Tag Archives: Iraq

Charles Cowley and Humphrey Firman VC

Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, comprised of British and Indian troops, captured Kut-al-Amara on 28 September 1915. Townshend was then ordered to press on to Baghdad. He argued that he needed two divisions to do so but obeyed his orders when his protests were overruled.[1]

The British command structure was confused because of the way in which the British ruled India. Townshend’s immediate superior, General Sir John Nixon, answered to the Indian government, comprised of British officials, in Delhi rather than to the War Office in London. Austen Chamberlain, the London based Secretary of State for India, was concerned about the lengthening lines of communication and lack of river transport in a region with poor roads and no  railways. Townshend wrote in his diary that Nixon ‘does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his lines of communication…the consequences of a retreat are not to be imagined.’[2]

Nixon, however, claimed that marching the troops with land transport and lightening the river boats would avoid any ‘navigation difficulties.’[3] His view was accepted and the advance continued.

On 22 November Townshend’s troops encountered the Ottomans at the ruined ancient city of Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Baghdad. He believed that the enemy had 11,000 men and 40 guns but they actually had 18,000 men and 52 guns.[4] He had 13,756 men, 30 guns and 46 machine guns, not counting those on the gunboats Firefly and Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana or the four 4.7 inch guns on horse boats towed by the armed stern wheelers Sushan and Messoudieh.[5]

Townshend was forced to break off the action on 24 November. The next day his force started to retreat towards Kut, which was reached on 3 December. The lack of transport meant that the wounded, who continued to Basra suffered greatly, first travelling on unsprung 2 wheeled ox carts and then on over-crowded boats with inadequate medical facilities.[6] A. J. Barker argues in his authoritative history of the Mesopotamian Campaign that Nixon was not ‘entirely blameless’ but the [British] Indian government must be regarded as primarily responsible’ for the dreadful medical facilities.[7]

British casualties at Ctesiphon, the retreat and a further action at Umm-at-Tubal totalled 4,970: 711 killed, 3,890 wounded and 369 missing. A Turkish account says that the Ottomans lost over 9,500 men including deserters at Ctesiphon, with another giving their casualties excluding deserters as being 6,188. Their casualties at Umm-at-Tubal were 748.[8]

The British also lost the new gunboat Firefly, which was disabled when a shell hit her boiler and the old gunboat Comet, which ran aground when trying to help her. Sumana managed to rescue their crews with Ottoman soldiers already boarding the two stranded gunboats.[9]

Townshend reported initially that his division could hold out in Kut for two months, which was ‘a somewhat conservative estimate.’[10] By seizing local food supplies, putting his men on short rations and killing his animals for meat Townshend was ultimately able to hold out for nearly five months. His initial estimate forced the relief force to move before it was ready. It is strange that an officer who had made his name in a siege, that of Chitral on the North West Frontier of India in 1895, should make such a mistake.

By 24 April the situation in Kut was so desperate that a highly risky resupply mission had to be mounted. The river steamer Julnar was stripped of all unnecessary woodwork and armoured with protective plating. Manned by an all volunteer crew of Lieutenant Humphrey Firman RN, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Cowley RNVR, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W. L. Reed RNR and 12 ratings she was to carry 270 tons of supplies to Kut.[11]

Cowley had a great knowledge of the River Tigris, having been employed by the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company. He had been born in Baghdad, was regarded by the Ottomans as being an Ottoman subject, so was likely to be executed if captured.[12] He had been born in Baghdad. He acted as pilot, with Firman captaining the Julnar.

She set off at 8 pm on 24 April, a dark, overcast and moonless night. Heavy artillery and machine gun fire tried to drown out the sound of her engines, but the Ottomans knew that she was coming. She soon came under rifle fire and could make no more than six knots because of a strong current. Ten miles from Kut she came under artillery fire. Two miles later a shell hit her, killing Firman and wounding Cowley, who took command. A few minutes later she struck a cable and drifted onto the right bank of the river. She was stuck, giving Cowley no choice but to surrender.[13]

Cowley was quickly separated from the rest of the crew. The Ottomans claimed first that he was found dead when the Julnar surrendered, then that he was shot whilst trying to escape. It is most likely that he was executed. He was a British subject, but he was aware that the Ottomans would execute him if he was captured.[14]

Cowley and Firman were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation, from naval-history.net, states that:

Admiralty, 31st January, 1917.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to re-provision the force besieged in Kut-el-Amara.:

Lieutenant Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N.

Lieutenant-Commander Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R.

The General Officer Commanding, Indian Expeditionary Force “D,” reported on this attempt in the following words:

“At 8 p.m. on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the ‘Julnar,’ carrying 270 tons of supplies, left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut.

Her departure was covered by all Artillery and machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of distracting the enemy’s attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m. on the 25th General Townshend reported that she had not arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8 1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be but little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the ‘ Julnar ‘ in the hands of the Turks at Magasis.

“The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant – Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R. – the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the ‘Mejidieh’ – have been reported by the Turks to have been killed; the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war.

“Knowing well the chances against them, all the gallant officers and men who manned the ‘ Julnar’ for the occasion were volunteers. I trust that.the services in this connection of Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognised by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour.”

The British Official History of Naval Operations states that all ‘the crew were decorated.[15] The awards of the Distinguished Service Order and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to other members of the crew  were announced on 11 November 1919.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Eng. Sub-Lieut. William. Louis Reed, R.N.R. For gallant and distinguished services as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., Alexander Murphy, R.N.V.R., O.N. (Mersey) Z3/182. For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

P.O., 1st Cl., William Rowbottom, O.N. J2953 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

The award of the Distinguished Service Medal to a group of ten ratings, listed on Naval-History.net, was announced the same day. It is likely that they were the other members of the crew, but the citations for the award of the DSM are not available.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

A.B. Herbert Blanchard, O.N. J13427 (Po.).

A.B. William Bond, O.N. J8490 (Dev.).

Ldg. Sto. Herbert Cooke, O.N. K6470 (Ch.).

Sea. John Featherbe, R.N.R., O.N. 6973A.

Sto., Ist.Cl., George William Forshaw, O.N. K18513 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Samuel Fox, O.N. S.S.110714 (Po.).

A.B. Harry Ledger, O.N. J9539 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Charles Thirkill, O.N. S.S. 115464 (Dev.).

A.B. Alfred Loveridge Veale, O.N. 215734 (R.F.R. Dev./B5936).

A.B. Montagu Williams, O.N. J44546 (Ch.).

The failure of Julnar’s mission meant that the only supplies available to the garrison of Kut were the tiny amounts that could be dropped by the small number of low performance aircraft available. Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the siege, but the Ottomans were not interested in British offers of gold or guns or prisoner exchanges in return for allowing the garrison of Kut to return to India or the fact that they would have to care for a large number of sick prisoners if the garrison surrendered. Townshend therefore surrendered Kut on 29 April.[16]

The Ottomans treated Townshend very well, his officers reasonably and his men very badly in captivity. During the siege 1,025 men were killed, 721 died of disease, 2,446 were wounded and 72 went missing. 247 civilians were killed and 663 wounded. Nearly 12,000 men went into captivity, of whom over 4,000 died. Their treatment eventually improved after representations from the US and Dutch Ambassadors.[17] Townshend’s reputation never recovered from his failure to inquire into the fate of his men whilst he lived in luxury in Istanbul. His performance in the campaign until Ctesiphon had actually been good: see this post.

