Thursday, July 20, 2023

Review Britain In Iraq, Contriving King and Country

Sluglett, Peter, Britain In Iraq, Contriving King and Country, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007


This is the revised version of Peter Sluglett’s Britain in Iraq, Contriving King and Country. Sluglett’s goal was to explain how England occupied and administered Mesopotamia during World War One and then created the nation of Iraq under a League of Nation’s mandate. Britain wanted to protect its routes to India, defend the oil fields in Iraq and Persia, and establish an Iraqi government that was under London's influence. The British achieved all three of those goals while causing long term problems for Iraq.


Sluglett writes that England’s occupation of Iraq was a purely imperialist endeavor meant to benefit the empire not Iraqis. The latter were the losers of English policy because the majority of the public were excluded from the government and impoverished by the agricultural economic system created. He makes a controversial argument that the British shouldn’t be blamed for this because they were not interested in creating an effective Iraqi government or developing the entire country; they were only concerned with their interests. If Sluglett believed that England created long term structural problems for Iraq who else should be held responsible? You couldn’t blame the Iraqis because they were not in control.


England went about achieving its goals in Iraq in several different ways. First, it built several Royal Air Force (RAF) bases in Iraq to make sure communication routes through Iraq to India were secure. Second, a consortium with a British majority was created to develop the country’s oil. Third, an Iraqi elite made up of King Faisal and the top politicians were put in office who were dependent upon England. While they all wanted Iraqi independence they also realized that they could easily be overthrown by the various tribal revolts that occurred or the Kurds could breakaway if the British military wasn’t present. The RAF for instance was the main way to not only put down uprisings but also collect taxes from delinquent landlords and sheikhs. The latter were often bombed until they paid up. Once these issues were resolved London agreed to end the Mandate and make Iraq an independent country in 1932. Many books don’t emphasize that in their analysis of the Mandate period. It’s the right focus because England was in control and like Sluglett points out they weren’t there for the Iraqis or the League of Nations but itself.


Sluglett includes many other interesting observations about the British period in Iraqi history. Politics in Baghdad for instance was divided into four main groups. One was the king and his allies in parliament who wanted Iraqi independence but were accommodating to England to stay in power. The second was Sunni nationalists that also wanted independence but were the rivals of the first group and were anti-British. Third were the Shiites some of which were willing to work with the first two groups and others who wanted greater Shiite power in the government and society in return for their cooperation. The book points out that the Sunnis dominated politics and believed England and independence were the only real issues. That led them to consistently ignore the Shiites and Kurds and force was often used to keep them in their place. Ironically the British constantly pushed Baghdad to make compromises to stabilize the country but made little headway. As the author points out the government was a small and separate entity in Iraq, which made it easy to overthrow and control in various coups that occurred after independence and led to one autocratic leader after another. That was one of the major legacies of the British mandate.


Another time Sluglett explains the imperial mindset of the British officials that ran Iraq. Almost all the English administrators came from India and implemented a similar system in Iraq. In India a small group of British officials ruled who believed that the natives were incompetent, corrupt and incapable of self-rule. They therefore didn’t believe in giving any concessions to the population. The British even thought that if educated Indians took power they would be poor rulers and the people would suffer. As a result, in Iraq each province, ministry and the military was given a British advisor to run things and a High Commissioner was in charge of the country overall. Deals were made with sheikhs and landlords to act as proxies to rule the countryside where there was little British presence. They refused to give any meaningful power to the Iraqis and didn’t care about education either. These early imperial officials believed Iraq was going to be a colony. That eventually changed due to President Wilson’s call for self-determination and protests by Iraqis, but as explained above London decided that indirect rule could maintain British influence at a much cheaper price. This is another important part of the book because it helps explain why it took 12 years for Iraq to gain its independence. It wasn’t because London was taking time to build up Iraqi institutions for self-rule but because most of the British in charge simply never thought Iraq would be independent.


Britain in Iraq, Contriving King and Country is one of the best books on the British period in Iraqi history. It is highly detailed going through all the major moves by the British and Iraqi government during each year of the occupation and Mandate, and then provides reflections upon what happened to Iraq as a result. Sluglett points out the shortcomings of British imperialism and how it achieved its goals. He notes the struggles within the Iraqi government between the different factions and then how the system eventually collapsed after the British left. There are many other points which help explain why Iraq is the way it is today. That makes Sluglett’s work an essential read.


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