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Nuri al-Saidlocked

(1888–1958)
  • Michael T. Thornhill

Nuri al-Said (1888–1958), army officer and prime minister of Iraq, was born in December 1888 in Baghdad, the only son (there were also four daughters) of Said Taha (d. 1904), a minor official in Baghdad's Ottoman government, and his wife, Fatima. The family lived modestly in the northern part of the city, with fellow Arabs (rather than Turks) as neighbours. As a Sunni Muslim he was instructed in the Koran before attending infant school. Aged eight he entered Baghdad's military school, and when not quite fifteen he transferred to Istanbul Military Academy for a further three years of training. After receiving a commission in September 1906 he was assigned to a mounted infantry unit based in Baghdad.

The unit's work collecting taxes on livestock from nomads provided Lieutenant Nuri with practical soldiering skills and fostered in him a lifelong empathy for tribal life. About 1909 he married Naaima, daughter of Mustafa al-Askari, and a son, Sabah, was born in December 1910. Earlier in 1910 Nuri had returned to Istanbul for advanced staff college training. While there he witnessed the internal political struggles of the disintegrating Ottoman empire and became involved with secessionist groups advocating Arab autonomy. He fought loyally for the Turks during the Balkan wars (1912–13) but subsequently became disillusioned with the chauvinism of the Turkish government and so joined an illegal military society called al-Ahad (‘the covenant’) to work for complete Arab independence.

In April 1914 Nuri fled to Basrah to avoid arrest and joined with prominent Mesopotamian dissidents. He was ill in hospital when the British seized the town in November, shortly after the outbreak of war against Turkey, and spent a year in India as a prisoner of war. In December 1915, however, the British released him to assist in planning the ‘Arab revolt’ against Turkish rule. He joined Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite leader of the revolt, in Jiddah in July 1916 with 700 Arab volunteers. His brief was to turn the men into an effective fighting force. He did so—distinctively clad in khaki tunic and a loosely tied kufiyah round his head—with infectious energy, establishing himself as a highly valued chief of staff to Emir Feisal, the military leader of the revolt. Helped by T. E. Lawrence, Nuri deployed hit-and-run sabotage tactics with great success, earning a DSO for his part in the military operations. Vivid accounts of his actions later featured in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom: 'Most men talked faster under fire, and added a betraying ease and joviality. Nuri grew calmer' (Lawrence, 532). The relaxed atmosphere among his officers—card games and drinking into the night—made him and his clique agreeable company to British officers.

When Damascus was captured in October 1918 it was Nuri who rode into the city and established a pro-Hussein governor. He was promoted general and remained as Feisal's chief of staff, accompanying him to the Paris peace conference in 1919 (at Britain's specific request). In the following year he attended the San Remo conference, which dissected the Middle East along British and French imperial lines, with France acquiring the Syrian mandate. His Baghdadi connections were subsequently instrumental in mediating Feisal's candidacy for the prospective kingdom of Iraq. The kingmaker Gertrude Bell wrote that the moment she saw Nuri, who arrived in Baghdad in October, she 'realised that we had before us a strong and supple force which we must either use or engage in difficult combat' (Gallman, 12). He was duly appointed chief of staff in the Ministry of Defence, headed by his brother-in-law Jafar al-Askari, and he used his new post to tour the country, pressing Feisal's claims. The enthronement of Feisal on 23 August 1921 was thus a day of great personal fulfilment.

For the next nine years Nuri developed Iraq's armed forces, first as chief of staff and later as minister of defence. His priorities were mechanization (replacing camels and mules) and the creation of an air force, the latter aimed at ending Iraq's reliance on the RAF for internal policing. The first Iraqi officers attended Cranwell in 1928, followed later by Nuri's son (who also earned an engineering degree from Cambridge University and went on to run Iraq's railways). In June 1926 Nuri visited Turkey to sign a treaty resolving the Mosul frontier dispute. The reception from his old enemies—including Mustafa Kemal, his senior in the Ottoman army—was pleasingly cordial.

Nuri became Iraq's prime minister for the first time in March 1930. His administration's most significant achievement was a defence treaty with Britain in June, clearing the way for Iraq's entry into the League of Nations in October 1932, which terminated the British mandate. Iraqi independence was compromised, however, by Britain's retention of two air bases, Shaybah and Habbaniyyah. A generation of Iraqi nationalists grew up hating both the treaty and Nuri's collusive relationship with the British imperialists.

