Peripheries of Belonging: Military Recruitment and the Making of a ‘Minority’ in Wartime Iraq

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First World War Studies

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In the hinterlands of Mesopotamia in 1915, facing the daunting task of securing the province of Basra and advancing towards Baghdad, British officials charged with the success of the Mesopotamian campaign began to cast around for ways to strengthen their position colonial apparatus there. This tactic permanently stamped Assyrian refugees as protégées of the colonial state and created increasingly hostile feeling between them and the mainly Arab Iraqi government and army. Ethnically based military recruitment of refugees during the war thus contributed substantially to the international legitimization of British and League control over post-war Iraq as well as shaping a deleterious relationship between Assyrian communities and the emerging Iraqi state. against the Ottoman army. A British Indian army officer stationed in Nasiriyya hit upon the idea of recruiting local tribesmen for the purposes of ‘reconnoitering’. Falling somewhere between a military and a police force, these ‘Levies’ quickly expanded into an important arm of the British military operation in Mesopotamia, encompassing thousands of men by 1919. In the immediate post-war era, following a major anti-colonial revolt, the British saw an opportunity to remake the Levies as a force separate from the emerging Iraqi Arab army whose primary task would be to protect British interests in the new mandate state. They began to incorporate Assyrian refugees from the Turkish and Iranian borderlands into these previously mostly Arab informal forces and use them to put down Kurdish and Arab resistance to British rule, particularly in the northern reaches of the country. By the late 1920s the Levies were entirely Assyrian, and Assyrians had become a target of anti-imperial invective among Arab and Kurdish activists agitating against the imposition of a British mandate state. This wartime and post-war recruitment of Assyrians in the eastern reaches of the Ottoman Empire created the conditions for a long-term military partnership between the Assyrians and the British, and the consequent re-invention of the Assyrian community as a beleaguered ethnic ‘minority’ in a majority Arab Iraqi state. The British had already tried out the idea of minority military recruitment in other imperial contexts, deliberately isolating ethno-religious communities in order to produce dependencies, create reliable sources of manpower and fracture emerging anti-colonial nationalisms. In Iraq, military recruitment of Assyrians did all these things and something more important as well: it helped to create and sustain a concept of a threatened ethnic ‘minority’ whose existence and needs could be invoked to legitimize an ongoing British presence in Iraq. During a territorial dispute with Turkey over Mosul in 1924, British officials sought to convince the League to attach Mosul to mandatory Iraq partly by painting the Assyrians as a ‘minority’ in need of protection in the region, while simultaneously assigning the Levies responsibility for the security of the



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