Iraq Defence Intelligence 1920–1973

ISBN:  (13) 978-1-84097-100-2   Extent:  6 volumes, 4,000 pages, including 1 map box
Editor: A. Burdett  Published: 2005
Paper: Printed on acid free paper
Binding: Library bindings with gilt finish
See sample pages: not available

The documents and supporting maps in this collection explore the central role of Iraq in both the politics of the Middle East and the formation of government policy in the West from 1920-1973. The volumes cover Iraq´s strategic and military history from the beginning of the British Mandate in 1920, through independence in 1932, the death of King Feisal and accession of King Ghazi, the Second World War, the overthrow of the monarchy and the death of King Feisal II and his Prime Minister Nuri Al-Said, the regimes of Qasim and then Aref, and through to the "bloodless coup" of 1968 which consolidated the Ba´ath Party in power. In the final documents of this collection, Saddam Hussein, Vice President of the Revolutionary Command Council, offers to consider renewing diplomatic relations with Britain. While reluctant to upset its own relations with Kuwait and Iran, Britain is still interested in sustaining a relationship with "a country which, although isolated politically, nevertheless plays a distinctive role in the Arab world and is of importance to us as an oil producer" [13 March 1973].


Amid the enormous events of the twentieth century the rise of Arab nationalism and the effectual death of the British Empire may have been the most important for the Middle East. No more clearly can this be seen than in the relations between Iraq and the United Kingdom. The 4000 pages of papers in this collection illustrate in microcosm the vast shift in the balance of power that took place, arguably, during World War Two. The loss of India affected the British economy and its foreign policy more profoundly than it could foresee, but even in the immediate aftermath of the war, the possibility of maintaining a strong base of operations in the resource-rich Middle East – when industrial reconstruction and expansion so depended on petroleum – meant that Britain was willing to agree to almost any terms negotiated by Iraq for acceptance of its presence there.
The years 1920–1973 show almost a reversal of fortune in the relations of London and Baghdad. In the years since 1973 as Iraq became more militarily powerful and conducted a series of wars with its neighbours it must have seemed as if it had reached a degree of independence and self-determinism that could never be removed. The lessons of history present in this collection of original documents are therefore all the more important for the modern world to learn.


These volumes present a selection of British Government records, covering the history of Iraq from its establishment as the British Mandate of Iraq in 1920 to the year 1973. After this year the British Government files remain closed at the time of going to press. Documents chosen for this set relate to strategic military intelligence, and were created in the Air Ministry and the War Office. Although papers from the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet and Foreign Office are also represented, these have been selected more for their coverage of defence and security issues than for their coverage of the general political history of Iraq: this work reflects political events and watersheds only in so far as they are perceived to be a threat to the status quo or to British interest. All material is drawn from available records held in the National Archive of the United Kingdom.
Routine operational records – daily orders of battle, reports of engagements, ground patrols and air reconnaissance, conscription, training of troops, acquisition of equipment – are not generally represented, except to depict the problems of defence and in comparing the strength of Iraqi forces to those of her neighbours. Thus, while the threat to Iraq on the northern frontier is assessed through intelligence reports, accounts of skirmishes and battles between opposing forces are not usually described in detail, nor are routine air and desert reconnaissance records included. Similarly, and particularly for the period of the second world war, troop movements, recruiting and military administrative records are not selected whereas reports on internal coups and assessments of threats to the regime have been included. Since the raising and training of local troops and assessment of their capacity to defend the country may be considered to be part of the defence process, these records are sometimes included.
The nature and modus vivendi of the British presence in Iraq changed radically over the period under study and this is reflected in the contents of various record groups. The records of the Air Ministry formed the chief source for 1920–1936, from which time the Foreign Office and other classes become equally relevant owing to the increased technical and actual independent status of Iraq. Earlier reports were prepared by Special Service Officers (SSOs), who were army officers seconded to the RAF on intelligence duties, placed in every province. Throughout the 1920s, the SSOs submitted regular intelligence reports, not all of which appear to have survived, and these provide details on tribal movements, allegiances, enemy troop movements and infiltration near the frontiers and activities of key insurgents and political groups.
The War Office records predominate, along with those of the Cabinet, for the period 1939–1946. Post-war, the records of the Air Ministry are less relevant for strategic defence, despite the continued presence of the RAF in Iraq until 1958. Following the military coup d’état, which brought Brigadier (later General) Qasim to power in 1958, the British presence or occupation came to an abrupt end. Subsequently a complete reversal of policy was needed, since the threat to British interests in the region was now emanating from Iraq. Accordingly the documentation begins to record assessments of the defensibility of Iraq’s neighbours, and the Iraqi strike capacity, particularly in 1961 when the threat to Kuwait was predominant.
Both the FCO and the Ministry of Defence retain several significant files on sensitive issues.