The next decade was dominated by political instability. Nuri's first administration lasted until October 1931, but his relatively humble background counted against him—Iraqi politics being dominated by large landowners and tribal sheikhs. He preferred office in the defence and foreign ministries; he accompanied Feisal during his state visit to London in June 1933 and was at his deathbed in September. In October 1936 he and his family fled to Egypt (on board an RAF aeroplane) after his brother-in-law Jafar was assassinated. A ten-month spell on a Nile houseboat permitted some rest, plus a chance to think about wider Arab issues such as the future of Palestine. In December 1938 he formed his second ministry with an agenda to make parliament a better mouthpiece for the people.

However, the approaching conflict in Europe further unsettled Iraqi politics, obliging Nuri to strengthen the state rather than pursue electoral reform. He reaffirmed the Anglo-Iraqi alliance a day after Britain declared war on Germany (4 September 1939), added the interior ministry to his responsibilities, and introduced draconian security measures. When cabinet splits forced his resignation as premier in March 1940, he recommended Rashid Ali as his successor and assumed responsibility for the foreign ministry, where he attempted to work with Haj Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem. Nuri's pro-British credentials remained intact only because al-Husayni ignored the approach. Meanwhile Rashid Ali became increasingly associated with pro-German elements in Iraq's army, which staged an anti-British coup in April 1941. Nuri and the regent escaped to Amman, where they stayed as the guests of Emir Abdullah, the Hashemite ruler of Transjordan, until British tanks reinstalled them in Iraq in October. Firmly suppressing any opposition, Nuri stayed in power until June 1944.

Meanwhile, Nuri tried to check the rise of Egyptian regional dominance with a succession of Arab unity projects. His 'Fertile Crescent Plan', published as Arab independence and unity (1943), entailed combining Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan to create a 'Greater Syria', which would easily subsume the Jews of Palestine, so allaying the danger of a Jewish majority ever emerging in an Arab state. However, the other governments of the region dismissed Nuri as a schemer on behalf of the Hashemites and instead settled (in March 1945) on a loose inter-governmental organization—the Arab League—whose headquarters, significantly, was in Cairo.

The events of the Second World War made Nuri the unrivalled strongman of Iraq's ruling élite. A slightly built man with expressive, dark-lined eyes and pock-marked cheeks, he was always neatly dressed (mostly in Western-style suits). His mode of business seemed secretive and somewhat irregular to foreign diplomats. Meetings were usually one-on-one, and notes were not taken. The conversation would be animated, with ideas coming rapidly and illogically (as he fiddled with his prayer beads). After the business was completed, he would relax and, with friends, display a mischievous but kindly humour. A revolver was always near at hand. He lived simply and did not use office for personal gain. His weakness was for the ceremonial aspects of public life, especially military displays, justified as a means of promoting the prestige of his country.

The main problem for Nuri after 1945 was his reliance on Britain—and vice versa. While he was of a generation that had gained and consolidated power with British backing, younger, Westernized Iraqis felt excluded from the political process. The Nuri-dominated ruling élite and British imperialism were therefore identified as the twin enemies of progress. British diplomats realized that the ‘old gang’ had an increasingly fragile control over Iraqi society, but their dilemma was between staying with Nuri as a stabilizing element or encouraging reform. With mounting problems elsewhere in the Middle East, Britain decided to stick with its principal collaborator, even though he was not interested in reform or Western-style democracy. The Iraqis, he believed, needed a strict but benevolent patriarch.

Nuri's attempt to replace the defence treaty of 1930 with a less imperialistic arrangement—the treaty of Portsmouth (January 1948)—failed to satisfy Iraqi nationalists and it was abandoned after violent protests. The first Arab–Israeli war in 1948 prompted a period of martial law at home, while the Iraqi army did little beyond occupying defensive positions on the West Bank. Nuri cleverly linked Zionism with communism to prevent his domestic opponents from exploiting the Palestine question, with its anti-imperialist overtones, as a tool for rallying opposition to the regime.

The rise of Nasser in Egypt after July 1952 exacerbated the Egyptian–Iraqi struggle for leadership of the Arab world. Nasser's achievement in negotiating the evacuation of the Suez base in 1954 increased pressure on Nuri to alter Iraq's defence relationship with Britain. Nuri responded in January 1955 by tying Iraq to the Turkey–Pakistan defence accord, thereby creating the Baghdad pact (which Britain joined in April 1955 as a means of veiling its military access to Iraq). Nasser denounced the new organization with an intensity that surprised and infuriated Nuri.

