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Iraqi Independence and its Discontents

Independence was not widely popular among Iraqis. In fact, protests of various kinds had been continual in the months preceding. The nationalist opposition, led by Yasin al-Hashimi, opposed independence on the basis of the treaty, and the conviction that it represented a phony, truncated independence. Kurdish nationalists in the north opposed it because they objected to the Arab cultural and linguistic domination policy they thought would follow, and wished to be guaranteed some autonomy. Assyrian Christians feared the removal of the British Mandate because they were insecure of their position within Iraq, and desired autonomy, or at least protection.

Yasin al-Hashimi, in opposition, renewed his criticism of the treaty and the British presence. Iraq’s politicians were all ex-Ottoman elites, but in 1931 al-Hashimi appeared to succeed in broadening his base of support and embracing and exploiting economic and social issues of importance to ordinary Iraqis. Early that year, during the opening of the Hizb al-Ikhwa al-Watani (Party of National Brotherhood) Yasin and Rashid cAli al-Kaylani gave major public speeches. Each called for a new government and a renegotiation of the treaty. In mid summer, as Faysal went to Europe, a series of large strikes brought Baghdad to a halt.43 The initial grievance was a trade tax increase, but the scope of complaint rapidly increased. Street demonstrations expanded beyond the hated tax and called for an end to the monarchy and the election of Yasin as president of a republic. Within a couple weeks the strike had spread to most of the towns north and south of Baghdad. British military aircraft overflew demonstrations as a display of force. Mandate police forces were rushed from one end of the country to the other.

Yasin al-Hashimi and the party leaders published a petition to the king in their party newspaper. “We did not throw off the yoke of Abdul-Hamid to suffer under the yoke of Faysal.”44 The most interesting element of the petition is the comparison between Abdul-Hamid and Faysal. Dr. cAbd al-Rahman al-Shahbandar had made a strikingly similar argument a few years earlier in Damascus in opposition to French rule.45 The recent Ottoman past was still fresh, and al-Hashimi seemed to still consider himself a member of the Ottoman Unionist Party (Committee of Union and Progress), since he shared credit for the overthrow of Abdul-Hamid in 1908 and 1909. His attacks on the treaty soon progressed to attacks on the king, and to the institution of monarchy itself. Faysal closed al-Hashimi’s party newspaper, with the support, if not at the instigation, of the High Commissioner.

An independent Kurdistan had been briefly part of the post-war settlement. Between the San Remo conference in early 1920 and the Treaty of Sevres in August, there was a vague and aborted plan for a referendum on a Kurdish state, perhaps under British Mandate, but by summer 1920 the prospects for such a partition, along with a similarly vague Armenian state in Anatolia, had been eclipsed by the Anatolian insurgency and the inability of Britain or France to conquer or occupy any more Ottoman territory. In the event, the Turkish Republic and the British divided the area drawn out as Kurdistan between themselves at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Kurdish leaders became aware that a more independent Iraqi government would seek to extend its control and limit Kurdish autonmy and local control, and they began a campaign of petitions to the League of Nations and British government in London.46

Kurdish agitation was inconvenient for the British Government. The League of Nations, focussed as it was on ethnicities, nations, and minorities, was especially keen to extract guarantees of minority rights from the mandatory power. Moreover, Britain and France had legitimated their seizure of Ottoman territory as guardians of minority rights. Kurds protested that they had been promised their own state, and that the Iraqi and British governments had abused them. But the British government wanted to exit, and likewise wished to avoid discussion of the extent of Kurdish opposition to an end of the mandate, and more importantly the extent of periodic rebellion and repression in the Kurdish region. The British Accredited Representative to the Mandates Commission denied emphatically the charges and dismissed the petitioners. But in private correspondence British officials admitted that, having claimed in the annual reports that Kurdistan was without problems, further discussion was potentially “very embarrassing.”47

The Assyrian population had even better reasons to oppose independence. Assyrian Christians, many of whom had fled as refugees or, like much of the Armenian population, had been death-marched south from Anatolia during the war, had settled among a few villages of coreligionists in the region north of Mosul. The British Mandate recruited the Assyrians for a rural police and security force called the Assyrian Levies, which was British-officered and used for internal repression of tribal and rural disturbances and tax protests. They also comprised the security force for all RAF bases. Like the other minorities, the Assyrians aspired to an independent or autonomous state, but their close association with the British army and the mandate caused them to be viewed with mistrust by other Iraqis. They numbered only about 40,000 refugees in the 1930s and they were correspondingly weak and easily subject to neglect or worse. The Assyrian Levies were, however, armed, trained, and paid directly by the British government. They were, by design, outside the control of the Iraqi government. The Assyrian leaders began a concerted effort to attract the attention of the Mandates Commission and the Assyrian Patriarch traveled to Geneva in 1932.48 The British Accredited Representative assured the Mandates Commission the new Iraqi government would respect minority rights.

For its part, Nuri al-Sacid’s government, having just secured limited independence, had no wish to invite additional oversight. British loyalists or not, the Assyrians were on their own.

In keeping with the pattern, shortly after independence, Faysal dismissed Nuri and asked Rashid cAli Kaylani and Yasin to form a government in March 1933. A few months later, Faysal traveled to Europe with Nuri and a few others for a lavish state visit with full honors to London as a guest of King George V.49 The Royal Navy escorted their ferry across the channel with four destroyers and nine fighter planes overhead. A special train collected them at Dover and delivered them to Victoria Station where King George himself welcomed Faysal and rode with him by carriage to Buckingham Palace. As a mere politician, Clemenceau’s visit at the end of the war in November 1918 was accompanied by far less ceremony. Faysal proceeded to Switzerland for rest and recuperation from the rigors of his efforts. Within a month, events forced a return to Baghdad.

Members of the Assyrian Levies had quit their units, taken their weapons, and moved their families to Syria. The French refused to allow them to remain, and they returned to Iraq, where they engaged in a gun battle with Iraqi army troops in August 1933. In the following week Kurdish irregulars and Iraqi army units under the command of an ex-Ottoman officer and Iraqi army general named Bakr Sidqi killed several hundred Assyrians, many of whom were unarmed villagers. Bakr Sidqi, himself of Kurdish origin, had been educated in the Ottoman military-school system, graduating from the Academy in 1908, and gaining admission to the Staff College after several years of service in the field. He graduated from the Staff College in July 1914, the last class before general mobilization, and like Yasin remained in the Ottoman army throughout the war.50 He finished the war at a rank of probably senior captain, which he maintained in the Iraqi army, which he joined in 1921. Bakr Sidqi benefited from an unusual level of British official favor and was sent repeatedly for advanced training among British officers, first in India and then in 1932 at Sandhurst in the UK. The British considered him especially impressive and reliable as an instrument of mandate policy. Upon his return from Sandhurst he was promoted to general in the Iraqi army.

Faysal returned amid the crisis and unwanted international attention. The uprising and brutal repression of the Assyrians embarrassed the League of Nations, the British government, and Faysal. But the Assyrian massacres provoked outpourings of nationalist fervor among Iraqis and elevated Bakr Sidqi and the army as national heroes. Yasin’s al-Ikhwa’ al-Watani Party already included Bakr Sidqi as a member, and the party and the army enjoyed swelling popularity, particularly relative to the absent king. Faysal returned to Switzerland in late August to resume his rest and medical treatment. Within a week of his return to Bern, he was dead from a heart attack. He became, at the age of 48, one of the first of his generation of late-Ottoman transitional statesmen to pass from the scene. His early demise turned out to be commonplace among his contemporaries and many followed him in the next decade.

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