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The Kurdish Problem and the Mosul Boundary: 1918-1925 - Security Council - Global Policy Forum Security Council - Documents, Analyses, Comments, Reports, Issues, DebatesSecurity Council - Documents, Analyses, Comments, Reports, Issues, Debates

The Kurdish Problem and the Mosul Boundary: 1918-1925

By Peter Sluglett

The following text is an excerpt from Britain in Iraq: 1914-1932 (London: Ithaca Press, 1976)

pp. 116 - 125

Four days after the end of the war with Turkey, on 3 November 1918, the town of Mosul was entered and occupied by British troops, and the area of British occupation was held to extend over the whole of the Mosul wilayet. Kurdish nationalist groups in exile outside Turkey, and local leaders in Kurdistan had long been asking for some sort of separate status for the area, and saw the defeat of the Turks and the occupation of Mosul by Britain as a golden opportunity for pressing their claims. In Iraq, two British officers with long experience of Kurdish affairs, E.E. Soane and E.W.C. Noel were instructed immediately to begin negotiations with local leaders. The Civil Commissioner in Baghdad recommended to London on 30 October 1918 that a central council of chiefs for Southern Kurdistan should be set up ‘under British auspices’, and after thee weeks in the area Noel recommended the establishment of a Kurdish state extending as far North as Van in Eastern Anatolia (some 90 miles north of the present Turco-Iraq frontier). In mid-November, Shaikh Mahmud Barzinji, head of one of the leading saiyid families in the region was appointed qaimmaqam of Sulaimaniya.

The unity which the Turkish defeat had produced among the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq was shortlived; Noel reported in the Spring of 1919 that Kurdish solidarity in central Anatolia had been based largely on fears that the Allies would exact retribution for the displacement and destruction of the Armenians and Assyrians, and now that this seemed no longer likely to materialize, disputes had broken out among rival tribes, none of whom would accept the overlordship of any single leader. The geography of the region, mountainous terrain with fertile valleys, together with traditional tribal rivalries, made the preservation of ‘order’ on British Indian lines virtually impossible. The complications of Kurdish politics seem almost endless, but the difficulties were increased by British predilections for the construction of tidy administrative units, governed by ‘reliable’ or subsidised local leaders.

The chief difficulty was that the whole concept of self-determination required general agreement in the recognition of suitable representatives for the ‘Kurdish people’. The Kurds of the central area of Northern Iraq, around Dohuk, ‘Amadiya and Zakho, and those of Barzan and Arbil did not accept that Shaikh Mahmud’s overloardship of Sulaimaniya entitled him to be recognized by them as King of Kurdistan; Mahmud was in fact unable to exercise any authority over Halabja and Penjwin, both only twenty miles from his capital. Another group of claimants, the Badr-Khans, an ancient Kurdish family exiled to Constantinople since the mid-nineteenth century, may have had the ear of the British authorities there, but were no longer able to command support locally, and this was also true of the Baban family, long resident in Baghdad.

The truth seems to have been that, had they been given the opportunity, the Kurds would probably have preferred to have been left to make their own administrative arrangements. They welcomed their freedom from been prepared to accept nominal British suzerainty, this can be explained more by their wishing to ensure that the Turks stayed away than by any active desire to be controlled by Britain. Further, the desire for Kurdish autonomy did not, because of traditional tribal and clan rivalries, at this stage produce any coherent movement towards Kurdish unity. By May 1919 the British authorities were forced to remove Shaikh Mahmud, who had succeeded in alienating almost all those upon whom he had relied to maintain his position in Sulaimaniya. A rival leader, Saiyid Taha of Neri, a descendant of Ubaidullah, the leader of the great Kurdish revolt of 1896, now appeared. Claiming to be able to head an independent Kurdish state under British protection. But it was clear that he also had too narrow a basis of support to ensure him any lasting success. The treaty of Sevres, which had included provision for an independent Kurdistan, was soon nullified by the revival of Turkish strength in the summer of 1920.

Throughout late 1919 and for most of 1920 British troops were kept busy on the Northern frontiers of Iraq. Revolts flared up everywhere; some were inspired by the Turks in an attempt to drive British troops out of the Mosul area, and some were simply the normal Kurdish expression of distaste at the imposition of yet another outside authority. Gertrude Bell, with a somewhat limited comprehension of guerrilla warfare, considered that the only answer was to ‘beat the aghawat,’ and deprive the Kurds of their leaders, who were preventing the more generally desired co-operation with Britain, but Soane, writing more knowledgeably about actual conditions in Southern Kurdistan, showed greater insight:

‘Generally the mass of people desire no change at all; above all they do not want a council for Kurdistan, they rejoice at being saved from Shaikh Mahmud, and clearly Shaikh Mahmud’s rebellion failed because they did not support it. They , after all, know that we could not do anything if they chose to rise against us.’

