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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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,
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
That tradition of determined opposition to foreign
occupation and domination is emerging once more in the new
Reprinted from the April 22, 2004, issue of
Workers World newspaper
This article is copyright under a Creative
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