 

 

[1] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), pp. 91-92.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 227; F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. ii, p. 71.

[6] See D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, Dsm, Rn in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). for the experiences of a Royal Navy seaman in Mesopotamia. Chapter 48 describes the battle and Chapters 49-60 his evacuation after being wounded.

[7] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 106.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 229.

[9] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 228-29.

[10] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 228.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 90.

[12] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 212.

[13] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 90-91.

[14] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, p. 435, footnote.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 91, footnote 1.

[16] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, pp. 452-57.

[17] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 459-466.

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The Royal Navy and Townshend’s Regatta

British troops landed near Basra on 6 November, the day after hostilities began with the Ottoman Empire with the objective of securing British interests in the region, notably but not only the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan and the pipeline from it to APOC’s Persian oilfields. These had been achieved by 9 December when they took Qurna.

In early 1915 Ottoman forces attacked from Amara on the Tigris towards the oil pipe-line and from Nasiriyah on the Euphrates towards Basra. The pipeline was cut around Ahwaz. By then General Sir John Nixon was in command of the Mesopotamian Corps of two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade. He did not, however, have all the equipment, especially transport and medical services, of a corps.

On 12 April the Ottoman attack towards Basra was defeated at Barjisiya. Nixon then launched offensives towards Ahwaz and Amara to protect the pipeline and Nasiriyah to protect Basra. The politicians in London, Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for India until the Liberal/Conservative Coalition was formed in May 1915, and his successor Austen Chamberlain, both urged caution in Mesopotamia once the oil facilities and Basra were safe. They were, however, ignored by the government and army command of British India, which had more ambitious plans.[1]

The lack of a railway and the poor quality of the roads meant that the rivers were vital for communications. The attack on Amara, carried out by Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, was made at a time of unusually high floods, meaning that the land was flooded for miles around the Tigris. The flood water was often shallow, but with ditches, cuts and canals that made it impossible to wade. The Naval Staff Monograph said that ‘there was too much water for the Army, but generally too little for the Navy.’[2]

Infantry were carried were carried on armoured bellums (local boats holding about eight people and propelled by paddles or poles). Other bellums were loaded with supplies, including ammunition. Artillery was loaded on barges, rafts, tugs and paddlers, with machine guns on rafts. Rafts were also used as ambulances, with roofed mahelas (large river sailing boats) used as hospitals. Townshend and some of his staff travelled on the sloop HMS Espiègle, along with the Senior Naval Officer Captain Wilfrid Nunn. The rest of his staff were split between the sloops HMS Clio and Odin. The flotilla also included the Indian Marine ship Lawrence, the armed tugs Comet and Miner, the armed launches Bahrein, Lewis Pelly, Shaitan and Sumana and the stern wheelers Shushan and Muzaffri. The troops called the force ‘Townshend’s Regatta.’[3]

Townshend’s attack began at 5:00 am on 31 May and by noon had succeeded in taking its first objective, a series of Ottoman outposts. Aerial reconnaissance showed that the enemy was in full retreat: the two British aircraft had to fly from Basra as there was no closer ground dry enough for them to land on. Townshend, his staff and a dozen other soldiers boarded the flotilla and headed off in pursuit. A captured Ottoman officer, who was put in one of the launches being used as minesweepers, pointed out the enemy mines on the river.[4]

The next Ottoman position, at Bahran, was bombarded at 5:30 am on 1 June, but had been evacuated. Four lighters had been sunk in an attempt to block the river, but it was possible to pass, although navigation was difficult because the ships had only rough maps of the river, which bent and twisted and whose channel was hard to identify because of the floods.[5]

At 5:50 pm Shaitan, the leading vessel, opened fire on the Ottoman gunboat Marmariss, which was towing some mahelas. The sloops joined in, also firing on the steamers Mosul and Bulbul By 8:05 pm, when the British ships anchored to wait for the moon to rise, the Bulbul had been sunk. The Marmariss escaped by abandoning the craft that she was towing. The British resumed the pursuit at 2:00 am on 2 June. At daybreak they found the Marmariss, abandoned, aground and on fire. The Mosul was found aground nearby, full of troops and stores.[6] As well as the Marmariss and Mosul, two steel lighters, seven mahelas, two field guns, a large quantity of rifles and ammunition, 140 prisoners and over £1,000 worth of treasure were captured.[7]

Townshend decided to press on to Amara with the lighter draught vessels: the sloops could not go any further. He set off at 11:00 am on 2 June with the Shaitan, Sumana, Lewis Polly, three horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, and Sir Percy Cox, the Principal Political Officer, in his steam launch L2. No opposition was met and white flags were being flown. Shaitan entered Amara at 2:00 pm on 3 June. She was surrounded, but was not fired upon. Townshend then arrived and took the surrender of 30-40 Ottoman officers and 700 men. The British were heavily outnumbered, although sources differ on the number involved: the Naval Staff Monograph says ‘Townshend and his 22 men’, whilst Naval Operations, one of the British Official Histories, says 100 ‘besides Lascar stokers.’[8] Possibly the smaller is the number who actually took the surrender and the larger includes all the crews of the vessels involved. The 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment arrived in the morning to secure Amara.

Townshend’s reputation was later destroyed by his defeat in the Siege of Kut-Al-Amara and his behaviour during his subsequent captivity, when he lived in comfort in Istanbul and made no attempt to find out about the appalling conditions in which his men were being held as prisoners. In this action, however, he led from the front, belying the clichéd image of the First World War general miles behind the lines. He wrote that ‘I owe the whole of the success firstly to the Royal Navy.’[9]

From 31 May to 4 June Townshend’s force captured 139 officers, 1,634 men, 12 field guns and five naval guns and captured or sank the Marmariss, five steamers and several barges and small craft. British casualties from 31 May to 4 June were one officer and three men killed and three officers and 18 men wounded.[10] The Ottomans suffered 120 killed or wounded as well as those captured.[11]

The next stage of the Mesopotamian Campaign was to take Nasiriyah in order to protect Basra. It was too difficult to move on it across the desert at that time of year, so the advance had to be made by river. This meant bringing the ships and river craft back from Amara to Qurna and then along a waterway that went through the very shallow and 10 mile broad Hammar Lake to the Euphrates. Some ships had been sent away: Clio to Bombay for a refit, Lawrence to Bushire and others to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to allow their crews to recover from the heat at a hill station.[12]

Nunn’s force was augmented by another stern wheeler, the, but was weaker than at Amara. Espiègle, Odin and Miner could not cross the Hammar Lake. The remaining force consisted of Sumana, the stern wheelers Shushan (armed with a 12 pounder, a 3 pounder and a maxim), Muzaffri (a maxim) and Messoudieh (a 3 pounder and a maxim), two horse-boats, each armed with a 4.7 inch gun, three transports full of troops, each with two 18 pounder guns on her foredeck and four tugs towing mahelas or lighters full of ammunition and supplies. The stern wheelers were given some armour plate, but the amount was restricted because the shallow water meant their draughts could not increase much. There were also mountain guns mounted on bellums. Nunn was onboard Shushan. The troops were from the 30th Brigade of Major-General George Gorringe’s 12th Indian Division, reinforced with additional artillery and engineers.[13]