Late in March 1920 the British Cabinet authorized a public statement about the Mesopotamian Mandate. Britain would accept it, and Mesopotamia would include Mosul. This decision was welcome news in Baghdad, but its significance was not at all welcome in Kurdistan.. It is worth remarking that the decision antedates by some five months the statement in the Treaty of Sevres that a plebiscite would be held in the area. From that time onwards it has always been clear that the Kurds in Iraq have never wanted to be governed from Baghdad, but it has nevertheless always been essential, in terms of first British, and later Iraq, policy that they should be. Safeguards could be introduced: guarantees that the Kurdish language would be maintained and Kurdish officials employed, even the direct administration of Sulaimaniya by the British High Commissioner; but these paper promises were not enough. Even the most minimal attempts by H.M. Government to secure some sort of special treatment for the Kurds were vigorously resisted by the Iraq Government. By the early 1920’s the situation in the area presented more problems than before: it was reported from Sulaimaniya that public opinion that would oppose ‘even a conditional unity with Iraq Government’ while Dokuh, ‘Amadiya and Zakho would not object to incorporation within Iraq. Rowanduz was still occupied by Turkish irregulars, while Arbil would accept a mutasarrif from Baghdad if closely supervised by the British Political Officer. No Uniform treatment of the whole area seemed possible, but separate regimes for each area would naturally arouse other, so far dormant. Issues; the Turcoman population of Kirkuk, about to vote solidly against Faisal in the referendum was reported in 1921 as ‘solidly anti-Arab…though not anti-British.

It was not long before any serious consideration of separate treatment was abandoned, and the idea of wholesale incorporation of the area into the Iraq state was generally adopted. In September, Cox telegraphed a summary of his own and Faisal’s views. Faisal feared that if any sort of separate Kurdish state were to be encouraged, the Iraqi Kurds would join with their fellows in Turkey and Persia and thus constitute a permanent menace to Iraq. Furthermore, and this is the earliest specific statement to this effect, the King wanted the inclusion of Kurdistan within Iraq to secure a permanent preponderance of Sunni over Shia in the Constituent Assembly. Cox concluded:

‘To my mind it seems that it would be a reasonable course to work for the inclusion of Kurdish districts and their participation in National Assembly on conditions of local assent and special supervision by British Officers and if necessary by High Commissioner.’

Churchill replied:

‘appreciate force of arguments in your 503 (above) – subject to proviso that Kurds are not to be put under Arabs if they do not wish to be.’

Even this proviso was doomed to be relegated to the lumber room of broken diplomatic promises. It soon became clear that it would simply not be possible to allow free expression of opinion on the part of the Kurds who were not at all content at the prospect of being permanently joined to Iraq. It became essential to devise circumstances which would effectively rule out the possibility of the creation of an independent Kurdistan, or anything which might make the Kurds believe that this could be achieved. Cox wrote to Faisal in January 1922 that both Turkey and Iraq would profit from agreement on this issue:

‘…the effect of this will be that while having to abandon the contingent possibility of the Kurdish areas of Iraq joining a Kurdistan which would be definition be entirely independent of Turkey, the Turkish Government would also be free from the obligation of allowing the Kurdish areas of Turkey itself to opt for complete independence.’

In the absence of any immediate agreement with Turkey, however, the security situation continued to deteriorate. Between July 1921 and December 1922 eight British officers were killed on the northern frontier; some were ambushed, and others killed on active military service. By the autumn of 1922, the British authorities were forced to bring Shaikh Mahmud back to Sulaimaniya in a second attempt to bring order out of chaos. Predictably, he proved no more acceptable, either to those who had installed him or to those over whom he ruled, than he had been in 1919, since he was unwilling to confine his activities to Sulaimaniya. Noel reported the situation there in October:

‘I am up against the universal suspicion, in some cases almost amounting to a certainty, that we are determined to get the Kurds into Iraq by hook or by crook and that the election is all eyewash (i.e. the elections to the Constituent Assembly)…I would point out that to the Kurdish mind the assurances that no Kurds will be forced into Iraq cannot be squared with the principle of Kirkuk Iiwa as an electoral college.’

