Letters

28 May 1924

From/To: Gertrude Bell to her father, Sir Hugh Bell

[28 May 1924] Baghdad May 28 Darling Father. Your last letter was deeply interesting (May 14). I shall be thrilled to hear if you met Mr Thomas, who I see is ill now. All that you said to Charles is quite right except one point - Kirkuk has been for the last year, under its admirable local Mayor (now Mutasarrif) one of the best and quietest parts of 'Iraq. It has certain privileges - local language, local officials - and on these conditions is quite content to form part of 'Iraq in order to obtain the advantages of a treaty with us. Otherwise it wouldn't join the 'Iraq at all. Of course there never would have been any incident if British or Indian troops had been there. Never since the occupation has there been any friction between our troops and the local population. But we haven't got them to put there, that's the trouble - the Kirkuklis are always asking for them. Now I'll tell you about the Levies; they are an anomaly. It is an exceedingly bad plan to have bodies of Christians, at worst, and bodies of local Moslems, at a little better, under British officers. They inevitably become hostile to the local population and the jealousy between them and the 'Iraq army and govt is great. You see they boast of being British soldiers, not dirty Arabs and Kurds. We were forced into it by stress of circumstance. In 1920 when after the reBellion we were suddenly faced with a vast withdrawal of British troops, we had to use the Levies which were available to guard the line of the railway. We couldn't put them into the 'Iraq army for the cogent reason, among others, that there would have been no money to pay them with. They are, as it is, a charge on the British Exchequer and the Treasury makes it a hard and fast rule never to subsidize native troops which are not under British officers. It was an impasse - we had to retain the British-officered Levies. At that time there were few Assyrians; then came the Turkish threat of Feb 1923 and we enrolled two more battalions specifically to guard the frontier. As our troops have been progressively diminished - quicker than the 'Iraq Army can be paid for, enlisted and trained to take their place - these Levies have been used indiscriminately in the northern provinces. Not indiscriminately; there has been a general reluctance to employ Christian forces in Moslem towns, but with such a shortage of troops, it has been at times almost unavoidable. Hence their presence at Kirkuk. The battalion there happened to have been recruited from wild Assyrian tribesmen, but their officers were completely confident of their good behaviour. They [sic] came a sudden quarrel which as suddenly turned into a cry of Christian against Moslem, discipline went to the winds and what happened happened. The bad luck was that the very next day it had been arranged to move this Assyrian Battalion out of Kirkuk to the little village of Chemchemal [Chamchamal] on the Sulaimani [Sulaymaniyah, As] road - half of them had gone the day before. They're all there now. My own Bellief is - but it's merely a private opinion - that in the future the Assyrians can be used only in their own country, to guard their own frontiers, which are also the 'Iraq frontiers. All the rest I should disband and hope that in time a proportion of them would be induced to enlist in the 'Iraq Army. They serve in the 'Iraq police quite contentedly under 'Iraqi officers. I would like you to explain this to Charlie. Specialized native troops of this kind are always a potential source of danger, especially if their religion also is specialized. The British Govt, in my opinion, would have built far more soundly if it had waved a point and by some strategem would have used the money in the service of the 'Iraq Army, which is British trained but not British officered. However, this point was put forward ad nauseam and rejected.

We took action against Sulaimani town yesterday and today. Sh. Mahmud had siezed the opportunity offered him by the Kirkuk business to proclaim a jihad. That kind of thing had to be stopped at once. Remember it's wild tribes you're dealing with, Moslem and Christian. The inhabitants of the town were given ample warning so that we hope there has been little or no loss of life. They are only too anxious to oust Sh. Mahmud and it [sic] not unlikely that they may prevent him from coming back - he has fled into the hills. You understand, we haven't enough troops to garrison a distant post like Sulaimani. A regiment of 'Iraq cavalry, carefully selected so as to be mainly composed of Kurds, is being sent to Kirkuk. Ultimately I trust that the 'Iraq army will be able to take over Sulaimani. Meantime the only weapon we have is the air.

I've made this clear, haven't I. If our resources were not so exiguous there would be other means of safeguarding the country. But with the Turks bringing up troops on the northern frontier, the 'Iraq army has to be concentrated as much as possible in Mosul [Mawsil, Al] Division.

(The pages have got rather mixed; I hope you can find your way about.)

I must tell you, for your private ear, that this question of the Levies was the subject of acute controversy in the winter of 1920-1. Captain Clayton and I thought (and said to him) that Sir Percy ought to have run any risks in order to secure a beginning on the right homogeneous lines. He should have knocked the heads of the existing British Levy officers and of Ja'far Pasha together, made the former come under the G.H.Q. of the latter and the latter accept them. But we freely admitted that the risks were great; the 'Iraq army at that moment consisted of a General Staff and nothing else - it was an untried experiment. So at Cairo it was decided to raise the Levies to 5000 men to fill the gap till the 'Iraq army was constituted. T.E.L. [T.E. Lawrence] was with me, but Sir Percy had made up his mind. I am obstinately unrepentant of my view. With every year the Levies have become more and more distinctively British and un-'Iraqi and the absurdity of having two unhomogeneous native armies has become more obvious. None the less so because the Levies, being British officered, are smartest and on the whole better troops than the 'Iraq army and therefore are encouraged to become the more bumptious.

