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The revolt of 1920 and Iraqi resistance today

By Richard Becker

"Give us the signal and we will resume the 1920 revolt," chanted supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr at a demonstration in Baghdad on April 1. If the U.S. military commanders in Iraq didn't shudder at hearing that chant, their British co-occupiers surely did. It was in the year 1920 that the people of Iraq rose up together after learning that they had become colonial subjects of the British Empire.

The April 1 demonstration came at the midway point in a week that transformed the occupation of Iraq into a crisis of the first magnitude for Washington. The previous Sunday, March 28, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by U.S. dictator L. Paul Bremer had ignited the crisis by shutting down a newspaper reflecting the views of al-Sadr, a Shia religious leader. The shutdown led to a series of mass protests. When the U.S. attempted to crush the protests with brutal force, a popular uprising erupted in many Iraqi cities beginning on April 4.

At the same time, the U.S. occupation forces were preparing an all-out assault on Falluja, an industrial city of about 300,000 located west of Baghdad, which has been a center of the Iraqi resistance since the beginning of the occupation a year ago.

Falluja is a working-class city whose population is predominantly, but not exclusively, Sunni Muslim. Sunnis constitute about 85 percent of the world's Muslims, and are divided into four major branches. In Iraq, Shiites (the other major branch of Islam) constitute around 60 percent of the population.

Who is the Iraqi resistance?

While it may not be possible to answer this question exhaustively at present, it is clear that the resistance in Falluja and throughout Iraq is very diverse in its political makeup. In a Jan. 31 interview by the Anti-Imperialist Camp with resistance activist Jabbar al-Kubaysi, who identified himself as a "left Baathist," a question was asked about the components of the resistance that might form a common political front.

Al-Kubaysi replied: "There are four main currents spread throughout the country. There is ourselves, Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, which I can roughly describe as anti-imperialist, Arab nationalist, striving for democracy and social justice as well as respecting and defending our Islamic heritage.

"There is the Sunni Islamic Committee which regroups the main Islamic leaders being strongly opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood which is collaborating with the enemy. They are ready to work with everybody who is resisting including Christians and Communists.

"The third force is the Nasserites who are about to reorganize. And finally there are the anti-imperialist communists of the Central Command who are long-term friends of us who we are hoping to be able to convince." [The Central Command is a split from the official Iraqi Communist Party, which is collaborating with the occupation and is a member of the puppet Iraqi Governing Council.]

When asked about Shia participation in the resistance, al-Kubaysi answered: "First of all Shiite people are well represented in most of the forces named, in some they are even the majority. You have to overcome the idea spread by the Americans that the Shia society is its own, fully separated entity. Most of the Shia people consider themselves Arab Iraqis and participate as such in political life."

It is worth noting that this interview was done two months prior to the current uprising.

Al-Kubaysi's comments point to a reality about Iraq that has been left out of most of the corporate media coverage: Iraq, especially urban Iraq where more than 60 percent of the population today resides, is not neatly divided by religion or nationality. The process of capitalist development in Iraq, like in so many other countries, has led to a breakdown in the old feudal structures and a massive rural-to-urban migration over the past century.

Washington's depiction of Iraq, echoed in the mainstream media, features a Kurdish north, a Shia south and a "Sunni Triangle" in the center.

The term "Sunni Triangle" is, in fact, a recent propaganda fabrication. Included in the "Triangle" is Baghdad, although it is at least one-third Shiite and also is home to large numbers of Kurds, Assyrians, Turcomens and others. Excluded from the "Triangle" is the north of Iraq, despite the fact that a big majority of Arabs, Kurds and Turcomens are Sunnis.

Washington seeks weak and divided Iraq

The falsification of Iraqi reality by U.S. leaders and their complicit media is neither accidental nor benign. The occupiers are relying on a divide-and-conquer tactic to maintain control, a strategy of pitting Iraqi against Iraqi.

Under the new U.S.-drafted "constitution," Iraq would become a federative state with a weak central government. The long-term aim is to transform the entire oil-rich and strategic Gulf area into a region of weak states that can be easily dominated by U.S. imperialism.

