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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Colonial Warfare pt. 36


Rashad Ali


The 1941 Iraqi Coup

As the fall of 1940 approached, the Nazi war machine was truly on the move. In a mere four-year period, from 1936 to 1940, German aggression had partially or fully occupied Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Low Countries and France.

The continued freedom of both England and the Soviet Union notwithstanding, Adolf Hitler had clearly become the master of Europe. One had to wonder how far the ambitious tentacles of Nazi expansion were to extend. Would Hitler be content with his string of foreign policy successes in Europe, or would he aim at a proliferation of German influence elsewhere?

In the latter months of 1940, Great Britain stood virtually alone. France had fallen, the Soviet Union was tied into a non-aggression pact with Germany, and America's isolationist ways keeping her aloof from the European war. With the new year approaching, the British found it necessary to consider the possibility of a German invasion. An additional point of concern dealt with the nation's overseas possessions. The worl-wide scope of the British Empire automatically entailed a good number of responsibilities: the protection of trade routes, lines of communication, raw materials, and within the context of world war, points of strategic interest. Clearly, despite the formidable size of the Royal Navy, both the breadth and Britain's holdings and the modest size of its army persisted to keep the Empire, in the early stages of the Second World War, in a position of great vulnerability.

One zone of English influence which appeared especially susceptible to potential problems was the Middle East. The spring of 1941, in the eastern Mediterranean, presented many pressures. Of primary concern to Great Britain were German operations in North Africa and the Balkans. In addition, there were some within leading British circles who believed that the advent of war, and the many Axis victories which accompanied it, might bring resurrection to the always burdensome factor of Arab nationalism. The impending Nazi rush on the Middle East, not to mention the Arab national threat, had the potential to turn Great Britain's Middle Eastern position into one of great instability.

The status of the British-dominated Middle East seemed tailor-made for the opportunistic nature of German foreign policy--a simple combination of Nazi scheming with a bit of cooperation from the Arab nationalists could prove a massive foreign policy boon for Germany and a great step for pan-Arabs in their effort to rid the Arab east of the Union Jack. Clearly, as victory for those fighting under the Axis banner continued, and British prestige, the chances of such contact occurring increased.

British fears reached their highest point with the Rashid Ali al-Kilani Revolt of April and May 1941. Perhaps the brightest flash-point of Arab dissent during the Second World War, the Iraqi coup d''etat represented a great number of things. First, the revolt reflected the attempt by a subjugated state to break the yoke of foreign domination. Second, it represented the age-old imperialistic rivalry which had existed between European powers. Third, the timing of the coup took place within the context of world-wide conflict, and also at a time when the British Empire's prestige was at its nadir. Fourth, it provided a rare moment in Iraq's history where it was able, through German intriguing, to wield a certain degree of leverage in its dealings with Great Britain. And finally, the coup was a watershed--it clearly defined the extent to which Great Britain was willing to go, not only to save its Empire, but also save itself.

In August 1965, Valentin Berezhkov, interpretor in the Soviet embassy at the time of operation "Barbarossa," the German invasion of Russia, provided a fascinating account of a meeting which took place between German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Dekanozov. During the 22 June 1941 interview, Ribbentrop explained that in view of Soviet provocation, Germany had been forced to launch a preemptive attack. However, according to Berezhkov, just as Soviet officials were leaving the room, the Nazi foreign minister hurried after them in an effort to explain his aversion to "Barbarossa." Berezhkov went on to recount Ribbentrop pleading the following: "Make it known in Moscow that I was against the invasion!"

The Berezhkov recountal provides us with just one of many references to the apparent skepticism Ribbentrop had for "Barbarossa." This dissencion was most prominently manifested in his attempted construction of a series of anti-British, pro-Soviet alliances between 1937 and 1941. The crowning achievement of Ribbentrop's diplomatic crusade was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Ribbentrop reveled in this diplomatic victory--there were few who believed it could be done, and like Prince Otto von Bismarck (1815-1889) and his policy against france seven decades earlier, the foreign minister saw Great Britain's defeat as a mere matter of time.

However, "Barbarossa" precluded all that Ribbentrop had worked so hard to achieve. Hitler's gravitation toward an anti-Soviet stance more apparent after the Winter of 1940/41. And, after the Berghof conference of January 1941, it should have appeared to most high-ranking Nazis, including Ribbentrop, that Hitler was sold on a move against the Soviet Union. If we assume that Ribbentrop as well as other Nazis were opposed to an invasion of the Soviet Union, how might they dissuade Hitler from attempting as much? An analysis of the failed Baghdad coup may help in providing an answer.

