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Iraq's Unruly Century

Ever since Britain carved the nation out of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the land long known as Mesopotamia has been wracked by instability

It also boosted the king, Ghazi, Faisal’s son, who assumed the throne in 1933 at age 21. Ghazi had neither his father’s diplomatic skills nor his work ethic. He liked partygoing more than governing. Still, his ability to rally subjects with incendiary speeches broadcast over the palace radio station troubled British functionaries. They worried about his repeated denunciations of British control over Kuwait—which Ghazi claimed was a province of Iraq—and his attacks on the Kuwaiti ruling family. But the rhetoric thrilled young Iraqis.

 

Six years after becoming king, Ghazi crashed his sports car into a utility pole in Baghdad after an evening of drinking. His two British physicians summoned an Iraqi colleague to the scene of the mortally wounded king. “I was fearful lest, if no Iraqi doctor was in attendance, Anglophobic mischief-makers might originate canards to the effect that [we] were responsible for the king’s demise,” Dr. Harry C. Sinderson, the monarch’s chief physician, wrote in his memoirs. Even so, violent street demonstrations erupted in Baghdad the next day. In Mosul, a mob killed the British consul. For years, many Iraqis insisted that Ghazi was killed by the British and their allies. He was succeeded by his son Faisal II.

 

The conspiracy theories also stirred foment in the Iraqi Army, though the British largely missed the warning signs. “For all their many advisers in the Iraqi government, the British didn’t show much interest in military affairs,” says Simon. “Certainly, they didn’t imagine that army officers would interfere directly in politics.”

 

Britain’s presence in Iraq was not the only thing that aroused Iraqi anger. By the 1930s, Arab leaders were also angered by the growing numbers of European Jews migrating to Palestine, a British mandate until 1948. When the British suppressed a revolt by Palestinian Arabs in 1939, Iraqi Army officers invited the defeated leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, to live in Baghdad. Then, as World War II began, Iraqi antipathy to Britain turned into support for Hitler. “It was widely acknowledged that most of the junior officers in the Iraqi army are pro-German and anti- British,” Paul Knabenshue, a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, wrote in May 1940. Iraq attempted to ally itself with Germany and in 1941 threatened to fire on British planes at an airfield near Baghdad.

 

In April 1941, Rashid Ali, a civilian figurehead for an Iraqi Army faction led by four colonels staged a coup d’état. British Royal Air Force troops stationed on the outskirts of Baghdad held the Iraqi Army at bay while British reinforcements from India landed in Basra and marched north.

 

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