- Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq by Ashley Jackson
Despite innumerable histories of World War II, relatively little attention has been paid to the importance of Iraq and Iran during the war. On a certain level, this approach is unsurprising since the Gulf was not the scene of epic battles between large armies. Nevertheless, despite this dearth of wartime spectacle, allied leaders were acutely aware of the strategic value of the region and feared that these countries could be overrun by German forces, which would capture or destroy vital oil fields, refineries, and other related infrastructure during the early war years. This concern intensified after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, when the rapid advances of German forces threatened to place both countries in danger of a powerful assault from the north. At that point, Iran and Iraq also emerged as key to the nascent effort to supply retreating Soviet forces with weapons and equipment and thereby prevent a Soviet collapse. Later, as the war turned against the Germans, both countries, but especially Iran, became important to efforts to provide increasingly large amounts of military supplies to the Soviet Union and thereby help shorten the war.
Although the great powers viewed Iran and Iraq primarily through the prism of military necessity, these states were more than strategic real estate. Rather, they were weak countries with leaders who sought to calculate and advance their own national interests. These calculations had to occur within a confusing and rapidly evolving wartime struggle involving a number of demanding and often impatient great powers. In Iraq, almost the entire population expected the British Empire to lose the war in the early years of the struggle, and many Iraqi leaders correspondingly sought to avoid attaching themselves to a power that was near defeat. Additionally, the United Kingdom was unpopular in Iraq due to British policies in Palestine and heavy-handed involvement in Iraqi politics and governance under the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty. An April 1941 coup led by pro-German politician, Rashid 'Ali al-Gaylani was therefore welcomed by many Iraqis, given British unpopularity and ongoing doubts about what an overstretched UK could do in response. As the new prime minister, Rashid 'Ali was supported by important factions within the army led by four intensely pro-German senior officers known as the "Golden Square."
Shortly after taking power, Rashid 'Ali quietly moved to consolidate his relations with Germany and Italy. He sought weapons from the Germans, and Ultra communications intercepts decrypted at Bletchley Park confirmed to the British that German and Italian forces were willing to meet at least some of these requests. If the Iraqis obtained Axis weapons, a better-armed military could play an important role supporting German forces should they invade Iraq and seek to evict the British from their bases in that country. Consequently, as the extent of Rashid 'Ali's cooperation with the Axis became clear, the British decided to remove him and his chief military supporters by force. A subsequent build-up of British and imperial (especially Indian) troops in Basra convinced the Iraqis (correctly) that the UK was preparing to remove the government and that war was inevitable. These developments caused Baghdad to initiate combat operations against the British in May 1941 in the belief that they could hold off British and imperial troops until the Germans sent military forces (which they indicated they would do). This strategy initially showed promise as Iraqi forces surrounded and besieged the large and important Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Habbaniyya, using artillery to bombard it from the high ground around the base. [End Page 686]
The Iraqi forces involved in this siege bravely waged their struggle in the face of intense RAF airstrikes for five days. Then things turned sour for them. Unforgivably and disgracefully, Iraqi combat units were forced to give up the fight when their military leaders failed to provide them with enough rations...