Home History The Last Ottoman Generation and the Making of the Modern Middle East
The Fall of Yasin Pa§a al-Hashimi
Yasin al-Hashimi had become Iraqi prime minister in March 1935. He assumed the role as the most prominent independent Arab leader, figurehead of Arab unity, and a popular hero in the surrounding countries. In Baghdad, he focused on his ambitious reform program and wresting meaningful independence from the British Embassy. At first his skill, energy, and resourcefulness won admirers among British officials. But as the regional and international atmosphere of crisis intensified, and the extent of his ambitions and the consequences of his potential success became evident, both King Ghazi and his British patrons panicked.
Yasin al-Hashimi bent the Iraqi state to his will. His authoritarian and militaristic vision was in common with Mustafa Kemal, and probably most Ottoman Unionists of their generation. Yasin dissolved and reopened parliament after calling elections and reorganizing the chamber to include more deputies and a majority he controlled. He alternately tightened and loosened press censorship, and dismissed many officials for corruption, or resistance to his program. About a third of the remaining British advisors in the Iraqi government were up for contract renewal in May 1935. Al-Hashimi allowed the contracts to expire, thereby reducing the number of serving British officials by a third.
By these means, Yasin al-Hashimi dismissed the two most powerful British advisors in Iraq. General John Charles Bruce Hay was chief military advisor and liaison to the Iraqi army, and an enthusiastic supporter of Bakr Sidqi. Yasin allowed his contract to expire in late 1936.
Sir Kinahan Cornwallis had been the most influential British advisor over a decade and a half as chief British advisor to the Interior Ministry. Cornwallis had been director of the Arab Bureau, running British Middle East intelligence between 1916 and 1920, and oversaw the recruitment of Ottoman prisoners of war for the Arab Revolt. He played the central role in organizing the Iraqi monarchy, planning King Faysal’s initial referendum in 1921. Cornwallis enjoyed a very high salary from the Iraqi treasury in his years in Baghdad, and he did not take his dismissal easily. He complained bitterly to the ambassador, and endeavored to mobilize his many friends in London against Yasin’s gov- ernment.51 Yasin dismissed many other less prominent figures who similarly resented their loss of status and income, and the humiliation dealt by a once-vanquished enemy. When new employment offers for foreign advisors were tendered, Yasin cut salaries significantly and did not favor Britons, as the treaty required.52 He was rumored to prefer Germans.
Yasin al-Hashimi was a product of the Ottoman military-school system. He rose from a modest background, fully availed himself of the social mobility offered in the military schools, distinguished himself at every level as a student, cadet, young officer, staff officer, field commander, general, and statesman. He believed in education and he believed in military discipline. In his first months in power the Ministry of Education introduced military training into the state boys’ middle- and secondary-school curriculum. Military officers would visit each school weekly and teach physical fitness drills and military discipline, theory, and terms.53 Boys were encouraged to join the youth military organization, called al-Futuwa. They were taught to use firearms, to handle and maintain weapons, to read maps, camp, read and understand military manuals, and survey geography. Recruits subjected themselves to strict discipline, but were rewarded, like their Ottoman cadet forebears, with splendid free uniforms, various privileges, and the opportunity to take part in parades and official ceremonies, and to be honored and lauded by the leaders of the nation in public displays, inevitably attended by Yasin al-Hashimi himself.
In May 1936, Ambassador Archibald Clark Kerr filed a long report based on several meetings with Yasin. Clark Kerr was among Yasin’s admirers, and yet his report must have stoked fears that Iraq under Yasin was becoming less reliable and more hostile to British interests. Al-Hashimi noted that persistent armed smuggling from Kuwait forced him to increase military pressure on the neighboring British protectorate. Clark Kerr noted Kuwaiti fears that Iraq would annex their principality, and while Yasin expressed his allegiance to Arab unity, and aspirations for a single, large Arab state, he denied his wish to annex Kuwait. Yasin was well known for his measured speech and ambiguous language, and he noted mildly that some Iraqis did see annexation as a solution to the problem posed by unfriendly Kuwaiti behavior, and the possibility existed that such pressure and Kuwaiti misbehavior could force his hand.54 British oil prospectors had become active in the Kuwait protectorate after 1934, when the shaykh signed an oil concession with Anglo-Persian. In 1937, they discovered vast quantities of oil.
