How Britain invented terror bombing in 1920s Iraq

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On 28 August last year, as America tried to build international support for its impending war against Iraq, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared President Bush's international isolation over plans to attack Iraq with the lonely stand taken by Winston Churchill before the Second World War. In the face of appeasers and doubters at home and abroad, he told 3,000 assembled US marines, Winston Churchill realised what a threat Hitler posed to Europe. Similarly, he added, President Bush knew that "leadership in the right direction finds followers and supporters."

The comparison tells us more than Rumsfeld intends. Leaving aside the fact that support for World War II is totally reactionary, Rumsfeld's comparison is not completely inaccurate. For, under the administration of Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill, Britain invented the technique of terror bombing of defenceless civilians that has been a feature of most wars ever since. In 1920s Iraq Britain bombed Kurds and Arabs when they rebelled against Britain's attempts to assert control over them. So, it is indeed accurate to compare G. W. Bush and Winston Churchill - but also Adolf Hitler - to each other.

Britain occupied the vilayets (districts) of Baghdad and Basra during World War I. Following the Armistice, Britain occupied Iraqi Kurdistan, beginning with the city and vilayet of Mosul, during November-December 1918. This latter occupation violated an agreement with the Ottomans, the Mudros Treaty, but Britain knew that "the defeated Turks had no option" (Nader Entessar, Kurdish Ethnonationalism, p. 50). British forces also occupied the Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Suleymaniya. On 1 May 1920 Britain assumed the League of Nations Mandate (protectorate) of Iraq under the Treaty of San Remo and immediately established a Provisional Government in Baghdad. In August 1921 Britain installed a leading member of Arabia's Hashemite dynasty as the King of Iraq. As an outsider, King Faisal I would always be ultimately dependent upon his 'sponsor' for support. Of course, the Hashemites had already proven their pro-British credentials by providing fighters for T. E. Lawrence's Arab revolt against the Ottomans in Arabia.

Basing itself on lessons learnt in its Indian colonial possession as well as its wartime experience in Iranian Kurdistan, Britain cast around for pliable Kurdish figures whom it could appoint to positions of authority, focusing especially on tribal leaders - even going to the extent of 're-tribalising':

"Every man who could be labeled a tribesman was placed under a tribal leader. The idea was to divide South Kurdistan [Iraqi Kurdistan] into tribal areas under a tribal leader. Petty village headmen were unearthed and discovered as leaders of long dead tribes" (Major E. B. Soane, British Political Officer, 1919, cited in David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, p. 120-21).

For all its talk of its 'civilising mission' to non-Christian and non-white peoples, therefore, Britain was deliberately attempting to turn back the clock of social development, in the naked pursuit of its own capitalist interests. Arnold Wilson, the British Acting Civil Commissioner in Baghdad at the time, explains:

"The whole basis of our action as regards Kurds should be in my opinion the assurance of a satisfactory boundary to Mesopotamia. Such a boundary cannot possibly be secured, I imagine, in the plains, but must be found in the Kurdish mountains � [and that] entails a tribal policy" (cited in McDowall, op. cit., pp. 120-21).

Britain appointed Kurdish chieftains to all manner of positions, including one Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji as the Governor of Suleymaniya division - the only area to have a Kurdish administrator. But when its Kurdish appointees proved incapable of following imperial orders, the policy of Kurdish autonomy was simply dropped by Britain. C. J. Edmonds, a British political officer in the region, states that Britain soon became convinced that Iraq would never be viable without its Kurdish component:

"We were now engaged upon what was for Iraq a life and death struggle of which none of us had any doubt, for we were convinced that Basra and Baghdad without Mosul could, for economic and strategic reasons, never be built up into a viable state" (C. J. Edmonds, Kurds, Turks and Arabs, p. 398). Britain's strategic interests

Britain was committed above all to a stable Iraq, as a bulwark against Turkish, Russian and other interests in the region. Financially stretched by the recent World War, Britain was in no shape to pursue new complicated - and expensive - adventures in the fastnesses of Kurdistan. Consequently, it now dropped its policy of support for Kurdish self-rule. When Britain's strategic interests demanded it, therefore, the Kurds were portrayed as almost inherently incapable of ruling themselves. A British Memorandum to the League of Nations asserted:

"The Kurds of Iraq are entirely lacking in those characteristics of political cohesion which are essential to self-government. Their organisation and outlook are essentially tribal. They are without traditions of self-government or self-governing institutions. Their mode of life is primitive, and for the most part they are illiterate and untutored, resentful of authority and lacking in a sense of discipline or responsibility".

