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A problem in Iraq that we could resolve with military might; The situation in Iraq may have taken a new and horrifying turn - but problems have rarely been far away. Local historian JOHN SADLER goes back to the Second World War to discuss one crisis.

Byline: JOHN SADLER

IALWAYS disliked Iraq... wrote General Sir Archibald Wavell in 1941. It blew up at the worst possible time for me.

We must wonder if President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron now feel the same way.

The relentless, ruthless and murderous rampage of Jihadists in the north of the country, driven by perverse theocratic ideology and lubricated with atrocities, has presented the West with a very challenging scenario.

To intervene or not, whether ground troops, those 'Boots on the Ground' should be deployed and then what do once the rabid fanatics have been hemmed back into Syria; highly fraught questions.

The situation confronting Wavell in 1941 was rather different but equally tricky. Britain was engulfed in a life or death struggle with the Axis powers, Russia had not, in early May, yet entered the war and Britain's oil-rich Middle East hegemony was under threat.

Rommel was pressing in the Western Desert after Wavell had severely battered Il Duce's unenthusiastic legions, Vichy France, predominantly hostile, controlled Syria. Wavell had been bludgeoned by Churchill into committing a significant element of his slender resources to the defence of Greece which he'd hotly (and rightly) opposed; "I had the Western Desert, Crete, East Africa and Syria on my hands and no troops."

Iraq, ancient Mesopotamia had been a battleground in the Great War. The British had eventually triumphed against the Ottoman Turks but not before a major and humiliating defeat at Kut in 1916.

After 1918, the country had been governed, on a caretaker basis, by the British until attaining full independence in 1932. Cannily, Britain retained a number of important treaty concessions aimed at securing access to Iraq's rich oilfields and allowing the right to maintain certain garrisons.

In March 1940 the Anglophobe Prime Minister Rashid Ali sought covert links with the Axis powers, British defeats in Norway and France, Italy's posturing in Libya, confirmed impressions that British power had or was about to be eclipsed.

Operation Compass, launched in December 1940, proved these prophecies wrong and showed that Mussolini was no Caesar. His armies, despite huge numerical superiority on paper, were comprehensively routed by General O'Connor's Western desert Force, (latterly immortalised as the 8th Army).

Prince Abd al-llah, as anglophile as his PM was opposed, ousted Rashid Ali but was in turn swiftly unseated in a lightning coup which left the former premier and his cadre of army officers, known collectively as 'the Golden Square' in de facto control of the country. This wasn't good.

Britain naturally feared the spectre of an Axis controlled puppet regime. Vichy Syria was uncomfortably close. Wavell though, really didn't want to know: "Nice baby you have handed me on my 58th birthday," he lamented to the CIGS. "Have always hated babies and Iraqis but will do my best for the little blighter."

A diplomatic solution was clearly preferable but Churchill was disinclined to negotiate with a revolutionary cabal who had no legitimacy and feared Rashid Ali's Axis leanings. Wavell was trying to shift the whole mess onto Sir Claude Auchinleck in India. Attention soon focused on the RAF flying school at Habbiniya where a polyglot garrison minded a stack of obsolescent aircraft used primarily for training.

Their efforts at reconnaissance provoked sporadic, mainly small arms, retaliation which led, in early May, to a full scale siege. Insurgent forces soon grew to a full division, dominating the plateau above the ramshackle base which was never intended to be defensible.

It was nonetheless, bravely and increasingly aggressively defended. British air superiority doomed the besiegers who showed little inclination for serious fighting. Fresh forces transported to Basra from India soon began a relentless march towards Baghdad, supported by Glubb Pasha's legendary Arab Legion.

By May 31 it was all over. Rashid Ali and his ad hoc junta had taken flight and the pro-British regent ceremoniously re-installed. Vichyheld Syria was next to fall and attention re-focused on the Desert war. British troops remained in Iraq until October 1947 - the story, however, continues.

Cannily, Britain retained a number of important treaty concessions aimed at securing access to Iraq's rich oilfields
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUGR
Date:Sep 20, 2014
Words:681
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