Great Iraqi Revolt

After Great Britain gained control of the mandate on Iraq, Sunnis and Shias set aside religious differences to rebel against British control. The British civil administrator refused to compromise, and the uprising quickly spread around Baghdad and into the Middle Euphrates. Kurds took advantage of the collapse of central authority to revolt north of Mosul. Only brutal aerial bombardment of Iraqi towns silenced the rebellion.

Summary of Event

Since the sixteenth century, Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra had been administrative districts within the Ottoman Empire. On the eve of World War I, Great Britain contemplated invading these regions in Mesopotamia as a means of protecting its colony in India. When the Ottoman Turks, fearing Russian encroachment on their empire, joined forces with the Central Powers, the British had the justification they needed to land troops in Mesopotamia. Initially, however, they were stopped in their advance at Al-Kūt (1916). Great Britain solicited Arab support against the Turks with vague promises to the Grand Sharif ՙAlī ibn Ḥusayn of Mecca, who became the leader of the Great Arab Revolt and later king of the Hejaz (1924-1925). Revolts;Iraq
Great Iraqi Revolt
Iraq, British mandate
[kw]Great Iraqi Revolt (May-Nov., 1920)
[kw]Iraqi Revolt, Great (May-Nov., 1920)
[kw]Revolt, Great Iraqi (May-Nov., 1920)
Great Iraqi Revolt
Iraq, British mandate
[g]Iraq;May-Nov., 1920: Great Iraqi Revolt[05100]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;May-Nov., 1920: Great Iraqi Revolt[05100]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May-Nov., 1920: Great Iraqi Revolt[05100]
Wilson, Sir Arnold
Shīrāzī, Muḥammad Taqī al-
Leachman, Gerard
Cox, Sir Percy Zachariah
Haldane, Sir Aylmer
Faisal I
Bell, Gertrude

Arab nationalism was further encouraged when U.S. president Woodrow Wilson issued his famous Fourteen Points Fourteen Points (1918) promising that after the war, the principle of self-determination would govern territories controlled by the Central Powers. However, Britain had negotiated with France to divide Turkish territories in the Middle East into spheres of influence as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)[Sykes Picot Agreement] On March 11, 1917, an Anglo-Indian army under Major General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude took Baghdad. When Britain was awarded a League of Nations mandate over all of Iraq in April of 1920, some 130,000 Iraqis rose up in a nationwide revolt.

The rebellion surprised the British high commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, who did not believe that Shia and Sunni Muslims could unite in a common effort or that Iraqis had any sense of national identity. Arabic Shias formed about 50 percent of the Iraqi population, but the Ottoman Turks had governed through their coreligionists, the Sunnis, who made up only 20 percent of the population. These religious sects had been bitterly divided since the second half of the seventh century, when the first fitna (inter-Muslim war) had erupted, eventually leading to the assassination of the fourth caliph ՙAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and ultimately to the death of his son Ḥusayn, who was killed at the Battle of Karbala. Further religious and ethnic divisions, including a significant minority of Christians and Jews and a large minority of Kurds (some 20 percent of the population), convinced the British that a divide-and-rule policy, like that followed in India, would allow direct administrative control of Iraq. Wilson did not appreciate the extent of mounting nationalist opposition, and a policy of direct British administration was instituted over the objections of Arabists such as Gertrude Bell, who advised an independent Iraq under looser British tutelage.

Prior to the rebellion, secret nationalist societies such as the League of the Islamic Awakening, the Muslim National League, and the Guardians of Independence had emerged to promote autonomy. In the shrine cities of An Najaf and Karbala, former Sunni military officers of the Ottoman army joined notables, clerics, and tribal sheikhs to protest increased British control. After the murder of a British officer in An Najaf in 1919, punitive arrests and blockade of the city had led Shia leaders to begin discussions with Sunnis about resisting the occupation. In the spring, Shia clerics and sheikhs from the Middle Euphrates joined with Sunni nationalists in An Najaf and Baghdad in mass meetings and protests. The result was an appeal to the Grand Sharif ՙAlī ibn Ḥusayn for one of his sons to become king of an independent state. Suspicion and hostility continued to mount during the following year, as did Iraqi national consciousness. Patronizing suggestions by the British that they would oversee a mandate for Iraq were met with contempt, and clerics were particularly opposed to the British refusal to establish an Islamic government. Tribesmen objected to the tax system and forced labor, while ex-Turkish and Iraqi officials were disappointed by their failure to find jobs in the British civil administration. The legendary Lieutenant Colonel Gerard Leachman was brought from London to end the troubles, and after British officers were slain, he recommended the “wholesale slaughter” of unruly tribes.

