740.0011 European War 1939/4269

The Minister Resident in Iraq (Knabenshue) to the Secretary of State

No. 1572

Sir: I have the honor to report that until recently I had not visualized much difficulty in connection with the protection of American citizens and their evacuation in the event of the European war spreading to this area. My recent visit to the mountainous frontier points in northern and northeastern Iraq reassured me in respect to the difficulties which any invading army might experience in attacking this country through that area. Recently, however, two factors brought out by the war operations in Europe have changed the complexion of the situation, namely, preliminary attacks by air and parachutists, and secondly, fifth column activities.

From what has been observed in the war activities in Europe it would now seem evident that any attack on Iraq would most likely be made by air, which, together with fifth column efforts, would facilitate a rapid follow-up by mechanized land forces. The desert lends itself to airplane landings at most of the pumping stations along the Iraq petroleum pipeline from Kirkuk to Tripoli and Haifa on the Mediterranean. These pumping stations would seem to possess no anti-aircraft guns and their only form of protection is a few native armed guards and subsidized tribesmen. In any event, these stations would be very vulnerable to air bombardment. The lightning rapidity with which military campaigns in Europe have been moving does not leave much assurance that Iraq could resist for long a serious invasion by the Germans from the northwest or by the Russians from the northeast.

In my telegram no. 34 of May 18, 6 p.m.,1 I reported the essence of a potential fifth column in Iraq. Heretofore, there was not a great deal of attention paid to this factor. It was well known that the former German Minister here, Dr. Grobba, was very active in spreading German propaganda, including anti-British propaganda, and that he [Page 704]subsidized not only many individual Iraqis but also some of the Iraqi newspapers. But it was not until the prominence given to fifth column activity, particularly as from the invasion of Norway that much attention was paid to this factor in Iraq. It is now widely acknowledged that most of the junior officers in the Iraqi Army are both pro-German and anti-British. It is also a fact that practically all of the young Iraqi students who have been educated in Germany during the past few years are distinctly pro-German and anti-British. It is also generally believed that there are large numbers of other Iraqis who are pro-German and anti-British in consequence of Dr. Grobba’s activities which have been continued since the beginning of the war through local German agents. In addition to all this, the residence here of the Mufti of Jerusalem2 and some four or five hundred of his Palestinian and Syrian followers, all of whom are at least anti-British and who are believed by some to be in German pay, constitute a potential section of a fifth column. As reported in my telegram no. 34, an alleged plot was recently discovered implicating the Mufti and his followers in a plan to attack British residents in Baghdad. The rumor in this regard was considered of sufficient importance to cause a Cabinet meeting. The Mufti was questioned, but he denied the existence of any such plot in respect to himself and his following. In spite of this, however, police precautions were taken and nothing occurred.

During the past few weeks tension has been increasing in Baghdad. The bazaars have been full of alarming rumors, excitement increased and there was a general fear that disturbances were imminent. It was believed that such disturbances would first manifest themselves by attacks upon Jews and that if this were not immediately suppressed it would spread to native Christians, British subjects and foreigners generally. I discussed the matter with the British Ambassador. He told me that he had taken it up with the Prime Minister and tried to impress upon him the necessity for some action to control the situation, allay public fears and maintain order. However, he said that he regretted that he did not seem to be able to impress the Prime Minister with the gravity of the situation and he suggested that I might succeed with the latter where he had failed. On the following day I saw General Nuri as-Said, the Foreign Minister, with whom I discussed this situation, pointing out of course, that my primary interest in the matter was the protection of American citizens. I said that I considered the matter sufficiently grave to warrant my seeing the Prime Minister about it and that I would be glad if he would accompany me. Nuri then became very frank and agreed with me that something ought to be done. He said that he himself had also spoken to the Prime Minister, [Page 705]but without avail, and he therefore suggested that I see him alone. Accordingly, he thereupon arranged by telephone an appointment for me with the Prime Minister for the following morning. I am enclosing for the Department’s information a copy of a memorandum of my conversation with the Prime Minister, which brings out the highlights of that interview.

It will be noticed that I was very frank in my statements to him, for I felt that the situation demanded it. It will also be noted that I stressed the necessity for him to take some action to allay public apprehension and thus relieve the tension which might develop to serious proportions dangerous in the last analysis to American citizens, and in leaving him I stated specifically that I considered the safety of American citizens here to be his personal responsibility.

I am glad to be able to report that immediately after my conversation with him, he sent for the editors of all the local newspapers and instructed them to publish articles warning the public against the spread of false rumors and against the activities of German agents. I enclose copies of some of the editorials published in this respect.3 I am also glad to report that the publication of these articles together with information reaching Iraq through the press and radio of the dangerous consequences of fifth column activity have had a sobering effect upon the populace, and that the tension has very materially eased. I also know that the Minister of Defense has called meetings of various grades of Army officers to warn them, first, that an allied defeat in northern France at this time does not mean ultimate defeat, and secondly, warning all Army officers against pro-German, anti-British sentiments. I am also informed that the secret police have been materially increased in number, in order to secure better and more information regarding the activities of German agents.

In the circumstances, I feel that my conversation with the Prime Minister had some material effect.

