Nos. 33 & 34, December 2002


Why this Special Issue: India as a Pillar of US Hegemony

From Colony to Semi-Colony

Towards Nationalisation

The Iran-Iraq War: Serving American Interests

The Torment of Iraq

Return of Imperialist Occupation
The Current Strategic Agenda of the United States

Home Front in Shambles

Military Solution to an Economic Crisis
US Declares India a Strategic Pillar

The Pages Ripped out by the US from the Weapons Report

Western Imperialism and Iraq:
From Colony to Semi-Colony

Entry of imperialism
Iraq, the easternmost country of the Arab world, was home to perhaps the world’s first great civilisation. It was known in classical times as Mesopotamia (“Land between the Rivers”—the Tigris and the Euphrates), and became known as Iraq in the seventh century AD. For centuries Baghdad was a rich and vibrant city, the intellectual centre of the Arab world. From the sixteenth century to 1918, Iraq was a part of the Ottoman Turkish empire, divided into three vilayets (provinces), Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre, and Basra in the south. The first was predominantly Kurdish, the second predominantly Sunni Arab, and the third predominantly Shia Arab.

As the Ottoman empire fell into decline, Britain and France began extending their influence into its territories, constructing massive projects such as railroads and the Suez canal and keeping the Arab countries deep in debt to British and French banks.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain directly ruled Egypt, Sudan and the Persian Gulf, while France was the dominant power in Lebanon and Syria. Iran was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. The carving-up of the Ottoman territories (from Turkey to the Arabian peninsula) was on the agenda of the imperialist powers.

When Germany, a relative latecomer to the imperialist dining table, attempted to extend its influence in the region by obtaining a ‘concession’1, to build a railway from Europe to Baghdad, Britain was alarmed.By this time the British government — in particular its navy — had realised the strategic importance of oil, and it was thought that the region might be rich in oil. Britain invested £2.2 million in the Anglo-Persian oil company (a fully British firm operating in Iran) to obtain a 51 per cent stake in the company. Gulbenkian, an adventurous Armenian entrepreneur, argued that there must be oil in Iraq as well. At his initiative the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) was formed, 50 per cent British, 25 per cent German and 25 per cent Royal Dutch-Shell (Dutch- and British-owned).

World War I (1914-18) underlined for the imperialists the importance of control of oil for military purposes, and hence the urgency of controlling the sources of oil. As soon as war was declared with the Ottomans, Britain landed a force (composed largely of Indian soldiers) in southern Iraq, and eventually took Baghdad in 1917. It took Mosul in November 1918, in violation of the armistice with the Turks a week earlier.

During the war British carried on two contradictory sets of secret negotiations. The first was with Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In exchange for Arab revolt against Turkey, the British promised support for Arab independence after the war. However, the British insisted that Baghdad and Basra would be special zones of British interest where “special administrative arrangements” would be necessary to “safeguard our mutual economic interests.”

The second set of secret negotiations, in flagrant violation of the above, was between the British and the French. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Iraq was carved up between the two powers, with Mosul vilayet going to France and the other two to Britain. For its assent Tsarist Russia was to be compensated with territory in northeast Turkey. When the Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in November 1917 and published the Tsarist regime’s secret treaties, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Arabs learnt how they had been betrayed.

Iraq under British rule
After the war, the spoils of the German and Ottoman empires were divided among the victors. Britain’s promises during the war that Arabs would get independence were swiftly buried. France got the mandate for Syria and Lebanon, while Britain got the mandate for Palestine and Iraq. (The ‘mandate’ system, a thin disguise for colonial rule, was created under the League of Nations, the predecessor to today’s United Nations. Mandate territories, earlier the possessions of the Ottomans were to be ‘guided’ by the victorious imperialist powers till they had proved themselves capable of self-rule.)

Britain threatened to go to war to ensure that Mosul province, which was known to contain oil, remained in Iraq. The French conceded Mosul in exchange for British support of French dominance in Lebanon and Syria and a 25 per cent French share in the TPC.

