Iraq's revolt in 1920

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

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 control.

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.

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 proclaimed.

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 scorn.

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 hence?

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 100,000.

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.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment