Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (497)
Iraq was first
Iraq was the first Arab country to join the League of Nations, having acquired this status by virtue of a treaty signed with Britain in 1930. Its membership was a landmark in the advancement of Arab nationalism. Three-quarters of a century later, Iraq was invaded and occupied. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines the two events
"The day before yesterday was a glorious day that will live in the eternal memory of the history of both the East and the West. The exhilarating and inspiring celebrations of Iraq's entry into the League of Nations were such as we have seldom seen in that great international centre, Geneva. Private and public wire releases have described this occasion in some detail. However, what must be stressed is that Iraq Day is a prelude to more. The doors to the future of the Arab nation have been flung open, and it will not be long before we see other independent Arab nations taking seats beside Iraq in that assembly. Indeed, the remarks to us by the delegates of France clearly indicate that Syria will soon have the same happy fortune as Iraq.
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Egyptian delegates seated in the front row during a session of the League of Nations which convened in Geneva on 25 May 1937
"Other information gives us considerable cause for optimism with regard to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Here and there people are at work to narrow the gap between Mecca and Geneva, and there is great hope that their efforts will be crowned with success. After all this time, Egypt too cannot remain in its current isolation from the world, as now embodied in the League of Nations, in spite of all misgivings and feelings of despair, and in spite of the grip of the current crisis and the prevailing sense of confusion.
"Iraq Day is for the East and West together. No one can question the independence of Iraq, which is now a member of that assembly on equal footing with all free and independent nations, although should there remain outstanding hopes in this regard, they will be fulfilled by virtue of Iraq's new status in Geneva. The speeches of the representatives of nations large and small, and east and west, are edifying to all who contemplate the past and present and clearly corroborate what we have said.
"The speakers also lauded, on more than one occasion, the glory of Arab history and civilisation. Their words, which rang out to mankind in its entirety, filled us with pride and joy. The Arabs must now follow the example of Iraq. They must seize the opportunity to attain the same end in fulfilment of their aspiration to establish a political presence equivalent to that of other nations. Through this, they will resurrect the lofty glory that was founded by their ancestors and which, today, is being commemorated on the podium of the League of Nations, which now embodies 56 nations and every word uttered therein rings out around the globe and is heard at the same time by all inhabitants of the earth."
The preceding story was filed by Al-Ahram's special correspondent in Geneva on 5 October 1932 and published five days later under the headline, "Iraq day: nations of the Arab East in the League of Nations". As much as the Arabs may have had cause to rejoice at the time, the occasion acquires particular poignancy in light of subsequent history.
The League of Nations was the first international organisation created with the aim to preserve world peace. Established in the wake of World War I, it took Geneva as its headquarters and held its first plenary assembly on 15 November 1920, with 42 nations attending. In spite of the great hopes vested in it and the fact that its membership eventually rose to 63, it increasingly floundered in the seas of international tensions that erupted with the outbreak of World War II. It breathed its last in the immediate aftermath of that war, holding its final assembly on 8 April 1946. (Two years later, the League of Nations was succeeded by the United Nations, which today also appears headed towards its grave, having been ushered towards that destiny by the US-British invasion of Iraq waged outside the UN framework. Interestingly, Iraq was the first Arab country to join the League of Nations as an independent nation, having acquired this status by virtue of a treaty signed with Britain in 1930. Three-quarters of a century later, Iraq has fallen under occupation again, and without an international mandate. What ironies history holds for us).
Following Iraq's entrance into the League of Nations, it took another five years before Egypt was accepted as the second Arab member. Undoubtedly it was only fitting that the League gave the honour of welcoming the new member to the delegate from Iraq. Sobeih Najib's speech appeared in Al- Ahram on 27 May 1937. He said that the League of Nations which had welcomed the first Arab nation five years earlier now had the pleasure of welcoming Egypt. "When Egypt expressed its desire to join the League, Iraq was the first nation to present its request. It did so because it wanted Arab culture and civilisation represented by two members. It is now our hope that other Arab nations follow in Egypt's footsteps."