However, anti-imperialist agitation in Iraq troubled the British from the start. In 1920, with the announcement that Britain had been awarded the mandate for Iraq, revolt broke out against the British rulers and became widespread. The British suppressed the rebellion ruthlessly—among other things by bombing Iraqi villages from the air (as they had done a year earlier to suppress the Rowlatt agitation in the Punjab). In 1920, Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, proposed that Mesopotamia “could be cheaply policed by aircraft armed with gas bombs, supported by as few as 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops”, a policy formally adopted at the 1921 Cairo conference. (“The Hidden History of the Iraq War”, Edward Greer, Monthly Review, May 1991)

British install a ruler
Shaken by the revolt, the British felt it wise to put up a facade. (In the words of Curzon, the foreign secretary, Britain wanted in the Arab territories an “Arab facade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff.... There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on”.) The British High Commissioner proclaimed emir Faysal I belonging to the Hashemite family of Mecca (who had been expelled from the French mandate Syria) as the King of Iraq. The puppet Faysal promptly signed a treaty of alliance with Britain which largely reproduced the terms of the mandate. This roused such strong nationalist protests that the cabinet was forced to resign, and the British High Commissioner assumed dictatorial powers for several years. Nationalist leaders were deported from the country on a wide scale. (In this period the whole region was in ferment, with anti-imperialist struggles emerging in Palestine and Syria as well.) The British also drafted a constitution for Iraq which gave the King quasidictatorial powers over the Parliament.

In 1925, widespread demonstrations in Baghdad for complete independence delayed the treaty’s approval by the Constituent Assembly. The High Commissioner could only force ratification by threatening to dissolve the Assembly. Even before the treaty of alliance was ratified—and before there was even the facade of an Iraqi government—a new concession was granted to the Turkish Petroleum Company for the whole of Iraq, in the face of widespread opposition and the resignation of two members of the cabinet. (Among other things, the British blackmailed Iraq by threatening that they would, in the negotiations with the Turks, cede the oil-rich northern province of Mosul to neighbouring Turkey—the opposite of what they were demanding in the earlier-mentioned negotiations with the French. Thus even the borders of the countries in these regions were merely set at the convenience of imperialist exploitation. The worst sufferers were the Kurds, whose territory was divided by the imperialist powers among southern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran.)

The terms of the concession, covering virtually the entire country till the year 2000, were outrageous. Payment was four shillings (one-fifth of a British pound) per ton of oil produced. For this extraordinary giveaway, the puppet king Faysal received a personal present of £40,000. It was this concession the oil corporations for half a century thereafter would fight to defend as their ‘legitimate’ right.

Contention for oil
With Germany’s defeat in the war its stake in the Turkish Petroleum Company fell into Britain’s lap. Thus Britain would almost completely dominate the company. However, this was no longer tenable—following the new correlation of strengths of the different imperialist powers. Britain, though it had the largest empire among the imperialist powers, was actually in decline. Unable now to compete with other industrial economies, it desperately attempted to use its exclusive grip over its colonies to shore up its economic strength; whereas the US, now the leading capitalist power, demanded what it termed an “open door” to exploit the possessions of the older colonising powers.2 Two years after the end of World War I Woodrow Wilson, the American president, wrote:

“It is evident to me that we are on the eve of a commercial war of the severest sort and I am afraid that Great Britain will prove capable of as great commercial savagery as Germany has displayed for so many years in her commercial methods.” (Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis, Joe Stork, 1975, p. 14.)

American oil companies, with US government backing, demanded a share in the Turkish Petroleum Company, and by 1928 two American companies, Jersey Standard and Socony (later known as Exxon and Mobil, and today as the merged Exxon-Mobil) got a 23.75 per cent stake, on par with the British, French, and Royal Dutch-Shell interests. Most of the major oil corporations in the world were thus represented in the Turkish Petroleum Company (now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company—hereafter IPC).

