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Negotiating Assyrian Identity in Iraq, 1919-1933

Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2001 at 07:18 AM CT

Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, San Francisco, 20 November 2001.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the US Government. 


About the author

Frederic Wehrey is asenior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He focuses on Gulf political and security affairs, Libya, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

His most recent Carnegie publications include: The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya (2012); The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy (2013); The Forgotten Uprising in Eastern Saudi Arabia (2013); Perilous Desert: Sources of Saharan Insecurity, co-edited with Anouar Boukhars (2013); and Building Libya’s Security Sector, co-authored with Peter Cole (2013).

Prior to joining Carnegie, he was a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he was the lead author of monographs on the domesticroles of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and the strategic impact of the Iraq War in the Middle East. In 2008, he led a RAND strategic advisory team to Baghdad, focusing on post-surge challenges in support of Multinational Forces–Iraq.

Wehrey is also a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and has completed tours in Turkey, Uganda, Libya, Algeria, and Iraq, where he earned the Bronze Star in 2003.

His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, the Atlantic, Washington Quarterly, Current History, the International Herald Tribune, Survival, Sada, the Journal of Democracy, Small Wars and Insurgencies, the Christian Science Monitor, Financial Times, and the Chicago Journal of International Law. He has been interviewed by major media outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, PBS NewsHour, NPR, BBC, and CNN. He routinely briefs U.S. and European government officials on Middle East affairs and has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

He is the author of a new book exploring Sunni-Shi’a identity politics in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, entitled Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprising (Columbia University Press, 2013), named one of 2013’s top five books on the Middle East by Foreign Policymagazine.

He holds a PhD in International Relations from Oxford University and a Master’s in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University.

“This framework, by situating the Assyrian community in the context of Iraqi state formation and the pressures of British imperial control, will provide more compelling reasons for the Assyrians' antipathy towards Iraqi citizenship than sectarian tensions or the inherent incompatibility of a former millet with the demands of the nation-state.”

In July 1933, the prominent Iraqi nationalist party, al-Hezb al-Watani, published a stern appeal to Prime Minister Rashid Ali addressing the issue of Iraq's Assyrian Christian minority.  "The best remedy for this disease," the letter argued, "is to expel the Assyrians promptly to avoid turmoil and disorder."[1]  Less than a month later, the nascent Iraqi army carried out a massacre of several Assyrian villages in northern Iraq.  This seminal event in Iraqi history, known as the "Assyrian Affair," sent shock waves throughout the international community, eroded Britain's influence in Iraq, and galvanized Iraqi public opinion in favor of the nationalists' agenda.

Most literature on the Assyrian question in Iraq has been highly partisan and has focused almost exclusively on the details of the massacre - specifically, the culpability of the Iraqi government or the intransigence of the Assyrians.  These studies all assume the existence of a rigid, primordial Assyrian identity that precluded the integration of the community into the new Iraqi state. [2]  The Assyrian minority and its patriarchal leadership is often described - using such terms as "aloof" and "unassimilable" - as a relic of the Ottoman millet system that was inherently incompatible with the requirements of the "modern" nation-state of Iraq.  Besides denying the Assyrians the ability to redefine their place in the new political order, such an interpretation also ignores the various political pressures that transformed the community's identity during a critical period from 1919 to 1933.

This paper argues that Assyrian identity in Iraq, far from being static and one-dimensional, was actively shaped by the competing efforts of three political actors:  the British colonial administration, the Assyrian religious elite, and Iraqi nationalists.  To understand how the Assyrians articulated their communal identity in response to British imperialism and the imposition of the new Iraqi state, it is necessary to analyze how each of the various political groups perceived the community.  To what degree did these actors, including the Assyrian patriarch, attempt to manipulate or reconstruct Assyrian identity to further their own goals? 

I will first examine how British colonial officials, aided by Western missionaries, deliberately cultivated Assyrian notions of autonomy and recruited the Assyrians into an armed auxiliary force, the Levies, which defended British interests in Iraq.  Besides exacerbating inter-ethnic tensions in northern Iraq, the Assyrian Levies were instrumental in defining the community's political relationship with the emergent Iraqi state.  Responding to British patronage and increased attention from the League of Nations, how did the Assyrian patriarch use the issue of political autonomy and "self-determination" as a way to preserve his traditional authority and undermine rival claimants for power?  Finally, this paper will explore how Iraqi nationalists deliberately misrepresented the issue of Assyrian integration in order to consolidate their power.  In a sense, the Assyrian community became a manufactured enemy whose suppression enabled certain Iraqi officials to deflect internal criticism and advance their agenda of centralization and conscription. 

This framework, by situating the Assyrian community in the context of Iraqi state formation and the pressures of British imperial control, will provide more compelling reasons for the Assyrians' antipathy towards Iraqi citizenship than sectarian tensions or the inherent incompatibility of a former millet with the demands of the nation-state.  But before we examine the formation of Assyrian identity in mandate Iraq, it is necessary to briefly highlight the evolution of the community prior to World War I - focusing specifically on Western influences.

Related Information 
Assyrian History Timeline: 1900's | 1800's
 (historical documents, letters and articles)
April 20, 1920 - London Times: The Assyrians
1369-1400: The Massacres of Timurlane & The Escape to Hakkari
1840-1860: The Khilafah Massacres

Background: Assyrian Identity and the Western Imagination

Known variously as Nestorians, Chaldeans, or Church of the East, the Assyrians are Syriac-speaking Christians whose doctrine originated in teachings of the fifth century patriarch Nestorius amidst great theological controversy.  Persecuted by the Byzantines, they later fled the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to settle near present-day Mosul and in the Urmiyah region of Persia.  Until the end of World War I, the largest concentration of Assyrians was found in the mountainous Hakkari region of eastern Turkey.[3]  This area, together with northern Iraq, continues to be viewed by many in the Assyrian diaspora as the community's historic homeland. 

