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

No. 1661

Sir: I have the honor to refer to my telegram no. 100 of November 12, 1940, reporting the salient features of the anti-British feeling which has become the most important factor of the political situation in Iraq.

Anti-British feeling here has existed since the tribal revolt against the British in 1920. From that time onward it was whipped up and kept alive by Iraqi politicians for the purpose of gaining their complete independence. Even after Iraq was admitted as a member of the League of Nations in 1932 local politicians remained unsatisfied with the relationship provided for by the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of Alliance8 and continued to utilize anti-British sentiment in their efforts to eliminate entirely all British influence and control, but it was not until the Palestine problem became acute in 1936 that Iraqi politicians commenced to use it seriously in their campaign against the British. Since that time the Palestine problem has been linked to their Utopian ideal of Arab unity which they hold cannot be attained until the British solve that problem in favor of the Arabs.

With the outbreak of the present war the Arab revolt in Palestine was suspended, and the situation remained quiet for a time. However, [Page 712]soon thereafter Palestinian refugees commenced to arrive in Baghdad, followed on October 16, 1939, by the Mufti himself, and it was not long before their influence became felt in local political circles.

In the meantime, the propaganda activities of the German Minister before the war were particularly successful in stimulating anti-British feeling and in promoting a pro-German sentiment. The activities of German agents and German broadcasts in Arabic since the war have also been effective in this regard. Iraqi students who had been sent to Germany returned violently pro-German. Pro-German officials of the Ministry of Education have been promoting, in recent years, a Youth Movement which has been developed on Nazi lines and which has engendered pro-German, anti-British sentiment. In the army practically all of the younger officers in particular are pro-German.

While there have been occasional displays of anti-British feeling on the part of the local population, and while the press has constantly shown anti-British bias, on the whole it has not been generally noticeable. In the circumstances, I was somewhat surprised during my recent leave, which I spent in Syria and Palestine, to be met on every hand by the question of why the Iraqis were so anti-British and pro-German. It was there also that I learned much of the reported growing influence of the Mufti in Iraqi political circles. After my return from leave I made an investigation of the situation and have come to the following conclusions:

  • First. The Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of Alliance provides scope for engendering a certain degree of anti-British feeling.
  • Second. The Palestine problem provides the most effective opportunity for generating anti-British feeling among the populace.
  • Third. German propaganda has taken advantage of these opportunities to inflame public opinion.
  • Fourth. Iraqi politicians have capitalized these opportunities to gain political prestige and power for themselves by whipping up a frenzy which otherwise would not be aroused to any serious extent. The Palestine problem and Arab unity are not, in fact, matters which are of vital direct interest to Iraq. I am satisfied that normally they would only receive the passing unemotional attention of the people here. But they do provide excellent material for politicians seeking a pretext for political agitation to gain their ends.

In further explanation of the fourth conclusion, I may add that the Iraqi politicians have been endeavoring to take advantage of Britain’s present embarrassment to force the issue of the Palestine question, but the determination of the British Government to do nothing about the matter until after the war, seems to have discouraged them and made them feel resentful.

This resentment was made manifest in the Regent’s address at the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1940. The Turkish Minister [Page 713]told me (and he has special opportunities for keeping well informed) that the Cabinet had deliberated the question whether to eliminate from the address all mention of the British and the British alliance, but that the speech of the Turkish President on November 1, 1940, affirming Turkey’s determination to respect her alliance with Britain had decided the Cabinet to make but the briefest mention of the British alliance in the Regent’s address.

With regard to the Mufti, my investigations convince me that he is the most highly respected and influential individual in Iraq today, both in religious and political circles. It appears that he is exercising his usual craftiness and astuteness and is exerting his influence only in matters affecting Palestine and the Arab cause generally, but as can be appreciated this gives him very great scope. He had gained a large following in Palestine and Syria and he is now developing a similar influence in Iraq. He is thus becoming a power to be reckoned with in the Arab world.

Finally I may express the opinion that this anti-British feeling in Iraq will not materially impede the British in their war effort unless a successful German thrust through Turkey should force the British to evacuate Iraq. In this connection I may mention that it has been reported to me that young Iraqi army officers have boasted that in such an event no Britisher will be permitted to leave the country alive. However, it is my opinion that basically, at least, Iraqi politicians and senior army officers are not so anti-British and pro-German as to permit any outrages to be perpetrated against them and would make every effort to protect them, but the probable activities of extremists and fifth columnists would undoubtedly make the occasion a serious one.

For the Department’s further information I enclose a copy of a memorandum of my conversation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on November 9, 1940.

I am also enclosing a copy of a memorandum of my conversation with the Turkish Minister, some of whose remarks will doubtless prove of interest to the Department.8a

Respectfully yours,

P. Knabenshue
  1. Signed at Baghdad, June 30, 1930, League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. cxxxii, p. 363.
  2. Enclosures not printed.