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[casi] incredible article from 1991

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Baghdad and British bombers

(Guardian, 19 January, 1991)

Iraq is no stranger to British aerial bombardment. David Omissi recalls the 1920s when gas shells 
and explosives were used to keep dissident tribesmen under control.

SADDAM HUSSEIN was not the first to use chemical weapons against the Iraqi population. General Sir 
AyImer Haldane commanded the British forces which effectively ruled Iraq after its conquest by the 
Allies during the first world war. When the tribesmen of the Euphrates rose in rebellion against 
British military rule in the summer of 1920, the British army used gas shells - "with excellent 
moral effect" - in the fighting which followed.

Unsurprisingly, the rebellion was crushed - with the loss of nearly 9,000 Arab lives. Freed to 
impose their political will in Iraq, the British then created a client kingdom, under Faisal ibn 
Hussain, the son of the Sharif of Mecca. The British did not want Faisal to appear a puppet, so 
held a referendum in 1921 and almost certainly fixed its result - to give some legitimacy to his 

The British armed forces underpinned this indirect imperialism. Winston Churchill, Colonial 
Secretary from 1921, believed that British bombers could control the dissident Iraqi tribesmen. 
Some army officers feared such methods might be too brutal, but despite this they were adopted 
because they promised to be very cheap. In 1922, the Air Ministry took over the defence of the new 

Like Saddarn's bombers, the squadrons of the Royal Air Force flew most of their missions against 
the Kurds who resented rule from Baghdad. For 10 years the British waged an almost continuous 
bombing campaign in the oil-rich and mountainous north-east against the Kurdish rebels, to whom 
they had earlier promised autonomy.

The Iraqi air force - which the British had built up, trained and equipped - carried on the work 
after Iraq became nominally independent in 1932.

Churchill consistently urged that the RAF should use mustard gas during these raids, despite the 
warning by one of his advisers that "it may ... kill children and sickly persons, more especially 
as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply 
antidotes". In the event the air force did not use gas bombs - for technical rather than 
humanitarian reasons.

Even without gas the campaign was brutal enough. Some Iraqi villages were destroyed merely because 
their inhabitants had not paid their taxes. The British authorities always maintained in public, 
however, that people were not bombed for refusing to pay - merely for refusing to appear when 
summoned to explain non-payment.

The primitive bombs sometimes did not explode, and tribal children developed a passion for playing 
with the duds. When the air force proposed using bombs with delayed action fuses, one senior 
officer protested that the result would be "blowing a lot of children to pieces". Nevertheless, the 
RAF went ahead - without the knowledge of the civilian High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Henry Dobbs 
- because delayed-action bombs prevented tribesmen from tending their crops under cover of darkness.

Churchill was sometimes troubled by the realities of the methods he had supported. During one raid 
in Iraq, British pilots machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes. "To fire 
wilfully on women and children taking refuge in a lake is a disgraceful act," Churchill protested 
to the Chief of the Air Staff. "I am surprised you do not order the officers responsible for it to 
be tried by court martial." No action was taken, and this incident was quietly forgotten.

This "police bombing" was too much for some air force officers to stomach. In 1924, a distinguished 
Air Commodore, Lionel CharIton, resigned his post as a staff officer in Iraq after he visited a 
hospital and saw the victims of British bombing recovering from their injuries. The air force 
recalled him to England, promising not to otherwise damage his career provided he took his protests 
no further; but they went back on their word and placed him on the retired list in 1928.

Other officers seemed to enjoy the work. One who did was Arthur Harris, who would later achieve 
fame directing the bomber offensive against Germany in the second world war. Known to his friends 
as Bomber and to his enemies as Butcher, he first practised his trade against Kurdish villages in 

"Where the Arab and Kurd had begun to realise that if they could stand a little noise, they could 
stand bombing, and still argue," he reported after one raid in 1924, "they now know what real 
bombing means, in casualties and damage; they now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village 
can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five 
machines which offer them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means 
of escape."

The British employed "police bombing" elsewhere in the empire - in Transjordan; against the Pathan 
tribesmen on the north-west frontier of India; in the Aden Protectorate (now the southern part of 
Yemen); and against the Nuer people of the southern Sudan.

The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Hugh Trenchard, had great ambitions for his bombers. In a paper 
written early in 1920, when some politicians feared a revolution in Britain, he suggested that the 
RAF could even suppress "industrial disturbances or risings" in England itself. Churchill was 
horrified, and demanded that Trenchard never refer to the proposal again - at least not in writing.

David Omissi is a Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. His book, Air Power and Colonial 
Control: The Royal Air Force 1919-1939, is published by Manchester University Press.

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