The force began to cross the Hammar Lake at 4:00 pm on 27 June. Navigating the narrow, shallow and almost unmarked channels was difficult, even without being under fire. Open water was not reached until 4:00 am on 4 July. An Ottoman position at Gurma-Safha, defended by 2,300 troops, later reinforced to 3,000, was attacked and taken the next day. The British had 114 men killed or wounded, but captured 132 men and two guns.[14]

The next resistance was encountered at the Majinina Creek, about six miles from Nasiriyah, where the Ottomans had established a strong defensive position.[15] It was initially defended by about 2,000 Turks, six guns, two launches and ‘large numbers of hostile Arabs.’[16]

Both sides were receiving reinforcements and had about 5,000 men each by 24 July. The British, however, had more artillery and the advantage of an aircraft for reconnaissance.[17] Their attack began with an artillery bombardment at 4:30 am that day, with the infantry assault starting 30 minutes later. Sumana, under heavy fire, positioned a barge to allow the troops to cross the creek with fire support from the stern wheelers. The Ottomans offered stiff resistance but were forced back. [18]

Nunn took Shushan towards Nasiriyah, where white flags were flying, but she was forced to retreat after coming under fire. The Ottomans, however, evacuated the town overnight. On 25 July the leading Arab citizens invited the British to enter the town. Two days later Nunn took Shushan a further 71 miles up the Euphrates to Samawa, a telegraph station whose small garrison had fled after hearing of the fall of Nasiriyah. The Euphrates operation cost the British over 500 dead and wounded, including five sailors wounded. They took 15 guns at Nasiriyah.[19]

The Basra vilayet (province) was now secure and the British should have halted. Townshend and his 6th Division were, however, ordered to advance on Kut-al-Amara, with the intention of taking Baghdad. He argued in his memoirs that this operation should not have taken place. Basra vilayet and the oilfields should have been defended by a force based at Basra, with outposts at Qurna, Nasiriyah and Ahwaz.[20] He was right, but the campaign continued for a number of reasons: the need for a victory somewhere after defeats elsewhere; over confidence by local commanders; and momentum created by a series of easy victories early in the campaign.

 

 

[1] This is a summary of the relevant part of my PhD thesis. M. W. Gibson, ‘British Strategy and Oil 1914-1923.’ (University of Glasgow, 2012), pp. 48-55.

[2] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1921 vol. iv, Naval Operations in Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. p. 52.

[3] Ibid.

[4] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, pp. 18-19.

[5] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 54-55.

[6] Ibid., pp. 55-56.

[7] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 20, footnote 1.

[8] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 56; Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 22

[9] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 57.

[10] Ibid., pp. 56-57.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 23.

[12] Ibid. vol. iii, p. 183.

[13] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 59-60.

[14] Ibid., pp. 61-62.

[15] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), p. 69.

[16] Naval Staff vol. iv. p. 63.

[17] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 70.

[18] Naval Staff vol. iv. pp. 64-65.

[19] Ibid., p. 65.

[20] C. V. F. Townshend, My Campaign in Mesopotamia (London: T. Butterworth Ltd, 1920), pp. 35-36.

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The First British Invasion of Basra, 22 November 1914

At the outbreak of the First World War Britain intended to send three forces from its Indian Army overseas. The largest, Indian Expeditionary Force A, was headed for France. IEF B and C were both to be sent to East Africa, the former to attack German colonies and the latter to defend British ones.

Once it became likely that the Ottoman Empire would enter the war on the side of the Central Powers an additional force, IEF D, was sent to Basra in the Persian Gulf, now part of Iraq but then Ottoman territory. The British in those days normally called modern day Iraq Mesopotamia.

The IEF sailed from India on 16 October. The Royal Navy’s role in the transport of IEF A and C was confined to protecting them from German cruisers by escorting them to their destinations. However, IEF B and D had to land on enemy territory.

IEF B arrived at Tanga in German East Africa (now Tanzania) on 2 November, landing the next day. On 4 November it was defeated by local German forces commanded by Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The defeated troops were re-embarked the next day.

The British Official History of Naval Operations suggests that defeat was owed ‘partly perhaps to insufficient artillery support from the sea.’[1] The expedition was accompanied only by the protected cruiser HMS Fox. The pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Goliath had suffered mechanical problems and the modern light cruisers HMS Chatham, Dartmouth and Weymouth were blockading the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg in the Rufiji River.

IEF D was intended to protect Britain’s interests in the Gulf, the most important of which were the oil refinery on the Persian (now Iranian) island of Abadan at the mouth of the Shatt at Arab river and the pipeline connecting it to the Persian oilfields. The oilfields, pipeline and refinery were owned by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP).

The Royal Navy had gradually switched from coal to oil in the 10 years leading up to the war. By 1914 the light cruisers and battleships under construction were to be fuelled exclusively by oil. This meant that it needed secure supplies, so in 1914 the Admiralty took a 50% stake in APOC and gave it a 20 year supply contract in return for providing the capital needed to develop the Persian oilfields.[2]

Admiral Sir Edmond Slade, the Admiralty’s oil expert, wanted troops to be sent to protect the oilfields:

‘It is…of urgent importance that the troops indicated should be sent at once in order to safeguard our supply of oil…This question of defence has nothing to do with the investment of Government capital in the Company…It is necessary in order to ensure the due supply of oil required for the Fleet.’[3]

On the other hand, Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty was responsible for the deal with APOC, disagreed with Slade, writing on his minute that ‘[t]here is little likelihood of any troops being available for this purpose. Indian forces must be used at the decisive point. We shall have to buy our oil from elsewhere.[4]

Churchill’s reluctance to protect the Persian oil installations appears surprising given his role in the government’s purchase of shares in APOC, but it is consistent with his pre-war opinion. In a 1913 Cabinet memorandum on naval oil supplies he assumed ‘that in time of war money would be no object.’[5] The objective of the APOC contract was to build up an oil reserve of six months’ wartime naval oil consumption relatively cheaply in peacetime.

The oil facilities were very important, but they were not Britain’s only interest in the region. It is now assumed that everything in the Middle East is about oil, but in 1914 General Sir Edmund Barrow, the Military Secretary to the India Office, argued that:

‘troops could be landed on Persian soil at Mohammerah [now Khorramshahr] or at Abadan island, ostensibly to protect the oil installation, but in reality to notify to the Turks that we meant business and to the Arabs that we were ready to support them… With the Arabs on our side a Jihad is impossible, and our Indian frontier is safe from attack.’[6]

Britain then had good relations with a number of Arab rulers who were nominally subjects of the Ottoman Empire but had a fair degree of autonomy. It feared that in a war with the Ottoman Empire the Ottoman Sultan, who was also the Caliph, might call a Jihad, resulting in a revolt by Britain’s Muslim subjects, especially in British India, which included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Despite Churchill’s views IEF D was sent to the Gulf. It initially consisted of the 16th Brigade of the 6th (Poona) Division, commanded by Brigadier-General Walter Delamain.

