On 1 September, 1939, Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Two days later, on 3 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Second World War was effectively sent into motion. In a war which appeared to be on its way to having global ramifications, it was vital for states, when opting for a side, to do so in a most prudent manner. Morality, opportunity, and security of neutrality, all proved factors which influenced the destiny of each member of the global community. And more often or not, as with with Iraq, the issue of ‘choosing sides’ proved an arduous business.
At the outset of the war, Iraq was ruled by a Regent, the Amir Abd al-Ilah, and a government headed by the pro-British Nuri Sa’id.51 As emphasized, however, Nuri’s cabinet was replete with Anglophobes and was dependent upon the support of the army which, ever since the Bakr Sidqi coup of 1936, had served as the ultimate judge of Iraqi politics. As war between Great Britain and Germany appeared a certainty, Nuri was partial to a declaration of war on the latter. But the more extreme elements of the government, favored the extraction of concessions in respect to Syria and Palestine as a price for doing so.52 In any case, without issuing a declaration of war, Iraq, on 5 September, severed diplomatic relations with Germany. By opting for the ‘middle course’ and not declaring war on Germany, one crucial fact about the Iraqi government was revealed--two camps were vying over opposed policy agendas, and until one could gain preponderance, Iraqi policy, in respect to the war, would remain ambiguous.
By the spring of 1940, Nuri began to sense his grasp on the course of Iraqi policy loosening. After proposing a series of reforms dealing with the electoral laws and with reform and settlement of land disputes in the Diwaniya area, the prime minister was met with dissent from within the government.53 Much of the government’s criticism of Nuri could be attributed to the influential intrigues of the “Golden Square.”54 Vexed by Nuri’s close relationship with London, the four colonels saw great promise in their promotion of Rashid Ali as a replacement to the current prime minister. By March, Nuri was enveloped by opposition, from both those from the anti-British camp and those within his own group who frowned upon him for not taking a more assertive role against the “Golden Square.”55 As a result, on 31 March, Nuri resigned in favor of Rashid Ali, with the provision, however, that the former prime minister take on the position of foreign minister. In assuming such a post, Nuri hoped to continue to influence the maintenance of a Iraqi policy of cooperation towards Great Britain.56
Needless to say, the change in ruling parties did not bode well for Great Britain. As things stood, in the summer of 1940, Rashid Ali neither allowed the concentration of British troops in Iraq nor severed diplomatic ties with Germany’s Axis partner, Italy. Making matters worse were the swirling rumors that the Iraqi government was in the process of renewing diplomatic relations with Germany. Upon hearing such news, London’s ambassador to Iraq, Sir Basil Newton, asserted that if Iraq was to resume relations with Germany, Great Britain would, in turn, be compelled to reconsider her relations with Iraq.57 Newton further conceded that London had no confidence in Rashid Ali. Such a barb simply brought aggravation to an already shaky relationship existing between the two governments. And when, on 9 January, the Iraqi government solicited Great Britain for weapons and money, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Anthony Eden, bit back by stating that London only supplied pounds to “loyal allies.”58 Later that month, and without surprise, the British government insisted that Rashid Ali be removed from his post as prime minister.
Great Britain’s request induced the regent to intervene and use his influence in a effort to force the prime minister to resign.59 Fortunately for Abd al-Ilah, certain variables were making his task easier to complete. First, the news of British military success in the western desert of Egypt helped dull the edge of pro-Axis sentiment in the Baghdad government. Second, economic sanctions were having a draining effect on the whole of Iraq. And finally, Rashid Ali harbored a deep fear for the threat of civil war which appeared to be on the verge of eruption between the country’s pro and anti-British camps.60 Ultimately, the prime minister tendered his resignation via cable on 31 January.
The newly formed government came under the leadership of General Taha al-Hashimi. The rationale for Taha’s selection rested in the fact that both the regent and the more extreme elements of the government, especially the “Golden Square,” respected the General and had much faith in his ability to rule fairly. Aptly enough, the new prime minister’s central task was to bring reconciliation to the tensions which had been lingering between the pro-Axis clique and the regent.61 Taha also endeavored to persuade the “Golden Square” to accept a policy of conciliation towards Great Britain. However, on 28 February, 1941, at a meeting which consisted of the Mufti, Rashid Ali, and three members of the “Golden Square,” the policy of the Taha government was reviewed. Those in attendance came to two conclusions: first, it was decided that breaking-off relations with Italy was inconsistent with Arab interests; and second, if Taha were to insist on carrying out a policy unacceptable to the nation, he should then be asked to resign in favor of Rashid Ali.62
In essence, with the meeting’s adjournment, the fate of the Taha government
was sealed. The conspirators decided to act on 1 April by first alerting the
army. Taha was then handed an ultimatum which proposed collaboration between
himself and the pro-Axis group. After Taha refused the extremist demand, the
regent’s palace was surrounded. Although the regent was able to escape, the
coup had succeeded, and for the meantime the conspirators had effectively gained
control of the government. Clearly, the game was afoot--Iraq was under a state
of revolt, and all attention would now be focused on what sort of policy
measures Great Britain, Germany, and Italy would apply to the Baghdad crisis.