British Interest in Iraq in the Early 20th Century

British gun boat on the Tigris

The area known today as “Iraq” grew in importance for leaders of the British Empire during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

During the early 20th century, British imperialists were concerned, mostly, about protecting the jewel of the British Empire, India. India was the only part of the Empire from which the British government profited. This money was made from many sources including the trading of cotton, silk, indigo and other products from India.

The British government in India also extracted taxes from the local population. The British often worried about Russian advancement toward India. In order to protect India, the British planned to place strategic military bases in Iraq and use military occupation as a form of control. Another consideration for British leaders was the Suez Canal in Egypt; imperialists believed that British shipping and military interests would benefit from its control.

British diplomat Mark Syke recognized such interests and, while negotiating the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which later became part of the Treaty of Versailles, made sure that the British would have control over what is today known as Iraq (made up of the three former Ottoman districts: Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad).

The Rise in the Popularity of Oil

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1916-1922) was interested in the oil that could be found within the Mosul district. In The History of the Great War Based on Official Documents, Military Operations: Mesopotamia, Volume I: Outbreak of Hostilities, Campaign in Lower Mesopotamia, Brigadier-General F.J. Moberley shows that during World War I, both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill discovered the importance of oil and its use for the military, especially with the new technology of the day.

By 1900, the value of petroleum products began to command worldwide attention. For the British, the importance of oil grew with the German naval threat before World War I. Many in Great Britain were upset about the supposed surrender of Mosul during the Sykes-Picot negotiations. A severe petroleum shortage during the war led to an even closer focus on Iraq and Iran.

For much of Mosul’s history, it was simply an economic backwater. However, the discovery of vast reserves of oil paved the way for an increase in economic activity in the region. Along with the British, the new Turkish nation, formed after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was also interested in Mosul oil. Both sides argued to the newly-formed League of Nations that they should be able to own the Mosul district. Both sides argued for popular will, security, and historic affiliation. In the end, the League of Nations granted Great Britain control of the region. The Turks were angered by the decision, but, in exchange for 10% of the oil revenues, the Turks reluctantly agreed to recognize the British claim to Iraq.

Holding on After the Great War: Propaganda

Post-World War I propaganda involved selling to the people of Great Britain that the empire was still viable. This idea was challenged following World War I more than it ever had been in the past. Imperialists argued that the British people not only benefited economically from the Empire, but that the British system of government was the world’s greatest system of government and that “backwards” peoples needed the system of government that the British offered them.

As shown in John M. Mackenzie’s chapter “The Popular Culture of Empire in Britain” in Volume IV of The Oxford History of the British Empire, the Empire increasingly reached the British public in new and often theatrical ways, through movies and newspapers. Groups and individuals attempted to popularize the Empire. One example of this was the Wembley Exhibition, the purpose of which was to “find, in the development and utilization of the raw materials of the Empire, new sources of Imperial wealth … To make the different races of the British Empire better known to each other, and to demonstrate to the people of Britain the almost illimitable possibilities of the Dominions, Colonies, and Dependencies overseas.”

In 1923 and 1924, the exhibition attracted over 27 million visitors. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), founded in 1923, viewed the Empire as an important source of broadcasting material and as a topic of significant interest to national life. It was believed that radio could lead to the cohesion of British subjects around the world.

Over time, the British lost interest in Iraq and found that holding on to the area was becoming increasingly difficult. In 1932, the British granted independence to Iraq, but kept military bases in the nation. Following World War II, the British Labour government conceded that maintaining such a vast empire was too difficult and withdrew all of its military installations from Iraq.