Britain's return to colonialism

Published : Dec 17, 2004 00:00 IST

A British Army convoy on its way to Baghdad from Basra. - MAURICE MCDONALD/AP

A British Army convoy on its way to Baghdad from Basra. - MAURICE MCDONALD/AP

Recently declassified secret files point to some harsh truths about current British policy in Iraq: that the war is not about what British leaders say it is, it is not primarily against whom they say it is, and it is not being conducted for whom they say it is.

BRITISH military forces have been redeployed in Iraq to support a U.S. assault on Falluja and elsewhere. This marks another stage in a creeping return to the colonial era, when popular revolts against occupation were routinely suppressed by overwhelming force. These past episodes, revealed in declassified British government files, provide numerous parallels and lessons for Iraq, and suggest a pattern of likely future atrocities. Those who like to regard more recent military interventions as humanitarian might dwell on those parallels as the latest phase of the war in Iraq unfolds.

British Ministers' claim to be defending civilisation against barbarity in Iraq finds a powerful echo in 1950s Kenya, when Britain sought to smash an uprising against colonial rule. Yet, while the British media and political class expressed horror at the tactics of the Mau Mau, the worst abuses were in fact committed by the occupiers. The colonial police used methods like slicing off ears, flogging until death and pouring paraffin over suspects who were then set alight.

British forces killed around 10,000 Kenyans during the Mau Mau campaign, compared to the 600 deaths among the colonial forces and European civilians. Some British Army battalions kept scoreboards recording kills, and gave 5 rewards for the first sub-unit to kill an insurgent, the hands of whom were often chopped off to make fingerprinting easier. "Free fire zones" were established where any African could be shot on sight.

As opposition to British rule intensified, brutal "resettlement" operations - which led to the deaths of tens of thousands - forced around 90,000 into detention camps surrounded by barbed wire and troops. In this 1950s version of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, forced labour and beatings were systematic, disease rampant. Former camp officers described "short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging" and "Japanese methods of torture".

Guerillas opposing British rule were routinely designated "terrorists", as now in Iraq. Britain never admitted that it was opposing a popular, nationalist rebellion in Kenya. Similarly, leftwing Malayan insurgents fighting British rule in the 1950s had strong popular support among the Chinese community, but were officially called "terrorists". In secret, however, Foreign Office internal correspondence described the war as being fought "in defence of [the] rubber industry", then controlled by British and European companies.

But under the banner of fighting communism, British forces were given free rein in Malaya. Numerous collective punishments were inflicted on villages for aiding the insurgents. A shoot-to-kill policy was promoted while tens of thousands of people were removed into "new villages" and used as cheap labour and British soldiers had themselves photographed holding the decapitated heads of Malayan guerillas. The idea that the revolt was ended through "winning hearts and minds" is a myth; it was crushed by overwhelming force, such as massive aerial bombing and use of a forerunner to cluster bombs.

The brutality needed to be kept secret, a key theme in suppressing revolts. After Britain intervened to crush a rebellion in Oman in 1957, an internal Foreign Office minute stated that "we want to avoid the RAF [Royal Air Force] killing Arabs if possible, especially as there will be newspaper correspondents on the spot". The British Army commander in Oman later noted that "great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions out of the press". "Throughout the whole campaign," he added, "a game of bluff and deceit was carried out, which at times was far from pleasant."

The reason was that Britain committed numerous war crimes in Oman, including the systematic bombing of civilian targets such as water supplies and farms. These attacks "would deter dissident villages [sic] from gathering their crops" and ensure "denial of water", officials stated in private. Bombing was intended to "show the population the power of weapons at our disposal" and to convince them that "resistance will be fruitless and lead only to hardship".

Britain was defending an extremely repressive regime where smoking in public, playing football and talking to anyone for more than 15 minutes were banned. Yet Harold Macmillan told U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a 1957 telegram that "we believe that the Sultan is a true friend to the West and is doing his best for his people". As Tony Blair and George W. Bush claim to support democracy in Iraq, it is as well to remember that London and Washington have almost always opposed popular, democratic forces in the Middle East, preferring strong regimes capable of bringing "order".

Britain's stance towards U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War offers other useful lessons. Just as Tony Blair poses as providing a brake on U.S. tactics in Iraq, Harold Wilson claimed to do the same over Vietnam. Yet Britain secretly backed the U.S. in every stage of military escalation. When the U.S. began the massive bombing of North Vietnam in February 1965, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart noted that "I was particularly anxious not to say anything in public that might appear critical of the U.S. government." When the U.S. doubled its ground troops in Vietnam in July 1965, Wilson reassured President Lyndon Johnson of his "support for American policies which I believe to be in the interests of peace and stability".