Iraq was a viper's nest of mutually hostile warlords and competing ethnic (Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Arabs) and sectarian (Sunnis, Shi'ite and others) factions. When Kurds in the region bordering on Anatolia murdered a British Political Officer in April 1919, British imperialism retaliated massively. "The British despatched a full division" to Sulaymaniya (Entessar, op. cit., p. 50), then:

"resorted to aerial bombardment, a technique it began to use as a standard tactic to economise on troop deployment. It had the advantage of instant effect and economy of cost" (McDowall, op. cit., pp. 154-55).

As revolts against the British occupiers multiplied, so too did British retaliation. The most serious opposition came from Sheikh Mahmud, who declared the formation of a Kurdish state and engaged in fierce fighting with British forces in the region from 3 May 1919, then declared himself Ruler of all Kurdistan, before being captured and exiled in mid-June. The Political Officer in Amadia and his assistants were killed in November 1919. Soane now "returned to administer Suleymaniya with a rod of iron" (McDowall, op. cit., p. 158).

In 1920 the whole of Iraq was engulfed in a variety of anti-British uprisings. The year began with a new Kurdish uprising by the Surchi clan. The British now found a new use for Sheikh Mahmud. By August 1920, they were confronted with an increasingly alarming situation, as not just one Kurdish region after another rose in revolt, but soon also large swathes of southern (Shi'ite Arab) Iraq. Meanwhile, Britain, fearful that Kurdistan, especially Mosul, might fall to the Turks, was compelled to return Sheikh Mahmud from exile in October 1922 and to re-appoint him the Governor of Suleymaniya.

When Sheikh Mahmud was re-installed in Suleymaniya, the British declared that they would "recognise the rights of the Kurds living within the boundaries of Iraq to set up a Kurdish Government" (cited in Sa'ad Jawad, Iraq & the Kurdish Question: 1958-1970, p. 8). Sheikh Mahmud seized this opportunity with both hands, declaring the formation of a Kurdish state with Suleymaniya as its capital. On 18 November 1922, he announced himself to be the 'King of Kurdistan'. Entessar (op. cit., p. 53) notes:

"Kurdish disenchantment with Iraqi rule led to renewed uprisings in Sulaymanieh [Suleymaniya] under Sheikh Mahmoud's leadership. In the winter of 1927, an Iraqi expeditionary force supported by British firepower was sent to Sulaymanieh�" The RAF takes over

Overall responsibility for the problem was progressively handed over to the RAF from August 1921. By October 1922 the RAF had principal responsibility for the war, with British ground forces being reduced. In a single aerial sortie, Suleymaniya was bombarded in mid-May 1922, causing the town's 7,000 residents to evacuate the town for the remainder of the conflict. In fact, armed confrontations between Kurdish and Arab nationalists and British imperialism continued until the early 1930s.

Geoff Simons (Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam, London, St. Martins Press, 1994, pp. 179-81) tells the story of British imperialism's capitalist barbarism against the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs:

"Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail 'the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death � for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes.'

Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire): 'I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.' Henry Wilson shared Churchill's enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause 'only discomfort or illness, but not death' to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and 'kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes.'

Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a 'scientific expedient,' should not be prevented 'by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly'. In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with 'excellent moral effect' though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties�

Today in 1993 there are still Iraqis and Kurds who remember being bombed and machine-gunned by the RAF in the 1920s. A Kurd from the Korak mountains commented, seventy years after the event: 'They were bombing here in the Kaniya Khoran � Sometimes they raided three times a day.' Wing Commander Lewis, then of 30 Squadron (RAF), Iraq, recalls how quite often 'one would get a signal that a certain Kurdish village would have to be bombed�', the RAF pilots being ordered to bomb any Kurd who looked hostile. In the same vein, Squadron-Leader Kendal of 30 Squadron recalls that 'if the tribespeople were doing something they ought not be doing then you shot them.'

Similarly, Wing-Commander Gale, also of 30 Squadron: 'If the Kurds hadn't learned by our example to behave themselves in a civilised way then we had to spank their bottoms. This was done by bombs and guns'.