There were only three small British warships in the region: the sloops HMS Espiègle and Odin of the Cadmus class and the Indian Marine ship Dalhousie. They were too small to deal with SMS Emden, which was known to be in the Indian Ocean, so IEF D was escorted by the pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Ocean, captained by Captain Arthur Hayes-Sadler, who was put in charge of the naval part of the operation.

IEF D reached Bahrain on 28 October. The next day the Ottoman fleet, commanded by the German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, and including the battlecruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau, attacked Russian bases in the Black Sea. On 30 October, Delamain was ordered to proceed to the Shatt-al-Arab and another brigade of the 6th Division, the 18th, was sent to the Gulf. The next day he was warned that war with the Ottoman Empire was imminent.

Lord Crewe, the Secretary of State for India, had given the following instructions to the Indian Government regarding the operation:

‘The intention is to occupy Abadan, with the Force under orders, protect the oil-tanks and pipe-line, cover the landing of reinforcements, in the event of such being necessary, and show the Arabs that our intention is to support then against the Turks.’[7]

The British force reached the sandbar in the estuary of the Shatt-al-Arab on 3 November. Two days later Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The next day the convoy entered the Shatt, apart for Ocean, which was too big to cross the bar. A battery of four guns beside the ruined fort of Fao was quickly silenced by Odin and the position taken by a landing force of 600 men. An Ottoman force appeared near Abadan, but were dispersed by gunfire from Espiègle.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meso-WW1-1.jpg Original Source: http://www.westpoint.edu/history/SiteAssets/SitePages/World%20War%20I/WWOne43.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meso-WW1-1.jpg
Original Source: http://www.westpoint.edu/history/SiteAssets/SitePages/World%20War%20I/WWOne43.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code

Delamain then took the rest of his brigade, two or three miles up the river and landed on the Ottoman side. By 10 November his troops, less a small garrison at Fao, were entrenched in a position that covered the oil refinery. An Ottoman attack on 11 November was beaten off.

The Ottoman telegraph cable from Upper Mesopotamia connected to the British one to Persia and India at Fao. The Ottomans had cut the cable, but the British quickly repaired it.

By 15 November the 18th Brigade and the artillery and divisional troops of the 6th Division had arrived. Its commander, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Barrett, had instructions to take Basra. Intelligence from prisoners indicated that an attack by up to 10 Ottoman battalions was likely. A rapid victory was also likely to impress the Arabs, so Barrett decided to move on Basra quickly.[8]

Delamain’s brigade, plus two batteries of mountain artillery, defeated an Ottoman force at Saihan on 15 November. By the next day all the infantry and cavalry but only part of the artillery was ashore. Barrett decided to advance, with Odin, Espiègle, the armed yacht Lewis Pelly and the armed tug Sirdar-i-Naphte providing fire support from the river.

The main Ottoman force covering the route to Basra was attacked on 19 November at the mud fort at Kut-az-Zain. The Ottomans withdrew once the fort was destroyed by artillery and naval gunfire, but heavy rain turned the ground into a quagmire, meaning that the British cavalry could not turn the retreat into a rout. This action is referred to as being at Sahil by the British Official Histories.[9] “Sahil” is actually the local word for “shore”, so the name probably results from a misunderstanding.[10]

The Ottomans now made an attempt to block the Shatt-al-Arab using a Hamburg-Amerika liner that had been trapped in Basra and a number of smaller vessels. Barrett’s force was dependent on river transport, so this was potentially a very serious setback to his plans

On 19 November Hayes-Sadler went to investigate the obstacle in Espiègle. She came under fire from a shore battery of four 15 pounders, an armed launch and the gunboat Marmariss. Espiègle silenced the shore guns, sank the launch and forced Marmariss to withdrew without being hit herself. It then transpired that the passage was not completely blocked.

The Ottoman forces defending the approach to Basra and the city’s garrison withdrew the next day. By 5 pm on 21 November Espiègle, Odin and the newly arrived Indian Marine ship Lawrence were anchored off Basra’s Custom House. A blank round was fired in order to discourage looters, and naval parties were landed to deal with the fires that they had started. The first infantry arrived on the morning of 22 November.

The next day it was proclaimed that Basra was under British protection. The Sheikh of Kuwait was informed that Britain now recognised his territory as being an independent principality under British protection. The Ottoman Empire claimed it, but the Sheikh had placed himself under British protection by treaty in 1899.

The next stage of the campaign was an advance up river to Qurna, which was taken on 9 December. The initial objectives had then been achieved, but the Mesopotamian Campaign then grew as a result of mission creep. The capture of one place led to claims that somewhere else had to be taken to protect it. Easy early victories led to over confidence and there was a desire for further victories in a war that was going badly.

The lack of railways and roads meant that the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris were vital for communications, meaning that the RN continued to play an important role in this land campaign.

[1] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. i, p. 374.

[2] M. Gibson, ‘”Oil Fuel Will Absolutely Revolutionize Naval Strategy”: The Royal Navy’s Adoption of Oil before the First World War,’ in A Military Transformed? Adaption and Innovation in the British Military, 1792-1945, ed. R. Mahoney, Mitchell, S., LoCicero, M. (Solihull: Helion and Company, 2014), pp. 110-23.

[3] NA, ADM 137/6, ‘Persian Gulf, Part 1, 30 July – 31 October 1914’, 1914.

[4] Ibid.

[5] NA, CAB 37/115/39, ‘Oil Fuel Supply for H.M. Navy’, 1913, p. 5.

[6] Quoted in F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. i, p. 87.

[7] PP, Mesopotamia Commission. Report of the Commission Appointed by Act of Parliament to Enquire into the Operations of War in Mesopotamia, Together with a Separate Report by Commander J. Wedgwood, D.S.O., M.P., and Appendices, HMSO 1917 [Cd. 8610]. p. 12.

[8] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol i, p. 109.

[9] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. i, p. 389; Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. i, p. 120.

[10] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009). This book was originally published in 1967 under the titles The Neglected War in the UK and The Bastard War in the US.

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The Iraq War Part 3 – BBC2

The BBC broadcast the final episode of its three part series on The Iraq War on 12 June. I was away at the time, so have only just watched it. I previously blogged about the first episode, dealing with the build up to the war and the second, which covered its immediate aftermath.

The BBC’s website describes the final episode, titled It’s Hell, Mr President, as follows:

The last episode in this three-part series brings the Iraq story up to date. Tony Blair and Dick Cheney describe how they responded as horrific sectarian violence overtook Iraq. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tells how he and Condoleeza Rice compelled Iraq’s prime minister to resign. Other key insiders reveal how they selected and supported his replacement.

With an exclusive interview with controversial Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, the programme tells how the war ended and why Iraq today faces the worst sectarian violence in five years.

There were still 130,000 US troops in Iraq three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, President George W. Bush made a speech saying that US strategy was that ‘as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.’ By the summer of 2006 this plan looked hopeless.

Meghan O’Sullivan, Bush’s top adviser on Iraq, was told by an Iraqi friend that the US must stay, or else Iraq would descend into mass killings and violence. Bush called a meeting of his Iraq team, telling them that a new strategy was needed. Their hopes lay with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. However, the Americans would soon wonder whether he was the solution or part of the problem.