Volume 1: 1920-1925
Although there were at least 61,000 British troops present in Iraq in early 1920, this was deemed insufficient to police the new state, an amalgamation of the old Irak, Mesopotamia and Kurdistan. The War Office did not want to bear the burden of costs or the commitment to the manpower it had estimated as necessary, and so it was decided that the Royal Air Force would be better suited than the War Office to control the defence and security of the mandate. Volume 1 depicts the administrative conflict between the War Office and the RAF/Air Ministry. The task of the air command was “ to restore order, re-establish security and respect for authority over a vast area that had hitherto known no real allegiance to central governmental rule”.
[Memorandum by Secretary of State for the Colonies, August 1921 [AIR 9/14]. Air power, although in its infancy, was deemed highly suitable as a cost-saving method of patrolling Iraq’s vast expanses. This did not obviate the need for a military presence on the ground, although the four battalions envisaged by Churchill proved too costly to provide. Nevertheless, the actual force at Mosul consisted of infantry, levies, cavalry, the artillery of the Iraq army, a frontier force of the RAF, an armoured car company, an RAF wireless detachment, and more. It followed that the assessment of enemy forces became a major pre-occupation for the British; the strength and capabilities of the Turkish army were appraised in 1922, since the Turks were increasingly seen to be infiltrating what had been Kurdistan. The Cairo Conference in the spring of 1921 further refined administrative questions arising from the British presence. It was decided that Amir Feisal ibn Hussein, son of the Sherif of Mecca, should be king, and by 1922 a treaty had been drafted between Iraq and Britain. Significantly, plans were set in train for the creation of an indigenous local army. Despite some political progress in achieving the mechanics of an independent government, grave disorder prevailed, fuelled especially by the Kurdish desire for independence, which led to insurrection throughout 1923–24. The external threats from Turkey and Iran, which both disputed the sovereignty of large areas of territory, were a major cause for concern. Another constant pre-occupation of the British administration and defence planning staff in the early 1920s was the possibility that Bolshevik forces planned to push into Iraq. Intelligence staff assessed the risk of a combined Russo-Turkish attack in June 1924 and, although this never materialised, much of the early reporting reflects this perceived threat.

By the end of 1925, British intelligence was assessing two new threats to Iraq’s security, one in the form of Akhwan aggression from Nejd, and the second from the more ephemeral ideals transmitted from revolutionary activity in Egypt.

Volume 2: 1926-1932
Volume 2 covers the increasing threat from central Arabia by Akhwan forces and the tribes of Abdul Aziz, the Sultan of Nejd. While there was some attempt at resolving these issues at the Kuwait Conference, the problem of Akhwan aggression and raids on the Iraq frontier rumbled on, culminating in the revolt against Abdul Aziz himself in 1929, when the Akhwan warriors were defeated by an RAF bombing campaign conducted from the Iraq bases on behalf of King Abdul Aziz. Evidence of Syrian aggression was a concern in 1926–27, but an agreement was reached regarding tribal affairs on the Syria–Iraq border in 1927. At the same time the Kurdish movement for independence was by no means dormant, necessitating a constant watch on potential agents.

During the period 1926–31 there is much emphasis on planning and evaluating strategy, raising and training troops, and general preparedness, especially in the provision of intelligence services, and appraisals of this work were undertaken in at least one Cabinet Committee in 1927. The growth in strength of the Army Party in Iraq was seen as significant and the British kept careful watch over some political figures like Yassin Pasha al Hashimi and his effect on the opinions held by Iraqi army officers. The effects of the revolt in Palestine on Iraq’s security were assessed in 1929. With the end of mandate period looming it was necessary to reappraise the status and role of British forces in Iraq. A great amount of planning was undertaken in advance of the new ‘Treaty of Alliance’ between Iraq and Britain of June 1930. The close cooperation between the Iraq regime and British officials resulted in a twenty-five year close alliance treaty that maintained British use of the air bases at Habbaniya and Shuaiba.

