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Marine and Iraqi Army color guards stand at attention during an Armistice Day rededication ceremony for the newly restored Royal Air Force Cemetery in Habbaniyah, Iraq, Nov. 11. During the ceremony, two minutes of silence was observed in remembrance of the men and women who perished defending the British Royal Air Force camp nearby.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Scott Schmidt

Historic cemetery rededicated on Armistice Day

11 Nov 2008 | Lance Cpl. Scott Schmidt

Every year on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, people around the world take time to remember the signing of the Armistice Treaty in 1918 between the allied forces and Germany, officially ending the First World War.

 This Nov. 11, Iraqi and Coalition forces’ senior officials observed Armistice Day with a rededication ceremony for the newly restored British Royal Air Force Cemetery in Habbaniyah, Iraq.

 Airmen and Soldiers assigned to the Coalition Army Advisory Training Team at Camp Habbaniyah, with support from Task Force 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 1, have spent countless hours over the past several months voluntarily cleaning and renovating the cemetery, which had become unkempt since the British departed the camp in 1959.  

The camp has played a critical military role in Iraq’s history dating back to its construction in 1934 by the British. Its prime location and geography gave the British flat ground for an airfield.

The camp was home to thousands of British and Commonwealth servicemen and civilians during England’s 25 years in Iraq. It was also the home to the No. 4 Service Flying Training School, a battalion of the King’s Own Royal Regiment, and the 107th RAF Iraqi Levies. Men from these units fought valiantly in April and May of 1941, when pro-German Iraqis attacked and laid siege to the station.

As a result the pivotal battle, 289 British and Commonwealth servicemembers and civilians, including women and children, were laid to rest in the cemetery.

Growing anti-British sentiment among Iraqi government officials, headed by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, fueled the attack.

Rashid, a politically ambitious Iraqi lawyer, along with four Sunni Iraqi Army generals, formed a political group known as the “Golden Square.” Rashid and his new “Golden Square,” which included Khairallah Talfah, Saddam Hussein’s uncle who raised him, forced themselves into power in March 1940 during the Rashid Ali Rebellion. The group ultimately led the attack against the British military base.

Student pilots from the Royal Air Force training school and fellow British and Commonwealth servicemen defended the station and their families during the siege. Their gallant efforts helped maintain Allied dominance in the Middle East throughout the war and allowed the presence of the RAF to remain at the camp until turning it over to the Iraqi Army in 1959.

During the ceremony, a traditional two minutes of silence was observed in remembrance of the men and women who perished in the battle. Ceremonial wreaths were placed at a memorial marker which once displayed a magnificent cross that was the centerpiece of the cemetery.

Among the senior leadership in attending the ceremony were Lt. Gen. John Cooper, deputy commanding general of Multi-National Forces Iraq, Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commanding general of Multi-National Forces West, and the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Iraq, His Excellency Christopher Prentice.

Prentice noted the sacrifice of his countrymen in Iraq, and explained that this day was a “symbolic example of the shared sacrifices of (servicemen). This is a renewal of our pledge of faith.”

Prentice humbly admitted this was his first time speaking at an Armistice Day ceremony, and that he was honored for it to be in Iraq for the dedication of this cemetery.

Also in attendance at the ceremony was British Army Brig. Johnny Torrens-Spence, Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq Deputy commander, Brig. Mark Castle, Ministry of Interior Training Team commander, and Brig. Gen. Steven Salazar, Coalition Army Advisory Training Team commander.

Gen. Ali, commanding general of 1st Iraq Army Division, also dedicated a moment of silence during the ceremony to the fallen Iraqis.