Axis sphere of influence during World War II.
Born to a prominent Baghdad family, he was related to Iraq's first prime minister, Abd ar-Rahman al-Haydari al-Kaylani, though the two parts of the family were estranged. Rashid Ali al-Kaylani began his career in politics in 1924 in the first government led by Yasin al-Hashimi, who appointed him Minister of Justice. The two men were ardent nationalists, opposed to any British involvement in the country's internal politics. They rejected the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty signed by Nuri as-Said's government in 1930 and formed their own Party of National Brotherhood to promote nationalist aims. He served as prime minister for the first time in 1933.
During the 1930s, Kaylani was strongly influenced by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had been exiled from the British Mandate of Palestine for his nationalist activities and found support in his campaign against Jewish immigration to the country with the Nazi regime in Germany.
When Kaylani was again appointed prime minister in 1940, Iraq had just experienced the premature death of King Ghazi and a weakened regency for the new four-year-old King Faisal II of Iraq under his uncle, Emir Abdul-Illah. While Abdul-Illah supported Britain in the war, he was unable to control Kaylani, who used the war to further his own nationalist goals by refusing to allow troops to cross through Iraq to the front. He also rejected calls that Iraq break its ties with Italy and sent his Justice Minister, Naji Shawkat, to meet with the then German ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, to win German support for his government. At a later meeting, in which the Mufti's private secretary acted as the representative for the Iraqi government, Kaylani assured Germany that his country's natural resources would be made available to the Axis in return for German recognition of the Arab states' right to independence and political unity, as well as the right to "deal with" the Jews living in Arab lands.
Britain responded with severe economic sanctions against Iraq. Meanwhile, news of British victories against Erwin Rommel in North Africa dulled support for Kaylani's government, and on January 1, 1941, under pressure from the regent, he resigned his post as prime minister. This only exacerbated his mistrust of Britain and its supporters in the government, and together with some of his pro-Axis colleagues, Kaylani made plans to assassinate Abdul-Illah and seize power. Abdul Illah fled the country on March 31, and on April 3, Kaylani returned to power. As one of his first acts in power, he sent an Iraqi artillery force to attack an RAF base situated in Habaniyya, while other British forces invaded Basra.
Iraq had been a major supplier of petroleum to the Allied war effort and an important landbridge between British forces in Egypt and India. To secure Iraq, Winston Churchill ordered General Archibald Wavell to retake the Habaniyya base, which had since been captured, and to head from there to Baghdad. Fearing a British onslaught, Kaylani fled to Saudi Arabia and a new government was installed.
Kaylani only returned from exile after the revolution that overthrew the Iraqi monarchy in 1958. Once again he attempted to seize power, and plotted a revolt against Abdul Karim Kassem's government. The revolt was foiled and Kaylani was sentenced to death. Later pardoned, he returned to exile, where he died in 1965.