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The Farhud: Dramatis personae

A look at some of the individuals that played a key role in the 1941 Baghdad pogrom.

The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. Credit: Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive.
The Farhud, Baghdad 1941. Credit: Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Archive.
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Nimrod Raphaeli

On June 1, 1941, there occurred the most dramatic and gruesome event in the modern history of Iraqi Jews—the Farhud. During two days of political interregnum, after the coup of the pro-Nazi Iraqi prime minister Rashid Ali al-Kailani had failed and the monarchy had been restored with the help of the British army, a violent mob attacked Jewish residents of Baghdad and plundered their businesses.

Order was restored on the night of June 2, but the mob, which included soldiers and members of the police force, had left behind a shattered community. At least 180 Jews had been murdered and close to 2,000 wounded; women had been raped, and many Jewish businesses had been looted or destroyed. The Farhud was a turning point in the history of the Iraqi Jews: Previously, Jews may have thought that the future of the community was precarious; now many wondered whether the Iraqi Jewish community had a future at all.

Iraq’s port city of Basra, where I was born and grew up, suffered less than Baghdad, but from the windows of our house, I witnessed looters running through the streets carrying whatever they could grab from Jewish stores. There was always uncertainty regarding whether the mob of looters was going to turn into a mob of murderers. Even though we were spared the fate of the Baghdadi Jews, the terror of our experience remains indelible in my mind.

The word farhud itself needs some explanation. It describes both an action and a cultural value. According to Nabil Abdul-Amir al-Rubayi, who wrote two important volumes on the history of Jews in Iraq, the word is uncommon in the Arabic language; rather, it is adopted from Bedouin dialect and refers to looting and plundering. Quoting the well-known Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi, al-Rubayi notes that the concept of farhud is part of Bedouin culture, in which looting and plundering are activities signaling “courage and daring.”

The events of the Farhud are well documented in numerous publications, and there is no need to dwell on them in detail in this report. Instead, this report will focus on a number of individuals who played critical roles in the policies of the country which led to violence against a peaceful community and planted the seeds for the Farhud.

The figures discussed in this report are the following:

• The four colonels

• Prime Minister Rashid Ali Al-Kailani

• The Mufti of Jerusalem and his associates

• Younis Bahri (Radio Berlin)

• German Chief of Legation in Baghdad Fritz Grobba (commonly referred to as the German ambassador, but he did not carry this rank)

• British Ambassador to Baghdad Kinahan Cornwallis.

The four colonels

A group of four army colonels, Salah al-Din al-Sabbagh, Kamel Shabib, Mahmud Salman and Fahmi Sa’id, known together as al-muraba al-Dhahabi or “The Golden Square,” were the commanders of the four Iraqi army divisions in the 1930s. The colonels were part of an all-Sunni circle of seven military officers who played a key role in Iraqi politics, advocating a close alliance with the Axis powers. The colonels were joined by Yunis al-Sab’awi, a former cabinet member and journalist who worked at the German legation as a translator of Nazi propaganda, including the translation of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

The four colonels, in close association with the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, generated a coup against the pro-British monarchy on May 1, 1942, forcing the Regent Abdul Ilah and the prime minister Nouri al-Sa’id to flee the country and bringing to power prime minister Rashid Ali al-Kailani. Al-Kailani’s government was short-lived, but soon after its formulation it took military action against the British forces in Iraq and engaged in harassment against the Jewish community, accusing members of Zionist activities and a variety of security violations such as communicating secretly with the British.

Two of the four colonels, Mahmud Salman and Fahmi Sa’id, in addition to Yunis al-Sab’awi were tried by a military court, found guilty, and executed.

Rashid Ali al-Kailani

Rashid Ali al-Kailani was born in Baghdad in 1892. During his career, he served as a prime minister three times, the last and the briefest being the one following the coup on April 1, 1940. On April 3, al-Kailani established a “national salvation government.” One of the new government’s first acts, under the urging of the mufti and the four colonels, was to send an artillery force to attack Al-Habbaniya base in western Iraq where the British air force was stationed.

From the first day of the al-Kailani coup, the national radio (there was only one) broadcast throughout the day and into the night military marches and news about the victory of the Iraqi force against the British base, accompanied by a non-stop barrage of incitement against the Jews. The main message of the radio was a promise to the Iraqi people that after the victory over the British army, “we will take revenge against the domestic enemies, and we will hand them over to you to liquidate them.” The enemy was the Jews.

The war against the British base was short and the Iraqi force was defeated. The British army advanced into Baghdad from the west and Indian troops (under British command) entered from the south. The coup had failed, and al-Kailani and the Mufti escaped to Iran on May 29, leaving behind political chaos. With the help of Britain, the regent, Abdul Ilah, returned to Baghdad on June 1 and quickly appointed a new government and a new commander-in-chief of the army. It was during this interregnum that the Farhud took place. On the night of June 2, the Regent issued an order to the army to shoot the looters, and with this order going into effect, the Farhud came to an end.

The mufti of Jerusalem

Following the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936-39, the British mandatory authorities in Palestine expelled the leader of the revolt—Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. The Mufti then came to Iraq through Lebanon, accompanied by a number of leaders of the Palestinian revolt, including Abdul-Qadir al-Husseini, who adhered strongly to the Nazi ideology, and the poet and activist Burhan al-Din al-‘Abushi, who called on the Iraqi people and government to expel or slaughter the Jews who, he said, controlled the economy.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin al-Husseini salutes the Bosnian Waffen SS in November 1943. Credit: Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons.