Regional developments combined to instill a growing sense of dread in London, but collusion in Palestine decided the policy toward Yasin’s government. The Foreign Office archives offer mostly bland and euphemistic exchanges, but the private correspondence files of Ambassador Clark Kerr reveal the rising tide of panic. Clark Kerr detailed German oil exploration and concession-seeking in a series of secret letters.55 Various scandals, discussed in lurid detail in personal correspondence, had embroiled the royal family, and Yasin al-Hashimi had enhanced his own power at the expense of the diminished young king. Twenty-four- year-old King Ghazi would take orders from the ambassador, but events weakened his position. Yasin would not take orders and as the king sank, his position was strengthened. The ambassador himself, who counted as a leftist among British diplomats, suggested mildly that a republican system could solve Iraq’s royal problems, but his Foreign Office counterparts reacted with great irritation, and complained that Clark Kerr had exceeded his brief.
Meanwhile, Baghdad newspapers praised Yasin al-Hashimi as the unifying defender of Arab rights and “Bismarck of the Arabs.”56 Needless to say, Bismarck was not beloved among British officials. Yasin publicized and advocated the cause of the Palestinians in their struggle against Britain and Zionism and announced a national holiday called “Palestine Day” in May 1936.57 In August, British intelligence accused Yasin of covertly supporting the Palestinian revolt with weapons and money, sending Fawzi al-Qawuqji to command the insurgent forces, and sending Iraqi state funds directly to Haj Amin al-Husayni for the purposes of prolonging the General Strike and armed revolt.58 The Foreign Office considered these unforgivable transgressions, and urged the Embassy to abandon their friendly attitude toward Yasin. The ambassador and the Counsellor, Charles Bateman, argued against drastic moves against the government in Baghdad, but George Rendel, head of the Foreign Office Eastern Department, pointed out that policy was made in London, where the whole picture was visible. Dismissed advisor Kinahan Cornwallis was by this time back in London, where he reported extensively to his Foreign Office colleagues. Rendel noted
British moves in Palestine were likely to be so unpopular in Baghdad that the stability of all British positions were imperiled, and policy retrenchment was required in ways still under discussion.59 “A special cabinet committee is actively going into the whole matter in the hope of bringing the present difficulties to an end.”60
In early August, army chief of staff Taha al-Hashimi departed for Istanbul to investigate Turkish views on the possible unification of Syria and Iraq, and went on to Britain to buy weapons and aircraft. The Anglo- Iraqi Treaty stipulated that Britain would supply the Iraqi military with arms, but as the al-Hashimi brothers asserted their influence, and war loomed in Europe, the British government delayed Iraqi weapon requests and stalled existing orders. Not coincidentally, Taha al-Hashimi made several alarming detours on the way back to Iraq to buy weapons and renew old friendships. He traveled directly from London to Berlin, where he visited armament and airplane factories and surveyed German military capabilities. From Berlin he visited Czechoslovakia and contracted weapons purchases from the Skoda works, after which he proceeded to visit old comrades in Ankara.61 In view of the last war and the war looming, both Germany and Turkey retained their power to worry British imperial strategists. In Taha al-Hashimi’s absence, Bakr Sidqi fatefully served as commander of the armed forces. Taha al-Hashimi was due to return and resume his command as chief of staff, on October 30, 1936.
