqvist and Linda Haverty Rugg, "Bombing the Savages", Transition, No. 87, 2001, pp. 48-64.

  13. Adeed Dawisha, "Democratic Attitudes and Practices in Iraq, 1921-1958", Middle East Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter, 2005, pp. 11-30.

  14. Birdwood, "Britain and the Middle", African Affairs, Vol. 58, No. 231, April, 1959, pp. 123-133.

  15. Mark Curtis, 2004, Unpeople, London: Vintage.

  16. D. Leigh and J. Hooper, "Britain’s dirty secret", Guardian, 6 March, 2003.

  17. J. Hippler, "Iraq’s Military Power: The German Connection", Middle East Report, No. 168, January-February, 1991, pp. 27-31.

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