March 9, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Posted in Arabs, History, Middle East, United Kingdom | Leave a comment









Cairo Conference of March 1921

The Cairo Conference was convened by Winston Churchill, then Britain’s colonial secretary.

With the mandates of Palestine and Iraq awarded to Britain at the San Remo Conference (1920), Churchill wished to consult with Middle East experts, and at his request, Gertrude Bell, Sir Percy Cox, T. E. Lawrence, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis, Sir Arnold T. Wilson, Iraqi minister of war Ja’far alAskari, Iraqi minister of finance Sasun Effendi (Sasson Heskayl), and others gathered in Cairo, Egypt, in March 1921. The two most significant decisions of the conference were to offer the throne of Iraq to Amir Faisal ibn Hussein (who became Faisal I) and the emirate of Transjordan (now Jordan) to his brother Abdullah I ibn Hussein. Furthermore, the British garrison in Iraq would be substantially reduced and replaced by air force squadrons, with a major base at Habbaniyya. The conference provided the political blueprint for British administration in both Iraq and Transjordan, and in offering these two regions to the Hashemite sons of Sharif Husayn ibn Ali of the Hijaz, Churchill believed that the spirit, if not the letter, of Britain’s wartime promises to the Arabs would be fulfilled.


Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace. New York: H. Holt, 1989.

Klieman, Aaron S. Foundations of British Policy in the Arab World: The Cairo Conference of 1921. London: Johns Hopkins, 1970.

At the Cairo Conference of March 1921, the British set the parameters for Iraqi political life that were to continue until the 1958 revolution; they chose a Hashemite, Faisal ibn Husayn, son of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali former Sharif of Mecca as Iraq’s first King; they established an Iraqi army (but kept Assyrian Levies under direct British command); and they proposed a new treaty. To confirm Faisal as Iraq’s first monarch, a one-question plebiscite was carefully arranged that had a return of 96 percent in his favor. The British saw in Faisal a leader who possessed sufficient nationalist and Islamic credentials to have broad appeal, but who also was vulnerable enough to remain dependent on their support. Faisal traced his descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad. His ancestors held political authority in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since the tenth century. The British believed these credentials would satisfy traditional Arab standards of political legitimacy; moreover, the British thought Faisal would be accepted by the growing Iraqi nationalist movement because of his role in the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Turks, his achievements as a leader of the Arab emancipation movement, and his general leadership qualities. Faisal was instated as the Monarch of Iraq after the Naquib of Baghdad was disqualified as being too old (80 yrs) and Sayid Talib (a prominent Iraqi from the province of Basra) was deported on trumped up charges by the British. The voting was far from a reflection of the true feelings of the Iraqi people. Nevertheless, Faisal was considered the most effective choice for the throne by the British government.

The final major decision taken at the Cairo Conference related to the new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1922. Faisal was under pressure from the nationalists and the anti-British mujtahids of Najaf and Karbala to limit both British influence in Iraq and the duration of the treaty. Recognizing that the monarchy depended on British support— and wishing to avoid a repetition of his experience in Syria — Faisal maintained a moderate approach in dealing with Britain. The treaty which had been originally set as a twenty year engagement but later reduced to 4 years, was ratified in June 1924, stated that the king would heed British advice on all matters affecting British interests and on fiscal policy as long as Iraq had a balance of payments deficit with Britain, and that British officials would be appointed to specified posts in eighteen departments to act as advisers and inspectors. A subsequent financial agreement, which significantly increased the financial burden on Iraq, required Iraq to pay half the cost of supporting British resident officials, among other expenses. British obligations under the new treaty included providing various kinds of aid, notably military assistance, and proposing Iraq for membership in the League of Nations at the earliest moment. In effect, the treaty ensured that Iraq would remain politically and economically dependent on Britain. While unable to prevent the treaty, Faisal clearly felt that the British had gone back on their promises to him.

