Thursday, November 19, 2015

(Iraq 2) : From Easington Colliery to Basra.

The area of Easington Colliery where I lived before I was sent to Basra in Iraq to undertake my National Service.

I was brought up at Easington Colliery on the east coast of County Durham. Before I was called up to undertake my National Service in the RAF in November 1954, I had never travelled any further south than York. That journey had been made two years earlier, when I had applied to be a railway clerk after leaving school. I then had to travel to the railway head office at York for an interview. It landed me a job which I then undertook covering passenger and parcels office work, mainly at Easington's neighbouring railway station which was at Horden Colliery. But it was a job that was to have bigger implications for my travels than I ever anticipated.

When I undertook my basic training in the RAF at West Kirby, I was interviewed by a Sergeant to help determine what form of work I should seek to undertake in the RAF. As I had been a railway clerk, he suggested that a position in a "Movement's Unit" might be appropriate. He pointed out that there was a large unit of this type at Hull.  I felt that would be ideal for me to be able travel home regularly. So that became my first and accepted option.

But amongst our Squadron at West Kirby where I did my basic training, I was the only person to then be sent straight overseas. For it was felt that I did not require any training for my post.  I could work and learn under a corporal who already was undertaking the tasks I needed to follow. These involved working closely with Iraqi State Railways in Basra.  RAF equipment and goods arrived at the port at Basra to then be sent by rail to Baghdad, from where they were collected by personnel from RAF Habbaniya to then be taken to their camp by road some 55 miles away. There were also regular (but limited numbers) of troop movements of those travelling by rail to and from Baghdad, which had to be catered for.  In English, I filled in arabic passenger forms and goods' notes. But no-one ever taught me any arabic. I just learnt what to put where, in English. The best I did was to understand arabic numerals. All the Iraqis I dealt with spoke English - including those who worked at our Movement's Unit which was situated on the banks of the Shat-el-Arab river. This included many Iraqis who undertook manual functions.

I regularly visited Basra railway station, its docks and its goods yards. Then when our Movement's Unit downsized, I also took up some similar clerical and organisation work with shipping companies, handling "Bills of Lading" relating to shipping merchandise.

Not only did the RAF fail to facilitate (or even encourage) us to learn arabic; no-one ever explained why it was that we were in Iraq. Furthermore, we were just a small movements unit with many of us being only 18 to 20 as we were undertaking our National Service. I shared areas of accommodation with those up to the rank of corporal and we socialised. But those in higher ranks lived a separate existence. Even our cricket team only contained two sergeants (which may, however, have been a fair proportion), the rest being entirely from lower ranks - including myself as the scorer and standby.  No one I ever came across used their holiday breaks to visit historical sites such as the Ziggurat of Ur, which was less than 100 miles away - although officers might well have done this unknown to us. But we only communicated with high ups in relation to our duties. Nor was information made available to tell us that Iraq covered land which had been the cradle of civilisation. Neither was there today's modern technology to click into, which can be used as a form of self-education. It was not for us to ask where we were, nor what we were doing there.

Yet my time in Iraq helped to transform my life. When I left Britain, I initially had a six day stay in the canal zone in Egypt,  I then boarded a flight to Habbaniya; via Jordon where we landed late at night and saw little but a landing strip, desert and the inside of a large reception tent.  At Habbaniya, I stayed for a period to undertake a weapons' course run by the  RAF Regiment. This gave me time to spend a weekend at the YMCA in Baghdad, travelling via Fallujah. Then when I finally travelled by rail from Baghdad to Basra, the train was delayed as we were due to pull out of the south of the Iraqi capital. I was looking out of the window at a scene which seemed to me to be from an ancient world. Everything was made out of mud. Mud houses, mud walls, mud walkways, open sewers cut into the baked mud, with a drinking well close by. Men and women were neatly and cleanly dressed in the Muslim tradition, with children playing beside them. But this was a world I had never glimpsed nor thought about before in a modern context. It came to have a huge impact upon me.

Mud houses in Iraq

Later in the dock area in Basra, I observed heavily exploited labour at work. For instance, men were bent double carrying what were huge (and now old-fashioned) commercial refrigerators on their backs. Manual labour still often being a substitute for the technology of that age.

A double question began to pray upon my mind. How could God and man allow such things to happen? Matters of a philosphical and political bent were emerging for a thinly educated young man. These would help to reshape my values, self-studies and key interests. But life at the Movements Unit with regular weekly trips into Basra town centre, gave me the false impression that Iraq was a place of peace and tranquility. The first seven sections in the previous item on this blog (click here) cover a brief military history of Britain's involvement in the area over the 41 years before I arrived in Iraq. When I now reflect that it is 60 years since I arrived in Basra; the preceding period of 41 years seems to be a relatively limited time span. Many of the Iraqis I met and passed had lived through those years of military conflict and imperial domination. Unknown to me, these were experiences that had not gone away from their minds.

The only hint that some problems existed was when I attempted to order a copy of Marx's "Das Capital" from an English bookshop in Basra. The proprietor who originated from India, later felt the need to check matters out with the local Chief of Police. He was not allowed to order a copy. I only learnt much later that the Iraqi regime had been in a period of conflict with its own home grown Communists - see Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" (Princeton University Press, 1978 and here).




Friday, November 06, 2015

(Iraq 1) : Britain's Military Heritage In Iraq - Started 101 Years Ago Today

1. 101 years ago today and just three and a half months after the start of the First World War, Britain invaded Mesopotamia. British troops (who were mainly from India) captured the old fort at Fao (al-Faw) which then formed part of the Ottoman Empire. Fao is located at the south of what is now Iraq. It is where the Shatt-al-Arab river flows into the Persian Gulf. The Shatt-al-Arab itself starts at a point where two other main rivers flow into each other. These are the Tigris and Euphrates. They both commence in what is now Turkey, with the Euphrates then cutting fully across a significant section of Syria.

