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Bakr Sadqi in Uniform
Kirkuk, Ottoman Iraq, Ottoman Empire
|Died||August 1937 (aged 47)
Mosul, Kingdom of Iraq
|Years of service||1919–1937|
Bakr Sidqi was born to Kurdish family in ‘Askar, a Kurdish village or in Baghdad. He had purposefully exploited his birthplace according to political necessities. Like many ambitious men who lived in the Ottoman Empire, Sidqi joined the Ottoman army as a young man. At a young age he was sympathetic already to an Arab nationalism favoring freeing the Arab lands from Ottoman domination, he nonetheless spent formative years in what was essentially the colonial army. Having studied at the Military College in Istanbul and graduated as a second lieutenant, he fought in the Balkan Wars and joined the Staff College in Istanbul, graduating in 1915.
During World War I with the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, Sidqi joined Faisal's army in Syria and served in Aleppo with a number of other Sharifian officers. From 1919 to 1920 he served as an intelligence agent of the British military forces and was later recommended by the British General Staff in 1921 to an officer rank in the Iraqi army after the collapse of Faisal's kingdom in Syria. His plan was to one day be the Chief of the General Staff but was met with opposition by some Iraqis who accused him of pushing for a “pro-Kurdish policy”. In response, Sidqi highlighted his half-Arab origins, linking himself with familial ties with Ja’far al-Askari. He later attended the British Staff College and was considered one of Iraq's most competent officers. He lectured in the military school and achieved the rank of colonel in 1928 and brigadier general in 1933.
In August 1933 Sidqi ordered the Iraqi Army to march to the north to crush so-called "militant Assyrian separatists", in the town of Simele, near Mosul, which led to 3,000 Assyrian civilians being killed throughout the region in the Simele massacre. As a result of his accomplishments, Sidqi received praise from the British in 1934 as being described as ‘the best commander in the Iraqi army and the most efficient one'. In 1935, he cracked down on the Shia Arab tribal rebellions at al-Rumaitha and al-Diwaniya with unprecedented harshness.
In the late spring of 1933, the American representative in Iraq, Paul Knabenshue, described public animosity towards the Assyrians was at 'fever heat.'
With Iraqi independence, the new Assyrian spiritual-temporal leader, Mar Eshai Shimun XXIII, demanded the Assyrians be given autonomy within Iraq as had been promised by the British and Russians during World War I, seeking support from Britain. He pressed his case before the League of Nations in 1932. His followers planned to resign from the Iraq Levies (a formidable and highly capable force, under the command of the British, that had served British interests putting down Kurdish and Arab rebellions against Britain since 1921), and to re-group as a militia and concentrate in the north, creating a de facto Assyrian enclave, although this never happened as it was prevented by the British. In June 1933, the Patriarch was invited to Baghdad for negotiations with Hikmat Sulayman’s government[clarification needed] and was detained there after refusing to relinquish temporal authority. Mar Shimun would eventually be exiled to Cyprus, thus forcing the head of the Assyrian Church of the East to be located in Chicago to this day.
In early August 1933, more than 1,000 Assyrian people who had been refused asylum in Syria crossed the border to return to their villages in northern Iraq. The French, who at the time were controlling Syria, had notified the Iraqis that the Assyrians were not armed; but while the Iraqi soldiers were disarming those whose arms had been returned by the French, shots were fired (it is not clear if the Assyrians or Iraqi Army opened fire first) resulting in a military clash, the Iraqi army was defeated and 30 Iraqi soldiers killed. Anti-Assyrian and Anti-British xenophobia, apparent throughout the crisis, accelerated.
When news of this confrontation reached Baghdad, the government panicked fearing disaster in the unity of their armed forces. The government used irregulars who killed some 120 unarmed civilians in two Assyrian villages in the week of August 2 (with most of the massacre occurring on August 7). Then on August 11, Sidqi led a heavily armed force to what was then one of the most heavily inhabited Assyrian areas in Iraq, the Simele district.
The Assyrian population of the district of Simele was indiscriminately massacred, including, men, women, and children. In one room alone, 81 Assyrians of the Baz tribe were massacred. Religious leaders were prime targets; eight Assyrian priests were killed during the massacre, including one beheaded and another burned alive. Young girls were raped (some just children) and women violated and made to march naked before the army commanders.
Back in the city of Doha, 600 unarmed Assyrian civilians were murdered by Sidqi's men. In the end, around 65 Assyrian villages were targeted in the Mosul and Dohuk districts. The main campaign lasted until August 16, but violent unprovoked attacks on Assyrians were being reported up to the end of the month. After the campaign, Bakr Sidqi was invited to Baghdad for a "victory" rally. The campaign of terror resulted in one third of the Assyrian population of Iraq fleeing to Syria.
1935 Rumaytha and Diwaniyya revolts
In 1936, during the reign of Faisal's ineffectual son King Ghazi I, Sidqi, then acting commander of the Iraqi Army, staged what was probably the first modern military coup d'état in the Arab world against the government of Yasin al-Hashimi. Eleven Iraqi military planes dropped leaflets over Baghdad on October 29, 1936 requesting the King for the dismissal of Yasmin al-Hashimi’s administration and for the installment of the ousted anti-reform Prime Minister Hikmat Sulayman. In addition, the leaflets warned the citizens that military action will be taken against those who do not “answer our sincere appeal”. It is important to note that the leaflets were signed by Sidqi himself as the “Commander of the National Forces of Reform”.