Yet territorial attachment itself does not explain the evolution of Assyrian identity.  Beginning in the 1830s, European missionary activity, racial theories, and orientalist narratives had a major impact on the community's self-perception and its relationship with neighboring Muslims and foreign powers.   Anglican and American Protestant missionaries, arriving in Hakkari in the 1830s, viewed the Assyrians as potential collaborators in the proselytizing enterprise.  Writing in 1833, the Anglican missionary Eli Smith hoped that the community would become "a prop upon which to rest the lever that will overturn the whole system of Mohammedan illusion."[4] 

By accepting the patronage of foreign missionaries, the Assyrian patriarch - known as Mar Shimun - sought to enhance his prestige in relation to the Ottoman porte and neigboring Kurdish aghas.  Remarking on this client-patron relationship, the Kurdish leader Shaykh Ubayd Allah asked a Turkish officer in 1881, "What is this I hear... that the Nestorians are going to hoist the British flag and declare themselves British subjects?"[5]  A perceived imbalance of power and the growing independence of Assyrian tenants from their Kurdish landlords probably served as a catalyst for the massacre of Assyrian villages by Kurds in 1843.  Yet the practice of seeking foreign patronage continued among the Assyrian elite throughout the 19th century and became a major irritant for the Iraqi government during the mandate period.

In addition to the influence of foreign missionaries, the archeological discovery of Nineveh transformed the Assyrian community's definition of self.  Galvanizing the Western imagination, the excavations of 1842 and 1845 led European travel writers and archaeologists to discern physical similarities between the modern Nestorians and the monumental sculptures unearthed at Nineveh.  The archeologist A.H. Layard argued that the Nestorian Christians "are indeed as much the remains of Nineveh, and Assyria, as the rude heaps and ruined palaces."  Travel writer J.P. Fletcher believed the local Christians were "the only surviving memorial of Assyria and Babylonia."[6]

Although at times contrary to ethnographic evidence, this narrative was gradully adopted by the Assyrian community and later used by the Assyrian elite to buttress their claims for an autonomous enclave in northern Iraq.[7]  The word "Assyrian" entered into currency among the Nestorian Christians as a term of self-definition soon after the archaeological discoveries.  Assyrian diaspora communities in the United States and elsewhere began using images of ancient Assyrian reliefs on their letterhead a trend which continues today among the Assyrian "internet community."[8]  Foreign missionaries helped propagate this important heritage among the Assyrians and publicized it to an international audience during the interwar period.[9]  Their version of the Assyrian past ultimately shaped the favoritist attitude of British administrators and officers in Iraq towards their Assyrian clients' an attitude which tacitly encouraged Assyrian estrangement from the Iraqi state.

British Patronage in Mandate Iraq

How did the British in Iraq contribute to the formation of a distinct political identity among the Assyrians?  The symbiotic relationship between the British colonial administrators and their Assyrian clients arose from the peculiar refugee status of the Assyrians following World War I.  Emboldened by promises of Russian support, the Assyrian patriarch declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1915.  By the end of the war, the Assyrians in the Urmiyah region had suffered staggering losses from Turkish army offensives and attacks by local Kurds.  In 1918, nearly 70,000 Assyrians began a perilous 300-mile trek to seek protection at British base at Hamadan in western Iran.  During this journey, it is estimated that nearly 20,000 Assyrians perished from starvation, exposure, and marauding attacks by Iranians, Kurds, and Turks.  Unable to fully accommodate these destitute refugees, the British authorities transferred the surviving Assyrians to a British-sponsored refugee camp in Iraq at Baquba, forty miles north of Baghdad.[10] 

Upon assuming the mandate in Iraq, British colonial authorities faced serious challenges from Kurdish unrest and a perceived Kemalist threat from Turkey.  Seeking to suppress these disturbances while at the same time minimizing the burdensome costs of empire, the British developed a unique strategy of indirect rule.  Their method of policing the mandate relied heavily on the use of local proxies, backed up by the authority and firepower of the Royal Air Force.  For this purpose, the Assyrian refugee community at Baquba proved to be an ideal recruiting pool.

The recruitment of Assyrians into a British-officered military force known as the Levies beginning in 1919 was a fateful step in the development of a distinct Assyrian identity in Iraq.[11]  British partiality toward the employment of Assyrian Christians as imperial proxies stemmed in large measure from the British colonial theory of the ?martial races.?  As practiced in India and Africa, this peculiar European belief held that certain ethnic groups or sects -- Gurkhas and Berbers for example -- were better suited to soldiering and warfare.[12]  With valuable experience fighting in mountainous terrain, the Assyrian men of the Baquba refugee camp were viewed by the British as a "hardy, virile race," who were inherently superior to the settled townsmen or the Kurdish tribes.[13] Here is the British Colonial Office estimation of Assyrian soldiers in a 1921 report:

Led by British officers, they are a native force second to none... their quickness in picking up discipline and their mettle in battle has surprised and delighted all who have been concerned with them.[14]

In addition to their martial prowess, British reports praised the Assyrians for their "high standard of morality" and drew attention to the virtual absence of venereal disease among the Assyrians, compared to the significantly higher rates among Kurds and Arab townspeople.[15] 

A more visible signal of British partiality was the outfitting of the Levies in British military uniforms.  The effect that these distinctive uniforms had on transforming the Assyrians from a group of armed "irregulars" into a more official arm of British policy should not be underestimated.  The uniforms signified Britain's recognition that the Assyrians were perhaps less "oriental" and more worthy of trust than their Arab and Kurdish neighbors.  They altered the self-perception of the Assyrian community by visibly linking the Levies to the British government.  For the Iraqi Arab populace, the Kurds, and Iraqi nationalists, these uniforms served as a continued reminder of British domination.[16]