The photograph below is of British troops in Mesopotamia during the subsequent campaign.

2. Mesopotamia is seen as the cradle of civilization. It was where the Garden of Eden is believed to have been. The story of Noah and the flood fits in with an ancient Sumerian legend about an old man who survived 40 days and nights in an ark. Its main rivers produced rich fertile soil and a supply of water for irrigation. The civilizations that emerged around these rivers being amongst the earliest known non-nomadic agrarian societies. In terms of written history alone, Mesopotamia goes back to 3100 BC. It has a rich cultural heritage. But numbers of its ancient sites are now being destroyed by ISIS.  Way back it was part of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires: with later periods in which (amongst many others) Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Persian Empire had a presence.

3. Britain embarked upon its invasion at Fao soon after the start of the First World War, because the Ottoman Empire (which then dominated much of Mesopotamia) had recently signed a treaty with Germany. There was a particular worry about the danger to Britain's oil supplies in neighbouring Persia, especially in relation to the Anglo Persian Oil Company.

4. A long and bitter struggle then took place. But when British troops captured Baghdad in 1917, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Britain then moved to unite and control what became the basis of modern Iraq in the vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. In 1919, however, it faced insurrections from the indigenous population who were far from keen about the prospect of having a fresh foreign imperial power emerging over them.

5. In 1920, however, Britain obtained a League of Nation Mandate to enable it to continue to play a major role in the development of Iraq. Following further unrest, Britain manoeuvred to create a situation in which a sympathetic regime under King Faisal was accepted in a carefully calibrated plebiscite, with a 96% endorsement.

Here is a link to a fine book which covers the above period. Note the comments about its considerable strengths.

6. Iraq operated under the British Mandate until 1932 when nominally it became independent. But before it gained its formal Independence, the United Kingdom achieved the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930. This included permission to establish air bases for British use at Habbaniya and Shiaba, as British Crown territory. It was a situation that added to discontent amongst wide elements of the Iraqi population.

7. In April 1941 during the Second World War, there was a coup d'etat in Iraq when Rashid Ali ceased power and asked Germany for military assistance in the event of war with the British. Britain then sent troops into Iraq to topple the new regime and remained in effective control of the country until 1947 with a new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty being signed in Portsmouth the following year. This set up a joint defence board , but the Treaty was abandoned following mass protests in Baghdad known as al-Wathba (the leap). Britain, however, retained its bases in Habbaniya and Shiaba under the terms of the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty.

8. In 1955 a pro-Western defence alliance known as the Baghdad Pact was signed between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. As part of its terms the British Crown Territories at Habbaniya and Shiaba air bases were handed over to Iraq, although Britain still retained (but down-sized) it forces there and also at its Movements Unit which operated in Basra on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab river. (Where I was undertaking my National Service at the time) The Baghdad Pact also led to the disbanding of a force called the Iraqi Levies. This force was made up mainly of Assyrians and had British Officers. It had originated as a local Arab armed scouting force during the First World War. On their disbanding, the Levies were given the opportunity to join the Iraqi Army, which then took over their previous facilities. But few Assyrians did this.

9. In one form and another Britain retained a continual presence and influence inside Iraq until the nation experienced a major regime change in 1958. The transformation in Iraqi politics in that year was itself stimulated by major unrest in Iraq over Britain's involvement in the Suez crisis of 1956. In 1959, the remaining RAF personnel and their aircraft were then obliged to withdraw from Iraq.

10. Britain's next direct military involvement in Iraq arose in response to Saddam Hussein's invasion and annexation of neighbouring Kuwait. Under "Desert Storm" in 1991, USA-led forces engaged in an air bombardment of Iraq. The RAF undertaking low-level attacks on Iraqi airbases. The Royal Navy provided scope for helicopters to destroy much of the Iraqi Navy. Whilst British Challenger tanks destroyed 300 Iraqi vehicles in both Kuwait and in pursuing Iraqi troops along the "road to Basra", until the plug was pulled on this military operation as the slaughter of Iraqi Troops was gaining bad publicity.

11. From 1992 up to the United States-led coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, two "No Fly Zones" were enforced upon Iraq by USA, British and French air forces. The zone in the north of Iraq was established shortly after the Gulf War, extending from the 36th parallel northwards and providing protection for Iraqi Kurds, who had faced genocidal attacks from Saddam Hussein's regime - especially back in 1988. A zone was also established south of the 32nd parallel to defend the Shia population from attacks by Hussein's minority Sunni based regime. In 1996 this southern zone was expanded from the 33rd parallel.

12. The US-led invasion of Iraq took place in 2003, consisting of 21 days of major combat. UK forces took responsibility for supervision in the southern area of Iraq around Basra. They mainly withdrew from Iraq in 2009, whilst leaving behind some troops for training purposes. The final 170 British troops departed in October 2012. US forces finally left in December 2012. Iraqi Body Count estimated that 174,000 Iraqis were killed as a result of the conflict up to 2013. 4,779 Coalition troops were killed, plus a total of 1,674 in the categories of contractors, medics and aid workers. Sectarian conflict has continued to add significantly to the numbers of Iraqi killings.

Here is a most worthwhile history of Iraq which brings matters up to recent times. 

This telling blog entitled "Musings On Iraq" has been running since 10 September, 2008.

This is my own thread on Iraq. It has fallen away in recent years, but (hopefully) it will now be revived.