The majority of Iraqis are Shias, but the Sunni minority had dominated under Saddam. Al Qaeda set out to provoke Shias into attacking Sunnis. On 22 February 2006 a bomb destroyed the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites.

This led to attacks by Shias on Sunnis. Sunnis claimed that the Shia militias killing Sunnis were using government equipment and operating from government buildings. Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaaaferi, the leader of a Shia religious party, was unwilling to take action against Shias, claiming that all the Shias were doing was ‘vent[ing] their feelings.’ Sunnis retaliated, and Jaaferi eventually declared a curfew, which General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq, had called for at the start of the violence.

The USA and UK decided that Jaaferi, who had been democratically elected, had to go. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad to persuaded him to grudgingly accept that he had to go.

The new PM had to be a Shia, but the US was concerned that many of the candidates might be pro-Iran, where most of them whilst in exile from Saddam’s government. They chose Maliki, a relative unknown who had spent his exile in Syria. Bush’s strategy was simply to back Maliki, who took power on 20 May 2006.

However, many other Shia leaders were more popular than Maliki. The strongest militia was the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, who had great support amongst the 3 million Shias living in the slums of the Sadr City district of Baghdad. Its political wing had enough MPs to make or break Maliki’s coalition.

The US attacked the Sadr City militia soon after Maliki took power, but without consulting him. He asked Casey not to launch attacks against certain individuals and al-Sadr’s militia without his permission. He refused to allow an attack despite being shown a video of two innocent people being kidnapped and killed by the militia.

Soon afterwards, al-Qaeda set off a car bomb in Sadr City. A cycle of killing by one side followed by retaliation by the other ensued; 1,855 Baghdad residents had been killed by the end of July. Casey wanted the Iraqi government to restrain the Shia militias. However, Mowaffak Rubaie, Maliki’s National Security Adviser, argued that it was better to let the Shia militias and al-Qaeda fight it out, and then deal with the winner after it had been weakened by the sectarian conflict.

O’Sullivan, who had many contacts in Baghdad, then told Bush that Baghdad was ‘hell.’ Stephen Hadley, Bush’s National Security Adviser, then suggested that the US send more troops, although the US public wanted US troops to be brought home. Bush hesitated because he was uncertain whether or not he could trust Maliki.

According to Hadley the question was whether Maliki was a sectarian or else somebody who wanted to act in the interests of all Iraqis, but lacked the means to do so. Bush flew to Iraq on 30 November 2006 to find out. He offered a ‘troop surge’, but on condition that there was no political interference with targeting of extremists. Maliki accepted this.

20,000 US troops were to be sent, along with a new commander, General David Petraeus. At the same time the 7,000 British troops in Basra were due to leave. Pertraeus flew to London to try and persuade British Prime Minister Tony Blair to keep the British troops in Basra. Blair argued that there was less need for troops in Basra, but Petraeus convinced him that British withdrawal would send the wrong message, so the British troops stayed.

Baghdad had been a city of mainly mixed neighbourhoods, but was becoming divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves. Petraeus  sent troops into the warring districts, but also needed a political solution. His British deputy, General Graeme Lamb, was ordered to find some warring leaders who might be prepared to stop fighting. Some US generals were reluctant to talk to those who had been fighting them, but agreed to try this strategy.

A local Sunni leader, Abu Abed, was unhappy at the way in which al Qaeda had imposed strict Islamic law in his neighbourhood. He approached the Americans to tell them that his men intended to attack al Qaeda. They succeeded in forcing al Qaeda to retreat on the first day, but were then forced back by a counter attack and surrounded. At this point the US (Fifth) Cavalry appeared and defeated the al Qaeda forces

Abu Abed and other Sunni leaders agreed to co-operate with the US. Petraeus wanted Maliki to include them in the Iraqi security forces, but Maliki was sceptical, wanting to know who the volunteers were. The Americans had taken DNA tests, finger prints and retina scans from the volunteers so that they would know who they were.

Those volunteers who had been al-Qaeda foot soldiers were able to provide intelligence on the leadership, allowing the US to target it hard core. Sectarian killing began to fall in September 2007, and Maliki agreed that 20% of the Sunni volunteers could join the Iraqi security forces. He also took control of senior appointments in the security forces, and had the special forces report directly to him.

In early 2008 al Sadr’s Mahdi Army took control of Basra after British troops left. On 22 March Maliki told Petraeus that he intended to take personal command of an attack on Basra. Petraeus said that it would take six months to organise the assault, but Maliki said that he would go ahead, and required only air transport from the Americans.

The Mahdi Army beat off the government forces. Petraeus said that there was some doubt as to whether Maliki should receive full US support since he had taken such a rash decision. However, Bush thought that this was the Iraqis stepping up, and ordered Petraeus to support him. The US sent attack helicopters and armed drones to support the Iraqis, who had no air power.

Maliki’s forces, with US air support, took Basra. He gave al-Sadr an ultimatum to either disband the Mahdi Army or else be banned from future elections. Al Sadr agreed to a ceasefire.

Maliki, having defeated both his Shia and the Sunni opponents, now asked Bush to set a date for US departure, which he agreed to do.

However, Maliki’s political opponents claimed that he was using his security services and the police against them in the to intimidate them ahead of the next election. Ayad Allawi, a former Prime Minister, formed al Iraqiya, a coalition of non-sectarian and Sunni parties, to oppose Maliki. In February 2010, weeks ahead of the election, 66 of its candidates were disqualified on the grounds that they had links to Saddam’s regime.

Despite the intimidation al Iraqiya won two seats more than Maliki’s supporters in the March 2010 election. Maliki demanded a recount, but it did not change the result. It was agreed that Maliki would remain Prime Minister, with Al Iraqiya receiving three senior cabinet posts, including Saleh Mutlaq as Deputy Prime Minister

However, Maliki did not implement the power sharing agreement, leading to street protests. 23 protestors were killed and more than 600 Sunnis were arrested, as was the head of the electoral commission. Maliki blamed continuing terrorism on Sunni leaders who, he alleged, wanted to bring back Saddam’s regime.

President Barack Obama’s new US administration backed Maliki, claiming that he headed a democratic Iraq, with its ‘most inclusive government yet.’ Saleh Mutlaq, the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, told Obama that he was ‘dreaming.’ He also said that Iraq had a ‘one man, one party show’ and that Maliki was a dictator. Two days after making these comments his house and those of two other Iraqiya ministers were surrounded by troops commanded by Maliki’s son.

One of the three, Vice President Tariq Hashimi, was under suspicion of terrorism. Petraeus, now Director of the CIA, flew to Baghdad. He pointed out that only Sunnis, and not Shias, were being arrested. Hashimi fled the country, and was convicted of orchestrating murder and sentenced to death, five times, in his absence. The bodyguards of al Iraqiya leaders were arrested. Under interrogation they implicated their bosses in terrorism; one of the bodyguards died in custody.