Emboldened by their uniforms, higher pay, and better training, the Assyrian Levies often derided and ridiculed the Arabs of the Iraqi army.  What British officials mildly termed "esprit de corps" was perceived by Iraqi Arabs as haughtiness and, in many cases, blatant racism.[17]  Frequent contact with Royal Air Force and British army officers undoubtedly influenced Assyrian notions of distinctiveness and autonomy.  In 1923, Gertrude Bell wrote that British officers were "constantly reminding the Levies that they're good British soldiers, not dirty little Arabs."[18]

Aside from this preferential treatment, the decision by British authorities to let Assyrian soldiers keep their rifles and 200 rounds of ammunition following their discharge from the Levies played a critical role in the community's subsequent confrontation with the emerging Iraqi state.  In the eyes of Iraqi nationalists, particularly after the termination of the British mandate, the presence of armed Christians in the north was a serious challenge to the centralizing power of the new government.  Yet Assyrian men -- their community surrounded by frequently hostile Kurds -- viewed the retention of arms as a vital means to protect their families and an essential condition of their service in the Levies. 

On the eve of the massacre, the Iraqi government mutassarif for Mosul made this statement about the proliferation of firearms:  

The ultimate policy of the Iraq Government is to minimize the number of rifles in possession of tribes throughout Iraq; when the time comes for the execution of this policy the Assyrians would be required to surrender a number of their rifles at the same time as the Arabs and Kurds do so.[19]

In addition to its lenient arms policy, Britain's use of the Levies in the suppression of dissident uprisings in Iraq branded the Assyrians as imperial collaborators in the eyes of Iraqi nationalists.  During the 1920 revolt in Iraq -- a rare instance of cooperation among Shi?is, Kurds, and Sunnis -- the Assyrian community aided British efforts to restore order and quelch the uprising.  Iraqi nationalists from the Mosul branch of al-Ahd al-Iraqi issued a manifesto to the Assyrians in May 1920 urging them to join the revolt and ignore British attempts to foment divisions among the Iraqi populace.[20] Dismissing this appeal, the Assyrian Levies proved to be a formidable bulwark against nascent Iraqi anti-imperialism.  The British view of the Assyrians' utility in suppressing this revolt is reflected in the remarks of the British commander, General Haldane, who wrote that without "the entirely fortuitous support (of the Assyrians), is possible that a large portion of the Mosul Division might have been swamped in the wave of anarchy."[21]  This gratitude was not unnoticed by the Assyrians; as late as 1945, an Assyrian petition for an autonomous enclave in northern Iraq cited the valuable service the Levies had rendered in preserving British rule against internal dissent.[22]

The employment of the Assyrian Levies as a counter-insurgent force and the broader British favoritism it reflected also exacerbated tensions between the Kurdish and Assyrian communities in northern Iraq.  Since the 1920 uprising, the Levies were used almost exclusively against the proto-nationalist revolts of Kurdish leader Shaykh Mahmud, earning them the enduring enmity of the Kurdish tribes.  In May of 1924, following a dispute over prices with a local shopkeeper, a group of Assyrian soldiers massacred nearly forty Muslims in the town of Kirkuk in southern Kurdistan.  In response to this event, Shaykh Mahmud proclaimed a jihad against both the British and the Assyrians and assembled his forces for an attack on Kirkuk - actions which elicited an aerial bombardment of his headquarters by the Royal Air Force.[23]  Since the Levies were under an entirely separate jurisdiction than the Iraqi army, a British court martial handled the prosecution of the case.[24]  Although it found nine Assyrians guilty, the British tribunal later pardoned them and failed to launch an exhaustive inquiry.[25]  Provoking outrage in the Iraqi nationalist press, the Kirkuk massacre and the lenient British response deepened the hatred of the Assyrians by both Kurds and the Iraqi nationalist elite.[26]

More importantly than the suppression of internal Kurdish unrest, the Assyrians were used as a buffer against Kemalist attacks from Turkey.  For the British in Iraq, the Kemalist threat became a major preoccupation; official correspondence is filled with rumors of Turkish agitation among the Kurdish tribes or Kemalist propaganda among Indian imperial troops.[27]  Beginning with their first military operation against Turkish forces near Rowanduz in 1921, the Assyrian Levies established themselves as a valuable pillar in Britain?s frontier confrontation with Turkey.  Sir Percy Cox believed that the Assyrians' armed presence on the northern frontier was "the main reason which induced the Kemalists to abandon their projected attack."[28]

By serving as a buffer, the Assyrians enabled Britain to preserve its interests in the Mosul province during frontier negotiations with Turkey and the League of Nations.  In 1924, the British initially used the Assyrian refugee population under its protection as an argument for the inclusion of the Hakkari province within the mandate of Iraq.  When this failed, Britain pressed for the Mosul vilayet, again citing its concern for the Assyrians.  Thinly disguising its interest in the oil deposits of the Mosul region, the British Colonial Office Report to the League of Nations states:

The advantages to the Assyrians and to the Iraqi State alike, in securing a frontier that would include these areas in Iraq (Amadia, Dohuk, and Aqra) are obvious.  The Assyrians for their part, would share in the benefit of British advice and assistance offered by the present Treaty... Instead of Turkish rule, they would be in Arab hands, who apart from any influence exercised by Great Britain, have shown themselves benevolent to Christian communities.  The Iraq Government, on its side, would see its frontier garrisoned by a race of sturdy mountaineers whose vital interests were involved in resisting attack from the north.[29]

A League of Nations Commission, convinced that the majority of the inhabitants of the Mosul region preferred British over Turkish rule, awarded the Mosul vilayet to Iraq.  Yet the bulk of the territory formerly inhabited by the Assyrians was allotted to Turkey. [30] This decision created a new political context for Assyrian ambitions by officially precluding the return of the community to their former homes in Hakkari.

Preserving "Ancient Privilege":  The Assyrian Patriarch

The permanent settlement of the refugee Assyrian community and its political rights under the government of Iraq became a major concern to the League of Nations.  Increased attention by the League emboldened the Assyrian patriarch to redefine Assyrian identity in more autonomous political and territorial terms a transformation that was calculated to preserve the traditional power of the patriarchy.