On 1 October 1922 the Royal Air Force in Iraq was reorganized as RAF Iraq Command which was given control of all British forces in the kingdom.[1]

The British decision at the Cairo Conference to establish an indigenous Iraqi army was significant. In Iraq, as in most of the developing world, the military establishment has been the best organized institution in an otherwise weak political system. Thus, while Iraq’s body politic crumbled under immense political and economic pressure throughout the monarchic period, the military gained increasing power and influence; moreover, because the officers in the new army were by necessity Sunnis who had served under the Ottomans, while the lower ranks were predominantly filled by Shia tribal elements, Sunni dominance in the military was preserved.

Oil concession

Before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the British-controlled Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) had held concessionary rights to the Mosul wilaya (province). Under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement — an agreement in 1916 between Britain and France that delineated future control of the Middle East — the area would have fallen under French influence. In 1919, however, the French relinquished their claims to Mosul under the terms of the Long-Berenger Agreement. The 1919 agreement granted the French a 25 percent share in the TPC as compensation.

Beginning in 1923, British and Iraqi negotiators held acrimonious discussions over the new oil concession. The major obstacle was Iraq’s insistence on a 20 percent equity participation in the company; this figure had been included in the original TPC concession to the Turks and had been agreed upon at San Remo for the Iraqis. In the end, despite strong nationalist sentiments against the concession agreement, the Iraqi negotiators acquiesced to it. The League of Nations was soon to vote on the disposition of Mosul, and the Iraqis feared that, without British support, Iraq would lose the area to Turkey. In March 1925, an agreement was concluded that contained none of the Iraqi demands. The TPC, now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), was granted a full and complete concession for a period of seventy-five years.

Later years of the mandate

With the signing of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty and the settling of the Mosul question, Iraqi politics took on a new dynamic. The emerging class of Sunni and Shia landowning tribal sheikhs vied for positions of power with wealthy and prestigious urban-based Sunni families and with Ottoman-trained army officers and bureaucrats. Because Iraq’s newly established political institutions were the creation of a foreign power, and because the concept of democratic government had no precedent in Iraqi history, the politicians in Baghdad lacked legitimacy and never developed deeply rooted constituencies. Thus, despite a constitution and an elected assembly, Iraqi politics was more a shifting alliance of important personalities and cliques than a democracy in the Western sense. The absence of broadly based political institutions inhibited the early nationalist movement’s ability to make deep inroads into Iraq’s diverse social structure.

The new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was signed in June 1930. It provided for a “close alliance,” for “full and frank consultations between the two countries in all matters of foreign policy,” and for mutual assistance in case of war. Iraq granted the British the use of air bases near Basra and at Al Habbaniyah and the right to move troops across the country. The treaty, of twenty-five years’ duration, was to come into force upon Iraq’s admission to the League of Nations. This occurred on October 3, 1932.

British High Commissioners to the Kingdom of Iraq

Further reading

  • Barker, A. J. The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York: Enigma Books, 2009). ISBN 978-1-929631-86-5
  • Eskander, Saad. “Southern Kurdistan under Britain’s Mesopotamian Mandate: From Separation to Incorporation, 1920–23,” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no. 2 (2001)
  • Fieldhouse, David K. Western Imperialism in the Middle East, 1914–1958 (2006)* Fisk, Robert. The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, (2nd ed. 2006),
  • Jacobsen, Mark. “‘Only by the Sword’: British Counterinsurgency in Iraq,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 2, no. 2 (1991): 323–63.
  • Simons, Geoff. Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam (2nd ed. 1994)
  • Sluglett, Peter. Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, 1914–1932 (2nd ed. 2007)
  • Vinogradov, Amal. “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3, no. 2 (1972): 123–39


1. R. M. Douglas, “Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?” Journal of Modern History Dec. 2009, Vol. 81, No. 4: 859-887. online concludes “no”–that no chemical weapons or gas was actually used.


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