While it would be a mistake to ignore the religious aspect of the resistance, the capitalist media's relentless characterization of the resistance in religious terms must be seen as part of the larger divide-and-rule strategy.

Commenting on the differences in reporting on Iraq by most U.S. media as compared to Arab sources such as Al-Jazeera TV, Nabil Dajani, professor of communications at the American University in Beirut, said: "Every reporter is influenced by his or her cultural background. They still look at what is going on in Iraq as terrorists. They still look at it as a Sunni triangle or as Shiites. They can't see Iraqis as Iraqis...

"Americans have the right to look at it in terms of the Sunni-Shiite and Al-Jazeera has the right to see it as resistance to occupation."

An April 9 Washington Post article reported that, "The Sunni-Shiite divide, already narrower in Iraq than in some parts of the Muslim world, is by all accounts shrinking each day that Iraqis agree their most immediate problem is the occupation."

The same article quoted Mohammed Najem Mausoumi, as he donated blood for Falluja in the predominantly Shia Kadhimiya community of Baghdad. "We don't need a call from the mosque."

"Like others in the cheerfully crowded tent," the Post article continued, "he bristled at being asked whether he was Shiite or Sunni."

Falluja has emerged as a symbol of national resistance and pride for Iraqis across the political and religious spectrum. Thousands of Baghdad residents in cars, buses and on foot formed a giant relief convoy into the besieged city on April 8, defying U.S. armor to enter.

Sunni and Shia mosques in the Iraqi capital organized many of the participants. This conscious and increasing coordination poses a potentially insoluble problem for the occupation, just as it did when it first emerged 84 years ago in the Revolt of 1920.

Revolt of 1920

In May 1920, the Arabs of Iraq, Syria and Palestine rose in mass revolt when they discovered that rather than achieving independence after hundreds of years of Ottoman (Turkish) rule, they had instead been incorporated into the largest colonial empires of the day, the British and French.

Syria and Lebanon became French colonies, according to the agreement signed in San Remo, Italy, on April 24, 1920. Iraq, Palestine and Jordan were taken over by Britain. All of this was done under the cover of "mandates" from the League of Nations--forerunner to the United Nations.

As part of this backroom deal, U.S. oil companies were given a 23.75 percent share of Iraq's oil, with equal amounts awarded to Britain, France and the Netherlands. Iraq owned exactly zero percent of its vast oil resources.

The British approach in Iraq, which it militarily occupied in 1918, was similar to that employed throughout its empire; i.e., to secure its control by pitting different sectors of the colonized people against each other, while seeking to co-opt the elites of each community or nationality. In Iraq, this meant fomenting antagonism between Shia and Sunni, and between Arab and Kurd.

But to the surprise of the British something very unusual for the time took place. Marxist historian Hanna Batatu wrote of the 1920 revolt: "For the first time in many centuries, Shias joined politically with Sunnis, and townsmen from Baghdad and tribesmen from the Euphrates made common cause.

"Unprecedented joint Shia-Sunni celebrations, ostensibly religious but in reality political, were held in all the Shia and Sunni mosques in turn ... the proceedings culminating in patriotic oratory and poetic thundering against the English.

"Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that with the events of 1919-20, and more particularly with the bond, however tender, that was created between Sunnis and Shias, a new process set in: the painful, now gradual, now spasmodic growth of an Iraqi national community." ("The Old Social Classes and Revolu tionary Movements of Iraq," Princeton University Press, 1978)

It took the powerful British military several months to put down the Revolt of 1920. More than 10,000 Iraqis were killed, as well as 2,000 British troops, including their commander. Tens of thousands more were wounded, at a time when the population was barely 3 million people. Winston Churchill, then in the British colonial office, ordered the development of poison gas bombs to be used against the revolt, and in 1925 dropped those bombs on rebelling Kurds in northern Iraq.

The history of Iraq under British rule from 1920-1958 was the history of one rebellion after another, rebellions in which the people of all communities and religious affiliations joined.

That tradition of determined opposition to foreign occupation and domination is emerging once more in the new Iraqi resistance.

Reprinted from the April 22, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

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