The Ottoman Empire collapsed after its defeat in the First World War, and the victorious British took control of Mesopotamia. In April 1920 the League of Nations granted them a mandate, effectively imperial rule until the country was ‘mature’ enough for independence, to administer the whole area, now renamed Iraq.
Even before the mandate, though, Iraqis were in revolt against British rule. Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi declared a fatwa calling for a jihad against the invaders. After a period of peaceful protest armed rebellion began in Mosul in July 1920 and spread south, uniting Shia and Sunni Moslems.
The Secretary for War, Winston Churchill, decided that the best (and cheapest) way to defeat the rebels was by bombing them into submission, using the new Royal Air Force. 97 tons of bombs were dropped. Poisonous gas may also have been used; Churchill stated, ‘I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes … [to] spread a lively terror’. Around 6,000 Iraqis lost their lives and by October 1920 the revolt had been subdued. The British then installed ‘Faisal I’, who had helped then during the War during the ‘Arab Revolt’ against the Turks, as puppet ‘king’ of the new country.
But discontent continued. In 1923 Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, a Kurdish leader, led a revolt centred on Sulaymaniyah, which again triggered a British bombing campaign. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, a young RAF squadron commander, reported after a similar mission in 1924: ‘The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’ The use of aerial bombing only ceased in 1932 when Iraq was finally granted independence.
Martin Caton MP
House of Commons
25 September 2014
Dear Mr Caton
A year ago you voted against waging war on Syria.
I am writing to now as my MP to urge you to vote tomorrow in the House of Commons against joining in the American-led bombing of the ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq.
There are at least four good reasons for opposing the government’s motion:
- This country has only recently extricated itself from a long, illegal, painful and futile war in that country. It seems beyond belief that we can be contemplating resuming a war there.
- Air strikes will kill many, many innocent people. Again we hear from the apologists for bombing that ‘collateral damage’ will be kept to a minimum, that targeting technologies are hugely sophisticated, etc. But we know that this is not so. Once again, many innocent Iraqis will lose their lives. Possibly more hostages will lose theirs.
- Twice today on the radio I heard advocates of bombing admit that ISIS could only be ‘degraded’ by means of bombing; it could not be destroyed or even pushed back. That could only be achieved by infantry and artillery on the ground. Those same authorities also conceded that the Iraqi government forces were very unlikely to be able to supply those ‘boots on the ground’. So who will? One can only conclude that UK army forces, among others, will inevitably be drawn back into combat in Iraq. One commentator on the radio actually advocated such a development. Such an entanglement could only be as fatal and ineffective as our last armed intervention in the country.
- The government has excluded the bombing of Syria from tomorrow’s motion. But only for legal reasons. Once the legal impediments have been overcome we can expect that it will return and ask you for parliamentary authority to bomb Syria (presumably in cooperation, open or tacit, with President Assad, whom last year the government wished to attack). The UK will be drawn yet further into a conflict it should not be part of.
This country has been bombing Iraq intermittently since 1920. It has never achieved its aims in the past. It will not today.
Please vote against the government’s motion!
With best wishes,
Martin Caton was among the 43 MPs who voted on 26 September 2014, unsuccessfully, against the government’s resolution to go to war in Iraq.
1 October 2014
Dear Andrew Green
British participation in air strikes against ISIS/ISIL fighters in Iraq
Thank you for contacting me to seek to influence my vote on the above subject, held on Friday 26th September. My apologies that this is a standard response outlining my position on this issue. It is exactly the same whether you urged me to support the military action or oppose it.
I voted “No” to our involvement in these air strikes. I did so in the knowledge of the extreme brutality of ISIS towards civilians who do not share loyalty to their perverse version of Islam and their treatment of innocent aid workers and journalists from other countries. I well understand the feeling that ISIS/ISIL need to be stopped. Indeed, I share that feeling. However, I could only have voted for British military action again in Iraq if I was convinced that other viable options for undermining ISIS/ISIL had been properly explored and set in motion. I could, also, only have supported it if I was confident that the military objectives could be achieved without civilian casualties on an unacceptable scale that will exacerbate resentment of western nations and act as a recruiting sergeant for various Jihadist factions around the world.
In searching for alternatives to an immediate bombing campaign, I believe that we have to look closely at the situation we face. It is believed that there are somewhere around 15,000 ISIS/ISIL fighters, who now control an area larger than Great Britain. This would not be possible without, at least, the tacit support of the majority population of tribespeople in that region. In fact, we know that in many cases that support is active and that local tribespeople have joined with the foreign Jihadists and previous supporters of Saddam Hussain in ISIS/ISIL. They have done so because the Iraqi government in Baghdad has shamelessly favoured the Shi’ite Muslims in that country, since the end of the 2003 war. The resentment amongst Sunnis is so great that many look to ISIS/ISIL now to protect their interests. Whilst the change of leadership in Baghdad is a step in the right direction towards creating a more inclusive government, it has not gone nearly far enough. Too many Ministers responsible for past injustices remain in place. We need to be pressing for this to be rectified as a matter of urgency.
The rivalry between Shi’ite and Sunni goes back a thousand or more years but in recent decades it has been fostered by the more powerful states in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, one of our allies in this conflict has been sponsoring Sunni Jihadists groups, whilst Iran has been funding Shi’ite Jihadists.
These countries need to be encouraged, out of their own self-interest, to halt such activity and engage in building better understanding and co-operation between these main pillars of Islam.
We need to cut the supply of money and volunteers to ISIS/ISIL by better border controls and denial of resources.
I am far from being reassured that the military objectives of this campaign can be secured without large numbers of innocent civilian deaths and injuries, which will be exploited for propaganda purposes by ISIS and other violent fundamentalist groups.
Everyone appears to accept that ISIS cannot be defeated by air strikes alone. There need to be “boots on the ground” as well. In the main, it is expected that these will be provided by the Iraqi armed forces. Their track record, even after considerable periods of training by the U.S. and its allies is not an encouraging one. We are, therefore, in all likelihood, looking at a long and uncertain campaign in which ISIS/ISIL fighters are likely to base themselves as close as possible to civilian populations to maximise “collateral damage” and then vilify western powers for their inhumanity.
For my part, I do not argue that military action may not be necessary to stop ISIS/ISIL’s reign of terror. However, I believe strongly that it should not be carried out by western powers and should not be U.S. led. The air forces of the Arab countries that have subscribed to the fight against ISIS/ISIL are well equipped and, in some cases, western trained. Arabs should be responsible for making their region a safer and more peaceful place. They should also provide the ground troops if the Iraqi army continued to fail.
I recognise, of course, that on 26th September, Parliament voted with a large majority in favour of British involvement in this conflict. I hope that the suffering of innocent people in the Middle East can be minimised.
I am conscious that I have not referred to Syria in this letter. This is because the motion debated on the 26th specifically excluded sanctioning British air strikes in that country. However, I believe that it is likely that, in the not too distant future, Parliament will be asked to approve attacks in that country as well.
Martin Caton MP