Service in the Iraq Levies provided a means of income for Assyrian men and their families, yet it failed to resolve the question of the refugee community's settlement.  Various schemes were proposed by the British and attempted; none worked.  In January of 1919, British officials sought to reward the Assyrians for their service against rebellious Kurds by creating an Assyrian enclave in the Amadia district near Mosul.  To make room for the Assyrians, the British planned to eject the Kurds from their villages in Amadia.  Yet the outbreak of the 1920 revolt prevented the implementation of this ill-conceived scheme.  In 1921, the refugee camp at Baquba was closed and funds were distributed for the Assyrians to settle in the Dohuk and Aqra area.  Many Assyrians drifted across the border to their old homeland to Hakkari, only to be turned away by Turkish authorities in September of 1924.[31]

Subsequent Turkish opposition to an Assyrian presence within or near its frontier with Iraq created new pressures for both the British and the League of Nations.  In October of 1924, the Turkish government protested to the League that the "artificial grouping of Assyrians" on its frontier would jeopardize good relations between Turkey and Iraq and threaten the safety of the Assyrians.[32]  With the passage of the Iraq Nationality Law of 1924, the Assyrians in northern Iraq were no longer regarded as temporary refugees, but Iraqi citizens.  In response to this legislation and Turkish opposition, the League of Nations pressed for guarantees from the Iraqi government and the British mandatory administration for the political and religious rights of the Assyrian community.  The League's report for 1924 states:

We feel it our duty, however, to point out that the Assyrians should be guaranteed the re-establishment of the ancient privileges which they possessed in practice, if not officially, before the war.  Which ever may be the sovereign State, it ought to grant these Assyrians a certain local autonomy, recognizing their right to appoint their own officials and contenting itself with a tribute from them, paid through the agency of their Patriarch.[33] (Author's italics)

By endorsing what it perceived to be the patriarch's "ancient privileges," the League emboldened the Assyrian elite to resist the centralizing power of the nascent Iraqi state.  Perhaps unknowingly, the League had adopted a narrative that did not necessarily correspond to the realities of Assyrian life and did not reflect the self-definition of most Assyrians, but rather one that specifically served the interests of the patriarch.  The temporal authority which the Mar Shimun and the League claimed were primordial and ?ancient,? were in fact the result of recent changes in the community?s political status and, most importantly, the support of yet another foreign patron.

British patronage revived and inflated the temporal authority of the Mar Shimun and the Assyrian aristocracy -- known as Maliks -- which had waned during the wartime dislocation of the community.  When the British sought to recruit the Assyrians for service in the Levies after the war, they purposefully cultivated the political authority of the Mar Shimun and the Malik elite.  Acting as convenient intermediaries for the British, the patriarchal family organized recruiting campaigns among the destitute Assyrian refugees.  Most Maliks and their sons received commissions as officers.[34]  Because the power of the patriarch depended to a large extent upon the geographic concentration of the community, the Levies became an ideal way to strengthen and preserve the channels of his political power. 

The impending termination of the mandate, signified by the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930, created a dilemma for the religious elite by threatening to erode these new institutions of power.  While Iraqi nationalists opposed the treaty, citing its preservation of British access to Iraq, the Assyrian elite perceived the treaty as paving the way for Sunni Arab domination.   For the Assyrian patriarch, the treaty signaled the loss of an important patron, the elimination of the Levies, and the possible dispersal of his community under Kurdish landlords.  Adapting to the new political environment, the Mar Shimun sought to preserve the geographic cohesion of his community within the boundaries of Iraq.

Efforts by the Mar Shimun to emphasize the homogeneity and autonomy of the Assyrian community culminated in the submission of the Assyrian National Petition to the League of Nations on June 18, 1932.[35] This document -- signed by Levy officers, influential Maliks, and the Mar Shimun -- demanded Assyrian self-government in an autonomous enclave within Iraq and threatened a widespread resignation of Levy personnel.  By rejecting both the immediate authority of their British officers and the centralizing power of the Iraqi state, the Levies pledged their obedience to the temporal authority of the Mar Shimun.  Aptly termed a "mutiny" in British correspondence, this crisis was averted through a combination of British diplomatic persuasion and show of force.  The Levies renounced their threatened resignation, pledged to refrain from future political activity, and promised to wait until December for a decision from the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission.[36] 

The National Petition was a significant attempt to redefine Assyrian identity in the context of the Iraqi state, yet it did not represent a broad consensus among the community about its place in the new political order.  Instead of reflecting an inherent Assyrian incompatibility with the Iraqi state, the National Petition was the product of elite self-interest and a rising trend of factionalism.  A growing opposition movement to the Mar Shimun had begun as early as 1930, with significant numbers of lower-ranking Assyrians willing to assimilate into Iraqi society according to the wishes of the Iraqi government.[37]  At its core, the National Petition was an attempt by elite supporters of the Mar Shimun to forestall the dispersal of the community by combining the language of "ancient privilege" with the fashionable terms of self-determination.  After the independence of Iraq in October 1932, this reconstituted Assyrian identity proved to be patently intolerable to Iraqi nationalists and the fragile Iraqi government.

The Iraqi Nationalists? Response

Demands for an autonomous enclave in the country populated by armed Assyrians presented an almost existential challenge to the Iraqi government.  Yet its immediate response to the Assyrian National Petition of June 1932 reflects a division of opinion about the Assyrian issue, as well as deep fissures within the Iraqi power structure.  Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said "regretted" that the lenient policy that Iraq had previously adopted toward the Assyrians "had become a reason for them to put forward demands, most of which are unreasonable."[38] King Faisal, on the other hand, adopted a more moderate response.   Although he did not concede to the demands of the Mar Shimun, he was willing to set up a waqf for the building and upkeep of Assyrian churches, and offered to grant a block of land for the Assyrians in southern Iraq.[39] Faisal's more lenient approach to the Assyrian issue would ultimately become a source of great unpopularity. 

