Nos. 33 & 34, December 2002
Western Imperialism and Iraq:
Entry of imperialism
As the Ottoman empire fell into decline, Britain and France began extending their influence into its territories, constructing massive projects such as railroads and the Suez canal and keeping the Arab countries deep in debt to British and French banks.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain directly ruled Egypt, Sudan and the Persian Gulf, while France was the dominant power in Lebanon and Syria. Iran was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. The carving-up of the Ottoman territories (from Turkey to the Arabian peninsula) was on the agenda of the imperialist powers.
When Germany, a relative latecomer to the imperialist dining table, attempted to extend its influence in the region by obtaining a concession1, to build a railway from Europe to Baghdad, Britain was alarmed.By this time the British government in particular its navy had realised the strategic importance of oil, and it was thought that the region might be rich in oil. Britain invested £2.2 million in the Anglo-Persian oil company (a fully British firm operating in Iran) to obtain a 51 per cent stake in the company. Gulbenkian, an adventurous Armenian entrepreneur, argued that there must be oil in Iraq as well. At his initiative the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) was formed, 50 per cent British, 25 per cent German and 25 per cent Royal Dutch-Shell (Dutch- and British-owned).
World War I (1914-18) underlined for the imperialists the importance of control of oil for military purposes, and hence the urgency of controlling the sources of oil. As soon as war was declared with the Ottomans, Britain landed a force (composed largely of Indian soldiers) in southern Iraq, and eventually took Baghdad in 1917. It took Mosul in November 1918, in violation of the armistice with the Turks a week earlier.
During the war British carried on two contradictory sets of secret negotiations. The first was with Sharif Husayn of Mecca. In exchange for Arab revolt against Turkey, the British promised support for Arab independence after the war. However, the British insisted that Baghdad and Basra would be special zones of British interest where special administrative arrangements would be necessary to safeguard our mutual economic interests.
The second set of secret negotiations, in flagrant violation of the above, was between the British and the French. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Iraq was carved up between the two powers, with Mosul vilayet going to France and the other two to Britain. For its assent Tsarist Russia was to be compensated with territory in northeast Turkey. When the Bolshevik revolutionaries seized power in November 1917 and published the Tsarist regimes secret treaties, including the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Arabs learnt how they had been betrayed.
Iraq under British rule
Britain threatened to go to war to ensure that Mosul province, which was known to contain oil, remained in Iraq. The French conceded Mosul in exchange for British support of French dominance in Lebanon and Syria and a 25 per cent French share in the TPC.
However, anti-imperialist agitation in Iraq troubled the British from the start. In 1920, with the announcement that Britain had been awarded the mandate for Iraq, revolt broke out against the British rulers and became widespread. The British suppressed the rebellion ruthlesslyamong other things by bombing Iraqi villages from the air (as they had done a year earlier to suppress the Rowlatt agitation in the Punjab). In 1920, Secretary of State for War and Air, Winston Churchill, proposed that Mesopotamia could be cheaply policed by aircraft armed with gas bombs, supported by as few as 4,000 British and 10,000 Indian troops, a policy formally adopted at the 1921 Cairo conference. (The Hidden History of the Iraq War, Edward Greer, Monthly Review, May 1991)
British install a ruler
In 1925, widespread demonstrations in Baghdad for complete independence delayed the treatys approval by the Constituent Assembly. The High Commissioner could only force ratification by threatening to dissolve the Assembly. Even before the treaty of alliance was ratifiedand before there was even the facade of an Iraqi governmenta new concession was granted to the Turkish Petroleum Company for the whole of Iraq, in the face of widespread opposition and the resignation of two members of the cabinet. (Among other things, the British blackmailed Iraq by threatening that they would, in the negotiations with the Turks, cede the oil-rich northern province of Mosul to neighbouring Turkeythe opposite of what they were demanding in the earlier-mentioned negotiations with the French. Thus even the borders of the countries in these regions were merely set at the convenience of imperialist exploitation. The worst sufferers were the Kurds, whose territory was divided by the imperialist powers among southern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran.)