We have already noticed the problems caused by the delays over the ratification of the treaty by the Constituent Assembly, and these difficulties were compounded in the North by the lack of enthusiasm of a large proportion of the population for the whole idea of the Iraq State. Kirkuk, as we have seen, had little enthusiasm for Iraq, and even less for Shaikh Mahmud. Furthermore, as the leading citizens of Kirkuk town pointed out, while they knew of and did not like the arrangements Britain had made for Iraq, they had no idea what Britain intended for Sulaimaniya and the rest of Kurdistan. C.J. Edmonds, the Political Officer in Kirkuk, suggested inviting representatives from Kirkuk and Arbil Iiwas to Baghdad to discuss a possible federation which might be arranged on the lines of an Indian Political Agency. It became widely apparent to the Kurds that there was no longer any hope for Kurdish independence, but merely a limited autonomy within Iraq; Kurdish disapproval of this arrangement explains the failure of the formal offer to the Kurds in December 1922:

‘H.B.M. Government and the Government of Iraq recognize the rights of the Kurds living within the boundaries of Iraq to set up a Kurdish government within those boundaries and hope that the different Kurdish elements will, as soon as possible, arrive at an agreement between themselves as to the form which they wish that the Government should take and the boundaries within which they wish to extend and will send responsible delegates to Baghdad to discuss their economic and political relations with H.B.M. Government and the Government of Iraq.’

The terms of this invitation seem to have encouraged Shaikh Mahmud to listen more attentively to the emissaries who had been visiting him with promises of co-operation from Turkey, although he was at the same time losing ground in his own bailiwick of Sulaimaniya. There is strong evidence of disagreement between Noel and Edmonds over whether to continue to support Mahmud; reports received in the Residency were both contradictory and acrimonious, and it is difficult to get a clear picture of events in the area. What does emerge is that by the end of December a band of Turkish irregulars under one Euz Demir had gained ascendancy over Shaikh Mahmud. Noel reported from Arbil that Mahmud was definitely opposed to any form of Iraqi suzerainty, that he was gaining more support in Arbil and Kirkuk and that he was financing himself by means of the tobacco excise.

Early in 1923, with the failure of Lausanne to come to any immediate settlement of the boundary, it was decided that a major show of force was the only way of dealing with the situation. This development was the beginning of the ‘Forward Policy’ mentioned in Chapter II, which caused considerable alarm in Whitehall. Local Administrative Inspectors were informed:

‘In the course of the operations it is hoped…to extend the influence of the Iraq Government among Kurds who are at present not subject to it, and any opportunity which presents itself…should be seized upon and reported at once.’

Rowanduz was occupied by Imperial troops on 22 April, and Koi and Rania shortly afterwards. It was decided that the garrisons should stay in position until the arrival of the proposed frontier delimitation commission, since evacuation would enable the Turks to reoccupy at once and proclaim a status quo in Turkey’s favour. The turbulence which continued on the frontier throughout the remainder of the year was, according to the High Commissioner, due to lingering Turkish fears that the authorities in Iraq intended somehow to give independence to ‘their Kurds, thus forcing Turkey into an embarrassing position vis a vis her own Kurdish population:

‘It suggest that it might considerable ease the frontier negotiations if we could give preliminary official pledge to Turkey that in the changed circumstances we have abandoned the idea of Kurdish autonomy included in the Treaty of Sevres and that our aim is to incorporate in Iraq as far as may be feasible under normal Iraqi administration all the Kurdish areas which may fall on the Mosul side of the frontier as the result of the negotiations.’

Attacks by combined Turkish and Kurdish forces continued through the autumn and winter of 1923 and into the spring of 1924. However, by the middle of the year it was apparent that British forces had the upper hand, especially after the re-occupation of Sulaimaniya in July 1924. In a final attempt to prove themselves a force to be reckoned with, Turkish troops crossed the Hazil Su in the autumn and attacked Assyrian settlements in the vicinity of ‘Amadiya and Dohuk; on this occasion the Turks were not simply encouraging irregulars, but were employing Turkish army units. The Air Officer Commanding noted that had an attack on Zakho not been frustrated by prompt action, Mosul would have been seriously at risk. It seems that the Turks were determined to make the most of the delay between the appointment of the Frontier Commission and the plotting of the status quo frontier, which lasted from 30 September to 15 November 1924.

We have already noticed that both the British and Iraq Governments wanted the inclusion of Mosul within Iraq States; it will be equally clear that the Kurdish inhabitants of the area were at best indifferent and at worst positively hostile to this aim. The Turks and the Kurds took advantage of the delay in the settlement of the frontier to keep the area as turbulent as possible: the Kurds, to gain maximum advantage in terms of control, and the Turkish suzerainty. Neither the Turks nor the authorities in Baghdad could afford to allow independence or even autonomy to be granted in the area; the Turks were fearful of the consequences of an unruly Kurdish state on their borders, and the Iraqis did not with to single out areas for any form of special treatment which would limit authority of the Government.

By June 1924, a few days after the ratification of the 1922 Treaty by the Constituent Assembly, direct negotiations over the frontier between Britain and Turkey broke down in Constantinople, and the dispute was referred to the arbitration of the League to investigate local conditions and generally to sound out local opinion, to discover whether the inhabitants wished to stay with Iraq or go over to Turkey. The activities of the commission were confined to the southern, or Iraqi, side of the status quo frontier, the so-called Brussels line.