Sunnis returned to the streets to protest. Maliki sent in troops, who fired on the protestors. Sunni extremists attacked police and soldiers. In April 2013, the tenth anniversary of Saddam’s fall, 700 Iraqis died in sectarian violence, the worst month for five years. Maliki banned journalists from 10 TV channels including al Jazeera.

The Iraq War and its aftermath have led to 170,000 deaths. The result seems to be the replacement of a Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, with a Shia one, Nouri Maliki.

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The Iraq War Part 2 – BBC2

Last night the BBC broadcast the second episode in its three part series on the Iraq War. The first episode, shown last week, dealt with the decisions that led to war. The BBC website describes this one, titled After the Fall, as follows:

In After the Fall, part two of this three-part series, key insiders describe the chaotic aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney and Colin Powell come to blows over America’s role as occupying power. General David Petraeus recalls the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi army. The representative of Grand Ayatollah Sistani – Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric – tells how Sistani forced the Americans into agreeing to elections in Iraq. One of the greatest challenges came from Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. America and the new Iraqi government were able to defeat Sadr militarily, but it set the stage for sectarian war.

Disappointingly Powell and Cheney came to blows verbally, rather than physically.

The original Coalition administrator in Iraq was Jay Garner, a retired US general. He had been involved in the establishment of a safe zone in Kurdistan, so was popular with the Kurds. He regarded himself as a facilitator who would quickly hand over power to Iraqis.

Many Iraqis welcomed the US army into Baghdad, but some, including Sheikh Mahdi Sumaidaie, a Sunni cleric, resisted. Most waited to see if the Coalition would act as liberators or occupiers.

Garner arranged a meeting between Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, Barham Salih and Massoud Barzani, and some of Saddam opponents who had just returned from exile: Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister who had been in exile for 35 years. Ahmed Chalabi, who returned with a private army, and Dr Mowaffah Rubaie, a Shia. The meeting established a Governing Council.

Garner was concerned about the vacuum at the top, which resulted in a lack of essential services and an inability to stop looting. Some locals formed vigilante groups to defend their neighbourhoods and hospitals from looters. He wanted to form an Iraqi administration as soon as possible.

President George W. Bush, however, was nervous that he had the wrong team in Baghdad even as he declared combat operations to be over on 1 May 2003. Garner had thought that he had three months, but Bush decided to accelerate the change to a civilian administrator: Jerry Bremer.

Bremer told the Governing Council that it was not representative of Iraqis as it included no women, Christians or Turkomans, and that he possessed full executive, legislative and judicial authority. Rubaie said that this meant that Bremer was a Viceroy, and Iraq was under real occupation.

There was a dispute on the US National Security Council when it debated the speed of change. Secretary of State Colin Powell wanted a slow move towards Iraqi rule, arguing that the Coalition did not know who to turn power over to and that any Iraqi administration would need Coalition forces to maintain security. Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a quicker change. Bush leaned towards Powell and Bremer’s preference for a slow move.

Bremer authorised payments of about six months salary to Iraqi civil servants, but nothing was paid to soldiers, who had not been paid since February.

A group of Iraqi general staff officers approached Colonel Paul Hughes of the Coalition staff. They warned him that there would be trouble if the soldiers were not paid. Hughes took their concerns to Walt Slocombe, the US adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. Slocombe thought that the Iraqi soldiers had a nerve asking the Coalition to pay them money owed by Saddam. He argued that there was a need to get rid of Saddam’s institutions, and that a new army should be build from scratch.

Before the war Bush had approved a plan to use the Iraqi army as a national reconstruction force. It was thought to be too dangerous to demobilise all the soldiers at once, and they had been promised that they would be looked after if they surrendered. According to Frank Miller, his  Special Assistant, Bush now said that he would leave it up to ‘the guy on the ground.’

No Coalition troops were killed by hostile forces in the week before the Iraqi army was disbanded; five were killed the next week. General David Petraeus, then commanding the 101st Airborne Division, said that it was getting worse week by week. He bluntly told Slocombe that his policies were killing Coalition soldiers. Iraqi soldiers had to be given the means of feeding their families.

US troops opened fire on a protest on 18 June after stone throwing by Iraqis. Bremer announced five days later that payments would be made to soldiers, but it was too late. Attacks worsened and showed clear signs of being carried out by professionals.

The USA was not surprised to be opposed by the Sunni minority, which lost the privileges that it had enjoyed under Saddam. It had expected to be welcomed by the Shia majority; a revolt by them would mean serious trouble. Hajaf, their religious centre, was more important than Baghdad in the eyes of many Shias, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani was very influential.

A Brazilian UN diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello, was sent to Iraq as a mediator. Sistani was unwilling to meet Americans, but did meet de Mello. Sistani’s aide Ahmed Safi said that Sistani insisted that any constitution had to protect Iraqi interests and religious principles. It must be written and approved by elected Iraqis.

Bremer insisted that it was impossible to hold elections because the necessary mechanisms were not in place. Only de Mello appeared to be able to mediate, but he was killed on 19 August, along with 21 other UN employees, when the UN headquarters in Baghdad was destroyed by a suicide bomber. Al Qaeda later claimed responsibility.

On 8 September Bremer published a blueprint for the future without consulting anybody, not even Bush. It proposed a two-year process of writing a constitution, approving it in a referendum and holding elections. He was told that he had to hand over power by 30 June 2004.

Bremer did not have time to organise elections, so came up with a scheme based the US caucus system. Locally appointed councils would select the government. The Governing Council, unfamiliar with the caucus system, rejected the idea. Millions of Shias were alienated. Muqtada al-Sadr, the rising Shia star, insisted that the USA must leave.

In March 20o4 four US contractors were killed in the Sunni city of Fallujah and their bodies desecrated. The US Marines retaliated, resulting in heavy civilian casualties before their attack was stopped. Three weeks later it was revealed that US troops were mistreating Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.

Bremer was forced to appoint a government. He initially wanted Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia, to be Defence Minister, but appointed him Prime Minister after meeting him. Allawi’s government took control on 28 June.

On 6 August Sistani flew to London for medical treatment. Al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army then took control of Najaf and its holy shrines. Allawi summoned General George Casey, the Coalition military commander in Iraq. This was an opportunity for the new government to show that it was in control. An attack was launched; it included some Iraqi forces, but the main firepower came from the US Marines.

Sunnis joined the Shias. They took heavy casualties, including a hand wound for Al-Sadr, but were outgunned. However, they continued to hold the Golden Mosque. The risk of damage to it led the government to send Rubaie to negotiate. Al-Sadr refused to meet him, but sent a leading cleric to negotiate on his behalf. A ceasefire was agreed, but it required government and Coalition forces to leave Najaf and not return.

This was unacceptable to the rest of the government, which insisted that the Mahdi Army must be disbanded or it would resume the offensive. At this point Sistani returned and it was agreed that the Shia hierarchy would settle the matter.

Al-Sadr formed a political party, and helped the Shias to win an election five months later. The third and final programme next week deals with the war between Shias and Sunnis.

An interesting programme, which showed that the USA (the other Coalition partners played little role in this episode) went to war without a clear plan of what to do after it had won. Those plans that it had were quickly changed. It seemed to be assumed that the Iraqis, at least the Shias, would be so grateful to have been liberated from Saddam that they would be happy to be ruled by the Coalition for a short period. The difficulties of how to organise elections, how to write a constitution and what to do with the army were ignored.