Egypt had been officially declared independent long before Iraq. However, the difference was that in Egypt's case, independence was granted unilaterally by Britain in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922, which contained four points reserving British control over areas vital to Egyptian sovereignty. Independence was thus purely nominal, and it took another five rounds of negotiations over the next 14 years until differences over those "reservations" could be resolved, resulting in the Treaty of 1936 which enabled Egypt to join the League the following year.
By contrast, the British-Iraq treaty of 1930 revoked the British mandate over Iraq. As the League had originally authorised this mandate, it would also have to authorise its revocation which, in turn, would confer upon Iraq the status entitling it to become one of its members. Throughout 1931, Al-Ahram followed the progress of the Iraqi case in the international organisation. At the beginning of the year, its correspondent in Geneva announced that the League's Mandate Commission had issued a report on the Iraqi situation. The report did not bode well, having stated that the commission did not have "sufficient documentation to assess the degree of advancement Iraq has attained over the past eight years". It also alluded to the apprehensions voiced by national, linguistic and sectarian minorities regarding the Anglo-Iraqi alliance despite the creation of a special commission to address the grievances of the Bahais and the Kurds. With regard to the latter, the report called for judicial and administrative measures to safeguard the rights granted to them under the agreement signed with Turkey in 1925. Finally, the Mandate Commission wanted further clarification on certain questions regarding oil exploration rights.
As the year progressed London sought to dispel the League's concerns. In a speech on the domestic situation in Iraq and the country's eligibility for membership in the League, British High Commissioner to Baghdad Sir Francis Humphries said that post-mandate Iraq could not live on its own without creating problems for the League of Nations, but that it offered all the necessary conditions to ensure that it would abide by the commitments required from all signatory nations of the League's charter. It had a government capable of ensuring the smooth and effective administration of domestic affairs, of maintaining order and safeguarding the country's political independence. "The police force is sufficiently equipped to preserve public order throughout the country, the military is more than adequate for countering all incidents of external aggression or raids of political significance, and in the event of a serious, massive incursion, Iraq can always call upon the assistance of Great Britain in accordance with the treaty of alliance between the two countries."
Humphries underscored two further points. Firstly, with its income from petroleum and British funding for major projects, the country possessed sufficient financial resources to meet its needs. Secondly, it had an equitable system of justice. "Iraqi law is derived from the Napoleonic code, laws and penalties are amendable, and there are British judges attached to the courts until the mandate terminates."
Because of the Mandate Commission's qualms on the minority issue, Humphries dwelt at length on this subject. Although Iraq was a country of a great number of minorities, he said, numerous measures had been taken to allay the fears of the Kurds, other inhabitants in the north and the Yazidis. He continues: "There is no reason to call into question the good intentions of Iraq. There has never been religious persecution. Indeed, the history of Iraq is testimony to its religious tolerance. Muslims, Jews and Christians have lived in the same village, side by side for centuries, in a spirit of friendship and harmony, and there is nothing to suggest that the situation could change. If the League of Nations has confidence in Iraq's intentions and is satisfied that it can meet the guarantees it has demanded from other independent nations, then we believe that Iraq will not fail this trust."
By the end of the year, the efforts of Humphries and other British officials to budge the League of Nations from its former position paid off. Reporting from Geneva on 6 November 1931, the Al-Ahram correspondent observed that the League was still concerned that Britain was attempting to shirk its responsibilities towards Iraq. The prevalent view of the Mandate Commission, therefore, was "to ensure the League against any adverse consequences by making Britain the guarantor responsible to the League in the event that the new state does not fulfil the hopes pinned on it and to ask of Iraq, as a condition for abolishing the mandate, to furnish strong assurances with regard to the protection of minorities in particular".
Washington, contrary to its custom at the time, intervened in the issue. In a communiqué to London, it expressed its belief that it had the right to voice an opinion on the conditions that would apply to Iraq following the end of the British mandate. Making this more surprising was that the US was not a League member, even though the idea of such an international organisation could be said to have originated with it, having been embodied in President Woodrow Wilson's 14 Points announced shortly before the end of World War I. Undoubtedly, Washington's early interest in the Mesopotamia had a bearing on oil, a notion that had not occurred to Al- Ahram which merely remarked that Iraq's entrance into the League as an independent nation was a matter that did not concern the US.
