The Mandate in Iraq and Transjordan

Iraq emerged a British-sponsored Hashimite monarchy and Transjordan a Hashimite principality in 1921. The deeply unpopular repression of the Iraqi revolt of 1920 led Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to push through a plan to place Faysal on a hastily arranged Iraqi throne, and his brother Abdallah, already encamped in Amman, as prince of the newly created British protectorate, the principality of Transjordan.

The plan solved several vexing problems at once: the troublesome former wartime allies of the Hashimite family would be allowed to take some consolation from their loss of Syria and Arabia, and continue to serve the British Empire, and the impossible expense of direct rule would be decreased by a much cheaper structure of indirect rule. British strategic interests would be preserved, but at much lower cost from the treasury and with less political opposition in London. The overriding concerns of imperial security and communications between the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and India, and petroleum concessions would be addressed by treaty. Both rulers would owe their position and loyalty to Britain. Churchill came to the point with customary crudeness, when he wrote, “Faysal will be a long time looking for a third throne.”62 Former Arab Bureau Director Kinahan Cornwallis conveyed the offer to Faysal and moved with Faysal to Baghdad, where he served as advisor to the new king and to the Interior Ministry, and as principal British architect of the Iraqi kingdom until 1936.

In Baghdad, King Faysal performed a difficult balancing act. He adapted to his dual role of Iraqi head of state and British-appointed monarch. The new state of mandatory Iraq comprised most of three dissimilar Ottoman provinces: Basra in the south, which had included British protectorate and principal port, Kuwait, Baghdad in the center, and Mosul in the north. Britain had sponsored the leading family of Kuwait since the end of the nineteenth century, and created a protectorate to dominate the Persian Gulf and counter pervasive fears of the Berlin Baghdad Bahn. Ottoman control was briefly reasserted in 1914, and the British army launched its early wartime offensive from ships anchored just outside Ottoman waters a month later in early November 1914. Possession of Mosul was contested by the Turkish Republic and remained unresolved by the Lausanne conference. The desert sanjaq of Dayr al-Zur, was split between the Syrian and Iraqi mandates with undefined borders.

Faysal owed his crown and country to British support and had lost Syria when this support was withdrawn in 1920. Between 1922 and his premature death in 1933 he was generally successful in maneuvering between British demands and at least minimally satisfying the desires of the Iraqi public. Politicized and nationalist Arab Ottoman army officers were his most important supporters and his most dangerous potential critics. Faysal could not run his government without such people, but except for those few such as Nuri al-Sacid, and Jacfar al-cAskari who had long attached their fortunes to Faysal and to Great Britain, the exOttoman officers and provincial officials perennially opposed the British role in Iraq, and the king’s role as mediator. The government was styled as a constitutional monarchy and the constitution was promulgated in mid 1925, and formed a bicameral chamber, with a lower chamber elected by male citizens, and an upper chamber appointed by the king. The High Commissioner and Faysal insisted on the right to dismiss the chamber, and the chamber won the right to dissolve the cabinet. British authorities resolved to control the country through the powers reserved for the king, confident he could be a reliable instrument of British policy.63 His cabinet, however, was usually made up of a shifting cast of ex-Ottoman officers and a few civil officials, who often took a jaundiced view of British mandatory indirect rule.

The relationship with Britain was organized around a series of treaties. The first of several Anglo-Iraqi treaties was barely ratified after more than two years of negotiation in 1924. Peter Sluglett enumerates the goals of the treaty as the imperial air route to India, the oil fields, the RAF training ground, and British prestige and capital.64 The securing of the treaty made way for other measures, and the following year the government signed a 75-year concession for the British-Foreign- Office-controlled Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The Iraqi concession became the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1929. Deutsche Bank had owned shares in the original pre-war concession, but these were seized German property.

Faysal settled in at Baghdad, surrounded by a number of ex-Ottoman officers. Prominent among this group were Nuri al-Sacid, Jacfar al-cAskari, cAli Jawdat al-Ayyubi, and Jamil al-Midfaci. Most of them had been with him in Damascus, and some had passed through Transjordan or Anatolia on their way to Iraq. Those officers who became prominent politicians had local roots in the Ottoman provinces of Mosul or Baghdad. There was also, as in Syria and Palestine, a number of ex-Ottoman civil and political officials who assumed various offices in the mandatory state; most prominent in this group was Rustum Haydar, who had attended the peace conference with Faysal and hailed originally from Baalbak near Damascus. Others had remained in Ottoman service locally, and adapted their allegiance to the new government and arrangement. Yasin al-Hashimi and his brother Taha al-Hashimi, who had served the Ottoman army to the end of the war and beyond, formed a political opposition within the group, and criticized Britain and the treaties forced on the king.

After Faysal’s death in 1933, conflict between the colonial power and its opponents re-emerged. Principal critic Yasin al-Hashimi became prime minister, and was overthrown in 1936. By early 1940, Yasin’s allies returned to power and Britain invaded and overthrew their government in the so-called Anglo-Iraqi war of 1941. Still, both Iraq and Transjordan were places of relative freedom in comparison with Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. And each state became a refuge for disaffected ex-Ottoman officials and officers. The meager independence enjoyed by King Faysal and his brother Prince cAbdallah of Transjordan was enough that both states attracted unemployed and frustrated former Ottoman officers and officials. Many were wanted men in Syria and Lebanon and unwelcome in Turkey. Civilian politicians and activists often gravitated to Cairo, but the military men had limited financial resources and were unemployable in Cairo or Europe.

Transjordan, by contrast with the other mandates, had no large cities, little water or settled agriculture, and a sparse, and mostly nomadic population. The new state emerged as a colonial buffer zone between the British and French spheres, and a consolation prize for Amir cAbdallah. Transjordan occupied a former frontier zone of the Ottoman province of Syria, and gained some importance with the extension of the Hijaz railway south of Damascus to Amman and south.65 Embittered at the prospect of being out-maneuvered by Faysal and his British patrons for the throne of Iraq, cAbdallah installed himself at the railway town of Macan north of Hijaz in late 1920.

Transjordan had been nominally governed from Damascus between the armistice and the end of Faysal’s Damascus government in July 1920. Thereafter it became an adjunct of the new mandatory government of Palestine under High Commissioner Herbert Samuel. As historian Mary Wilson has noted, cAbdallah’s march north was fortuitously timed. British intelligence worriedly reported he was in contact with insurgent leaders Ibrahim Hananu, Salih al-cAli, and Mustafa Kemal, and menacing the settlement between Britain and France. cAbdallah arrived in Amman ten days before the opening of Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill’s Cairo Conference, where it was decided that he should be offered some kind of conditional governorship to keep him in Amman.66

Churchill traveled to Jerusalem where he met cAbdallah. They agreed that cAbdallah should take responsibility for Transjordan for six months, and Churchill suggested that, conditional on his ability to stop raids on the French-occupied region in Hawran south of Damascus, he might end up with more later on. On this meager suggestion, cAbdallah became the custodian of the Transjordan portion of the British Mandate for Palestine, surrounded by a small group of otherwise stateless and unemployed ex-Ottoman civil servants and soldiers. The total population, settled and nomadic, was calculated at fewer than 250,000 people.

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