Before Britain formally granted Iraq its independence in 1932, it had ensured that its influence over the country would remain strong and that its strategic interests would be safeguarded. Crucially, the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, signed two years previously in 1930, had secured Britain’s control over Iraq’s enormous petroleum resources. However, Iraq’s importance in the British imperial system was not limited to its oil reserves; it also occupied a vital geographic position as an air-link and alternative land route between India and the British mandate of Palestine and the Suez Canal in Egypt. Accordingly, the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty guaranteed Britain’s right to move its troops through Iraqi territory without restriction and use of all Iraq’s facilities and infrastructure in the event of war. Furthermore, it ensured that Iraq’s military advisers and suppliers would all remain British and that the RAF would maintain its two air bases on Iraqi soil, one at Habbaniya (around fifty-five miles west of Baghdad) and the other at Shaibah, near Basra. The treaty, therefore, was an obvious and significant imposition on the supposed sovereignty of the Iraqi state, and unsurprisingly it became a source of serious resentment within the country.
As the 1930s progressed, the German and Italian governments – as part of a broader campaign of propaganda focused on the Middle East and North Africa – sought to exploit this resentment in order to further pro-Axis sentiment in Iraq and to increase public anger towards Britain’s dominant position in the region. Between 1939 and 1945, the German government broadcast Arabic language programmes to the Middle East and North Africa seven days a week. These broadcasts portrayed the Nazi regime as staunch supporters of anti-imperialism, especially against Britain. They became so popular that even in relatively peripheral areas of the Arab world, such as Sharjah, large crowds gathered by the ruler’s palace to listen to them, and pro-German graffiti was scrawled on walls in the town.
In Iraq, the work of the German Ambassador in Baghdad, Fritz Grobba was particularly effective. This propaganda was one of the key factors that led a group of influential Iraqi military officers known as the ‘Golden Square’ to adopt a decidedly pro-Axis stance, and become convinced that the Axis powers were going to win the looming confrontation.
Upon the outbreak of war, Iraq – under the leadership of the pro-British Prime Minister Nuri al-Said and the Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah – agreed to sever diplomatic relations with Germany and fulfil its wartime obligations to Britain according to the stipulations of the 1930 Treaty. However, after Germany’s initial victories and Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940, it appeared even more likely that the Axis powers would be victorious. This led to an intensification of the split between those in Iraq who believed that it should continue to fulfil its treaty obligations to Britain and support the war effort, and those who believed that Britain was rapidly becoming a lost cause. In mid-1940, a disagreement arose between Britain and Iraq concerning British troop movements through the country, and a proposal for Iraq to sever diplomatic relations with Italy put forward by Nuri al-Said was vetoed by his cabinet. It was in this environment that the British Embassy in Baghdad carried out a campaign of propaganda in a concerted effort to halt the growing pro-German and Italian sentiment in Iraq.
A Foreign Office file from 1941 (FO 371/27101) held at the UK National Archives in Kew reveals a fascinating and surprising example of the type of propaganda material that the British Embassy disseminated during this period. The file contains two original copies of hand-outs that were distributed by the Embassy that initially appear to simply be two cartoons, one depicting four jackals and the other four pigs. However, once folded in a certain way, the animals come together to form caricature-like images of the faces of the Italian and German fascist leaders, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, in a clear attempt to belittle and mock them in the eyes of Iraqis.
Interestingly, despite reports of their widespread popularity, the British Ambassador in Iraq, Basil Newton, subsequently decided to withdraw the cartoons and to stop their circulation. Writing to his superior at the Foreign Office in London, Sir Horace Seymour, in February 1941, Newton argued that he believed that “while they [the cartoons] might amuse they would hardly convince,” and therefore it would be better for the Embassy “not to be associated with propaganda of that type for fear of depreciating the value of other propaganda”. Newton observed that pigs and jackals were “particularly unclean animals in Muslim countries,” and stated that he was not opposed to the “distribution of cartoons to suit all tastes” but rather to “the association of this Embassy with cartoons below a certain level”.
A series of hand-written notes in the file reveal that Newton’s decision was not welcomed by his colleagues at the Foreign Office and Ministry of Information in London. P. M. Crosthwaite of the Foreign Office’s Eastern Department commented that “the uncleanliness of the pig and the jackal was the whole point of the cartoons,” and argued that “as the cartoons were in demand, it seems a pity they should have been withdrawn”. Crosthwaite suggested that the cartoons could be distributed by “channels divorced from the embassy,” and clarified that “we never of course meant them to be a part of our official propaganda!”
Another Foreign Official concurred, stating that “so long as they are not directly traceable to us they seem to me useful propaganda”. Crosthwaite’s stance was supported by Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams, the Director of Middle East Propaganda at the Ministry of Information, who approved plans to distribute the cartoons covertly and not directly through the British Embassy.
Despite the cartoons’ supposed popularity, two months later, in April 1941, a coup d’etat led by a pro-Axis group of military officers known as the ‘Golden Square’ overthrew the pro-British government of Nuri al-Said and the Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah. Subsequently, armed confrontation broke out between British forces and the Iraqi military and British forces re-occupied the country. This military occupation lasted until 1947 when British troops withdrew. However, British influence in Iraq remained significant until the revolution of 1958, which overthrew the British-installed Hashemite monarchy permanently and declared a Republic.
Louis Allday, 15th December 2014