The Wilson-Johnson correspondence is shocking in showing connivance between No.10 (Downing Street) and the White House to deceive the public. When the U.S. first bombed Hanoi and Haiphong in June 1966, Wilson told Parliament that "we have made it clear that we would oppose any bombing involving Hanoi or Haiphong" and issued a statement disassociating the government from the bombing. Yet this statement had been passed to the U.S. for approval while Wilson assured Johnson that "I cannot see that there is any change in your basic position that I could urge on you".

The myth in Iraq that Britain is not complicit in U.S. brutalities has its precedent in Vietnam. Declassified files show that, in 1962, Britain covertly sent an SAS team to South Vietnam under "temporary civilian status" to work with U.S. forces to train soldiers of the dictatorial regime of President Diem. Britain secretly provided arms and intelligence support to the U.S. to improve U.S. bombing.

Moreover, brutal U.S. "counter-insurgency" programmes were based on prototypes developed by British advisors. Britain's "Delta Plan" for the South Vietnamese regime - described by the Foreign Office as intended "to dominate, control and win over the population" in the rural areas - became the U.S. "strategic hamlets" programme, which forced millions of Vietnamese peasants into fortified villages that resembled concentration camps.

As in Iraq, the publicly proclaimed search for peace was largely a charade. As a senior Foreign Office official wrote in 1965: "The government are fighting a continuous rearguard action to preserve British diplomatic support for American policy in Vietnam. They can only get away with this by constantly emphasising that our objective, and that of the Americans, is a negotiated settlement."

CURRENT British complicity in aggression and atrocities in Iraq is merely the latest phase in a long history. Formerly secret British files tell the story of British backing for the Baath Party's seizure of power in Iraq in 1963. This is the root of London and Washington's previous backing of Saddam Hussein and repressive regimes in Baghdad, continuing today.

The February 1963 coup was masterminded by the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), which provided the coup leaders with a list of 5,000 people who were hunted down and murdered. Ostensibly directed at eliminating the Iraqi Communist Party, they included senior Army officers as well as lawyers, professors, teachers and doctors, who were killed mostly in house-to-house visits by hit squads.

Saddam Hussein, then a junior Baath Party member, was closely involved in the coup. As an Iraqi exile in Cairo, he had since 1961 benefited from contacts with the CIA arranged by the Iraqi section of Egyptian intelligence. During the coup Saddam returned from Cairo and was involved in the torture of leftists.

Britain had also long wanted to see the fall of the Abdul Karim Qasim regime, which had overthrown the pro-British monarchy in 1958, and was pursuing an Arab nationalist foreign policy and nationalising British oil interests. Five months before the 1963 coup, a Foreign Office official referred to the British Ambassador's view "that the sooner Qasim falls the better and that we should not be too choosy about doing things to help towards this end".

British officials were well aware of the massacres following the coup. Ambassador Roger Allen was monitoring Iraqi radio reports on the first two days of the coup calling on people to "help wipe out all those who belong to the Communists and finish them off... kill them all, kill all the criminals". He sent a transcript of these messages to the Foreign Office on February 15. Other files referred to the "rounding up of communists", "considerable small arms firing" and "stories of heavy casualties, presumably among civilians".

By February 26, the British Embassy reported that the new regime was trying "to crush organised communism in Iraq" and that there were rumours that "all the top communists have been seized and that fifty have been quietly executed". Six weeks later, a Foreign Office official referred to a "bloodbath" and that "we should not wish to be seen publicly to advocate such methods of suppressing communism". "Such harshness," the official noted, "may well have been necessary as a short term expedient." By June, Foreign Office official Percy Cradock - who later became chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee - noted that "the Iraqi regime is continuing its severe repression of communists".

This was recognised as an entirely offensive operation. Killings were occurring at "a time when there is no indication of a communist threat or of any effective opposition to the new government".

British officials, in effect, supported these massacres and welcomed the regime carrying them out. Roger Allen told the Foreign Office a week after the coup that "the present government is doing what it can, and therefore it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself so that this communist threat may gradually diminish". The new government "probably suits our interests pretty well" and "it is therefore essential for it to get consolidated quickly". It will "need all the support and money it can get".

A Foreign Office brief stated that the new rulers "have shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot" and that they should be "somewhat friendlier to the West". The Foreign Office sent round a memo to various embassies essentially welcoming the coup and concluding: "We wish the new regime well."