On December 15th, the League of Nations rejected the National Petition?s demand for administrative autonomy and urged the Iraqi government to facilitate the settlement of the Assyrians within Iraq.  The Mar Shimun adopted an obstructionist policy, refusing to cooperate with the British-appointed land settlement officer, Major Thomson.  He argued that a "solution of the problem cannot be formed in the carrying out of any plan that is entirely left to the discretion of (the) Iraqi Government and the 'foreign expert' appointed by it."[40]  Angered by this intransigence, the Iraqi government summoned the patriarch to Baghdad and presented him with an ultimatum.  Iraqi Minister of the Interior Hikmat Sulayman demanded that the patriarch sign a written oath, dated May 28th 1933.  The text of the oath reveals the extent of the Iraqi government's frustration toward the Assyrian problem:

I, Mar Shimun... do hereby promise that I will never do anything which may be an obstacle to the duties of Major Thomson and the Government of Iraq...that I will always and in every way remain one of the most faithful subjects of His Majesty the Great King.[41] 

Refusing to sign this oath, the patriarch was placed under house arrest by Hikmat Sulayman.  King Faisal, in London at the time, opposed this measure, arguing that "if the Mar Shimun is detained against his will, the Assyrian insurgency could expand and Iraq will become weak externally."[42]  Yet this accommodating viewpoint did not prevail.   Faisal's absence from Iraq during the Assyrian crisis enabled more nationalist-minded politicians to use the Assyrian issue as a way to undermine the monarch?s authority.  It also allowed his nationalist rivals within the Iraqi government to consolidate their control.

Having formed a new Iraqi government only two months before the Mar Shimun was summoned to Baghdad, the Hezb al-Ikha of Prime Minister Rashid Ali held a tenuous grasp on power.  The party came under fire from its former allies, the Hezb al-Watani (under the leadership of Ja'far Abu al-Timman) for its recognition of the Anglo-Iraq Treaty of 1930 widely viewed as a traitorous concession to British demands.  With its nationalist credentials under attack, the Ikha government needed a way to restore its legitimacy, divert public attention, and restore relations with the Watani party.  The Assyrian problem provided this opportunity.[43]  Following Iraq's independence, Ikha politicians exploited and encouraged popular resentment toward the Assyrians. 

On the eve of the massacre, outrage among the Iraqi nationalists toward the Assyrians had reached a fever pitch.  Perhaps the greatest source of loathing was the issue of the Levies.  As has been mentioned, the creation of the Levies presented a challenge to the nascent Iraqi army, which Iraqi nationalists such as Sati al-Husri and Yasin al-Hashemi viewed as the embodiment of the country's national strength.[44]  Britain's purpose in maintaining the Assyrian Levies, these nationalists argued, was to prevent the expansion of an indigenous Iraqi army.  As early 1923, the nationalist newspaper al-Asimah called for the disbandment of the Assyrian Levies and the addition of an equivalent number of men to the Iraqi Army.  By 1933, feelings of professional rivalry and jealousy by Iraqi army officers toward the British-sponsored Assyrian Levies had escalated.  As General Rowan-Robinson, head of the British Military Mission in Baghdad stated, the Iraqis, "have always feared as well as hated the Assyrians.  They have continually heard the British broadcast the superiority of the latter over the Arabs as soldiers."[45]

The nationalist press used the issue of the Assyrians to promote an anti-imperialist agenda prior to and after the massacre.  The July 30, 1933 edition of al-Ahali editorialized on Britain?s patronage of the Assyrians:

We do not agree that our country should alone remain a field for mischief-making and a toy in the hands of foreigners.  Britain should be made to understand that the policy of ?divide and rule,? which she pursued in the past, is a policy of the past.[46]

Other newspapers, such as al-Istiqlal and al-Ikha al-Watani, echoed this sentiment, arguing that Britain deliberately fostered unrest and disaffection among the Assyrians as a way to keep Iraq weak.[47]  Such anti-imperial fervor was not confined to Iraq; the Palestinian newspaper Falastin argued that Britain played an active role in fomenting the Assyrian "uprising" of August 1933.[48]

Prior to the massacre of August, the Iraqi government attempted to foster a split between prominent Assyrian religious leaders and the Mar Shimun.  On July 10th, the Iraqi government mutassarif for Mosul, Kahlil Azmi Beg, called a meeting of Assyrian Maliks in Mosul to reiterate once more the government?s policy of rejecting the patriarch's demands for temporal authority.  "You who are present, and who are older than he," the mutassarif urged the attendees, "should advise him to submit to the Government."[49]  This important speech also contains a veiled threat of government retaliation against continued Assyrian intransigence:

The long patience of the Government towards some of the Assyrians of fractious temperament and the leniency shown to them, despite their deviation from the lawful path, is only founded on feelings of humanity towards parties of refugees who have settled in its country.  But this does not mean that the Government will remain lenient further, since those ungrateful persons who continue misleading do not deserve to receive good.[50]

At this meeting, Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stafford, British Administrative Inspector for Mosul, urged the Assyrians to learn Arabic, assimilate into Iraqi society, and "get rid of the present spirit of aloofness."  Yet at the same time, he intimated that Assyrian men might be able to move to Syria and find employment in French colonial armies.[51]

After the meeting -- possibly in response to Colonel Stafford's comments -- an armed group of 800 pro-patriarch Assyrians led by Malik Yaku, a former officer in the Levies, crossed the Tigris River into Syria.  Having left their children and wives behind, this group later protested to the League of Nations that it had no warlike intentions.[52]  French authorities forced the Assyrians back across the Tigris, where they skirmished with Iraqi soldiers who had been dispatched to intercept them.  Following the death of seventy Iraqi soldiers, an Iraqi force under General Bakr Sidqi carried out a wide scale massacre of about 100 Assyrian villagers at Dohuk and Zakhu.  The worst atrocities were committed at the nearby village of Summayl on August 11th, where a machine gun company under the command of Ismail Tuhullah, an aide of Bakr Sidqi, massacred a group of unarmed Assyrians.[53]