When news of Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company broke on 26 July 1956, Nuri and Feisal II were having dinner with Anthony Eden during a state visit to Britain. They all agreed that Nasser had to be deposed. Yet the method used—the Anglo-French-Israeli aggression of 29 October to 5 November—brought severe rioting to Iraq's cities, placing Nuri (who was not told about Britain's collusion with Israel) and the Hashemite monarchy in mortal danger. The closing of schools and universities along with the rounding up of trouble-makers eventually restored calm. 'The house of the master is secure', he boasted in December (Abdul-Salaam Yousif, 182). But Iraq's oil industry remained badly affected by Syria's sabotage of the pipelines running over its soil. The loss of revenues slowed Iraq's long-term development programmes, which were Nuri's paternalistic alternative to social and political reform. Moreover, Nasser was emboldened as the champion of third-world anti-colonialism.

Nuri's next major challenge occurred in February 1958 when Nasser announced the formation of the United Arab Republic, uniting Syria and Egypt. Iraq responded a few days later by forming the Arab Union, a federation of the two Hashemite dynasties, which came into effect in May with Nuri as its first (and only) prime minister. Although he was unenthusiastic about the union (Jordan would be an economic drain), his loyalty to the Hashemites remained steadfast. His attention became fixed on Kuwait, long considered an integral part of Iraq but about which he had done nothing in case he upset Britain (which ‘protected’ the Arab sheikhdoms along the Persian Gulf). While pushing for Kuwait's accession to the Arab Union, he ignored the incipient rebellion at home.

On 14 July a small band of middle-ranking army officers seized power. Encouraged by the new regime, mobs took to the streets and hunted down leading figures from the old order. Feisal II was brutally murdered that same day. Nuri went into hiding at a friend's house in Baghdad, as official radio broadcasts announced a reward for his capture. His wife was in London, but his son was found and killed. The next morning, while disguised as an Arab woman, Nuri was recognized by soldiers on a street close to the American embassy in Baghdad and was shot dead. He was buried that same day in a cemetery near the North Gate, Baghdad, but shortly afterwards ‘revolutionaries’ dug up the body, stripped it naked, and dragged it through the streets of Baghdad. A car then drove backwards and forwards over it before it was finally strung up and set ablaze.

Nuri's political life coincided with Iraq's existence as a British mandate and quasi-colonial state. Besides heading fourteen governments, he served in other key ministries, and for the brief periods when he was out of office his influence at the palace was usually decisive. But it was his connections to the last days of Ottoman rule and his association with British imperialism that resulted in his downfall. To Nasser's generation (the Arabs who reached their thirties about the time of the Palestine débâcle of 1948), Nuri was—and always would be—Britain's stooge in the Middle East. Insufficiently attuned to modern Arab thinking, Nuri failed to prevent Iraq's army (his own child) from seizing power, à la Nasser. The policy of paying the armed forces well but keeping them ‘short of oats’ was an insufficient barrier against the powerful pan-Arab political currents in the wake of the Suez crisis. Ironically, Nuri personally authorized the issuance of extra ammunition to the two brigades that led the uprising, thinking that Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim and his accomplice Colonel Abdul Salam Arif were loyal commanders. (Qasim ruled Iraq until his deposition and murder in 1963.) Britain, for its part, relied too much on Nuri, often trusting his assessments of Iraqi politics over their own observations. The rise and fall of British influence in Iraq was thus irrevocably entwined with that of Nuri.

Sources

  • Lord Birdwood, Nuri as-Said: a study in Arab leadership (1959)
  • W. R. Louis, The British empire in the Middle East, 1945–1951 (1984)
  • W. J. Gallman, Iraq under General Nuri: my recollections of Nuri al-Said, 1954-1958 (1963)
  • G. de Gaury, Three kings in Baghdad, 1921–1958 (1961)
  • S. Falle, My lucky life (1996)
  • D. Fromkin, A peace to end all peace (1989)
  • C. Tripp, ‘Iraq and the 1948 war: mirror of Iraq's disorder’, The war for Palestine, ed. E. L. Rogan and A. Shlaim (2001)
  • M. J. Cohen and M. Kolinsky, eds., Demise of the British empire in the Middle East (1998)
  • Abdul-Salaam Yousif, ‘The struggle for cultural hegemony during the Iraqi revolution’, The Iraqi revolution of 1958, ed. R. A. Fernea and W. R. Louis (1991)
  • M. Elliot, ‘Independent Iraq’: the monarchy and British influence, 1941–1958 (1996)
  • C. Tripp, A history of Iraq (2000)
  • T. E. Lawrence, Seven pillars of wisdom (1962)

Archives

  • Jesus College, Oxford, T. E. Lawrence corresp. and papers
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., Gertrude Bell collection

Likenesses

  • photographs, repro. in Birdwood, Nuri al-Said
  • photographs, repro. in Gallman, Iraq under General Nuri
  • photographs, St Ant. Oxf.
  • photographs, IWM