Iraq's revolt in 1920 A.G. NOORANI

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Sun May 23 2004 - 20:43:04 EDT

Vol:21 Iss:08  URL:


Iraq's revolt in 1920


The parallel between the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 and the
United States' occupation of the country now is startling.

It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to
be your slaves?

- Thucydides

IT is typical of conquerors to be surprised at the hatred and
contempt with which the conquered reject them. They invent myths of
acceptance. Collaborators are found and elections are rigged. In the
end, when the reckoning can no longer be averted by continuous and
brutal use of force, these devices are discarded. Collaborators are
left to the mercy of the people who despise them. Let alone
officials, even American journalists cannot bring themselves to
accept the truth which underlies the daily toll of human lives - the
Iraqis despise their conquerors and those who collaborate with them.
Even a year after Iraq was invaded and occupied, the country has not
been ``pacified".

One wonders how many remember that less than a year ago the Bharatiya
Janata Party-led government came very close to sending Indian troops
to serve under American command, the so-called Provisional Coalition
Authority, despite the Lok Sabha's unanimous resolution of April 8,
2003, expressing its ninda (to condemn or deplore) of the United
States' attack on Iraq. Parliament's resolutions are supposed to be
engraved in steel when they suit the government. In this case, they
were treated as lines drawn on sand. Fortunately, Prime Minister Atal
Bihari Vajpayee prevailed. L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh were for
sending the troops. India rejected the U.S. request on July 14 after
protracted parleys with the latter.

One should not be surprised if any of the card-carrying
super-patriots voice the view that had that request but been
accepted, the U.S. would not have conferred a "non-NATO ally status"
on Pakistan in March. These are the very ones who advocated its
acceptance on the ground that it afforded India an opportunity to
acquire the status of a regional power. The mindset reveals a lot
besides chauvinism. It reflects intellectual bankruptcy and lack of
self-esteem. Nations acquire a status - and the respect that goes
with it - by their own worth and achievements; not as dalals (agents)
of a great power. Nations regret bitterly and for long mistakes made
by their rulers who ignore lessons of the past and run against the
tide of history in order to secure short-term advantages. The future
belongs to the people of Iraq; indeed, to the people of Arab
countries. It does not belong to their overlords.

Iraqis readily forgave India for deployment of Indian troops to quell
their revolt against British invaders in 1920 because India itself
was under British rule. Not only Iraqis, people in other Arab
countries would never have forgiven India had it sent its troops, in
a gesture of solidarity with the Americans, even if they were not
used actively to subdue the Iraqi revolt of our times.

Despite some obvious differences in the two situations, the parallel
between 1920 and 2003 is startling. British occupation of Iraq was
part of its venture to set up a Jewish state in Palestine. The U.S.'
occupation of Iraq, as we are reminded repeatedly, is part of its
wider agenda, which includes subjugation of Arabs in Palestine in
order to compel their acceptance of U.S. - Israeli terms. Ariel
Sharon would not have assassinated Sheikh Ahmed Yassin unless he had
prior American approval of the crime.

No Indian can underestimate the dilemmas which these events pose for
our diplomacy. But thoughtful Indians should seek answers to two
pertinent questions: Why do we find ourselves in such a situation
today? Is there no way out of it? Answering them might be easier
perhaps, if we reflect first on a more specific question: What were
the calculations that prompted the then Minister for External
Affairs, Jaswant Singh, to rush to offer the U.S. help - unsolicited
and sweeping - immediately after September 11, 2001?

WE cannot understand the simmering rage in the Arab world today
unless we trace its roots to the events of that defining moment in
1920 when they discovered that they had been cheated by Britain and
France, with American connivance, if not complicity. That moment was
May 5, 1920, when the results of the San Remo Conference, held on
April 24, were made public. Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire were to
be divided between Britain and France - Iraq and Palestine going to
Britain, Syria and Lebanon to France. Worse still, Palestine was
earmarked for establishing a Jewish state. Arabs were denied
independence. The unity of their lands was disrupted. An alien state
was to be imposed on Palestine, against the wishes of the people and
through forcible immigration. All this was in breach of solemn
promises made to Arabs to encourage them to rebel against Ottoman
rule during the First World War. In 1920 Britain imposed a Pax
Brittanica on the region. Now, the U.S. is out to impose a Pax
Americana in West Asia. Its implications for South Asia are obvious.

The national interest dictates a widening of options, which only a
regional settlement can provide. That involves settlement of the
boundary dispute with China; of Kashmir with Pakistan; and a
rapprochement with Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, in a framework
that puts aside the one forged in 1987. India will emerge truly as a
regional power whose voice will matter. That was Nehru's vision. The
cold wars he launched rendered them unattainable.