Volume 3: 1933-1941
Despite Iraq’s declared independence in 1932, British forces were still installed and continued to evaluate security threats, such as the activities of Persian troops in 1933, and the apparent threat from the Assyrian population around Mosul, apparently prompted by Soviet communist propaganda. Other concerns included Sunni/Shia tensions over the small proportion of Shia Muslims holding political office and the climate of criticism of their performance; and the death of King Feisal and the succession of his son King Ghazi. In 1936 General Bakr Sidqi headed a coup d’etat to place himself in control of the government and to deliver reform. Following his failure to deliver reforms quickly or to address the inherent tensions within the armed forces, and his alienation of the tribal chieftains, he was himself assassinated in 1937.
In parallel with this political dissatisfaction, the oil industry in Iraq was expanding quickly with concessions granted in 1925, 1932 and 1938, and with two new pipelines to Haifa and Tripoli. The potential for new income and development was clear. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey joined together in the Sa’dabad Pact to consult on matters of mutual interest and under its aegis an agreement was reached between Iran and Iraq on the old 1914 boundary line.
The assassination of Bakr Sidqi led to a further re-assessment of the British position. Iraq’s desire for an independent air force meant that Britain was committed to training; but Britain still maintained her own air bases, and arrangements for British troops to enter or pass through Iraq as an independent state proved a thorny issue.

In addition to assessments of the continuing Kurdish activities, appreciations were also undertaken on the general threat to Iraq from Germany, Italy and Turkey in 1939. Although secret defence planning continued, especially oil denial schemes, the presence and legitimacy of British forces under the regime of Rashid Ali Gaylani was uncertain, and Britain feared he was in collusion with Germany. Ultimately, the significant strategic position of Iraq caused the British to land troops, but in 1941 relations were strained to breaking point. The British, tacitly at least, encouraged the coup led by the Regent which ousted Rashid Ali in 1941. To all intents and purposes, Britain then occupied Iraq and continued to evaluate security risks. In November 1941, attention was focused on the threat from the north. 

Volume 4: 1942–1957

Volume 4 contains the records of war planning, a significant amount of which was undertaken by the Political Intelligence Committee, Middle East, in London, which reviewed various potential threats, such as the possibility of enemy advance through the north via Anatolia, Turkey, the use of Kurdish agents by the Germans, the threat from subversion, and from fifth columnists. At the same time, attempts were made to improve the standing army. During the war, Iraq was in a sense “protected” but served as a strategic base to serve the Allied cause. After the war the British garrison was run down, but the political rationale for the defence of Iraq altered: since Iraq was notionally independent the policy was no longer defence of Iraq but defence of British interests in Iraq. Emphasis was shifted to training local forces and supply of equipment. After all the financial pressures of the Second World War, in 1946 the Iraqi army was chronically short of equipment and of manpower, even with conscription of new recruits. When the Kurds again raised a rebellion, and the British advisors considered the new Soviet threat from the north, they advised that the Iraqi army should undergo serious modernisation. In 1948 a new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, the Portsmouth Agreement, was agreed but despite major concessions by the British, such as giving up the airbases at Habbaniya and Shuaiba, it provoked such anti-British revolt in Baghdad that it could not be implemented and was shelved instead, ironically leaving the British still in control of the airbases.

By 1955, in the new climate of the ‘cold war’ the perceived threat of invasion or infiltration was from the Soviet bloc. It was hoped that the creation of the “Baghdad Pact” organisation (in which Turkey, Iraq, Persia and Pakistan would form a defensive cordon along the southern fringe of the USSR), would help meet the Soviet and other threats to the regime, for instance at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956. In fact tensions within Iraq boiled over and martial law had to be imposed. Iraq also suffered some financial loss due to damage to its pipelines running through Syria, which largely supported Egypt over Suez. Iraqi relations with Syria deteriorated further when Iraq pulled out troops stationed in Jordan since the end of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War but Syrian troops remained, potentially an occupying force. Iraq and Jordan joined in an attempt at an Arab Federation, and an attack on Syria by Iraq was considered in 1957.

