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It’s still 1918 in Iraq

by Cara W.F. Hyson

While conducting research for an M.A. thesis, a researcher came across a ‘lost’ document that can inform policy-makers today.-The Editor

Colonel A.T. Wilson as Acting Civil Commissioner of Mesopotamia during and after World War I was the territorial architect of today’s Iraq. As a young Indian Army officer in 1908, he was present at the first discovery (in southern Persia) of oil in the Near East; later, he saw to it that oil-favored Mosul was incorporated with Basra and Baghdad to form the new Iraqi state. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in Bomber Command as a rear gunner, and died at fifty-five when his Lancaster plunged in flames over Dunkirk.

In an obscure book, written by a nearly forgotten British bureaucrat, lies the evidence that foretells the complexity of creating a stable government in Iraq. In December 1918, the British War Cabinet instructed Arnold Wilson, the British   Civil  Commissioner  in  Baghdad,  to  conduct    a plebescite, asking the local rulers in the former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul what kind of leader they wanted over this newly created state, which would be called Iraq. The British had already occupied the Basra and Baghdad during World War I, and had negotiated with the French to attain control of the oil reserves of Mosul. The responses he received mirror to remarkable and frightening degree the problems facing Iraq today. What is even more startling is the fact that the results of this plebiscite have remained buried for decades.

This plebiscite is mentioned briefly in what is considered the most comprehensive best-selling post World War I history of the Middle East, David Fromkin’s The Peace to End All Peace, which is cited as a source by many eminent historians including Margaret MacMillan and Davis Andelman, two noted experts on the terms of peace after World War I. Fromkin notes that Wilson’s reply to the War Cabinet’s request was that “there was no way of ascertaining public opinion”, citing H.V.F. Winstone’s biography of Gertrude Bell as a reference. Bell served as Wilson’s secretary in Baghdad and was herself a powerful influence in the creation of the modern Middle East. Winstone writes, regarding the plebiscite that “there was no adequate means of establishing public opinion in Iraq at that time” Winstone cites John Marlowe’s biography of Arnold Wilson as a source of this conclusion. Marlowe, in Late Victorian, the Life of Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, published in 1967, gives more details about the plebiscite, completed in January 1919. He includes the questions posed to the local rulers and Wilson’s summary of their views regarding British rule, but there is no reference to the actual responses of the local rulers. Marlowe’s source is Arnold Wilson’s published records, and this is where the story gets interesting.

It seems all the contemporary historians rely on Marlowe’s portrayal of Wilson’s role in the post-war creation of Iraq, but none of them, it appears, has read Wilson’s records, which reveal not only the ethnic and religious complexity of Iraq at its creation but also the insights of local rulers regarding the fragility of their newly created nation.

In Arnold Wilson’s book, Mesopotamia 1917-1920: A Clash of Loyalties: A Personal and Historical Record), published in London in 1931, the responses of the local rulers to the questions posed by the British are laid out clearly. The questions that Wilson was instructed to ask the local rulers were:

  • Do they favour a single Arab state under British tutelage stretching from the Northern boundary of the Mosul wilayat to the Persian Gulf?
  • In this event, do they consider that a titular Arab head should be placed over this new State?
  • In that case, whom they would prefer as head?

The responses are dutifully recorded by Wilson and are significant and revealing in light of the current political chaos in Iraq.

From Basra:
“The majority recognize the need for a period of training during which strong British control is essential; the minority detest the idea of a foreign government. Taking the average sense of the mixed feelings of the various sects and races in Basra we have a demand for the continuance of a British administration and without an Arab Amir.” However, Wilson notes that sentiment in this area changed “about the time of the Armistice. Until then it had been almost unanimously in favour of a thorough-going British Administration, but the patience of the leaders had been exhausted by the constant growth of the military machine… Opinion in Basra was hostile to the hegemony in Iraq of Baghdad. Some favoured the return of the Turks: none favored an Arab government centered in Baghdad.”

From Mosul:
“All classes of Christians now favour direct control by the British.” The Kurds, “who inhabit two-thirds of this division” are “strongly anti-Arab”. One district made a formal demand that “no government post should be given in there area to a Muslim.” Finally, “the view of the country population is that though we have freed them from Turkey, we have yet to liberate them from the tyranny of landowners who are the only class in favour of Arab Government.”

Regarding the possibility of an Arab Emir:
“The general opinion on this subject is that whilst in theory it is good thing, in practice no suitable candidate could be found. There was free discussion of the candidature of a son of the Sharif, which they definitely rejected.”
“They regard the appointment of an Amir as in accordance with Arab sentiment, but one practically unattainable, as the Shi’ahs would accept no Sunni candidates and vice versa.”

Arnold Wilson’s conclusion:
“That the majority desired no change of regime, a large minority favoured an Arab Amir under British guidance and control, and no name that we could suggest commanded the acceptance of even a small minority.”

Wilson’s account clearly indicates that the local rulers had the same issues and concerns present in Iraq today. It is not accurate to conclude that Wilson himself promoted British rule, as, to local rulers, this seemed the better alternative, temporarily, to a ruler from outside each respective ethno-religious group.

Yet accounts of Wilson in many recently written histories of the post-war deliberations regarding Middle East, citing only Wilson’s conclusion as reported by Marlowe, portray him as a British imperialist, in opposition to Gertrude Bell and T.E. Lawrence, who are seen as ethnically aware and sympathetic to the Arab cause. Yet the ultimate irony is that these two supported Feisal, a Sunni Arab and Hashemite, as the legitimate ruler of Iraq, to reward him for his efforts in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, when in fact many local rulers in Iraq specify that they wanted neither a son of the Sharif Hussein, king of the Hejaz, to rule Iraq, nor a Sunni Arab. In this way, it is Bell and Lawrence who favored a form of Arab imperialism, awarding Iraq, with the blessing of the British government and Winston Churchill at the Cairo Conference in 1920, as the spoils of war to Feisal, a Sunni outsider. However, it is important to note that Feisal’s political aspirations in the post-war Middle East were first fueled by British promises of Arab independence and then thwarted in Syria when the British traded French rule in Syria for the province of Mosul.

Nevertheless, a minority Sunni ruler in this region, which is approximately two-thirds Shi’a, replaced the rule of the Sunni Ottomans. After the assassination of Feisal’s grandson in the coup that led to the creation of a republic, Sunni Arab rule in Iraq continued, only to end with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, which has unleashed the current violent religious and ethnic conflicts, conflicts and concerns that were present in Iraq at the earliest stages of its creation.End.

End Notes

1. David Fromkin, A Peace to End all Peace (New York: Avon, 1989), 450.

2. H.V. F. Winstone, Gertrude Bell (London: Barzan Publishing, 2004), 321.

3. Arnold T. Wilson, Mesopotamia 1917-1920: A Clash of Loyalties     (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 111.

4. Ibid., 112.

5. Ibid., 112.

6. Ibid., 113.

7. Ibid., 114.

Cara W. F. Hyson is a history teacher at Lawrenceville School, currently teaching A History of the Middle East. She is a graduate of Yale University. In the process of her graduate school research at Bard College focused on T.E. Lawrence’s recently discovered map of the Middle East and its implications for Iraq, she discovered the plebiscite and Wilson’s personal records.

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