Wing-Commander Sir Arthur Harris (later Bomber Harris, head of wartime Bomber Command) was happy to emphasise that 'The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.' It was an easy matter to bomb and machine-gun the tribespeople, because they had no means of defence or retaliation. Iraq and Kurdistan were also useful laboratories for new weapons; devices specifically developed by the Air Ministry for use against tribal villages. The ministry drew up a list of possible weapons, some of them the forerunners of napalm and air-to-ground missiles:

Phosphorus bombs, war rockets, metal crowsfeet [to maim livestock] man-killing shrapnel, liquid fire, delayed-action bombs. Many of these weapons were first used in Kurdistan".

Hugh Trenchard, the RAF's chief of staff between 1919 and 1927 mentioned earlier, submitted a report to the Cabinet shortly after the RAF had temporarily quelled anti-British unrest in Iraqi Kurdistan.1 Trenchard reported that Churchill had first employed aerial bombardment against Iraq's Kurds as a means of finding "some cheaper form of control". Trenchard enthusiastically endorsed the verdict of the British High Commissioner for Iraq that "a free and vigorous use of � aerial resources" had proven to both highly potent and cost-effective. The RAF chief of staff concluded prophetically:

"Air power is of vital concern to the Empire and in Iraq, under the control of an air officer, further evidence is accumulating of its great potentialities. A continued demonstration, until its effectiveness is beyond dispute, may have far-reaching results, in that it may lead to still further economies in defence expenditure, not only in Iraq, but also in other Eastern territories where armed forces are required to give effect to British policy and uphold British prestige".

Aerial bombardment had proven to be a satisfactory method of mass killing. Jonathan Glancey (The Guardian, 19 April 2003) recalls:

"Winston Churchill, secretary of state for war and air, estimated that without the RAF, somewhere between 25,000 British and 80,000 Indian troops would be needed to control Iraq. Reliance on the airforce promised to cut these numbers to just 4,000 and 10,000. Churchill's confidence was soon repaid".

Glancey reports that the RAF "flew missions totaling 4,008 hours, dropped 97 tons of bombs and fired 183,861 rounds for the loss of nine men killed, seven wounded and 11 aircraft destroyed behind rebel lines". Aerial bombardment is generalised

British capitalism's pioneering aerial terror against Iraqis paved the way for the wholesale use of terror bombing of all varieties. The British bombing of Kurdistan was the first use of aerial bombardment - and the first use of such bombardment in the peripheries of capitalism. British forces engaged in their third Afghan War soon after this also used this tactic. The monster 'Bomber Harris' became notorious "for his ruthless championing of saturation bombing against German civilian and military targets" (Jonathan C. Randal, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan, p. 5).

T. E. Lawrence wrote to the London Observer to complain: "It is odd that we do not use poison gas on these occasions". The British military certainly took to aerial bombardment with gusto as a means of spreading mass terror. In 1921, Wing Commander J. A. Chamier suggested that the best way to demoralise local people was to concentrate bombing on the "most inaccessible village of the most prominent tribe which it is desired to punish. All available aircraft must be collected, the attack with bombs and machine guns must be relentless and unremitting and carried on continuously by day and night, on houses, inhabitants, crops and cattle"(cited in Glancey, op. cit.).

After proving it in the colonies, this tactic was then deployed during World War II to a massive extent - first of all in the British and German blanket bombing campaigns against each other's populations, which included the massacre of the workers of Dresden in 1945. In Dresden, preliminary sorties were flown using high explosives to remove the roofs from buildings. This was followed by targeted bombing of phosphorous devices into houses, factories, offices, schools and hospitals, with the objective of spreading a devastating firestorm as rapidly as possible. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people - many of these war refugees - were killed over three weeks. This was a casualty rate far in excess of the death toll exacted in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were also just another example of a massive terror bombing campaign.

Churchill, Harris, Lawrence, Chamier, Trenchard and Hitler were certainly all terrorists of the first order, but they were all merely doing their jobs exceptionally well as enforcers for decadent capitalism. Ali

Note 1: An original copy of Trenchard's report, 'The Development of Air Control in Iraq' is held by Britain's Public Records Office. This chilling document (reference PRO AIR19/109 of October 1922) can be viewed online at the Public Records Office Web site, at the following address: www.pro.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/aftermath/p-iraq.htm

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