Iraq was unstable, and there were numerous coups and coup attempts. In December 1938, pro-British General Nuri al-Said came to power. Instability in Iraq increased, however, when King Ghazi I died in an automobile accident in April 1939. As the new king, Faisal II, was only four, his uncle Abdul Illah acted as regent. Meanwhile, Nuri put down an attempted coup by a group of army officers in March 1939 and another in February 1940. Nuri wanted to declare war on Germany but encountered opposition from Iraqi nationalists who sought concessions from Britain first. In consequence, Nuri followed Egypt's lead and declared Iraq's neutrality. Relations with Germany were severed, although those with Italy were not.
Axis successes in the Mediterranean beginning in the fall of 1940 encouraged Iraqi nationalists, who believed that the circumstances were right for Iraq to end remaining British control. Another issue involved the long-standing Iraqi opposition to British policies in Palestine.
In March 1940, Rashid Ali replaced Nuri as prime minister, although Nuri remained in the government as foreign minister. Rashid Ali now came under the influence of four nationalist, pro-Axis Iraqi army generals who called themselves the "Golden Square." In March 1941, however, the regent secured Rashid Ali's resignation because of the latter's pro-Axis connections and reluctance to break relations with Italy. Taha al-Hashimi became prime minister. Axis military successes and hints of Axis aid emboldened the Golden Square, which staged a coup on 2 April that reinstated Rashid Ali in power. He immediately formed a cabinet that contained a number of individuals known to have Axis connections. The regent and Nuri fled.
Encouraged by hints of Axis aid, Rashid Ali refused to honor British demands to enforce provisions of the 1930 treaty that allowed the transportation of British troops from Basra across Iraq. The Iraqi government also positioned troops and artillery around the British bases in Iraq. Fighting broke out at the British air base at Habbaniya on 2 May when Iraqi troops opened fire. The British air force immediately went into action, and Britain also dispatched some 5,800 troops, including the 1,500-man Arab Legion from Transjordan under the command of Major John B. Glubb. It was soon obvious that the British would triumph over the five poorly trained and inadequately equipped divisions of the Iraqi army unless the Axis powers immediately dispatched assistance.
The German government now brought pressure to bear on the Vichy government of France, which then ordered French High Commissioner of the Levant General Henri Dentz to allowed the transit of Axis aid to Iraq through Syria. Axis arms and equipment then began to be transported via Aleppo to Mosul to assist Rashid Ali, albeit it in insufficient quantities to affect the outcome of the fighting. Meanwhile, British forces broke the siege at Habbaniya. The British occupied Falluja on 20 May and surrounded Baghdad by the end of the month. Rashid Ali, some supporters, and the German and Italian ministers fled to Iran. In deference to Nuri and Regent Abdul Illah, the British did not enter Baghdad. This decision allowed the remnants of the Golden Square to attack Baghdad's Jewish community and kill some 150 Jews there.
Nuri again became prime minister, with a pro-British administration. Following its return to the British side, Iraq became an important supply center for Allied assistance to the Soviet Union until the end of the war. The government broke diplomatic relations with Vichy France on 18 November 1941, and it declared war on Germany, Italy, and Japan on 16 January 1943, the same day on which it announced its adherence to the UN Declaration.
Jack Vahram Kalpakian and Spencer C. Tucker
Butt, Gerald. The Lion in the Sand: The British in the Middle East. London: Bloomsbury, 1995.; Hamdi, Walid M. Rashid al-Gailani and the Nationalist Movement in Iraq, 1939–1941: A Political and Military Study of the British Campaign in Iraq and the National Revolution of May 1941. London: Darf, 1987.; Hopwood, Derek, Habib Ishow, and Thomas Koszinowski, eds. Iraq: Power and Society. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1993.; Kedourie, Elie. "Operation Babylon: The Story of the Rescue of the Jews of Iraq." New Republic 199, no. 1 (17 October 1988): 48–50.; Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.; Simons, Geoff. Iraq: From Sumer to Saddam. London: Macmillan, 1994.; Warner, Geoffrey. Iraq and Syria, 1941. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1974.