One thought that with the demise of Pax Britannica the Arab people
would become masters of their lands. For a variety of reasons, not
least the venality and incompetence of their rulers, that was not to
be. Pax Americana came to hold sway in an outrageously brazen form.
Time and again the Prime Minister warns us of the dangers of the
"Unipolar Moment", but does little to improve the situation so far as
it affects Indian interests. His government has forged a strategic
partnership with Israel. The Arab world is ignored. This is unwise.
West Asia will become more important in the days ahead. Many of the
issues of which we hear a lot now arose nearly a century ago. India
needs to understand the roots of the Arab rage.

Read this line: "The Pan-Islamic danger is a real and permanent one."
It was not written in 2004. It was written on May 23, 1916, in a
memorandum by Sir A. Hirtzel of the India Office. He added: "We
cannot get rid of it altogether, but we have the opportunity now...
of immensely diminishing it by reducing to impotence the only
existing organised government that can further the pan-Islamic idea;
and when we see the progress which that idea has made in India, under
Turkish influence, in the last 10 years, does not common prudence
require that we should do so?"

That "opportunity" was provided by the Ottoman Empire's decision in
October 1914 to enter into the First World War on the side of
Germany. Defeating Germany alone will "not suffice for our purpose".
Turkey must be humiliated, and its Empire broken up.

"It is on Mesopotamia and not on Europe that attention is fixed in
the Persian Gulf... a merely diplomatic defeat of Turkey will not
count in Arabia."

Hirtzel quoted a saying, "the intellect of the Arab is in his eyes",
and explained: "In India itself the vernacular press loses no
opportunity of admiring the feats of Turkish arms. With all these
people we shall have to deal after the war, and to live with them on
terms of moral supremacy. We shall have to govern India itself -
where, besides the Moslem problem, the fact has to be reckoned with
that the educated Hindus... are not averse to seeing British pride
humbled, and humbled by an Asiatic Power - and to convince the
peoples of India that a handful of white men can still control them"
(emphasis added throughout).

In 1990 the U.S. used Saddam Hussein's aggression against Kuwait to
impose its military presence. In 2003 it ousted him to impose its
writ in the entire region, calculating that its impact will be felt
everywhere, South Asia included.

When Hirtzel wrote his memo, Britain was about to forge an alliance
with Arabs against their imperial masters, the Ottomans. He, however,
warned: "While the Arabs are content to use us now for their own
ends, it is certain that if and when those ends are attained their
attitude will always be less antagonistic towards the Moslem Turk,
whatever their grievances against him in the past, than towards the
Christian; and if the former is believed to be the better soldier
they will play him off against us to their heart's content." Turkey
had, therefore, to be beaten and Arabs kept divided and under British

In the very month in which Hirtzel wrote thus, Britain and France
agreed, on May 16, 1916, to split up Arab lands of the Ottomans
between themselves. It became known as the Sykes-Picot pact. Britain
and France would "recognise and protect an independent Arab state or
a Confederation of Arab States in the area (A) and (B), marked on the
annexed map, under the suzerainty of an Arab chief." Area A was to be
under French and B under British influence. In two other areas,
marked blue and red, they would establish "direct control". An area
marked brown (Palestine, roughly) would have an "international
administration" after "consultation" with Russia and "agreement" with
other allies and Sharif Hussain of Mecca.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917, Russia published all
secret pacts, including this. Sharif Hussain was shocked; for it ran
counter to the promise made to him on October 24, 1915, by Sir Henry
McMahon "to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in
all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sharif of Mecca".
Palestine was included. Some specified areas in Syria were not.
Relying on the promise, Arabs rebelled against the Ottomans in June
1916. To the Governor - General of India, Lord Hardinge, McMahon
admitted in November 1915 that his aim was "to tempt the Arab people
into the right path... this on our part is at present largely a
matter of words". They meant little.

After the War ended in 1919, a representative of the "General Syrian
Congress" met at Damascus on July 2, 1919, to demand "absolute
political independence" of the area from the Mediterranean to the
Euphrates and the Khabur rivers in the east and from the Taurus Range
in the north to Aqaba in the south. A Syria, thus formed, was to be a
constitutional monarchy under Amir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussain. It
comprised the Syria of today, Lebanon, Palestine and the lower basins
of the Euphrates and the Tigris.


Winston Churchil. He wanted Royal Air Force experts to proceed with
experimental work on gas bombs, especially mustard gas, to be used
against the rebellious Arabs.