For UK viewers the programme is available on the I-Player until 9:59pm on 19 June, the usual one week after the last episode. There was a lengthy list of co-producers, who will presumably show it in their home markets.

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The Iraq War – BBC2

On 29 May 2013 BBC2 broadcast the first of a three part series on The Iraq War, billed as being ‘The inside story of the war in Iraq’. The description of the first episode, titled ‘Regime Change’, from the BBC website says that:

The people at the top of the CIA and Saddam’s foreign minister describe just how the US and Britain got it so wrong about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction before the invasion.

Tony Blair recounts how he flew to President Bush’s private retreat at Camp David to go head to head with Vice President Dick Cheney. Colin Powell explains how he came to make his disastrous presentation to the United Nations. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw describes how he – and even President Bush himself – tried to persuade Tony Blair that to join in the invasion was political suicide.

As well as Cheney, Powell, Blair, Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, interviewees included more junior British, French and US officials; Kurdish leaders such as Jalal Talabani, Leader, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Barham Salih, Prime Minister Kurdish Region and Massoud Barzani, Leader Kurdistan Democratic Party; and Iraqis including Salim Jomaili  of the Secret Service, Republican Guard General Raad Hamdani, Foreign Secretary Naji Sabri, UN Ambassador Mohammed Douri and General Hussam Amin, Iraqi liaison to UN weapons inspectors;

Jomaili said that, just after 9/11, the USA asked Iraq, via what was described as ‘a trusted emissary, to help in the War on Terror against Al Qaeda. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz agreed, but President Saddam Hussein argued that UN sanctions against Iraq were also terrorism, and had killed far more than died on 9/11. Jomaili said that USA thought that Iraq was playing games and dropped its request. He also argued that Saddam’s regime was opposed to religious extremists, so did not support Al Qaeda.

After the Afghan Taleban were deposed in early 2002 Cheney turned his attention to what he thought was the next likely source of terror: Iraq. He asked CIA if it was possible to organise a coup. Luis Rueda, the CIA’s Chief of Iraq Operations, explained in the programme that he told Cheney that this was impossible because Saddam had crushed all internal opposition.

The USA therefore turned to the Kurds for intelligence. They had helped the USA in the past, but had suffered as a consequence. They said that it was impossible to remove the regime without external help, and would not be left stranded again.

The USA feared that Saddam would supply Al-Qaeda with nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) weapons of mass destruction (WMD). His army had already used chemical weapons against both Iran and his internal opponents.

In the UK Blair supported the USA, but faced domestic problems. Alastair Campbell, his Head of Communications, said that the head of the Secret Intelligence Service had returned from a trip to the USA believing that war with Iraq was a matter of when, not if. Straw thought that there were two issues: to support the US desire for regime change or just to force Saddam to comply with UN resolutions? Blair thought that the separation was unreal, as Saddam would not comply. Straw pointed out that the UK considered that going to war just to change the regime was illegal.

In Iraq, Hamdani warned Saddam that there was a real risk of war, and that Iraqi weapons were obsolete. He risked his life by trying to point out these home truths to Saddam. However, Saddam, whilst dismissing his fears, took no action against him.

Powell was worried that Bush was being pushed into war; all his briefings were on military operations. Powell thought that the USA needed allies, so convinced Bush to seek new a UN Security Council resolution. Cheney was unhappy; he thought that Saddam was good at deception, and made a public speech criticising the idea of weapons inspectors.

Powell, lacking US allies, looked to the UK, meeting Straw to try to form a coalition. The UK regarded war without another UN resolution as being illegal, and could not have obtained a Parliamentary majority for it.

Blair thought that the UK had to be clear to the USA that it was a firm ally, not a fair weather friend, but would have been in an impossible position if Bush had supported Cheney. However, the President opted for a UN resolution.

Amin said that Saddam thought that the USA and UK would never be satisfied so played for time. Most governments thought that Saddam was lying when he denied having WMD. He had kept some after the Gulf War because he feared an attack by Iran, but later had them destroyed as he was afraid that they would be found. All paperwork relating to them was also destroyed, in case it was later found.

The CIA conducted a global search for evidence about WMD. At one point it thought wrongly that Iraqi Foreign Minister Sabri wanted to defect; see the blog entry on The Spies Who Fooled the World, a previous BBC documentary, for more on this part of the story.

In the UK opposition to the war and demands for more information were rising. Blair presented a dossier prepared by the intelligence services to Parliament; it included the infamous and now discredited claim that Iraq could launch WMD within 45 minutes. Blair admitted that he now wishes that he had just published the intelligence reports.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution  giving Iraq 30 days to prove the absence of WMD unanimously. A 12,000 word Iraqi report was not enough for the USA, according to Stephen Hadley, the  Deputy National Security Adviser.

Bush asked the CIA for the intelligence case for war, and was told by CIA Director George Tenet, who did not appear in the programme, that it was a ‘slam dunk.’ The US case was to be presented to the UN by Powell. He complained that he lacked back up for the assertions made, and was given only the WMD case, not the human rights or terrorism ones. However, Bush had already made up his mind.

One apparently key piece of evidence was a recorded conversation in which Hamdani appeared to tell a subordinate to hide his units’ chemical weapons. Hamdani said that he was only making sure there was no trace of old chemical launchers for the UN to find.

There were huge anti-war demonstrations in 60 countries one weekend in February, including one of a million people in London. Blair needed a second UN Security Council resolution, but Cheney thought that this was a sign of weakness. Hadley said that Bush thought that it was important to go the extra mile for an ally.

The French, according to de Villepin thought that there was not enough evidence to go to war. President Jacques Chirac met Russian President Vladimir Putin and de Villepin met Powell, who said to him ‘don’t underestimate our determination.’ Chirac announced soon afterwards that France would veto the resolution.

The Labour Party whips estimated that half of their MPs would vote against was or abstain without a second resolution. Hadley said that Bush would have preferred the UK dropping out of the coalition to Blair having to resign. However, Blair said that he would prefer to have quit as PM than to have backed down; see the BBC website for an extract from the programme.

The Labour leadership managed to persuade two-thirds of their MPs to back war, enough the vote for war to be passed in the House of Commons with Conservative support. Straw adopted the old British policy of blaming the French; he told Labour MPs that the USA and UK had been forced into war by the French veto as a Security Council Resolution backed by the threat of war would have forced Saddam to stand down.

Three of Saddam’s security team were spying for CIA. They reported that he was at palace on banks of Tigris as war was about to start, giving the USA an opportunity to decapitate the enemy and perhaps win without serious fighting. There was a nightmare that it was disinformation, and some other target such a school would be hit. Cheney recommended taking the chance, and Bush decided to strike as soon as the deadline had expired. Initial reports said that a body resembling Saddam had been taken out of the rubble, but it was not him.

As war was about to start, Saddam told the Republican Guard to go to Palestine to liberate Jerusalem from Israel after they had defeated the USA; ‘a fantasy, a dream’ according to Hamdani. He asked Saddam’s son Qusay if Iraq did have WMD. He was worried that chemical weapons might blow back onto his own troops, but was told ‘don’t worry, we don’t.’