At dawn on October 29, 1936 Iraqi RAF airplanes dropped leaflets over the capital announcing the overthrow of the government. The leaflets addressed the nation and claimed “your sons in the Army had lost patience with the present government, and been compelled to act, signed, General Bakr Sidqi.” Early that morning Hikmat Sulayman delivered a letter to the king from Bakr, inviting the king to dismiss the government and appoint Hikmat prime minister. King Ghazi immediately telephoned British ambassador Clark Kerr, who raced to the palace and advised him to do whatever necessary to avoid the entry of soldiers to the capital.62 Months before, King Ghazi had complained of Yasin’s ambitions, and said that if Iraq was to have a dictator, he wished it to be Nuri al-Sacid, a sentiment the Foreign Office certainly shared.63
The evidence of British foreknowledge and collusion in the first coup in the modern history of the Arab world is strong. Influential British advisors, like General Bruce Hay and Kinahan Cornwallis, had lost their Iraqi government positions and high salaries from Yasin’s reforms. The Foreign Office was increasingly anxious over the appeal and power of Yasin’s ambition to unite the Arabs and assert actual independence. He actively supported politicians and armed insurgents in both Palestine and Syria, and he flaunted with impunity elements of the
Anglo-Iraqi Treaty he found unappealing. Yasin al-Hashimi enjoyed durable friendships with leading Turkish and German officers and Great War comrades. British policy-makers had many reasons to want Yasin and Taha out.
Four-and-a-half years later, in 1941, British RAF airplanes dropped leaflets over Baghdad in precisely the same way, shortly after the return of Kinahan Cornwallis as ambassador. The leaflet-drop in 1941 announced the coup and invasion known as the Anglo-Iraqi war of 1941, and the specifics are in the archives for the perverse reason that the leaflets, printed in Cairo, were dispatched to Air Headquarters Iraq by regular British Airways commercial freight. When British authorities in Iraq realized the leaflets were sitting on a loading dock, waiting for Iraqi customs inspections, a covert diplomatic and intelligence crisis erupted with much finger-pointing and angry correspondence.
A consignment of other pamphlets addressed to Wing Commander Jope Slade, Habbaniyah, by Brigadier Clayton, under commercial bill of lading reached Habbaniyah Airport by British Airways yesterday and was then transported to Baghdad in usual way for Customs examination. We fortunately got wind of this and managed to abstract pamphlets without knowledge of Iraqi authorities. If we had not been successful, irreparable damage to our cause would have been done.64
In 1936, things evidently went more smoothly.
Yasin and Nuri arrived at the palace while the king conferred with the ambassador. Yasin had already convened a cabinet meeting and attempted to reach Bakr Sidqi by phone that morning before going to the palace. The ambassador left the room, and according to Iraqi historian cAbd al-Razzaq Hasani, al-Hashimi asked the king if the coup plotters should be met by force.65 The king answered with silence, which proved al-Hashimi’s suspicion that the king approved the coup. He offered his resignation. Moments later, in the presence of the ambassador and king, Yasin reported that he had spoken that morning by phone with Bakr Sidqi who claimed his coup had the backing of the king. The king visibly winced when confronted with the evidence of his collusion with the plotters.66
At 1pm, the king had Yasin al-Hashimi’s letter of resignation, and he ordered Hikmat Sulayman to form a new cabinet, which was announced the following morning, and included reformers and only one ex-Ottoman officer, cAbd al-Latif Nuri, as Minister of Defense. Hikmat Sulayman was born in Baghdad in 1889, the much younger brother of Ottoman Grand Vezir and post-1909 leader Mahmud Sevket Pasa. Hikmat Sulayman was educated in the Ottoman civil system, and attended the Imperial College, later known as Istanbul University, at which time his brother was already a senior staff officer. cAbd al-Latif Nuri was, by comparison with Hikmat Sulayman, Nuri al-Sacid, or the al-Hashimi brothers, a minor figure who had joined the Arab Revolt from a prisoner-of-war camp in Egypt, He had served Faysal and his family faithfully since 1916, and he was Bakr Sidqi’s second-incommand in the plot.67