Volume 5: 1958-1973

No less than five attempted, and actual, coups occurred in the period of the last volume, 1958–1973. Volume 5 begins with a review of the possible threat from Syria, supported by Egypt, which quickly pales in significance against the complete overthrow of the old royalist regime in the army coup d’état by Brigadier Qasim of July 1958. At this point, concerns grow for the security of other British allies in the region, such as Jordan, the Gulf States and Kuwait. An evaluation of the British legal position and presence was undertaken, in the face of growing physical threats to the RAF detachment at Habbaniya. The strategic significance of Iraq in December 1958 was re-evaluated, and it was concluded Iraq still held a special position in defence matters [DEFE 11/268 Chiefs of Staff Committee, 5 March 1968]. Initially Britain contemplated joint action with the USA against the new regime, but Iraq’s withdrawal from the Baghdad Pact in 1959 and other factors led instead to the evacuation of the RAF and, in effect, the British presence. Also in 1959 the Kurds rose in rebellion again under Mustafa Barzani, President of the KDP but the continually rumoured counter-coups did not materialise.
In a final reversal of policy, intelligence assessments and planning now aimed at protecting British strategic interests from Iraq and her allies. The Iraqi threat to Kuwait provoked a crisis in 1961, (and again in 1967), when Iraq’s capabilities to invade Kuwait were assessed. In the north, the Kurdish problem remained; operations to quell revolt were undertaken by the Iraqi army from June to October 1963.

In early 1963 a military coup, arising out of an alliance between nationalist army officers and the Ba’ath party, placed Deputy Prime Minister Aref in power. Conflict between more moderate and more extremist groups within the Ba’ath party culminated in purges against those seen as pro-Qasim, Kurdish or Nasserite. In 1968, “the bloodless coup” brought Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr to power, at the head of the Revolutionary Command Council, believed to be an alliance of the right wing of the Ba’ath party and members of an organisation called the Arab Revolutionary Movement. The new regime survived an abortive coup attempt in 1970, in which it was alleged that there was Iranian involvement. In 1971 Iraq severed diplomatic relations with Britain, expelling diplomats, alleging British involvement in a further failed coup that year and asserting British collusion with Iran in the matter of the disputed Gulf islands. However, by 1973, the concluding sections of Volume 5 increasingly show Iraqi hints at the desirability of relations with the West and also the British wish for renewed diplomatic and trade relations with Iraq, despite growing fears for the sovereignty and defence of Kuwait.


Publisher’s note: all maps are subject to a reduction from their original size , which is given on the map itself.

A100.01.   [Section from] “Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and West Persia”, Royal Geographical Society, 1910. With annotations depicting dispositions of troops (Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force) at 7/04/1920.
A100.02.    “Southern Desert tribes: location of Bedouins near Iraqi-Najd frontier”. 1925.
A100.03.    “Map of the Boundary between the Vilayet of Mosul or Northern Frontier of Iraq and the Vilayet of Van in Turkey, in two sheets. Complied from Survey Sheets (137), from sketch maps of Goyan Frontier, Khabur Valley, Nerva and Raikan, Rowanduz frontier and Maunsells sheets.” With annotations illustrating the Turco-Iraqi Frontier question, 1925-1926.
A100.04.   “Northern frontier region of Iraq”. Geographical Section General Staff, No. 3777c. War Office, 1925. With annotations: frontiers of Palestine and Mesopotamia, 1927.
A100.05.   “Location Map of Iraqi Army, November 1939”.
A100.06.  “Sketch map of the Baghdad–Haifa Road”, MEIC Collation, December 1940. (Edition of 10 December 1940). Map showing distribution and disposition of tribes as at December 1940.
A100.07.  “Oil Installations in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and North-Western Iran”. April 1941.
A100.08.  “Order of Battle of Iraqi Army, 11 October 1942”. W.O. 5/1941.
A100.09.  “Barzan Operation; situation as on September 6th”. Drawn at Survey Department HQ. PAIC. September 1945.
A100.10.   “Middle East”, (GSOR 5298). 1957. Top secret map illustrating troop positions for defence of Iraq in the event of an attack by Egypt or Syria.
A100.11.   “Distribution of Kurds”. Foreign Office Research Department, 1962.