The commissioners commenced their work with a series of meetings and interviews in London n late November, and did not arrive in Iraq until early in January 1925. We have seen that Turkish pressure increased throughout the autumn of 1924; Shaikh Mahmud’s activities in the vicinity of Sulaimaniya had occasioned the bombing of the town by the R.A.F. in November, a decision which occasioned some unease in London. The area was therefore still in a state of unrest at the time of the Commission’s visit, though the coming of winter had forced an end to serious campaigning. In the course of a visit lasting from January to March, the Commission head evidence in Baghdad, and made extensive tours of the Mosul wilayet under close British supervision; at one point the members threatened to resign if facilities for snap visit to areas were not made available. They did in fact manage to travel to most of the more important centres.

It emerged fairly early in the Commission’s visit that its members were likely to recommend, in some form or other, an extension of the British connection. Dobbs wrote to the Colonial Office at the end of February that he was convinced that Iraq would be awarded the Mosul wilayet if British tutelage could be extended ‘far beyond the Protocol period’, # in other words beyond the previously stipulated four years after conclusion of peace with Turkey. However, the Commissioners continued their interviews and tours, causing local political officers to complain of ‘paralysis’ of administration and the ‘well-nigh impossible strain’ caused by their visits. The fact was that by early 1925 the more accessible parts of the Mosul wilayet had been under direct and effective government control for over six years, and integration of administration and services was almost total: six years under Anglo-Iraqi control had made the prospect of Turkish reoccupation seem remote, and on the whole unwelcome. Furthermore, the Commission seem to have considered that the welfare of the Christian minority population of the area, and, apparently, of the Kurds, would be better served by the Iraqi than by the Turkish Government. It is difficult to gauge the Commission’s attitude in the matter of the exploitation of the Mosul oilfields; Count Teleki’s intervention has already been mentioned, and it is a fact that the concession rights to the Turkish Petroleum Company was signed by the Cabinet at the very end of the Commission’s visit.

The Commission presented its full report to the League on 17 July 1925, very much on the lines anticipated by Dobbs. It laid down that Mosul was to be part of Iraq, subject to an extension of the connection with Britain and subject also to safeguards to preserve the character of the Kurdish areas in such matters as administrative personnel, education and language:

‘The British Government is invited to submit to the Council of the League of Nations a new Treaty with Iraq, ensuring the continuance for 25 years of the mandatory regime defined by the Treaty of Alliance between Great Britain and Iraq and by the British Government’s undertaking, approved by the Council on 27 September 1924, unless Iraq is, in conformity with Article I of the Covenant, admitted as a member of the League before the expiration of this period…The British Government, as Mandatory Power is invited to lay before the Council the administrative measures which will be taken with a view to securing for the Kurdish populations mentioned in the Commission of Inquiry the guarantee regarding local administration recommended by the Commission in its final conclusions.’

There was some delay in the acceptance of the Report: Turkish diplomacy succeeded in referring the matter for final settlement to the Permanent Court of International Justice at The Hague. However, the Commission’s Report was not to be reversed, and by 18 July 1926 it had been accepted by all parties concerned.

In spite of the prolongation of the period of mandatory control which it entailed, the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of January 1926, which embodied the League’s recommendations, was received without serious opposition in Iraqi political circles, except among the pro-Turkish groups in Kirkuk, Mosul and Sulaimaniya. The note of resignation is evident in a contemporary report of Baghdad public opinion:

‘Thos in favour of the Treaty, on whatever grounds, use the argument that the Treaty is not only essential for the retention of the Mosul wilayet but is also essential for the actual existence of the independence of Iraq and its monarchy…’

In the Chamber, the Treaty was passed unanimously on 18 January 1926; there were 58 votes in favour, and 19 abstentions, corresponding to Yasin al-Hashimi’s followers associated with his Hizb al Sha’b (People’s Party). A rumour reported from Hilla suggested that the British had arranged this token opposition to avoid criticism that they had created an artificial unanimity.

Apart from the stipulations on Kurdistan, which were underlined in the course of an impressive speech by the Prime Minister, ‘Abd ak-Muhsin al-Sa’dun, on 21 January, the new Treaty included provisions for reviewing the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of October 1922 every four years. On the occasion of each review, H.M. Government undertook to consider either recommending Iraq for admission to the League of Nations, or, if this was not judged possible, to consider amending the Military and Financial Agreements attached to the 1922 Treaty. The first of these reviews would fall due, in accordance with the Protocol of 1923, in the spring of 1927. It is worth pointing out that the 1926 Treaty in no way contradicts the Frontier Commission’s Report; both documents stipulate that the Mandate shall continue for 25 years, but equally, both contain clauses providing for the admission of Iraq to the League of Nations before that date. Naturally, King Faisal and the Baghdad politicians seized on the ‘escape’ clause, and began at once to work for the earliest possible entry of Iraq into the League.

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