At about the same time, King Ghazi sent Jacfar al-cAskari to deliver a letter to Bakr Sidqi. Ghazi wished to inform Bakr that his demands had been met, and there was no need to continue the march on the capital. An escort from Bakr of three soldiers and an officer named Ismacil al-Tuhallah met Jacfar al-cAskari about 15 kilometers outside the capital. Al-Tuhallah executed Jacfar al-cAskari alongside the road with a revolver and had his men bury his body in the desert.68 Upon the news reaching Baghdad during mid afternoon on the same day, Yasin and Rashid cAli Kaylani went into hiding in the city. Nuri al-Sacid went to the British Embassy and refused to leave the safety of the ambassador’s house, where he spent the night, and waited for the ambassador to arrange an RAF airplane to fly him to temporary exile in British- occupied Cairo.69
Chief military advisor General Charles John Bruce Hay wasted no time in embracing the new regime. The morning after the coup, Bruce Hay called on the barracks to publicly congratulate and pledge his support to Bakr Sidqi. Bruce Hay’s zeal to celebrate Yasin’s fall annoyed the Foreign Office and his colleagues in Baghdad and Clark Kerr remarked, “Many of the mission feel the general would have been better advised not to rush in quite so quickly, and I am bound to say I share their view.” At least a few of his subordinate British officers threatened to resign their positions, though it is not clear whether the complaint was Bruce Hay’s behavior or the coup itself. Bruce Hay surely resented Yasin al-Hashimi’s cancellation of his contract, since in the weeks before the coup he had been casting about, somewhat desperately, for employment opportunities. Clark Kerr added that at least Bruce Hay did not yet know that Jacfar al-cAskari had been killed. And indeed, the Foreign Office tied itself in knots trying to convey its disapproval of the killing of Jacfar, who had been a loyal client to the Embassy, without souring the relations with its new clients.70 George Ward of the Eastern Department later lamented, “we might have had a shot at removal of [Jacfar’s killer] from the Iraqi army, if not from this life. But it is probably too late now.”71
New prime minister Hikmat Sulayman visited the British Embassy even before Nuri al-Sacid had made his escape from Baghdad. Hikmat had proclaimed immediately, in private, on the day of the coup, his
“categorical and apparently sincere assurances of close and friendly relations with His Majesty’s Government, and his desire to have the help and guidance of the Embassy.”72 Visiting the Embassy a few days later, he promised that the new government would cease “grandiose pan-Arab schemes,” which meant involvement in politics in Syria and Palestine and the annexation of Kuwait, and he indicated his intention to break up large tribal estates, which provoked a handwritten comment in the margin, probably by Head of the Eastern Section, George Rendel, in London, “I suppose this doesn’t include Kuwait!”
Hikmat promised his government would concern itself with Iraqi internal affairs, as distinct from the worrisome pan-Arab political program of Yasin, and ensure the rights of the minorities. He complained, moreover, that British parliamentary debates, especially comments from foreign secretary Anthony Eden, reported in the Baghdad press, made it seem as if the new Iraqi government had been installed by, and was taking its orders from, the Embassy.73 Iraqi Interior Ministry advisor Cecil Edmunds wrote a long report, widely admired and read in London, detailing his efforts to influence the new government, and Hikmat’s attempt to draw him into the conspiracy before the coup had taken place.74 Edmunds expressed relief at avoiding being drawn in. The ambassador noted repeatedly in his dispatches that General Bruce Hay was pleased with Bakr Sidqi, and considered him capable and reliably friendly to Britain.
Meanwhile Fawzi al-Quwuqji had been forced out of Palestine and waited in Transjordan, ceremoniously burnishing his reputation with press interviews and guests to his camp. The entry of Qawuqji’s forces to Iraq had to wait for the overthrow of his main patron in Baghdad. Once the government of Yasin al-Hashim had been overthrown and Yasin had left the country in the opposite direction, toward Damascus, Qawuqji was finally allowed to leave Transjordan for Iraq at midnight on November 3, in a twelve-vehicle convoy of Nairn Company cars.75 The coup plotters could not risk the possibility that Qawuqji and his forces could join with Yasin and his army supporters to re-take the capital and restore the government. Anxiety at the highest levels of the British government, including foreign secretary Anthony Eden himself, focused on Qawuqji until late January, when Clark Kerr confirmed that Bakr Sidqi had banished him to Kirkuk, very far from the action and under close watch.76
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