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The Battle for Iraq

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Mosul Embattled Again 100 Years After Lunge for Oil

November 3rd 2016

Oil fields near Ramadi

Mosul is dominating news headlines worldwide. Daesh is making its last stand in the Iraqi city as an international coalition moves in to expel them. 

But this is not the first time Mosul is at the centre of a global struggle. A 100 years ago, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, the United States and Russia were trying to make their mark on the city. 

The reason: oil. 

Here is a brief account of what was happening around Mosul a century ago. But at that time Mosul was the name used to represent a larger region in north-west Iraq. 

Spoils of War

Not a hole had been drilled and not a barrel pumped out in 1916 but oil was what everyone wanted.

World War I had been raging for the past two years, taking millions of men from many nations to the battlefield. Turkey had joined the German camp against European countries led by England, France and Russia.

Mosul was still part of the Turkish empire that had been weakening over the years. The war would not end for another three, but the Sykes-Picot agreement the British and French had already divided modern-day Syria and Iraq amongst themselves.

Even before World War I broke out in 1914, Mosul was a constant topic of discussion between French and British officials who knew of the region’s oil potential and their dependence on it. Source: Getty Images

Mosul was at the centre of that secret agreement. For years before the war, geologists had scanned the area around the city in Iraq's north west and were sure there was plenty of black gold under the surface.

Securing a steady supply of oil had become more important when fighting began in 1914. Armies travelling long distances needed vehicles, planes needed fuel and new naval ships were faster than steamboats.

Under the Sykes-Picot deal, Mosul became part of the French mandate. British diplomats and businessmen found this unacceptable. They began lobbying to increase their influence over the oil-rich region.

While international diplomacy was being played out in London and Paris, a determined contingent of Turkish troops on ground was refusing to give up to the British.

The Last Stand

On November 7, 1918, despite being outnumbered, a Turkish commander with 1,600 riflemen and a few artillery guns held onto the city. A few days earlier, Turkey had ended the war with Britain and its allies. The truce agreement stated that soldiers from both sides were supposed to halt their advance. That meant Mosul would pretty much remain within the Ottoman empire.

Turkish soldiers left Mosul after Britain backtracked on the truce agreement with Turkey and asked its troops to march onto the city. Source: Getty Images

But the British knew that to lay claim on Mosul's oil fields, they needed to be in control of them as well.

Britain's Commander in Chief for Mesopotamia General William Marshall, ordered his soldiers to take Mosul "cease fire or no cease-fire", writes Edwin Black in his book Banking on Baghdad.

"The besieged Turks reluctantly left Mosul. The British marched in. Their occupation of Mesopotamia was complete."

Now began talks on the future of Mosul and its untapped oil reserves.

The Day Mosul Fell

Only four days after Turkish soldiers left Mosul, the war ended with Germany's surrender.

British officials and executives from oil companies were pushing for an amendment in the Sykes-Picot agreement on Mosul's control.

A clipping from the New York Times March 12, 1922 issue, is one of the many newspaper articles during that period about the background deals on Mosul. Source: The New York Times

On December 1, 1918, French President Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George made a secret commitment: Mosul would go to England and in return England would recognise France’s authority over Syria.

It was a decision that France later regretted.

Baba Gurgur – the first oil well in Arab land

On October 14, 1927, after years of wrangling and infighting, oil was finally struck in Mosul.

Tens of thousands of barrels spewed up into the air from an oil well in the Baba Gurgur field, launching Iraq as an oil producing nation.

The pressure of oil coming out of the wellhead was so intense that it took three days for workers to stop it.

The oil was distributed among a conglomerate of American, British and French companies.

And this was how the world first got to know why Mosul was worth fighting for.

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