During the past few days when the plight of the isolated allied army in northern France became increasingly critical, and particularly since the capitulation of King Leopold, the Iraqi public seems to have become stunned and certainly distinctly sobered, particularly those who are anti-British and who have been using the Palestine situation as a whip with which to lash the British. Aside from the relatively few Iraqis who are distinctly pro-German, the other Iraqis are not basically pro-German and are only anti-British because of the latter’s alleged treatment of the Arabs in Palestine. Many of them have felt that while in the last war the Arabs gained partial independence they could, as a result of the present war, gain complete [Page 706]independence if they would take advantage of the situation to blackmail the British by threatening attitudes. Until recently the Arabs no doubt entertained a confidence that the Anglo-French allies were invincible and would ultimately win the war, but the German military victories in Europe and the present plight of the Anglo-French isolated army in northern France has now shaken that confidence and it has caused them to speculate as to the consequences of final German victory in this general Arab area. Major Edmonds, the British Adviser to the Ministry of Interior, tells me that during the past few days he has been receiving an increasing number of visits from Iraqi politicians and other notables who show that they have been shaken and sobered by the present critical situation in northern France and who now do not hide their fears of a German invasion and occupation of these Arab countries. I believe that there is no question but that the Arabs not only would prefer British influence here, but that they would fear German influence. A British intelligence officer expresses the opinion that this fear is now even extending to the Mufti and his following who are commencing to visualize a German policy, in the event of victory, of using Palestine and the nearby Arab countries as a dumping ground for all Jews who come within their domination.

In view of the above factors, it is impossible to predict what might happen in the near future in Iraq, particularly in the event of further allied reverses and the entry of Italy in the war on the side of Germany, but at best it would seem that there will be an increasingly uneasy situation here.

Respectfully yours,

P. Knabenshue
[Enclosure]

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Minister Resident in Iraq (Knabenshue)

I informed His Excellency4 that I had become very much concerned about what appeared to be a dangerous situation in Baghdad and that I felt it necessary in the interest of American nationals to discuss the matter with him. I told him that my many and various sources of information convinced me that there was intense apprehension among the public of impending disorders. I said that it would appear that the Jewish population of the city were fearful of being attacked and that these fears are spreading even to the native Christians. It would [Page 707]also appear that the rapidly increasing anti-British feeling engendered by militant Palestinian refugees and German agents as well as by the Arabic broadcasts from Berlin was causing apprehension among British subjects who were fearful of being attacked as were the British in Egypt immediately after the last war. I also informed him that American citizens here were apprehensive lest such attacks spread to other foreigners, including Americans.

I told His Excellency that this situation which seemed to be a potentially dangerous one for American citizens made it incumbent upon me to bring the matter to his attention in the hope that he would find it possible to take some action with a view to allaying public apprehension and thus relieve the tension as well as other concrete action calculated to control the situation, and thereby, as far as I was concerned, afford protection to American citizens. I informed him that obviously I had been obliged to report my estimate of the situation and my fears to my Government. I also informed him that the Legation possessed armament for defensive purposes and that arrangements have been made for American citizens in Baghdad to take refuge at the Legation in the event of disturbances. I told him frankly that if the Legation should be attacked by rioters we would defend ourselves. He assured me that this would not be necessary, for the Government would be fully capable of rendering all protection necessary.

His Excellency thanked me for having spoken so frankly about the matter, but assured me that the situation was not as grave as I had been led to believe and he asked me to tell him more specifically the reasons for my apprehension. I thereupon told him that there was much evidence to indicate that there was a potential fifth column in Iraq made up of pro-German, anti-British junior officers of the Iraq army and Iraqi students who had been educated in Germany. I also mentioned the Palestinian refugees in Iraq and other Iraqis who are influenced by German propaganda and probably even in the pay of German agents. I said that it was the general belief that through such sources rumors were being circulated with a view to stirring up and exciting public opinion and with a view also to bringing about disturbances.

His Excellency replied that these facts were known to the Government and the precautions taken by the police would prevent occurrences of the sort I feared. I replied that while I felt sure that precautionary measures had been planned and ordered by his Government, nevertheless it would seem that this is unknown to the public, among whom the question is being asked, “What is the Government doing about it?” Consequently, I suggested that in order to allay [Page 708]public anxiety it would seem advisable or even necessary for him to take some action which the public could understand and appreciate and which would assure them of the Government’s willingness and ability to protect them from disturbances which they, at the present time, actually believe to be imminent. He then told me that measures were recently taken in connection with the younger officers of the Army, that more restrictions were being put upon the local press and that the police authorities were keeping a closer watch upon the actions of suspected German agents and that as fast as evidence could be secured against such agents they would be appropriately dealt with. He said that he hoped that very soon the measures taken and to be taken by the Government would calm public fears.

His Excellency agreed with me in respect to the potential fifth column here and in that connection informed me that they had received reports from their Legation in Tehran and their consulates in Iran which indicated a very formidable fifth column in that country made up chiefly by the very large number of Germans residing there together with Russians and Iranians who had been won over by them. He said that this influence has now become so great that he believed the Shah would feel himself unable to oppose it. I thereupon remarked that this being so it should convince him all the more of the necessity of taking strong action in Iraq before a similar movement here would be developed to dangerous proportions.

In taking my leave of His Excellency, I informed him that my visit and my frank discussion with him were purely for the purpose of seeking action for the protection of American citizens. I said that two years ago one of our citizens was murdered at Dohuk and that up to date the perpetrators of the crime had not been captured or punished and that only a few days ago an American citizen had been attacked in his place of business by two young Iraqi army officers. Consequently, I said, I view with increasing anxiety the dangerous situation which had been developing here, and I repeated my hope that the measures which he said he had taken and which he said would be taken would soon dispel my fears. I said that I appreciated his grave responsibility as Prime Minister of this country in the present international situation and the possibilities of the extension of hostilities even to this area, but I added that my responsibility to my nationals had made it necessary for me to discuss the matter as I had with him, as their safety also became one of his responsibilities. In parting he again assured me that appropriate measures were being taken and would be taken to meet the situation.

P[aul] K[nabenshue]
  1. Not printed.
  2. Haj Mohammid Amin Effendi el Husseini.
  3. Not reprinted.
  4. Rashid Ali al-Gailani, Prime Minister of Iraq.