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[casi] 1991 Guardian: UK used WMD in '20 and Churchill tried again in '32

The Guardian, 19 January 1991

Baghdad and British bombers

Iraq is no stranger to British aerial bombardment. David Omissi recalls
the 1920's 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 Aylmer Haldane commanded the British
forces which effectively ruled Iraq after it's 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 Faisalibn 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 appointment.

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 1932, the Air Ministry took
over the defence of the new kingdom.

Like Saddam's brothers, 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 advisors 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

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 Charlton,
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 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 Iraq.

"Where the Arab and Kurd had just 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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