Wit & Wisdom – Iraq: The “Ungrateful Volcano”

Finest Hour 123, Summer 2004

Page 37


In 1922 Winston S. Churchill, British Colonial Secretary, was charged with finding a way through the morass of what he often called Mesopotamia, or for short (and with a wry smile) “Messpot.” The reference was to the British League of Nations Mandate of Iraq, whose borders he had drawn the year before at Cairo, carving the country out of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Cynics say Britain grabbed Iraq for its oil, though Britain’s oil supply had already been assured (with Churchill’s help) through Iran. Although there was hope for future oil revenue, in 1922 the Colonial Secretary was faced only with a steady drain on the exchequer.

Today there is no King Feisal, and Turkey is not the enemy; but substitute “terrorists” for “Turks” and his remarks offer food for thought.

This should not, of course, be read as a prescription for what Churchill would do in 2004, nor a critique pro or con on current Iraq policy: only a commentary on the country and its inhabitants that sounds eerily familiar, eightytwo years later….

WSC to David Lloyd George

(Churchill papers: 17/27)

1 September 1922

I am deeply concerned about Iraq. The task you have given me is becoming really impossible. Our forces are reduced now to very slender proportions. The Turkish menace has got worse; Feisal is playing the fool, if not the knave; his incompetent Arab officials are disturbing some of the provinces and failing to collect the revenue; we overpaid £200,000 on last year’s account which it is almost certain Iraq will not be able to pay this year, thus entailing a Supplementary Estimate in regard to a matter never sanctioned by Parliament; a further deficit, in spite of large economies, is nearly certain this year on the civil expenses owing to the drop in the revenue. I have had to maintain British troops at Mosul all through the year in consequence of the Angora quarrel: this has upset the programme of reliefs and will certainly lead to further expenditure beyond the provision. I cannot at this moment withdraw these troops without practically inviting the Turks to come in. The small column which is operating in the Rania district inside our border against the Turkish raiders and Kurdish sympathisers is a source of constant anxiety to me.

I do not see what political strength there is to face a disaster of any kind, and certainly I cannot believe that in any circumstances any large reinforcements would be sent from here or from India. There is scarcely a single newspaper—Tory, Liberal or Labour—which is not consistently hostile to our remaining in this country. The enormous reductions which have been effected have brought no goodwill, and any alternative Government that might be formed here—Labour, Die-hard or Wee Free—would gain popularity by ordering instant evacuation. Moreover in my own heart I do not see what we are getting out of it. Owing to the difficulties with America, no progress has been made in developing the oil. Altogether I am getting to the end of my resources.

I think we should now put definitely, not only to Feisal but to the Constituent Assembly, the position that unless they beg us to stay and to stay on our own terms in regard to efficient control, we shall actually evacuate before the close of the financial year. I would put this issue in the most brutal way, and if they are not prepared to urge us to stay and to cooperate in every manner I would actually clear out. That at any rate would be a solution. Whether we should clear out of the country altogether or hold on to a portion of the Basra vilayet is a minor issue requiring a special study.

It is quite possible, however, that face to face with this ultimatum the King, and still more the Constituent Assembly, will implore us to remain. If they do, shall we not be obliged to remain? If we remain, shall we not be answerable for defending their frontier? How are we to do this if the Turk comes in? We have no force whatever that can resist any serious inroad. The War Office, of course, have played for safety throughout and are ready to say ‘I told you so’ at the first misfortune.

Surveying all the above, I think I must ask you for definite guidance at this stage as to what you wish and what you are prepared to do. The victories of the Turks will increase our difficulties throughout the Mohammedan world. At present we are paying eight millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano out of which we are in no circumstances to get anything worth having.

***

This letter, published by Sir Martin Gilbert in Winston S. Churchill IV, Companion Volume Part 3, London: Heinemann, 1977, pp. 1973-74, is reprinted by kind permission of Winston S. Churchill.

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