In all events, in Geneva things were working as the British had hoped. On 5 January 1932, the secretary of the League announced the Mandate Commission's latest report which concluded that the alliance concluded between Britain and Iraq did not impinge upon the latter's independence and that all which concerned it were certain conditions regarding the protection of minorities, intellectual and religious freedoms, and international covenants.
The commission then charged the Yugoslav foreign minister with drafting the final report regarding the lifting of the mandate. As this report was crucial to Iraq's admission into the League, Al-Ahram reported many of its details. The report determined, firstly, that Iraq furnished the necessary assurances that it was capable of independent self-government and military defence. At the same time, it stated that Iraq must undertake a pledge to protect minorities as European countries had done. It also exacted a pledge to protect foreigners in accordance with the agreement Baghdad had signed with Britain in March 1931 and to guarantee freedom of thought and worship. Finally, it required Iraq to grant preferential treatment to all nations represented in the League.
On 23 September 1932, the London Times, known for its Foreign Office connections, featured an editorial signalling London's determination to put the 1930 treaty with Iraq into effect so that its mandate can be lifted, enabling Iraq to enter the League. The British government had stopped spending on Iraq for many reasons, the article said. The most important was that Iraq had sufficient resources of its own. "The Iraqi government now reaps an income of £400 a month from a single petroleum firm. According to reports from Basra, 11 petroleum tankers are anchored off the coast of Shat Al-Arab and the progress that is being made on the great pipeline project has augmented the sense of commercial well-being." In addition, great hopes for more abundant and cheaper power were pinned on electricity-generating projects on the Great Zab River and the Tigris and Euphrates falls. Such economic vitality, the article concluded, indicated that when Iraq became a member of the League of Nations it proved superior to many of the League's other members. "Its relationships with other nations are friendly, its petroleum resources have barely been tapped, its national budget is healthy despite a negligible deficit, and it occupies a geographic position of inestimable importance."
The League members got the message. In a formal vote held on 4 October 1932 Iraq was unanimously accepted as a member. In addition to international delegates, also on hand were a number of "prominent Oriental figures", as Al-Ahram put it. These included Ali El-Shamsi Pasha, Prince Shakib Arsilan and Egypt's Consul in Geneva and Berlin Ihsan El- Gabri. Not present was His Highness the former Khedive "who has absented himself".
Ceremonies began with the speech delivered by British Foreign Office Secretary John Simon who congratulated Iraq for being the first country under mandate to have been freed of its mandate. "Today we see one of the most ancient nations in history joining our ranks as a modern nation," he proclaimed.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Pasha Al- Said, representing his country on this historic occasion, returned the compliment with one better. He expressed the gratitude of his country to the League and to Britain and his hope that the League would soon approve the admission of other Arab nations, "sisters to Iraq whose fate have not yet been determined".
Following these speeches, delegates of other nations -- Yugoslavia, Norway, Turkey, France, India, Iran, Germany, Japan, Italy and Poland -- took their turn at the podium to welcome Iraq into the League and to congratulate both King Faisal and the former mandate power.
Writing from League of Nations headquarters in Geneva, Al-Ahram's special correspondent paid special tribute to "the sympathy Sir Francis Humphries showed for the Iraqi cause and his love for the Iraqi people, who reciprocate his affection and praise him highly". But then, caught up in the general euphoria, the correspondent would not have wanted to mar the occasion by delving into the reality that cold calculations of interest rather than emotions ultimately determine government policy, an approach that for Britain was a long- standing tradition.
That day, too, in Geneva, the Iraqi delegation, along with Nuri Al-Said, 11 parliamentary representatives and a prominent religious official, held an official celebration. Several Egyptian and Syrian figures were on the guest list. Al-Ahram reports: "Prince Shakib Arsilan delivered a moving speech that was greeted with enthusiastic applause and Nuri Pasha concluded the celebration with a solemn word on the fruits of the efforts of the nation and the rights it had obtained."