The coup, in as far as German foreign policy in 1941 was concerned, should be viewed as significant. It provided an opportunity for those who opposed "Barbarossa" to expose the great vulnerability of British possessions in the Middle East, and in doing so provided an alternative strategy. In attempting to understand Germany's conduct during the coup, it is vital to analyze the varied attitudes within the German government regarding their relation to the future of German foreign policy. Accordingly, the revolt can be viewed as a crossroads, where German foreign policy, under the endorsement of Hitler, opted for a distinctly anti-Soviet stance as opposed to that advocated by Ribbentrop and others.


The Iraqis saw a chance to eliminate British influence in their country.

The Rashid Ali revolt was, by no means, a spontaneous act committed by a group of power-hungry politicians. Rather, it was initiated by a cell of men whose intentions were both deep-seated and profound. Basically, the coup served as a sort of boiling point where the age-old frustrations of a great number of individuals converged. The primary component of the conspirators’ actions was the phenomenon of Arab nationalism. In order to truly understand the Arab nationalist movement, especially its relation to the Rashid Ali Putsch, it is necessary to recount and analyze its history. Furthermore, in order to correctly view Arab nationalism and its role in the coup properly, it is crucial to consider the parallel development of German and British policy agendas in the Arab East from the First World War onward.

Like other nationalisms, Arab nationalism aimed at independence from foreign control.4 It also possessed a pan-Arab dimension which called for the ultimate union of all Arab peoples into a single, independent state comprised of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Arabia.5 A ready and most relevant parallel to the pan-Arab cause was Hitler’s attempt to bring all ethnic Germans or Volksdeutsche under the umbrella of one greater German state. In theory, as the Hungarian German stood on par with the Bavarian, so too did the Yemeni stand in union with the Syrian. As will be seen, this very commonality would prove itself a major factor in the development of relations between the leadership corps of the Arab world and its Teutonic associates in the latter 1930’s.

The origins of modern Arab nationalism can be traced back to the dawn of the twentieth century. Most of the movement’s ire, at this time, was directed against the Ottoman Empire, the overlord of the Arab world. With the advent of the First World War, Turkey cast its lot with Germany and the Central Powers. As a result, Great Britain and its Entente allies sought to foment Arab revolt against the Ottomans.6 In return for Arab assistance, the British government promised to realize the dearest of all pan-Arab aspirations--the creation of an independent, unified Arab state. However, as the policy aims of their Turkish all the pan-Arabs were incongruent, any German hope of attaining collaboration with the Arabs was hindered by its alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

The extent of Britain’s assurances, prior to the initiation of the Arab revolt in June 1916, were found in an extremely vague series of letters to an Arab leader, Sharif Husayn, from the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon.7 Although the gist of the missives reflected London’s willingness to meet Arab demands for independence, McMahon was careful to include a number of conditions. The most significant of which related to the French government’s desire to hold a certain degree of influence in the Levant. In consideration of their ally, the British deliberately excluded the coastal strip of Syria from their promises to Husayn.8 As the Arab leader found the French demand repugnant, the issue was postponed until after the war.9 Therefore, as things stood in the summer of 1916, Arab rebels found themselves wary of two things as they prepared to act: first, how reliable were McMahon’s assurances for independence, and second, how likely was the possibility of a renewed foreign presence in the Middle East.
..................
One may look at the 1936 Putsch as a political christening of sorts for the Iraqi military as the event made it, in the words of Majid Khadduri, “virtually the sole deciding factor in the rise and fall of almost all Cabinets from 1937 and 1941.”31 As the army rose, its political doctrine followed in accordance. The military was extremely nationalistic and was comprised of officers who believed that a strong army-led regime in Iraq was imperative if the country was to exorcise foreign control, unite all Arabs, bring aid to fellow Arab states in the fight against imperialism, and provide a strong sense of law and order in the country.32 The military’s leading clique was known as the “Golden Square,” and was comprised of Colonels Salah ad-Din as Sabbagh, Kamil Shabib, Mahmud Salman, and Fahmi Sa’id. Under the “Golden Square’s” leadership, the army was able to galvanize its strong influence on the Baghdad government through its close relationship with various civilian officials, the most significant being Rashid Ali al-Kilani.33 Al-Kilani was unmistakably anti-British and a founding member of the Ikha al-Watani party which came to prominence with its opposition to the previously mentioned 1930 Treaty of Alliance. However, Iraq’s extremists did face opposition in a more moderate group of nationalist politicians. Led by the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Sa’id, this cell as Khadduri states, “was favorably disposed towards Great Britain and foresaw grave danger to the Arab world from identification of Arab nationalism with totalitarian ideologies.”34 Nuri essentially believed that the only sensible way of gaining a pan-Arab union was through patience and compromise with Great Britain and France. Furthermore, he saw any alliance with Germany as a fast and sure way of alienating Great Britain and destroying the progress already made. But, as things stood in 1937, the military had, quite evidently, entrenched itself as the predominant force in Iraqi politics.

