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

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In Baghdad, some 400 British nationals and their Iraqi sympathizers sought refuge in the British Embassy. The last person admitted into the compound was Freya Stark. Previously disdained by many compatriots, she was now hailed as a savior. “With her fluent local Arabic and her aplomb and bonhomie, she became our most useful contact at our gates with the Iraqi police posted here, and helped us to buy fresh meat and vegetables to leaven our Spartan fare,” one observer recalled. Her good relations with the guards may have saved the embassy from mobs. “We could see the crowds from the upper town, incited by speeches of the Mufti and their own radio, advancing with banners and drums and dancing figures silhouetted against the sky, towards our gates,” Stark wrote.


By early June, British forces had taken control of Baghdad. Rashid Ali’s two-month rule ended when he fled to Berlin. The four Iraqi colonels behind his coup were captured and hanged. In retaliation, outraged Iraqi mobs stormed the Jewish quarter, presumed to be pro-British, and killed 179 men, women and children, injuring hundreds more.


Saddam Hussein, a child at the time, would later say that Rashid Ali’s rise and fall affected him deeply because the uncle who raised him was an army officer whose career ended when the coup was crushed.


Anti-British passions were further inflamed by the outbreak, in 1948, of war in Palestine, where Iraqi troops fought on the Arab side against the Israelis, whose ultimate victory, most Iraqis believed, could not have been achieved without British (and American) assistance. They were inflamed again in 1956 by the British role in wresting the Suez Canal back from Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Then, the Qassem coup d’état in 1958 destroyed the monarchy once and for all. Ilah, the former regent, and Prime Minister Nuri Said were killed because they were felt to have been too eager to please the British by executing the plotters of Rashid Ali’s coup 17 years earlier.


The massacre of the Iraqi royal family left two major legacies of Great Britain’s four-decades-long involvement in Iraq: the nation retained essentially the same boundaries that Britain had traced in the early 1920s, and the Sunni minority held on to power.



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