The terms of the concession, covering virtually the entire country till the year 2000, were outrageous. Payment was four shillings (one-fifth of a British pound) per ton of oil produced. For this extraordinary giveaway, the puppet king Faysal received a personal present of £40,000. It was this concession the oil corporations for half a century thereafter would fight to defend as their legitimate right.
Contention for oil
American oil companies, with US government backing, demanded a share in the Turkish Petroleum Company, and by 1928 two American companies, Jersey Standard and Socony (later known as Exxon and Mobil, and today as the merged Exxon-Mobil) got a 23.75 per cent stake, on par with the British, French, and Royal Dutch-Shell interests. Most of the major oil corporations in the world were thus represented in the Turkish Petroleum Company (now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Companyhereafter IPC).
Contending with nationalism
Even such independence did not last long. In 1941, sections in the Iraqi army and political parties staged a coup against the King, and were about to ally with the Axis powers to win freedom from the British. Britain invaded Iraq once again and occupied it, installing once again the King and a puppet cabinet headed by their lapdog Nuri as-Said (who was made prime minister 14 times in the turbulent period 1925-58).
After the war ended in 1945, British occupation continued. Martial law was declared in order to crush protests against the developments in Palestine in 1948 (the driving out of the Palestinians and the seizure of their lands by the new Zionist state). Just then, the Iraqi government signed a new treaty of alliance with Britain, whereby Iraq was not to take any step in foreign policy contrary to British directions. A joint British-Iraqi defence board was to be set up. But when the prime minister returned from London after having concluded this deal, a popular uprising took place in Baghdad, forcing his resignation and the repudiation of the treaty. In the following years, nationalist forces demanded nationalisation of the oil industry (as Iran had carried out in 1951).
In 1952 occurred another popular uprising, carried out by students and extremists. The police were unable to control the demonstrators, and the regent called on the army to maintain public order. The chief of the armed forces general staff governed the country under martial law for more than two months. All political parties were suppressed in 1954.
Growing US intervention in the region
On the other hand, regimes throughout the region were under pressure from the Arab masses. Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to power in Egypt in a 1952 coup, adopted a confrontational posture toward the US and Britain, nationalising the Suez Canal and taking assistance from the Soviet Union. Nassers stance won him popular support in the Arab world, where Iraq and Egypt contended for leadership. In that period an anti-imperialist wave swept the Arab countries, threatening the stability of pro-western puppet regimes.
The US became the new gendarme of the region to suppress any agitation against imperialism and its client states. For example, when in 1953 both Saudi Arabia and Iraq crushed oil workers strikes by the use of troops and martial law regimes, shipments of arms from the US to both followed immediately. In 1957 the Jordanian king (the first cousin of the Iraqi king) arrested his prime minister, dissolved the parliament, outlawed political parties, and threw his opponents into concentration camps, with economic and military aid from the US. In 1958 the right-wing Lebanese regime used American equipment in its attempt to crush nationalist opposition. At American insistence three pro-US/UK regimesIraq, Turkey, and Pakistancame together to form an alliance against the USSR, the Baghdad Pact (later known as the Mideast Treaty Organisation and the Central Treaty Organisation; Britain and Iran were later to join). Iraq, the only Arab country to join this pact, had to face Nassers denunciation for doing so.
2. The US did not then require Iraqi oil for its own consumption: large finds on its mainland by the 1930s created a glut of capacity. American oil companies needed an overseas presence in order to restrict global supply and thus maintain prices that would be profitable to them. And the US, as the new leader of the capitalist world, wanted to ensure that the worlds strategic resources came under its control. Later, after World War II, the US was to use its control of West Asian oil as one of its instruments for dominating Europe. (back)
3. The interchangeability of Big Oil and government personnel is a tradition of US political life, with predictable effects: in the current administration, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney , and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are all former oil company executives. (back)
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