How can one explain the presence of a pro-British prime minister in a government dominated by a pro-German military? Nuri’s rise to prime minister had been sanctioned by the four colonels because of a mutual dislike both camps had for the deposed Jamil Midfa’i regime (1937-1938).35 Furthermore, it may also have been the case that when the military chose to champion Nuri’s rise in December, 1938, it did not realize the true extent of the candidate’s pro-British convictions. In the following pages, further light will be brought to the estrangement of Nuri and the military.

The Iraqi military’s ascent followed in conjunction to events which were taking place in Europe. One such occurrence was the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Based on an amalgam of historical, cultural, and racial awareness, the new government’s platform, sought to restore the greatness which Germany had known prior to Versailles. It was stated earlier that the Nazi regime endeavored to bring about the union of all ethnic Germans. Accordingly, by 1939, Germany had made great strides in doing such--Austria and the Sudetenland had both become part of Hitler’s greater German Reich.

Aptly enough, the Nazi state’s ability to effectively achieve its ethnic union drew the admiration of many Arab nationalists, particularly those in Iraq.36 Germany’s accomplishments excited the Iraqis who looked upon themselves and the Germans as two peoples who shared similar historical experiences. In order to better understand Iraq’s strong interest in the Nazi German rise, one must analyze the relationship which existed between Germany and the Ottoman Empire, prior to, and during the First World War.

At the turn of the century, Wilhelmine Germany looked upon the flaccid Ottoman Empire as an entity prime for colonization as well as economic exploitation.37 The Germans also viewed the Empire as a vehicle which might enable them to compete with British and French interests in the region.38 In order to achieve these policy goals, Germany sought to inculcate Turkish political and military officials with the benefits of “cultural nationalism.”39 Surfacing with the rise of German Romanticism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, this school of thought emphasized the glories, past and present, of a people’s language and history. In essence, the Wilhelmine government sought to utilize “cultural propaganda” as a means of assimilating Turkey’s educated military and civilian elite to the ways of Imperial Germany, and, as a result, galvanize Turko-German ties.

The Wilhelmine government’s policy had indeed affected a wide portion of Turkish society. However, it is important to mention that just as ethnic Turks were digesting the ideal of “cultural nationalism” so, too, were many ethnic Arabs within the Ottoman military and government. Arabs were becoming increasingly wary of the Ottoman government’s Turkification of the Empire. In view of this growing Turkish cultural influence, Arabs looked to their owns cultural past by reading books which spoke of heroes and the Arab conquest of Spain.40 Furthermore, those Arabs who were most effected by German policy, the military, surfaced as the movement’s vanguard and helped perpetuate various secret societies which sought to spread Arab identity and culture.41 In essence, a new form of nationalism was developing from the pattern which had been handed to the Turks by the Germans.

Aptly enough, after the creation of the kingdom of Iraq, many of the Arabs who had been educated by the Germans in the Ottoman Empire carried this sense of “cultural nationalism” southward. Especially after receiving its independence in 1932, Iraq was quick to develop as a hot-bed of Arab nationalism.42 With Syria and Palestine still under foreign control, the instinct for Arab nationalist leaders to turn to Iraq was natural. Truly, as it soon became vaunted as the Prussia of the Arab East, many Arabs looked to Iraq as the most promising country to achieve the pan-Arab union.43

Iraq’s fervent nationalist and pro-German sentiments did not elude the watchful eye of Berlin as the new German regime began to realize the importance in attaining an Arab-German rapprochement.44 In an effort to fan the Arab fire, as early as 1937, the German government initiated propaganda activities in the Arab East.45 And, in that same year, the head of the Hitler youth, Baldur von Schirach, made a visit to Baghdad.46 Nazi propaganda found an echo in the rise of paramilitary organizations such as Iraq’s Futuwwa, a group which was designed with the specific intent of bringing the nationalist ideal to the country’s youth.