But the British and the French had other plans. Their representatives
met in a small Italian town, San Remo, on April 24, 1920, and, while
the American Ambassador read his newspaper in the garden, the other
two carried out the Sykes-Picot pact, but with Mosul going to the
British. It acquired Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. The French got
Syria and Lebanon; all under the fig leaf of a League of Nations
Mandate. Faisal was made king of Iraq. His brother Abdullah was made
king of Transjordan. When the arrangement was made public on April
24, 1920, Arabs rose in revolt in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. In Arab
annals, 1920 is referred to as Am al-Nakha (Year of Catastrophe).

In Iraq the uprising lasted from July to October 1920. Around 4,000
Arabs lost their lives as did 450 British. There were 10,000
casualties, 2,000 of whom were British.

The cost to the British treasury was over 40,000,000. David Fromkin
writes: "The desert was alive with Arab raiding parties." Col. Gerald
Leachmen prescribed "wholesale slaughter" of the rebels. But
"virtually the whole area rose against Britain, and the revolt then
spread to the Lower Euphrates as well." A Holy War (jehad) was
proclaimed against Britain in Karbala. Leachman was killed, fanning
more uprisings. By mid-August a provisional Arab government was

Sir Arnold Wilson, Civil Commissioner in Iraq, told the British
Cabinet at the end of 1920 that "there was no real desire in
Mesopotamia for an Arab government; the Arabs would appreciate
British rule". He amplified: "What we are up against is anarchy plus
fanaticism. There is little or no nationalism." It was all caused by
"outsiders" ranging from Mustafa Kemal, Germans and Pan-Islam to
"Standard Oil, the Jews and the Bolsheviks" (A Peace to end all Peace
by David Fromkin; page 452). We hear similar explanations today with
tales of Iraqi gratitude for their American and British conquerors.

The territory of modern Iraq formed three provinces of the Ottoman
Empire based on the towns of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Arab
nationalism found expression in secret societies set up in the
capital of the Empire, Istanbul. The term Al-Iraq was used by Arab
geographers to refer to the plains of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
But there was no Iraqi nationalism, as such, only Arab nationalism.
In Europe the region was known as Mesopotamia. Arab officers from
various parts of the Empire set up al-Ahad (the Covenant). A branch
was formed in Baghdad where a group of young intellectuals also set
up in 1912 the National Scientific Club.

There was, besides, a Shi'ite secret society, Haras al-Istiglol (the
Independence Guard) led by Muhammad al-Sadr, son of one of the most
eminent Shia Mujtahids (a cleric competent to deliver opinions on
Islamic law). In Karbala, another mujtahid, Ayatullah al-Shirazi,
issued a fatwa (edict) against British rule. British response was to
hold a "plebiscite" of the notables and polls to a Constituent
Assembly. The British discovered that while the numbers of
collaborators grew, so did popular alienation. The phenomenon is
typical of such situations.

More than half of the three million population of Iraq was Shia;
roughly 20 per cent was Kurdish; around eight comprised the
minorities. The rest were Sunnis. The British relied on Sunnis to run
the administration (A History of Iraq by Charles Tripp; page 31). The
military operation was conducted under the orders of
Commander-in-Chief in India, General Sir Beaucham P. Duff, a desk
officer who had never commanded a regiment. "He seldom left his
office and yet refused to let anything be decided outside his
office," David Gilmour remarks (Curzon; page 678).

By October 1920 the revolt subsided. The 2003 revolt was less
organised, more diffused and has proved more lasting. In July 1920,
much of the mid-Euphrates region was in rebel hands, an achievement
which eludes the rebels of today. Installation of Amir Faisal as king
appeased Iraqi sentiment. The Chalabis of today are treated with

The Tigris river in Baghdad, viewed from a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter
gunship on February 16.

British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill viewed the 1920 revolt
with profound disquiet, as his biographer Martin Gilbert records
(Winston S. Churchill Vol. IV; page 490). A whole division from India
was despatched to Mesopotamia. Gilbert coyly writes that Churchill
wanted the Royal Air Force experts "to proceed with experimental
work" on gas bombs, "especially mustard gas". Wilson noted: "The real
fact being that the whole country is `up'." On August 31, 1920,
Churchill wrote out his innermost fears: "It is an extraordinary
thing that the British civil administration should have succeeded in
such a short time in alienating the whole country to such an extent
that the Arabs have laid aside the blood feuds they have nursed for
centuries and that the Sunni and Shia tribes are working together."