The Utility of the Massacre

The purpose of this paper is not to debate the extent of Assyrian civilian deaths at Summayl; the Assyrians claim 3000, while the British cite the figure as no greater than 300.  The exact details of the event remain murky, with different versions put forth by various parties -- the British, the Iraqis, the Assyrians, foreign missionaries, and the US State Department.  Unsurprisingly, each account exhibits a pronounced bias.  Yet even the most ardent supporter of the Iraqi position, Khaldun S. Husry, admits that the official Iraqi account of events is a "barefaced and clumsy lie."[54]

Most controversy surrounding the massacre centered on Bakr Sidqi's responsibility for the massacre and the involvement of the central government in Baghdad.  Despite Husry?s arguments to the contrary, there is a strong likelihood that Bakr Sidqi ordered the killing, with the implicit consent of Iraqi Minister of the Interior Hikmat Sulayman and the Ikha government.[55] 

Since the massacre was linked to the central government, several key questions emerge.  How was the massacre utilized by Iraqi nationalists?  What indications does it give us about the growth of nationalism and the process of state-building in Iraq?  How did it set a precedent for future relations between the Iraqi government and the country?s various sects and ethnic groups?  As historian Mark Levene argues in his study of massacres in history, "A massacre is a statement less of a state whose power is unfettered but one whose power is diffused, fragmented, or unsure of itself."[56]  The response of the Iraqi government to the Assyrian threat should therefore be viewed as, simultaneously, an anti-imperialist statement directed at the British and an exhibition of state power by a fragile and immature government. 

The return of Bakr Sidqi's army to Baghdad provides a revealing glimpse of the popular mood of anti-imperialism following the Assyrian massacre.  A US State Department dispatch from Baghdad on August 30th describes military parades for the victorious army, soldiers showered with rose water and flowers, and--more ominously--the lynching of a discharged Assyrian Levy officer by an angry crowd.[57]  Leaflets dropped by Iraqi aircraft during the parade welcomed the army as "protectors of the fatherland," and condemned the Assyrians as "tools and creatures of imperialism."[58]  King Faisal's son, Crown Prince Ghazi, became the object of popular adulation because of his endorsement of Bakr Sidqi and the Ikha government.  A common chant in Baghdad movie theaters and other mass gatherings was "Ghazi shook London and made it cry."[59]   In contrast, the ailing King Faisal, before his death on September 8th, watched his prestige plummet because of his moderate stance on the Assyrian issue and his ties to the British.[60] 

The Ikha government exploited this wave of sentiment to push forward several specific policies.  The first was the passage of a bill for mass conscription?a move which had long been advocated by the nationalists, but had previously been rejected by the British and the majority of the populace.  A speech by Prime Minister Rashid Ali in Mosul highlights the Assyrian threat as justification for the expansion of the army:

You no doubt now appreciate the country?s need for a regular force to build a strong foundation for our existence...Yes, the Army should be strengthened in order that it should protect our honor.  Service in the Army should be made general and compulsory...Every one of us should share in the honor of performing this sacred duty, in order to fulfill the saying, "If you wish to be honored, be strong."[61]

Following, the Assyrian affair, popular opposition to conscription -- particularly among the Kurds -- disintegrated.  In early September 1933, forty-nine Kurdish aghas sent a petition to the government urging the adoption of conscription and expressing their thanks to the army for suppressing the "Assyrian insurgents."[62]  Given previous tensions between the Assyrian and Kurdish communities, this praise is not surprising.  What is remarkable is that the Kurdish leaders, traditionally at odds with any government policy of centralization, should openly support the expansion of the Iraqi army.  The fact that Bakr Sidqi was of Kurdish origin and that the majority of Iraqi troops involved in the massacres were Kurdish irregulars may offer a partial explanation for this enthusiasm. 

In January 1934, the new government of Jamil Midfa'i passed the conscription bill, marking a significant step in the consolidation of state power in Iraq.  This move, combined with Bakr Sidqi?s reception as a folk hero following the massacre, heralded the entry of military officers into Iraqi politics.  Bakr Sidqi, conspiring with his longtime ally Hikmat Sulayman, overthrew the government of Yasin al-Hashemi in 1936.  The army, as a vehicle for personal power, became a regular feature in Iraq?s unstable political arena for the next half-century. 

After the massacres, the British administrative position in Iraq became increasingly untenable under a wave of anti-imperialist and anti-foreign sentiment.  Bakr Sidqi's operations against the Assyrian villages in August were intended as a demonstration of the army's independence and a rejection of British tutelage.  By excluding British officers from the zone of operations, he effectively rebuffed British efforts to control the young Iraqi army.[63]  Soon afterwards, the nationalist press demanded the arrest of "foreign intelligence officers" who had incited the Assyrian "rebellion."[64]  As implemented by the government, this policy entailed the execution of those Iraqis suspected of collaboration with British forces in Iraq.  Yet it also provided a convenient pretext for the elimination of the regime's political opponents. 

Anti-imperialist policies of the government were not aimed solely at the British.  The Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs complained to the US State Department in mid-August 1933 that two American missionaries working in Mosul and Dohuk had incited the Assyrians to rebel.  "It is essential to get rid of them," the Iraqi government argued, "or at least to sever their relations with the Assyrians."[65]  In the post-massacre period, the Assyrian issue provided the new Iraqi government with a pretext to demand the removal of all foreign influence -- agents, missionaries, and advisors -- from the independent state.