The mufti and his Palestinian entourage quickly connected with the Iraqi nationalist elements as well as with the German chief of legation to spread virulent anti-Semitic incitement in addition to anti-British propaganda. He seemed to have exercised considerable influence on Prime Minister al-Kailani on both the pro-Nazi and the anti-Semitic fronts.

Younis Bahri

Younis Bahri al-Juburi was born in 1904 in Mosul, northern Iraq, and acquired the nickname “Bahri” (sailor) because he briefly attended a naval academy in Constantinople (Istanbul, today).

Al-Juburi joined the Arabic program at Radio Berlin in 1939. His morning broadcast always started with the call “Huna Berlin. Hayii al Arab“—”This is Berlin. Arab greetings.” The second part of the opening greeting has been interpreted as “a greeting that addresses the Arab mentality, evokes national feelings, and creates enthusiasm and pride.” In his manner of delivery, there was “a kind of clowning and mockery of the Allies, to whom he promised every day a catastrophic defeat.” His autobiography carries the same call (see book cover below).

The cover of Younis Bahri al-Juburi’s autobiography. (MEMRI)

Historians have regularly attributed much blame for the June events in Baghdad to the mufti of Jerusalem. The blame is justified, but based on personal experience, I would argue that al-Juburi may have done more harm than the mufti in inciting the masses on a daily basis to take action against Britain and the Jews. In coffee shops across Iraq, radios were tuned to his program. In the early years of World War II, while German forces were making impressive advances on many fronts, his bombastic style of delivery fueled the fire of hatred and anti-Semitism.

Fritz Grobba

Born in Germany in 1886, Grobba attended the Humboldt University of Berlin, where he studied law, Turkish and Arabic. He joined the German foreign service after World War I and, ironically, his first assignment was to Jerusalem.

Grobba was first appointed as a charge d’affaires in Baghdad in 1932, serving for seven years through September 1939. Under Grobba, the German legation acquired an Iraqi daily, Al-Aalam Al-Jadid (“The New World”), to spread Nazi propaganda, replete with virulent anti-Semitism. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” translated into Arabic, was serialized by the newspaper, and many Iraqi dailies published extensive quotations. Many of these dailies used the opportunity to provoke anti-Jewish sentiments.

During his service in Iraq, Grobba took advantage of the Al-Muthana Club, which was the center for Iraqi nationalism. The club appealed to intellectuals, politicians and army officers. Grobba convinced many Iraqi politicians and journalists that loyalty to Britain would keep Iraq indefinitely under occupation and that the country’s full independence could only be achieved with the victory of the Axis powers.

Grobba was reassigned to Baghdad again on May 11, 1941, in the midst of the coup by the four colonels and al-Kailani. Having spent seven years in Iraq and being proficient in Arabic, Grobba needed no period of adjustment and was ready, immediately upon his arrival from Berlin, to plunge directly into the Iraqi turmoil to pursue anti-British and anti-Jewish incitement.

Grobba was a typical German bureaucrat. On a personal level, he may have been less committed to the Nazi doctrine. He had, as noted, attended Humboldt University in Berlin after WWI; there, no doubt, he encountered many Jewish professors and fellow students. Among the university’s famous alumni are Karl Marx, the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the poet Heinrich Heine. Grobba’s wife was friendly with Frankfurt Jewish families long after Hitler came to power, and she continued to visit the German Jewish doctors who escaped Nazi persecution and found safety and a professional welcome in Baghdad. Grobba himself was a Freemason and was active in the Freemason club in Baghdad, which was open to Jewish membership.

In his memoir, Grobba talks about the failure “to exploit the opportunity lying in Arab friendship.” Grobba puts the major share of blame on Hitler, “whose professed aversion to long-term assurances allegedly masked a contempt, derived from racial theories, for Semitic Arabs.”

Grobba was arrested by the Soviets in 1946 and spent 10 years in prison. Under interrogation, he confirmed Hitler’s genocide plan for the Middle Eastern Jews.

Kinahan Cornwallis

The British ambassador to Iraq Kinahan Cornwallis cannot escape a large measure of criticism for the way he responded to the atrocities of the Farhud.

Cornwallis had had a long service in Iraq, going back to 1921 when he served as an adviser to the minister of interior in the post-Ottoman Iraqi government, completing his service to the government of Iraq as an adviser to King Faisal I, who passed away in 1933. Like the German diplomat Grobba, Cornwallis, an old Iraqi hand, was also rushed by his government into his post in April 1941 to deal with the al-Kailani government.

As the British army advanced into Baghdad at the end of May 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a personal message to Cornwallis: “If you have to strike, strike hard. Use all necessary force.” An Iraqi officer called Capt. Holt, an aide of Cornwallis, to tell him about the events against the Jews. Capt. Holt refused to awaken the ambassador, telling the caller: “the ambassador is aware of the firing and the looting, but he considers the matter as internal Iraqi affair.” And despite pleas from the leaders of the Jewish community and the U.S. ambassador, Cornwallis kept the British army on the other bank of the Tigris River while the Farhud was taking its toll on the Jewish community.

While others of the dramatis personae in this article were guilty of actions and deliberate advocacy of violence, Cornwallis stands out for inaction when action on his part could have saved many lives. Iraqi Jewish leaders found his behavior to be deplorable and inexcusable.


Most of the articles and books dealing with the Farhud dwell on its postmortem. In this report, we made an attempt to focus on individuals who played a key, indeed a destructive, role leading to the Farhud itself.

Some of the key figures whose actions were reviewed in this report remained loyal Nazis to the end, including the mufti of Jerusalem, al-Kailani and Grobba.

Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Middle East Media Research Institute senior analyst (emeritus). He was born in Basra, Iraq and worked for the World Bank from 1969 through 1997.

This article was first published by the Middle East Media Research Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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