Festivities moved from Geneva to Baghdad, where two days later King Faisal declared a national day. In his address to the nation, relayed to Al-Ahram by its correspondent in Baghdad, the king praised the Iraqi people for their progress and called upon them to double their efforts towards that end. "Let us always remember that we have before us great duties that have not yet received our fullest attention. We must all focus our efforts towards ensuring the undertaking of those duties, foremost among which is creating a force to protect our cherished land and to lift our nation to its fullest honour and dignity." He went on to express Iraq's gratitude to "the invaluable assistance we have obtained from His Royal Imperial Highness King George and his government and people", adding, "I also declare my gratitude to our neighbouring nations and their governments for the encouragement and faith they have demonstrated in us."
Because the Iraqi delegation's return trip to Baghdad took them via Alexandria, Al-Ahram took advantage of the opportunity and dispatched one of its reporters to the port to interview Nuri Al-Said. As the prime minister was initially unavailable, having been taken up with a visit to King Fouad at Ras Al-Tin Palace, the reporter interviewed instead the second in charge of the delegation, Iraqi Minister of Finance Rostom Haidar. "Other visitors were present and we discussed what seemed most appropriate to the occasion," the reporter wrote by way of introduction. Given Egypt's current circumstances, the most pressing issue on the reporter's mind was the extent of Iraq's sovereignty now that it had become a member of the League of Nations. Haidar responded: "Iraq is an independent, fully sovereign nation. The treaty between us and Great Britain is no different to similar treaties between other nations. This reality is undisputed by all who have knowledge and expertise in international affairs."
True to the tradition of the dogged reporter, the Al-Ahram correspondent bided his time until he could get hold of Nuri Al-Said. What were the changes the prime minister expected to see in Iraq now that the mandate had ended, he asked. There would be many, Nuri Al-Said said. Most important would be the total abolishment of the privileges accorded to foreigners, the end of the mandate power's advisers to the government and the end to having to pass all cabinet decisions through the high commissioner. In addition, Iraq would expand its diplomatic representation abroad, build up reserves for the army and develop good relations with its neighbours.
Naturally, Iraq's entry into the League of Nations inspired high hopes for other Arab causes. In Palestine, the Al-Ahram correspondent in Jaffa wrote that Palestinian politicians harboured no doubts that Iraq would champion their cause in the League and tell its member nations that now it was the turn of Palestine to obtain self-rule. Nevertheless, the Palestinians asked, "Will Iraq have a voice that reverberates in the ears of international delegates, especially if this voice does not please Britain or the Zionists who control Britain and most other dominant countries in the League?"
Back in Alexandria, Nuri Al-Said raised the cause of the Arab nation as a whole. Iraq's entrance into the League of Nations brought this cause to the fore, he said. When the president of the League and 12 delegates of major nations welcomed Iraq among their ranks, "they also took the occasion to extol the glorious history of the Arabs and their recent progress in national revival." He added, "Indeed, most speakers spoke more on the Arab nation than they did on Iraq." This alone represented a major transformation in European thinking. "Sixty years ago or less, it would never have occurred to Western politicians to refer to the Arab nation. In discussing this region they would refer to specific areas in terms of their inhabitants, thus speaking of Iraqis, Syrians, Palestinians and Najdis. In fact, some chose to revive names from antiquity, such as Assyrians and Chaldeans and were we to look at the secret pacts that were concluded during and after the Great War we would find that they referred to the Arabs as the inhabitants of the regions formerly possessed by Turkey. Today, however, the Arab nation has awoken and the idea of Arab unity has swept like a storm across our region from north to south. Moreover, those nations that had once resisted the idea of the Arab nation are now among the most ardent supporters of its cause."
In short, as Nuri Al-Said suggested, Iraq's membership in the League of Nations marked a major stepping stone in the advancement of Arab nationalism. Looking back today, we see how others have worked to erode the cumulative legacy of this movement, rendering us increasingly vulnerable to our enemies. There is no more vivid testimony of this process than the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq, the first Arab nation to join the League of Nations.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.