Germany’s most effective agent in the Middle Eastern propaganda was Dr. Fritz Grobba. Schooled in Arab culture and history, and fluent in Arabic and Turkish, Grobba was no stranger to Middle Eastern affairs.47 He harbored much faith in the great potential of the pan-Arab movement. In late 1937, he believed that “the friendship of the Arabs for Germany [was] almost instinctual.” Grobba also felt that “the friendship of the Arabs for Germany [was] still active in the leading class in Iraq, Syria, and Palestine . . .” Grobba expressed his own views on the future of German policy in the Arab East by stating that “Even if Arab friendship towards Germany is determined above all by the Arab’s own interest, it is an important factor for Germany, which we can make both political and economic use of.”48 Quite clearly, it was not just those within the pan-Arab camp who saw promise in German-Iraqi collaboration.


They finally decided to strike as they saw Britain's fortunes wane in the African desert.

By the spring of 1940, Nuri began to sense his grasp on the course of Iraqi policy loosening. After proposing a series of reforms dealing with the electoral laws and with reform and settlement of land disputes in the Diwaniya area, the prime minister was met with dissent from within the government.53 Much of the government’s criticism of Nuri could be attributed to the influential intrigues of the “Golden Square.”54 Vexed by Nuri’s close relationship with London, the four colonels saw great promise in their promotion of Rashid Ali as a replacement to the current prime minister. By March, Nuri was enveloped by opposition, from both those from the anti-British camp and those within his own group who frowned upon him for not taking a more assertive role against the “Golden Square.”55 As a result, on 31 March, Nuri resigned in favor of Rashid Ali, with the provision, however, that the former prime minister take on the position of foreign minister. In assuming such a post, Nuri hoped to continue to influence the maintenance of a Iraqi policy of cooperation towards Great Britain.56

Needless to say, the change in ruling parties did not bode well for Great Britain. As things stood, in the summer of 1940, Rashid Ali neither allowed the concentration of British troops in Iraq nor severed diplomatic ties with Germany’s Axis partner, Italy. Making matters worse were the swirling rumors that the Iraqi government was in the process of renewing diplomatic relations with Germany. Upon hearing such news, London’s ambassador to Iraq, Sir Basil Newton, asserted that if Iraq was to resume relations with Germany, Great Britain would, in turn, be compelled to reconsider her relations with Iraq.57 Newton further conceded that London had no confidence in Rashid Ali. Such a barb simply brought aggravation to an already shaky relationship existing between the two governments. And when, on 9 January, the Iraqi government solicited Great Britain for weapons and money, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Anthony Eden, bit back by stating that London only supplied pounds to “loyal allies.”58 Later that month, and without surprise, the British government insisted that Rashid Ali be removed from his post as prime minister.

Great Britain’s request induced the regent to intervene and use his influence in a effort to force the prime minister to resign.59 Fortunately for Abd al-Ilah, certain variables were making his task easier to complete. First, the news of British military success in the western desert of Egypt helped dull the edge of pro-Axis sentiment in the Baghdad government. Second, economic sanctions were having a draining effect on the whole of Iraq. And finally, Rashid Ali harbored a deep fear for the threat of civil war which appeared to be on the verge of eruption between the country’s pro and anti-British camps.60 Ultimately, the prime minister tendered his resignation via cable on 31 January.

The newly formed government came under the leadership of General Taha al-Hashimi. The rationale for Taha’s selection rested in the fact that both the regent and the more extreme elements of the government, especially the “Golden Square,” respected the General and had much faith in his ability to rule fairly. Aptly enough, the new prime minister’s central task was to bring reconciliation to the tensions which had been lingering between the pro-Axis clique and the regent.61 Taha also endeavored to persuade the “Golden Square” to accept a policy of conciliation towards Great Britain. However, on 28 February, 1941, at a meeting which consisted of the Mufti, Rashid Ali, and three members of the “Golden Square,” the policy of the Taha government was reviewed. Those in attendance came to two conclusions: first, it was decided that breaking-off relations with Italy was inconsistent with Arab interests; and second, if Taha were to insist on carrying out a policy unacceptable to the nation, he should then be asked to resign in favor of Rashid Ali.62

In essence, with the meeting’s adjournment, the fate of the Taha government was sealed. The conspirators decided to act on 1 April by first alerting the army. Taha was then handed an ultimatum which proposed collaboration between himself and the pro-Axis group. After Taha refused the extremist demand, the regent’s palace was surrounded. Although the regent was able to escape, the coup had succeeded, and for the meantime the conspirators had effectively gained control of the government. Clearly, the game was afoot--Iraq was under a state of revolt, and all attention would now be focused on what sort of policy measures Great Britain, Germany, and Italy would apply to the Baghdad crisis.

posted by Steve @ 1:37:00 PM

1:37:00 PM

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