At the same time, Palestine was being prepared for eventual Zionist
rule. Churchill blandly told premiers of the Dominions on June 22,
1921: "If, in the course of many years, they (the Jews) become a
majority in the country they virtually would take it over." He was
replying to Canada's Prime Minister Arthur Meighen's queries on the
meaning of a `National Home for the Jewish people" as used in the
Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917. Its proviso of respect for
"the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in
Palestine" was deceptive. Its author, Foreign Secretary A.J. Balfour,
candidly wrote in a memo in August 1919: "The contradiction between
the letter of the Covenant of the League of Nations and the policy of
the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the independent
nation of Palestine than in that of the independent nation of Syria.
For, in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of
consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The
four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right
or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present
needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and
prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

"In my opinion that is right. What I have never been able to
understand is how it can be harmonised with the Anglo-French
declaration, the Covenant, or the instructions to the commission of
Enquiry... In fact, so far as Palestine is concerned, the powers have
made no statement of fact that is not admittedly wrong, and no
declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not
always intended to violate." One wonders what American and British
documents of today will reveal when the archives are opened decades

Balfour's successor Curzon opposed this policy, but was overruled by
Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a Biblical Zionist like Balfour -
and George W. Bush. Curzon asked: "What is to become of the people of
this country (Palestine) assuming the Turk to be expelled, and the
inhabitants not to have been exterminated by the war? There are over
half a million of these. Syrian Arabs... they and their forefathers
have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years. They own
the soil, which belongs either to individual landowners or to village
communities. They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be
content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act
merely as hewers of wood and drawers of waters to the latter."

Curzon warned the Prime Minister that what the Jewish leader Chaim
Weizmann envisaged was not a "Jewish home" but "a Jewish state, a
Jewish nation, a subordinate population of Arabs etc. ruled by Jews;
the Jewish possession of the fat of the land, and directing the
administration. He is trying to effect this behind the screen and
under the shelter of British trusteeship."

Western leaders and writers wax eloquent on Hitler and Stalin's
mistreatment of whole peoples by expulsion from their homes. Was
their treatment of Arabs in Palestine any the less of a crime?
Churchill feared that "we shall be everywhere represented as the
chief enemy of Islam" because of British policy towards Kemalist
Turkey. If he had no fears about the consequences of a worse policy
in Palestine, it was because, as Weizmann gleefully noted, "Mr.
Churchill had a low opinion of the Arab generally". Is it surprising
that Arabs are frustrated and angry still? What is a century in the
life of an ancient people? Yet Israel managed for long to claim
sympathy as the "underdog".

Right now, with American backing, Israel denies Arabs a state in
Palestine comprising a mere one-fifth of its territory. Terrorism is
reprehensible; but, for centuries it has been the only weapon known
to the weak. It was the genius of Gandhi that weaned Indians away
from that path on which Aurobindo Ghosh, Bhagat Singh and others
embarked, disastrously. Palestinians and Iraqis know that if they
drop this weapon they lose all leverage. The solution lies in
redressing the grievances that drive people to use the reprehensible
weapon of terrorism as Indian leaders consistently counselled the
British rulers during the Raj. As in the past, efforts are afoot to
legitimise Anglo-American rule over Iraq. Britain had imposed on it
four different treaties of alliance - in 1922, 1926, 1927 and 1930.
The U.S. is out to impose a status-of-forces agreement on Iraq to
ensure legal immunity for its troops in Iraq, which number over

If there is one single issue on which the U.S. incurs odium in the
Arab world it is its support to Israel. But not in the Arab world
only. Europeans are becoming increasingly critical. So, are leaders
in the Third World.

Their plaint was well summed up by Hendrick Wetler in The Economist
of October 4, 2003. He referred to "the three key grievances that
drive political Islam. First is the history of Western imperialism,
which denied Muslims independence and freedom for well over half a
century. Second was the solution to the Holocaust perpetrated by
Europeans on European Jews - handing the British colony of Palestine
to Jewish colonists, who then perpetrated their own programme of
ethnic cleansing. Third was the exploitation of oil by the West,
carried out with the connivance of local puppets who traded the
independence of their people in return for being kept in power and
skimmed off part of the oil profits for themselves (after the Western
oil firms took their massive cuts).

"Historical grievances, not religious ones, are expressed today
through religion - the only political route allowed. Tens of millions
of Muslims view the invasion and colonial occupation of Iraq as
simply a return of the 1920s, when Britain parachuted in its puppet
dictator in order to control the Iraqi oilfields, after carving off
Kuwait better to control the region." The analysis defies improvement.

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