Chemical weapon/British use in Iraq

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The question of "outlaw weapons" like poison gas is very much one of time and place.


Whilst the possibilities of 'poison gas' use by Western Militaries remain under constant review (especially in so far as the 'temporary disabling agents' research of MKULTRA are concerned) the escalating use of new weapons such as depleted uranium munitions, cluster bombs and fuel-air bombs (which suck out all oxygen over hundreds of square yards and suffocate every living creature) go largely unquestioned in the West.

Less than a century ago, and in spite of the mustard-gas horrors of the first world war, Britain had few qualms about using the forebears of these modern weapons when its rule and will was being seriously challenged - plus ca change...


In 1917, following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the British occupied Iraq and established a colonial government. The Arab and Kurdish people of Iraq resisted the British occupation, and by 1920 this had developed into a full scale national revolt, which cost the British dearly. As the Iraqi resistance gained strength, the British resorted to increasingly repressive measures, including the use of poison gas.

The British Response

Following is excerpted from the Book "From Sumer to Sudan" by G L Simons. ISBN 0312102097 Pages 179-181. All quotes in the excerpt are footnoted in the original, with full references to British archives and papers.

Winston Churchill, as colonial secretary, was sensitive to the cost of policing the Empire; and was in consequence keen to exploit the potential of modern technology, including chemical weapons. This strategy had particular relevance to operations in Iraq. On 19 February, 1920, before the start of the Arab uprising, Churchill (then Secretary for War and Air) wrote to Sir Hugh Trenchard, the pioneer of air warfare. Would it be possible for Trenchard to take control of Iraq? This would entail:

"the provision of some kind of asphyxiating bombs calculated to cause disablement of some kind but not death...for use in preliminary operations against turbulent tribes."

Churchill was in no doubt that gas could be profitably employed against the Kurds and Iraqis (as well as against other peoples in the Empire):

"I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes."

Henry Wilson shared Churchills enthusiasm for gas as an instrument of colonial control but the British cabinet was reluctant to sanction the use of a weapon that had caused such misery and revulsion in the First World War. Churchill himself was keen to argue that gas, fired from ground-based guns or dropped from aircraft, would cause "only discomfort or illness, but not death" to dissident tribespeople; but his optimistic view of the effects of gas were mistaken. It was likely that the suggested gas would permanently damage eyesight and

"kill children and sickly persons, more especially as the people against whom we intend to use it have no medical knowledge with which to supply antidotes."

Churchill remained unimpressed by such considerations, arguing that the use of gas, a "scientific expedient," should not be prevented "by the prejudices of those who do not think clearly". In the event, gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with "excellent moral effect" though gas shells were not dropped from aircraft because of practical difficulties [.....]

Today in 1993 there are still Iraqis and Kurds who remember being bombed and machine-gunned by the RAF in the 1920s. A Kurd from the Korak mountains commented, seventy years after the event: "They were bombing here in the Kaniya Khoran...Sometimes they raided three times a day." Wing Commander Lewis, then of 30 Squadron (RAF), Iraq, recalls how quite often "one would get a signal that a certain Kurdish village would have to be bombed...", the RAF pilots being ordered to bomb any Kurd who looked hostile. In the same vein, Squadron-Leader Kendal of 30 Squadron recalls that "...if the tribespeople were doing something they ought not be doing then you shot them."

Similarly, Wing-Commander Gale, also of 30 Squadron:

"If the Kurds hadn't learned by our example to behave themselves in a civilised way then we had to spank their bottoms. This was done by bombs and guns.

Wing-Commander Sir Arthur Harris (later Bomber Harris, head of wartime Bomber Command) was happy to emphasise that

"The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within forty-five minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured."

It was an easy matter to bomb and machine-gun the tribespeople, because they had no means of defence or retaliation. Iraq and Kurdistan were also useful laboratories for new weapons; devices specifically developed by the Air Ministry for use against tribal villages. The ministry drew up a list of possible weapons, some of them the forerunners of napalm and air-to-ground missiles:

Phosphorus bombs, war rockets, metal crowsfeet [to maim livestock] man-killing shrapnel, liquid fire, delay-action bombs. Many of these weapons were first used in Kurdistan.

A 2003 article in The Guardian reiterated much of the above. [1]


  1. Our Last Occupation - Jonathan Glancey. The Guardian 19 April 2003