Bakr Sidqi could not have found a better time to execute his plan as the Chief of Staff because General Taha al-Hashimi was in Ankara, Turkey. As the acting Chief of Staff, Sidqi ordered those in the military and in the air force who shared his beliefs of a military coup to adhere to his directions. Any and all interference by Sidqi’s opponents was neutralized by Sidqi who managed to send a telegram to Taha al-Hashimi ordering him not to return. In an interview conducted by Majid Khadduri, the writer claims that Sidqi had disclosed Khodduri that the king had called the British Ambassador, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, over to Zahur Palace for advice. The ambassador suggested that the king invite all ministers in the government for an emergency meeting. Of those in attendance were Yasmin al-Hashimi, Nuri as-Sa’id, General Ja’far al-Askari and Rashid Ali, minister of interior. Immediately, the king discounted any notion of a revolutionary movement, however, this proved to be costly as reports of some bombing in Serai and the advancement of troops towards Baghdad reached the palace. With the exception of Nuri al Sa’id, all those present in the palace agreed to comply with the demands of Bakr Sidqi and allow Hikmat Sulayman to step into power. As a result, Yasin al-Hashimi resigned. According to Khodduri, Ambassador Kerr suggested that Hikmat be invited to the meeting. Coincidentally, Sulayman arrived at the palace to deliver the letter, written by Sidqi and Latif Nuri, to the king explaining the implications of the coup.
Jafar al-Askari, who was minister of defense during the coup and twice the prime minister of Iraq prior to Yasin al-Hashimi, sought out to deter Sidqi from his plans by attempting to distract the two battalions from advancing towards Baghdad. In addition, he tried to appeal to those officers who still regarded him as instrumental in the formation of the Iraqi army. Cautious of any dissention as a result of al-Askari’s actions, Sidqi’s sent two of his men, Akram Mustapha, member of the air force, and Ismail Tohalla, who had participated in the Simele Massacre, to assassinate him. The death of al-Askari was widely viewed as challenge to the old government and highlighted Sidqi’s quest in ultimately gaining control of the country by first taking over the army. As a result, Nuri al Sa’id was exiled to Cairo and Yasin al-Hashimi was exiled to Istanbul.
Despite the obvious overthrow, Sidqi found it necessary to enter the capital city of Baghdad with the army and parade with the citizens. According to Khodduri, some felt this was a move to dissuade any last-minute resistance while others felt that Sidqi wanted to prove himself with the parade and be applauded for bringing in a new regime for Iraq.
As a result of the coup, Yasmin stepped down, insisting that the king write a formal letter accepting his resignation. Sulayman became prime minister and minister of interior but after overthrowing the government, it was Sidqi, who as commander of the armed forces, essentially ruled Iraq. Some other members of the new cabinet included Abu al-Timman, minister of finance, Kamil al-Chadirchi, minister of economics and public works, Abd al-Latif, minister of defense and Yusuf Izz ad-Din Ibrahim as minister of education. It is important to note that though Sidqi was instrumental in the formation of the coup, he did not want a cabinet position and remained chief of the general staff.
However, the murder of al-Askari created strong feelings, especially among Iraqi forces, against the new government, and Sulayman's cabinet lasted under ten months until Sidqi was assassinated. As a result, Sulayman resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by Jamil al-Midfai. Sidqi was recognized as one of the most brilliant officers in the Iraqi army, known for his intelligence, ambition, and self-confidence. He also believed the army was needed to bring about reform and achieve order, a stance he shared with Atatürk and Reza Shah Pahlavi.
Assassination and Legacy
It is important to note that Sidqi’s image began to deteriorate in the eyes of the public as soon as the coup had played out. Many realized his dictatorial behavior in addition to the irresponsible acts of those closest to him. His primary objective was to reinforce and to restructure the army. Khadduri claims that Sidqi was aware of tension surrounding him and had created a “black list”. This list contained names of military and civilian enemies who he wanted assassinated. It is imperative to mention that numerous attempts were made to get rid of Sidqi, however, his security arrangements and heavy bodyguard always thwarted these plans.
In August 1937, while en route to Turkey, Sidqi was assassinated in the garden of one of the air force bases in Mosul along with Mohammad ‘Ali Jawad, the commanding officer of the Iraqi Royal Air Force. Both Sidqi and Jawad were sent as part of a military mission by the Iraqi government in response to an invitation from the Turkish government. Sidqi had stopped in Mosul on August 11 on the way to Turkey to spend the afternoon with Jawed when a soldier named Muhammad ‘Ali Talla’fari opened fire, instantly killing both men. The bodies of both men were flown to Baghdad the following day and buried with full military honors.
Many attribute his murder to his reformist judgment and dissociation form the idea of pan-Arabism. It is still unclear as to who was behind the death of Sidqi but many conspiracy theories have emerged. Some theories state that the British in conjunction with Nuri al Sa’id were behind it. Other theories suggest that Sidqi was assassinated by a group of dissident nationalist military officers who had withdrawn their support from him after he had promoted adherent officers key military posts. However, a thorough investigation by Hikmat Sulayman’s government, revealed seven army officers as part of the plot including, Aziz Yamulki, Fahmi Sa’id, Mahmud Hindi and Muhammad Khorshid.
- David McDowall, A modern history of the Kurds, I.B.Tauris, 2000, ISBN 978-1-85043-416-0, p. 289.
- Denise Natali, The Kurds and The State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, Syracuse University Press, 2005, ISBN 978-0-8156-3084-5, p. 35.
- Edmund Ghareeb, Beth Dougherty, Historical Dictionary of Iraq, Scarecrow Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0-8108-4330-1, p. 224.
- Liora Lukitz, Iraq: The Search for National Identity, Routledge, 1995, ISBN 978-0-7146-4550-6, p. 86.
- Khadduri, Majid. Independent Iraq 1932-1958, A Study in Iraqi Politics. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
- Yildiz, Kerim. The Kurds in Iraq, The Past, Present and Future. London: Pluto Press, 2004.