Britain's history in Iraq has hidden pages
CONFLICTING reports on violence and lawlessness in Basra as British troops withdrew, handing control over to Iraqi forces. Some locals say there are fewer shootings and attacks if only because the occupiers are no longer there as a target. Some British reports have presented a picture of sectarian attacks and violence against women once Brits no longer patrolled the streets.
An Iraqi police chief however made the point that it was the invaders who destroyed society and unleashed sectarian violence and criminal gangs, and that it would take time to restore peace on the streets.
British soldiers in Basra may have thought they were there to protect citizens, even if they had enough trouble protecting themselves. But that was certainly not the whole story.
Not when we remember back to September 18, 2005. On the eve of the Karbala festival when thousands of pilgrims were about to arrive, Iraqi police captured two men in an unmarked car in Basra after a shoot-out, in which police officers were wounded, if not killed. The men were British SAS personnel dressed as Arabs.
According to Reuters and initially BBC reports their car was "full of explosives and bomb-making equipment".
A British armoured unit stormed the jail where the men were held to release them, killing Iraqis in the process, and freeing about 150 other prisoners on to the streets.
Mention of the explosives and remote detonators was dropped from later reports. The car too was taken back from the Iraqi police. We were told the men had been on a surveillance mission, or (according to the Telegraph) were out to capture a particular police officer known as a torturer. But you would not carry explosives for that. So was the British purpose in Basra at that time to prevent sectarian war or to get one started?
No doubt the media now figures two years is a long time for the public to remember an incident. Not for the people in Basra it isn't.
Of course, Britain has a history in Iraq. Invading during the First World War, it acquired the League of Nations Mandate over Mesopotamia, and here it was that the RAF was used to police rebellious Arabs and Kurds by bombing their villages. In 1932 the kingdom of Iraq became nominally independent, but the RAF retained its base at Habaniyeh, and British officials remained in important positions.
Then in April 1941 a group of nationalist army officers backing prime minister Rashid al Gailani, encouraged by Axis propaganda and buoyed by popular anti-British feeling, took power. The pro-British Regent Abd el Elyah fled to a British warship, and was flown to Palestine. Rommel's army was advancing in north Africa, and German planes were in Vichy-run Syria. Rather than accept a compromise with Rashid al-Gailani the British government decided on regime change, invading Iraq with Indian Army troops to restore the Regent.
Basra, Iraq's second city, at that time had a sizeable Jewish population, some 30,000, ranging from port and rail workers to senior civil servants and businessmen.
Nazi propaganda, assisted by the presence in Iraq of the Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini who had gone there after the Palestinian revolt was crushed, sought to underpin hostility to the British with anti-Jewish feeling over Palestine. It broadcast the news that Jewish commandos (led by Irgun Zvai Leumi commander David Raziel) had enlisted to fight for the British in Iraq. Just to help matters, London broadcast that Basra Jews had come out with flowers to greet the British troops and the returning Regent. In fact, the Jews were strolling the parks and the Corniche on a warm Saturday afternoon, and the Regent had not even arrived in Basra. Groups of Arab youth who came out the following day to attack Jews were persuaded to go home by local Moslem leaders.
So far, under Rashid el-Gailani's brief rule there had been few anti-Jewish incidents in Iraq. But on May 7, British-officered Gurkha troops were unleashed in Basra's Oshar district, breaking into houses, looting and assaulting women. Local people, Jewish and Muslim, took down old rifles and pistols to defend their homes, and though the invaders were better-armed they withdrew. Had the usually well-disciplined Gurkhas just got out of hand or was their rampage sanctioned for whatever reason by British officers?
That same day the British forces encircled at Habaniya air base had broken out, assisted by 'planes which attacked retreating Iraqi forces.
On May 18, 1941, British forces stormed Faluja, causing heavy Iraqi casualties. The following day the British Army's Assyrian levies went into Faluja, and began an orgy of plunder, rape, and murder. Some say this was in revenge for the massacre of Assyrian Christians by Muslims in 1923, but Naim Giladi says most of the victims in Faluja were Jews. He adds that the British commander of the forces entering Faluja, General Clark, was "known to be exacting on the matter of his troops' discipline".
By May 30, Rashid Ali and most of the rebels had fled over the border to Iran, and British forces, including Glubb Pasha's Arab Legion were poised to take Baghdad. But they waited, while the radio continued to announce the Regent's imminent
return, and German radio in Arabic continued playing up the involvement of Jews from Palestine. On June 1, Jews celebrating the Shavuot holiday in Baghdad clashed with youths from the Kataib el-Shahab.
That evening there was a more serious incident when armed rioters dragged two Jews from a bus, killing one of them. But it was the following day that the big Baghdad fahud, or pogrom, was really begun, by armed and uniformed men who arrived in middle-class El Rashid street in military trucks and began shooting off locks on shops and homes. The mobs that came up to loot were mostly armed with clubs and knives, but the uniformed men shot into the homes before getting into their trucks to move on to the next targetted streets.
Some Jews fought back, assisted or sheltered by Muslim neighbours. But by mid-afternoon when mainly Kurdish troops had come in to restore order and chase off the rioters, 104 people had been killed, and 650 injured, many shops had been wrecked, and 890 houses had been looted. Three millennia of relatively peaceful co-existence in Iraq had been ended.
The farhud may have contained an outburst of blind, spontaneous anger as well as plunder, but it was plainly organised. By whom is less plain, since Rashid Ali's men had already left Iraq, and the capital was without official government for two days before the pogrom was launched. Not till after it were the British able to say they were restoring the Regent and moving in to establish order.
'Divide and rule' is nothing new in the policy of colonial powers, and dividing Iraq in three along sectarian/ethnic lines may well suit imperial ambitions. Perhaps the Nazis were not the only ones in 1941 to regard an anti-Jewish diversion as useful, particularly if it also provided a pretext for intervention.
We can but speculate. Forty years ago when interested scholars rushed to examine the papers made available under Foreign Office rules they found that some pertaining to events in Iraq in 1941 were still being withheld, and one file is marked not to be made public until 2017. That's a long time to be protecting somebody's reputation. How long will we have to wait for the truth about what has been happening more recently in Faluja and Basra?
On the Baghdad pogrom see also:
Books to read: Marian Woolfson - Prophets in Babylon
Abbas Shiblak - Iraqi Jews
Naim Giladi - Ben Gurion's Scandals.