With the Muslim holiday of Ramadan beginning on May 17, 1920, pilgrims flocked to the shrine cities. Sunnis came to celebrate the birth of the Prophet Muḥammad in a ceremony called the mawlud, while Shias commemorated the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn in a passion play known as ta’ziyya. Religious leaders commanded that worshipers attend both Sunni and Shia mosques to unite in these intensely religious and patriotic expressions of devotion. The Guardians of Independence assembled twenty thousand protesters in Baghdad, and when the British deported a young Muslim for reciting a passionate anti-British poem, rioting erupted.

When the British mandate was declared in June, an armed revolt erupted in An Najaf and Karbala and spread rapidly to the Middle Euphrates. In Rumaytha, an imprisoned sheikh who had refused to pay British taxes was freed by force, and in As Samāwah, a British garrison was seized by surprise. Shia and Sunni clerics issued a fatwa approving the rebellion, and for the first time in Iraqi history, there was a period of cooperation between the sects. The grand ayatollah of Karbala, Imam Muḥammad Taqī al-Shīrāzī, known as the spiritual leader of the revolt, demanded the establishment of an Islamic government, while his son, Mīrzā Muḥammad Rizā, organized resistance until he was deported. Further demonstrations in Karbala were suppressed by British troops using armored cars, which provoked further revolts in southern Iraq. Meanwhile, as central authority collapsed around Baghdad, northern Kurds took advantage of the power vacuum to rise in rebellion. In August, Lieutenant Colonel Leachman was shot in the back by his host while on a mission to supposed tribal allies in the Middle Euphrates. In some regions, Arab provisional governments emerged with powers to tax and supply materials to the rebels, who derailed trains and attacked British outposts.

Turning to a policy of accommodation and co-option, the new high commissioner of Iraq, Sir Percy Zachariah Cox, ended direct military rule by October of 1920 and shifted the battle against the rebellion to an aerial campaign, which would be less costly in money and personnel. Karbala was surrounded and its water was cut off, and An Najaf was threatened with bombardment until both cities surrendered. A constitution was drawn up by local notables headed by ՙAbd al-Raḥmān, the Sunni naqib of Baghdad, who had no political experience and was easily manipulated by Cox. By November, much of the insurrection had been suppressed, but only after British bombardment destroyed whole villages. After exiling the most popular candidate for king, Al-Sayyid Tālib al-Naqīb, the British turned to the third son of the sharif of Mecca, Faisal I, who had been expelled from Syria by the French. On selection by the Council of State and confirmation by a British-manipulated plebiscite, Faisal I became the first king of Iraq.


Although the rebellion was crushed, its legacy remains an important part of Iraqi political tradition and historical pride. Above all, it stands as an example of urban and tribal cooperation between the Sunni and Shia in opposition to foreign occupation. Widespread insurgency lasted three months, affecting one-third of the countryside and costing approximately one thousand British and Indian lives (with more wounded), as well as forty million pounds. Iraqis suffered nearly ten thousand casualties, and in spite of subsequent treaties with the British, they never forgave the British for this period of colonial repression. Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Haldane, British military commander, lamented that upon his arrival in Mesopotamia, he had been too occupied with waging the military campaign to consider the political situation properly. Great Britain suppressed the revolt but abandoned direct rule for a moderate Arab Sunni religious official and a council of ministers it could control, and Britain orchestrated the election of the non-Iraqi Hashemite king. As had the Turks before them, the British kept Shia influence to a minimum in the new government and ruled indirectly with Sunni Arabs who had been educated in the Ottoman Empire and Kurds who had been culturally Arabized. Patterns of the revolt and British responses to it were repeated during the post-Saddam Hussein occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British troops in the early years of the twenty-first century. Revolts;Iraq
Great Iraqi Revolt
Iraq, British mandate

Further Reading

  • Davis, Eric. Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Includes a scholarly discussion of the intellectual ferment on national consciousness during the revolt.
  • Haldane, Aylmer. The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920. 1922. Reprint. Nashville: Battery Press, 2005. An account of military engagements by the commanding officer.
  • Simon, Reeva S., and Eleanor H. Tejirian, eds. The Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. A collection of essays about the emergence of Iraq under British mandate and similarities facing U.S. forces after the occupation of the country in 2003.
  • Sluglett, Peter. Britain in Iraq, 1914-1932. London: Ithaca Press, 1978. An authoritative account of British occupation of Mesopotamia during World War I and the British mandate.
  • Vinogradov, Amal. “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 3, no. 2 (April, 1972): 123-129. An analysis of the socioeconomic and tribal factors underlying the revolt.

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