Allen met the Foreign Minister of the new military regime two days after the coup. There is no mention in his record of having raised the killings; rather, the meeting is described as "extremely friendly". Indeed, there is no mention, in any of the files that I have seen of any concern, whatever about the killings.

Rather, officials noted that they should "examine all possible means of profiting from the present anti-communist climate in Iraq", "be helpful over the supply of arms" and "provide military training courses if the Iraqis want them". This memo was written on the same day that Allen sent the Foreign Office the radio transcripts urging Iraqis to "kill the criminals".

British policy was to provide diplomatic recognition to the new regime and to "make friendly contact as soon as possible with the Baathist and nationalist leaders", and to invite members of the National Guard (the organisation which had helped to conduct the massacres) to London. This needed to be done "under some other heading" to keep it secret.

British complicity in violence in Iraq goes well beyond the February coup, however. On June 10, 1963, the Iraqi military began a vicious attack on the Kurds, whose struggle for autonomy against Baghdad had been stepped up in 1961. The Kurds were also calling for a share in Iraqi oil and the exclusion of Arab troops from Kurdistan, the northern region of Iraq.

British officials noted the "Iraqi intention to carry out terror campaign" [sic]. Within 10 days of operations, they wrote: "The army are now apparently engaged in the clearing out and destruction of Kurdish villages in the Kirkuk neighbourhood." With two-thirds of the Iraqi Army deployed in the north, the Foreign Office reported that "the Iraq [sic] government is now clearly making an all-out effort to settle the Kurdish problem once and for all". "Ruthless tactics" were being employed by the Iraqi military, including air strikes.

Before Baghdad began operations, Britain had already approved major arms exports which they knew would be used against the Kurds. Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home "is anxious that in general Iraq's arms requirements should be met as quickly as possible", one file reads. On April 11, Ministers approved the export of 250 Saracen armoured personnel carriers which, it was recognised, were "possibly for use if needed against the Kurds". Also approved were exports of artillery ammunition, 22 Hunter fighter aircraft and rockets for Iraq's existing Hunters, "again possibly for use against the Kurds". "There are considerable commercial advantages to be gained," a Ministerial committee commented, and "the scope for military exports is considerable" - the deal was worth 6 million.

By the end of August 1963, the Iraqi air force had collected 500 Hunter rockets, a further 1,000 were to be delivered on September 1 and another 500 on October 1. A further 18,000 were to be provided later. Approvals were also given to supply 280,000 rounds of ammunition for Saracen armoured cars, mortar bombs, 25-pounder shells, armed helicopters and sterling sub-machine guns.

There is no doubt that Ministers knew exactly what they were authorising. In October, for example, a Foreign Office official approved the export of demolition slabs on the understanding that these "will probably be used not only to destroy captured Kurdish strong points but also for the demolition of Kurdish villages".

The offensive against the Kurds continued throughout 1963, before in effect reaching a stalemate. In April 1965, the Iraqis resumed what was to be another year-long offensive with similar levels of brutality, until an agreement was signed in June 1966 giving the Kurds some autonomy. British arms exports continued to flow with the change from the Conservative to the Labour government in 1964. The British Embassy noted in July 1965 that "Kurdish casualties have been mainly among the civilian population who are again being subjected to considerable suffering through indiscriminate air attack"; from, that is, the Iraqi air force's 27 Hawker Hunters, and thousands of rockets and other ammunition supplied by the Douglas-Home and Wilson governments.

This complicity in the destruction of Kurdish villages was the forebear of similar British policies with regard to Iraqi aggression in the 1980s. These episodes perhaps showed Saddam Hussein that he could later rely on the West to support Baghdad. They also show us today how instinctive is British and U.S. backing for those who can keep order in Iraq, whatever the human consequences.

All these episodes highlight the gulf between what Ministers have told the public and what they have understood to be the case in private. The declassified secret files point to some harsh truths about current policy in Iraq: that the war is not about what British leaders say it is (democracy), it is not primarily against who they say it is (terrorists) and it is not being conducted for whom they say it is (Iraqis). Iraqis are in reality "unpeople" whose deaths matter little in the pursuit of Western power; the major block on committing atrocities is the fear of being exposed and Ministers will do all in their power to cover them up. The public is the major threat to their strategy, which explains why they resort to public deception campaigns. If, as must be expected, atrocities now multiply in Iraq - with Britain complicit - we cannot claim we were never warned.

This is an adapted extract from Mark Curtis' new book, Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses; Vintage, London.

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