To the utter surprise of the nationalists, Britain did not come to the aid of its Assyrian clients.  British policymakers reached the conclusion that their security interests in the Middle East were better served by supporting the central government of Iraq.  The British position toward its proxies is summed up in retrospect by the British High Commissioner for Iraq, Sir Francis Humphreys: 

The fact must be faced that in this modern world--especially in the East--which has witnessed the growth of national aspirations and the consolidation of the authority of central governments, a minority must conform to the laws of the state.[66]

Humphreys continued to shift the blame for the Assyrian massacre away from British policymakers, arguing that the "real villain" was the Assyrian patriarch and his "credulous well-wishers in the US and Europe."[67]

Following the massacre, the British continued their endeavors to find the Assyrians a suitable homeland outside Iraq.  In exchange for a large payment by the Iraqi government, France accepted 1,500 Assyrian men, women, and children into the mandate of Syria.[68]  But by 1937, settlement efforts were abandoned and those Assyrians remaining in Iraq eventually accepted Iraqi citizenship.  Two developments undoubtedly hastened this process of integration:  the deportation of the Mar Shimun in 1933 and the disbandment of the Levies in 1955.  By dismantling the institutions of patriarchal authority and foreign patronage, the Iraqi government effectively removed two important barriers to Assyrian assimilation.[69]


This paper has sought to challenge the conventional explanation that the confrontation between the Assyrian community and the new Iraqi government represented the inevitable collision of "traditionalism" with the "modernity" of the state.  By examining the transformation of Assyrian identity from three perspectives--the British colonial administration, the Assyrian religious elite, and the Iraqi nationalists--I have attempted to show how Assyrian "intransigence" had a certain utility for the interests of each group.  Each group, I argue, played a critical role in redefining the Assyrian community's political identity.

The transformation of Assyrian identity during the period of 1919 to 1933 was thus the result of calculated policies by British policymakers and the reception of this patronage by the Assyrian religious elite.  At the same time, the community?s conception of its political status--particularly its willingness to meet the requirements of Iraqi citizenship--was influenced by its confrontation with Iraqi nationalists.  Although not representing a shared consensus among the Assyrians, the patriarch?s demands for increased political autonomy were perceived by certain Iraqi officials as a dire threat to the coherence of the Iraqi state.  If armed Assyrians were allowed to resist government authority, these nationalists asked, might other ethnic groups and religious sects follow suit?  Yet in many ways, the "Assyrian menace" was an exaggerated product of the nationalists? insecurity and precarious political position.  The suppression of this perceived threat became a means for the fragile new government to deflect internal criticism and advance its agenda of centralization, state-building, and conscription.  

Beyond its tragic results for the Assyrian community and its subsequent enshrinement in the collective memory of the Assyrian diaspora, the massacre of July 1933 has an additional significance for post-mandate Iraqi history.  It was instrumental in setting new parameters for political behavior among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.  It demonstrated that the Iraqi regime was willing to use overwhelming force to subordinate communal loyalties to the identity of the Iraqi state.

[1] Council of the League of Nations, Official Journal, 14 (December 1933):  1808.

[2] For the argument that Britain "abandoned" the Assyrians to the fate of the Iraqi state, see R.S. Stafford, The Tragedy of the Assyrians (London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1935) and Yusuf Malik, The British Betrayal of the Assyrians (Warren Point NJ:  Kimball Press, 1935).  Khaldun S. Husry, "The Assyrian Affair of 1933" (Parts I & II), International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (April 1974 and June 1974) is an Iraqi apologist?s interpretation that defends the actions of Bakr Sidqi and the army.  Irrespective of their stance, these authors seem to oversimplify the communal roots of Assyrian opposition to assimilation; they ignore the influence of Assyrian elite politics, British policy, and the utility of the Assyrians to Iraqi nationalists.  In addition to these accounts, Hanna Batatu paints the Assyrian community as "a foreign and unassimilable people," without providing any context or reasons.  Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq:  A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba?thists, and Free Officers (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1978), 869.

[3] John Joseph, The Nestorians and their Muslim Neighbors:  A Study of Western Influence on their Relations (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1961), 28-34.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Quoted in David McDowell, A Modern History of the Kurds (London:  I.B. Tauris, 1996), 57.

[6] Joseph, 13.

[7] Anthony A. D'Amato, The Assyrian Case for Autonomy (Chicago:  Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, 1982); available from; accessed 2 December 2000.  Also, Joseph, 13-22.  For an excellent discussion of Assyrian territorial identity, particularly among the diaspora, see Madawai Al-Rasheed, Iraqi Assyrian Christians in London:  The Construction of Ethnicity (Lewiston, UK:  The Edwin Mellen Press, 2000), 111-114. 

[8] See for example or  On the top of the Assyrian national flag is the standard of King Sargon, founder of the first Assyrian empire.

[9] One is prominent example is W.A. Wigram, The Assyrians and their Neighbours (London:  G. Bell & Sons, 1929).

[10]Lieutenant Colonel R.S. Stafford, The Tragedy of the Assyrians (London:  George Allen and Unwin, 1935), 30-35.  Also, Joseph, 137-144.

[11] Originally founded in 1915, the Levies were initially comprised of Arabs and Kurds, yet by 1921 the British had begun to recruit almost entirely from the Assyrian community.  Brigadier-General J. Gilbert Browne, The Iraq Levies (London:  Royal United Service Institution, 1932), 1-15.

[12] David Killingray, "Guardians of Empire," in Guardians of Empire:  The Armed Forces of the Colonial Powers c. 1700-1964, eds. David Killingray and David Omissi (New York:  St. Martin?s Press, 1999), 14.

[13] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report on the Administration of Iraq, October 1920-March 1922 (London: HMSO, 1922), 69.

[14] Ibid., 110.

[15] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report by His Britannic Majesty?s Government to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Iraq for the Period April 1923-December 1924  (London:  HMSO, 1925), 39.

[16] Khaldun S. Husry, "The Assyrian Affair of 1933 (I)," International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (April 1974):  166.

[17] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Special Report by His Majesty?s Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Progress of Iraq during the period 1920-1931 (London:  HMSO, 1931), 268.

