Unless you have been out of contact with the news for a very long time, it won’t come as much of a surprise that we have invaded Iraq. What may come as a surprise, though, is quite how much time we’ve spent fighting there, even before our recent excursion. The East India Company took an early interest in the area for strategic reasons. In 1763, for instance, it set up shop in Basra and also set up a camel post from Aleppo to Baghdad – carrying post by camels, not posting camels. Then the company started supplying modern weapons to the authorities in Baghdad and teaching them how to use them. Sounds familiar? And by 1805, with worries about what Napoleon might be up to, if he was given half a chance, Brits were already thinking that maybe it would be useful to control Iraq. Well, after all, Napoleon did invade Egypt, partly with the aim of getting at India.
Having said that, during the Persian War of 1856–57 we went to some lengths to avoid invading what is now Iraq, since, not unreasonably, we didn’t want to pick a quarrel with the Ottoman authorities there while also fighting the Persians at the same time. It would be a bit like fighting wars in both Iraq and Iran today. So when we wanted to attack the Persian defences, we sent boats into the Shatt al Arab, but went to some lengths to stay in the Persian bit. Just as when we were in Iraq recently, we had to try to stay in the Iraqi bit of the Shatt al Arab and keep out of the Iranian bit.
But all that went out of the window with the First World War. On 5 November 1914, we declared war on the Ottomans, and by 25 November a British and Indian force had already captured Basra.
In 1915 we pushed north towards Baghdad. By November of that year we were just short of Baghdad and confronted an Ottoman force at the Battle of Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon’s a hugely historical place, a sort of crossroads of history. In 363, the Roman Emperor Julian fought the Persians here and that was about as far as the Roman expedition got before turning back. In 1915, we did the same against the Ottomans before turning back. Unfortunately in terms of historical parallels, we then switched to the Stalingrad parallel, but we were about to end up playing the German role in Stalingrad, not the Russian one. Our retreating army made it as far as Kut al Amara and was then encircled. We subsequently tried to break through to the besieged forces, we tried to supply them by air, we even tried sending a paddle steamer to get through to them. All to no avail. In April 1916, our trapped forces surrendered and over 13,000 soldiers became prisoners. The surrender at Kut al Amara is not something a lot of Brits know about, but it was a huge disaster for us. So you see, we’ve had miserable times in Iraq before.
After that we picked ourselves up, regrouped and retrained, making Basra into our base and our home in Iraq, just as we were to do during our recent time in the country. By December 1916, we were ready to march north. This time there were no mistakes like those of the previous venture north, and on 11 March 1917 we marched into Baghdad. There weren’t any statues of Saddam to pull down yet, but we did issue the proclamation of Baghdad, telling the locals �?our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators’.
We took it a bit easy on this front for most of 1918, but later that year, with signs of an armistice approaching, we lurched into action to ensure we grabbed as much as possible before the close of play.
After the First World War ended, it was all a bit of a mess for us in the area. We were occupying three separate Ottoman provinces: Mosul in the north, Baghdad in the centre and Basra in the south. There were major cultural and ethnic differences in the make-up of the three provinces. But despite this, the decision was taken to string them together into one political entity – Iraq. In April 1920, we were given the League of Nations Mandate to control the territory. Subsequently, the locals decided that they didn’t entirely believe the bit about us coming as liberators instead of conquerors and by June 1920 we had an armed insurgency on our hands which mixed nationalists, religious elements and out-of-work ex-Ottoman army officers. Does any of this sound familiar?
In 1920, in a world without television cameras and which had just come out of an appallingly brutal world war, we used air power and some very tough tactics against the rebels. The tactics did indeed help to bring the military side of the rebellion to an end, but they left a legacy that probably destroyed any chance of the Brits and the Iraqis getting along cheerfully.
Anyway, in 1921 we set up the Kingdoms of Iraq, with a king, Faisal, whom the French had forced out of Syria. It was one of those situations where we had decided that we wanted to remain in control of some of the important aspects of Iraq, and we were going to keep British forces there, but we wanted the Iraqis to run the less important aspects and still get along peacefully with us. Not surprisingly this approach didn’t win us many lasting friends among Iraqis and by 1941 we were fighting another war in Iraq and invading it all over again.
By 1939, after assorted political developments, the only forces we had left in Iraq were two RAF bases, one near Basra and one at Habbaniya, between Ramadi and Fallujah, both familiar names from recent events in Iraq. On 1 April 1941, with Germany at one of its strongest points during the Second World War, a nationalist coup d’état led by one Rashid Ali took power in Baghdad after the regent had taken refuge on HMS Cockchafer (yes, Cockchafer – named after an insect apparently, not anything else). The new regime looked to the Germans for support against the British.
In response, we rushed in reinforcements to the Basra area and occupied key points in the city, and when the Habbaniya base was surrounded by Iraqi troops and guns, we went on the offensive, bombing them and other military targets further afield. In May, German planes started arriving in Mosul in northern Iraq by way of Vichy French Syria. The German planes were repainted as Iraqi and started attacking us. A British relief force invaded Iraq from Palestine and eventually reached Habbaniya, while additional reinforcements were also airlifted in. This set us up for the Battle of Fallujah. Oh yes, it’s not just the Americans who’ve had one of those, we’ve had one too. On 19 May, after bombing and shelling Iraqi positions in and around Fallujah, we took the city. An Iraqi counter-attack on 22 May was eventually repulsed after fighting in the streets, and British troops began to advance on Baghdad both from Basra and from Habbaniya. Rashid’s regime collapsed, with him fleeing first to Persia and eventually to Germany. We put a pro-British government in power.
That was not, of course, to be our last invasion of Iraq. During the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, British forces were part of a sweeping attack launched through Iraq to outflank Iraqi forces in Kuwait itself. And in 2003 we and the Americans were back again with some of the old names, like Basra and Fallujah, making a comeback on British news.