Contending with nationalism
The continuous local opposition to British rule at last forced Britain to grant Iraq ‘independence’ in 1932. But this Britain did only after extracting a new treaty stipulating a “close alliance” between the two countries and a “common defence position”—effectively, continued indirect rule by the British. Britain kept its bases at Basra and west of the Euphrates, and Faysal continued to occupy the Iraqi throne.

Even such ‘independence’ did not last long. In 1941, sections in the Iraqi army and political parties staged a coup against the King, and were about to ally with the Axis powers to win freedom from the British. Britain invaded Iraq once again and occupied it, installing once again the King and a puppet cabinet headed by their lapdog Nuri as-Said (who was made prime minister 14 times in the turbulent period 1925-58).

After the war ended in 1945, British occupation continued. Martial law was declared in order to crush protests against the developments in Palestine in 1948 (the driving out of the Palestinians and the seizure of their lands by the new Zionist state). Just then, the Iraqi government signed a new treaty of alliance with Britain, whereby Iraq was not to take any step in foreign policy contrary to British directions. A joint British-Iraqi defence board was to be set up. But when the prime minister returned from London after having concluded this deal, a popular uprising took place in Baghdad, forcing his resignation and the repudiation of the treaty. In the following years, nationalist forces demanded nationalisation of the oil industry (as Iran had carried out in 1951).

In 1952 occurred another popular uprising, carried out by students and ‘extremists’. The police were unable to control the demonstrators, and the regent called on the army to maintain public order. The chief of the armed forces’ general staff governed the country under martial law for more than two months. All political parties were suppressed in 1954.

Growing US intervention in the region
The price of standing up to the oil corporations was made clear in neighbouring Iran. There the regime headed by Mossadeq nationalised British Petroleum in 1951, faced a devastating boycott by all the oil giants for the next two years, and was overthrown by a CIA-led coup in 1953. (The CIA man in charge of the operation later became vice-president of Gulf Oil.)3

On the other hand, regimes throughout the region were under pressure from the Arab masses. Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to power in Egypt in a 1952 coup, adopted a confrontational posture toward the US and Britain, nationalising the Suez Canal and taking assistance from the Soviet Union. Nasser’s stance won him popular support in the Arab world, where Iraq and Egypt contended for leadership. In that period an anti-imperialist wave swept the Arab countries, threatening the stability of pro-western puppet regimes.

The US became the new gendarme of the region to suppress any agitation against imperialism and its client states. For example, when in 1953 both Saudi Arabia and Iraq crushed oil workers’ strikes by the use of troops and martial law regimes, shipments of arms from the US to both followed immediately. In 1957 the Jordanian king (the first cousin of the Iraqi king) arrested his prime minister, dissolved the parliament, outlawed political parties, and threw his opponents into concentration camps, with economic and military aid from the US. In 1958 the right-wing Lebanese regime used American equipment in its attempt to crush nationalist opposition. At American insistence three pro-US/UK regimes—Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan—came together to form an alliance against the USSR, the Baghdad Pact (later known as the Mideast Treaty Organisation and the Central Treaty Organisation; Britain and Iran were later to join). Iraq, the only Arab country to join this pact, had to face Nasser’s denunciation for doing so.

1. A ‘concession’ is a piece of territory which the host country has allowed a company to occupy or use in a particular way, usually for a sum of money. Historically, concessions typically have been granted for railways, mines, and ports. (back)

2. The US did not then require Iraqi oil for its own consumption: large finds on its mainland by the 1930s created a glut of capacity. American oil companies needed an overseas presence in order to restrict global supply and thus maintain prices that would be profitable to them. And the US, as the new leader of the capitalist world, wanted to ensure that the world’s strategic resources came under its control. Later, after World War II, the US was to use its control of West Asian oil as one of its instruments for dominating Europe. (back)

3. The interchangeability of Big Oil and government personnel is a tradition of US political life, with predictable effects: in the current administration, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney , and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are all former oil company executives. (back)

Next: Towards Nationalisation


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