[18] Quoted in Husry, 165.

[19] Royal Government of Baghdad, Correspondence Relating to the Assyrian Settlement (Baghdad:  Government Press, 1933), 42.

[20] Eliezer Tauber, The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq (Portland OR:  Frank Cass, 1995), 263.

[21] Quoted in Sir Arnold Wilson, Mesopotamia, 1917-1920:  A Clash of Loyalties (London:  Oxford University Press, 1931), 291.

[22] Assyrian National Petition, Presented to the World Security Conference, San Francisco, California USA on May 7, 1945; available from; accessed on 2 December 2000.

[23] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report on the Administration of Iraq, April 1923-December 1924, 19.

[24] Ibid., 21.

[25] Stafford, 47.

[26] Ibid., 68.

[27] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report on the Administration of Iraq, October 1920-March 1922, 114-117.

[28] Ibid., 110.

[29] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report on the Administration of Iraq, April 1923-December 1924, 20.

[30] Phebe Marr, A Modern History of Iraq, (Boulder CO:  Westview Press, 1985), 43.

[31] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Special Report on the Progress of Iraq, 1920-1931, 266-279.

[32] Council of the League of Nations, Official Journal 5, no. 10 (October 1924): 1566-1583.

[33] Quoted in United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Special Report on the Progress of Iraq, 1920-1931, 269-270.

[34] United Kingdom, Colonial Office, Report on the Administration of Iraq, April 1922-March 1923 (London:  HMSO, 1924), 52-53.

[35] Text of the petition is found in Yusuf Malik, The Assyrian Tragedy, 28.

[36] ?Manifesto of the Levies? cited in Robin Bidwell, ed., British Documents on Foreign Affairs:  Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print, Part II, Series B, Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East, 1918- 1939 (Frederick, MD:  University Publications of America, 1985), 7: 389. 

[37] Air Vice Marshall C.S. Burnett, "Report on Events in Connexion with Assyrian Situation, June 28, 1933."  Ibid.  Also, Nelida Fuccaro, The Other Kurds:  Yazidis in Colonial Iraq (London:  IB Tauris, 1999), 161.

[38] Quoted in Joseph, 196.

[39] Memorandum from Major Wilson to Advisor, Ministry of the Interior, Baghdad August 28, 1932.  Bidwell, 8:236.

[40] Quoted in Stafford, 210-212.

[41] Royal Government of Iraq, Correspondence Relating to the Assyrian Settlement, 18.

[42] The text of Faisal's letter appears in 'Abd al-Razzaq al-Hasani, Tarikh al-Wazirat al-'Iraqiyyah [The History of the Iraqi Cabinets] (Sidon:  Matba'at al-Irfan, 1953-1967), 3:251.

[43] Majid Khadduri, Independent Iraq:  A Study in Iraqi Politics since 1932 (London:  Oxford University Press, 1951), 44-45.

[44] Reeva Simon, Iraq Between the Two World Wars:  the Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1986), 117-118.

[45] Quoted in Mohammad A. Tarbush, The Role of the Military in Politics:  A Case Study of Iraq to 1941 (London:  Kegan Paul, 1982), 99.

[46] Memorandum from Ogilvie-Forbes to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Baghdad, ?Iraqi Press,? August 1, 1933.  Bidwell, 9:198.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Memorandum from US Consulate, Jerusalem to Sloan, Baghdad, September 8, 1933.  US State Department, Records on Iraq, Internal Affairs, Series 820G.4016, Assyrians/100. 

[49] Council of the League of Nations, Official Journal, 14 (December 1933): 1804.

[50] Royal Government of Iraq, Correspondence Relating to the Assyrian Settlement, 42.

[51] Ibid., 44.

[52] Council of the League of Nations, Official Journal 14 (December 1933):  1807.

[53] Marr, 58.

[54] Khaldun S. Husry, "The Assyrian Affair of 1933 (II)," International Journal of Middle East Studies 5 (June 1974):  345.

[55] Majid Khadduri writes, "While the Ikha Government may not have been directly responsible for the massacre of Assyrians, which was mainly the work of General Bakr Sidqi (officer commanding the Iraqi forces in the north), Hikmat Sulayman declared to the writer that he had approved the general line of policy which General Bakr Sidqi adopted."  Khadduri, 44. 

[56] Mark Levene and Penny Roberts, eds., The Massacre in History (New York:  Berghahn Books, 1999), 11.

[57] Memorandum from Knabenshue to Secretary of State, "Iraq's Victorious Army Returns to Baghdad," August 30, 1933.  US State Department, Records on Iraq, Internal Affairs, Series 890G.4016/Assyrians/89.

[58] Husry, "The Assyrian Affair of 1933 (II)," 352.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Khadduri, 45.

[61] Baghdad Times, September 6, 1933.

[62] Quoted in Simon, 122.

[63] General Headlam, Acting Inspector General, "Report on the Part Taken by the Iraqi Army in the Repression of the Assyrian Rebellion in northern Iraq," Baghdad, December 9, 1933.  Bidwell, 9:232.

[64] Al-Istiqlal, September 6, 1933.  US State Department Records on Iraq, Internal Affairs, Series 890G.20/28.

[65] Dispatch from Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs to American Legation, Baghdad, August 12, 1933.  US State Department, Records on Iraq, Internal Affairs, Series 890G/320.

[66] Memorandum from Sir F. Humphreys to Sir John Simon, Baghdad, May 18, 1934.  Bidwell, 9:357.

[67] Ibid., 357.

[68] Daniel Silverfarb, Britain's Informal Empire in the Middle East:  A Case Study of Iraq, 1929-1941 (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1986), 46. 

[69] Yet many of the Assyrian activist organizations among the Assyrian diaspora retain the revanchist aim to establish an independent, autonomous state in northern Iraq.  See or  One site laments, "3000 years of history and the internet is our only home."


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