The programme is available for UK viewers on the I-Player until 19 June. The second episode next week recounts how the USA and UK won the war, but lost the peace.

There were a number of co-producers, who will presumably show the programme in their markets: National Geographic, Canal+, NHK, ABC, SVT, NRK, RDI/Radio-Canada, VPRO, DRTV, TVP.

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The Spies Who Fooled the World – BBC

On 18 March 2013, the BBC broadcast a documentary called The Spies Who Fooled the World as part of its Panorama current affairs series. The spies in question were those whose claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were used by the UK and US governments to justify the invasion of Iraq 10 years ago. Other sources that showed that Iraq did not have WMD were rejected because their intelligence did not fit the views of the UK and US governments.

The programme was presented by Peter Taylor, who has made many programmes about terrorism and espionage, including Modern Spies last year.

The most important source for the existence of Iraq WMD was Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, code-named Curveball, an Iraqi who claimed political asylum in Germany in 1999. He claimed to be a chemical engineer who had worked at an agricultural seed plant. According to him, mobile laboratories capable of producing biological and chemical weapons were based there.

August Hanning, then Director of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), and Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, told the programme that the Germans were sceptical about al-Janabi’s claims and had cut their links with him by the start of 2001.

For example, satellite photos showed that an articulated lorry could not get out of the warehouse that he said the mobile labs operated from. A friend and former boss of al-Janabi described him as a congenital liar. Al-Janabi admitted on the programme that he made up his claims.

After 9/11, however, President George W. Bush erroneously linked Saddam Hussein with Al-Qaeda. Curveball’s intelligence was too useful to the US case to dismiss it. There were some doubts within the CIA and MI6 about him, but his claims were accepted. The programme quoted an MI6 report as saying that:

 Elements of [his] behaviour strike us as typical of individuals we would normally assess as fabricators [but we are] inclined to believe that a significant part of [Curveball’s] reporting is true.

Further intelligence came from an Iraqi defector, Major Muhammad Harith, who claimed that the mobile labs were his idea and were mounted on seven Renault trucks. The Americans became suspicious of his story because it was elaborate and unbelievable. He was branded as a fabricator in mid 2002, but his claims remained on record.

Further intelligence appeared to show that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons. Rocco Martino, who had dealings with the Italian and other intelligence services, provided Elisabetta Burba, a journalist who appeared in the programme, with documents that purported to show that Iraq was attempting to buy uranium from Niger. An Iraqi ambassador had visited Niger in 1999, but most of these papers were crude forgeries. Martino’s family said that he was too ill to comment.

An interview with the late Dr Brian Jones, a WMD expert at British Defence Intelligence, was shown in which he said that Saddam had sought nuclear weapons, but there was no suggestion that he had acquired them or was close to doing so. However, the alleged attempt remained on UK and US files.

In April 2002, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met Bush at his ranch in Texas and agreed to support military action against Iraqi WMD if the UN route had been exhausted. In July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, told Blair that war with Iraq was seen as being inevitable in Washington as information and intelligence was being fixed round the policy. Dearlove was invited to appear on the programme, but said that he did not want to comment on the subject until the current Chilcot Inquiry into the war has concluded. Blair was too busy to participate.

Pierre Brochand, then Director of the French Foreign Intelligence Service (DGSE), said that intelligence was used to disguise a war of choice as a war of necessity.

In July 2002, Blair was told by Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, that public opinion was ‘fragile’ and a ‘Rolls-Royce’ information campaign was required to convince the British public of the necessity for war.

MI6 received three new pieces of information whilst preparing  a dossier on WMD that would be published on 24 September.

Iraqi WMD could be launched within 45 minutes. This came from the Iraqi National Accord, a group of Iraqi exiles based in Jordan. According to Dr Ayad Allawi of the INA, the source was an Iraqi artillery Colonel, who was assuming that boxes delivered to his unit contained biological or chemical weapons without knowing for certain. His claim that they could be deployed within 45 minutes referred to short range battlefield weapons, but the report applied it to longer range strategic missiles.

The other two new sources were too late to actually be included in the dossier, but reinforced its case. The first was a spy with access to the production of chemical and biological agents. The other was a spy called Red River, who produced hearsay evidence of mobile chemical labs, but made no claim connecting them to WMD.

Blair regarded the dossier as making it beyond doubt that Saddam had WMD. Lord Butler, who headed the first British inquiry into WMD, said that Blair did not lie, but misled himself. General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of the General Staff at the time,  said that ‘what appeared to be gold in terms of intelligence turned out to be fool’s gold,
because it looked like gold, but it wasn’t.’  Butler and Jackson both argued that Blair was not a liar, but genuinely thought that Saddam had WMD.

The Bush Administration wanted to use Curveball’s evidence to make their case. August Hanning of the BND sent a cable to George Tenet, Director of the CIA, warning that this intelligence was uncorroborated. The CIA claims that it never left the desk of Tyler Drumheller, then head of its European section; Drumheller stated in the programme that he had passed it on.

In early 2003, two pieces of intelligence that claimed that Iraq did not have WMD came to light. French intelligence had a key intermediary, an Arab journalist who knew several Iraqi ministers, including the Foreign Minister, Naji Sabri. . They passed him onto Bill Murray, the CIA’s Paris station chief. The Arab wanted $1m for his information, but Murray beat him down to $200,000, including expenses. The expenses included a new suit for Sabri; he was to wear it when making a speech to the UN in order to prove that the intermediary was genuine.

Murray said that Sabri told the CIA via the intermediary that Saddam was interested in acquiring WMD, but then had only a few chemical weapons left over from the 1990s. Sabri did not appear on the programme, but issued a denial that he had provided information to the CIA. The intermediary was invited to participate, but did not do so because the BBC refused to pay him the €10,000 that he wanted in return.

Murray said that his report on Sabri’s testimony was used selectively. He argued that very bad intelligence reached the leadership quickly, whilst better intelligence did not make it.

The other source was Tahir Habbush al-Tikriti, head of Iraqi intelligence. He met an MI6 officer in Jordan, telling him that Iraq had no WMD. MI6 thought that both these pieces of intelligence were dis-information, designed to  mislead. Tahir is the most senior member of Saddam’s regime to still be at liberty.

On 5 February 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell put forward the case for Iraq having WMD. Joschka Fischer presided over the meeting. In the programme, he said that Powell claimed things that he could not be certain of to be facts.

No WMD were found after the war. Red River, the MI6 spy, failed a lie detector test. The 45 minute claim was dropped. In April 2004 the CIA and MI6 met Curveball and declared him to be a fabricator. Tenet resigned from the CIA a week later. Curveball admitted on the programme that the US/UK coalition went to war on a lie.

Overall, it is clear that the war was launched on faulty intelligence. At best, it may be said that the US and UK governments started with a view about Saddam and WMD and rejected intelligence that did not fit with this preconceived notion. All evidence has to be considered, not just that which confirms what one wants to hear.

For viewers in the UK, the programme is available on the I-Player from this link, which says that it is available until 18 March 2014, far longer than programmes normally stay on the I-Player. It was made jointly with ZDF of Germany.

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