Well, the Turkish negotiations have broken down, no doubt largely becaue of our hesitations here, and we still hestitate. The Committee appointed to examine the Treaty has presented its report in some 60 odd pages - I think I told you - and scores of suggested amendments. On Monday the Assembly met to debate it. They decided, on Rauf Chadirji's recommendation, to adopt the English plan, a first and second reading, a committee stage and a third reading, and therewith they proceeded to a literal interpretation and read the Treaty through from A to Z, though they've had it in their pockets for 2 months and it has been published in the papers. Yesterday they read the report of the Committee, of which they equally had printed copies in their pockets. Tomorrow the Lord knows what they intend to do - there's nothing left to read. I Bellieve Ja'far will make a statement on the policy of the 'Iraq Govt. And tomorrow H.M.G.'s instrument to the League of Nations is to be published, with what effect no one, not even the Lord, knows.

Here's a tale to show you what it is like. A day or two ago 4 of the 'Amarah ['Amarah, Al] deputies had asked for an interview with H.E. They arrived in my office at the appointed time and I shepherded them off to H.E. telling them that they might come and see me after. Half an hour later they rolled up again. "Khatun" said the spokesman, Shaikh Shabib, "we have come to ask your advice." "That's what I'm here for" said I. "Do you think" he pursued "that the High Commissioner would give a letter to the King promising that after the ratification of the Treaty the British Govt would consent to all the amendments proposed by the Committee?" "No, I'm sure he wouldn't" said I. They sighed and they glanced at each other and then Shabib observed "That's exactly what the High Commissioner said." "Then why did you ask me?" I exclaimed.

Next day they went to Ken and put him the same question.

My friend Ghadhban came in yesterday - he also is from 'Amarah. "Ah" he said "those 'Amarah shaikhs, you thought you could place implicit confidence in them, and Ghadhban was the black sheep. And now it's Ghadhban who has turned out to be a good man!" He ratted, I'm told, in the afternoon and has since been brought back safely to the fold.

You must remember that with the exception of Ghadhban who has been in and out of trouble, we have not had a single difficulty with the 'Amarah shaikhs since 1914. They didn't join in the rising of 1920 - none of the Tigris did - and in 1921 they elected Faisal king on the express condition that he should follow the advice of the English.

"Of course I would vote for the Treaty" says each one separately, "as long as I'm sure that the majority is with me. But why did you ask us to decide? don't you know that we are not accustomed to making up our minds on matters of state?"

Now have you got the picture a little? Why indeed did we ask them to decide, bless them! And yet I still Bellieve that they will topple into the right decison.

Salman al Dhahir of Diwaniyah [Diwaniyah, Ad] came in today - the great Khaza'il shaikh, bluest tribal blood of the 'Iraq and truest. "Khatun" he said, "I see none of them, they're all against me. What has happened? It's these accursed people of Baghdad, damned of their two parents." "There there!" said I. "It will be all right. You stand fast."

It's all very well, but I'm feeling the strain. Oh if it were finished!

Yasin Pasha and his wife came to tea on Saturday. She chattered on, of one thing and another - how she wanted to learn the piano, had begun to learn it in Damascus [Dimashq (Esh Sham, Damas)], but here she had no piano and the Pasha wouldn't give her one. "After the Treaty" said Yasin and we both laughed.

I had Dr Asfar, Nuri Pasha and Muzahim Pachahji, a lawyer (you remember him - the man who made the speech in English at Basrah [Basrah, Al (Basra)]) to lunch on Sunday. Ja'far had asked me to invite Muzahim who, after some wavering has, Ja'far thinks, plumped for the Treaty. We talked no present politics, but Asfar, a Syrian, described conditions under the French mandate and for an hour we indulged in treasonable speculation as to what would ultimately happen in Syria - if the 'Iraq got onto her feet. I think I did Ja'far a good turn with Muzahim - at the expense of the French!

In the evening we bathed and picnicked, Nigel, Ken, Dr Sinderson (we call him Sinbad - he's a heart of gold) and I. The river had come down and the water was frightfully cold. I shivered all the evening but was none the worse next day.

Lionel, Ken and I have been swimming this afternoon. The river had warmed up - it was delicious, the only really nice thing to do on these hot afternoons.

I went up to the Palace on Monday night after dinner to pronounce on some furniture which the King has got from Constantinople [Istanbul]. It's really not so bad, imitation Louis XV, the kind of thing you find in the best hotels. After I had given my approval, H.M. and I sat for an hour discussing political prospects - rather hopefully. He knows well enough that the ratification of the Treaty is life or death to him.

There, darling, I've finished my disjointed tale. I don't really feel quite like a person while the universe is so unstable. And I can write to no one but you. But it's the greatest comfort to write to you. Your devoted daughter Gertrude.



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