Iraqi revolt against the British
The Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

i Revolt against the British (1920)
, or the Great Iraqi Revolution of 1920, started in Baghdad
Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, as well as the coterminous Baghdad Governorate. The population of Baghdad in 2011 is approximately 7,216,040...

 in the summer of 1920 with mass demonstrations of both Sunni and Shia, including protests by embittered officers from the old Ottoman
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

 army, against the policies of British Acting Civil Commissioner Sir Arnold Wilson
Arnold Wilson
Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson KCIE CSI CMG DSO was the British civil commissioner in Baghdad in 1918-1920. Wilson became publicly known for his role as the colonial administrator of Mesopotamia during and after the First World War. His high-handedness arguably led to an Iraqi revolt in 1920. He was...

. The revolt gained momentum when it spread to the largely Shia regions of the middle and lower Euphrates
The Euphrates is the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia. Together with the Tigris, it is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia...

. Sheikh Mehdi Al-Khalissi was a prominent Shia leader of the revolt.
Although the revolt was largely over by the end of 1920, elements of it dragged on until 1922. The revolt began in May 1920 as peaceful demonstrations against the British conquest of Iraq. Sunni and Shi’a religious communities cooperated during the revolution as well as tribal communities, the urban masses, and many Iraqi officers in Syria
Syria , officially the Syrian Arab Republic , is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south, and Israel to the southwest....

. The revolution turned bloody after the tribes began using violence to achieve their goals. The objectives of the revolution were independence from British rule and creation of an Arab government. Although the revolt achieved some initial success, by the end of October 1920 the British had crushed the revolt. There has been some debate among historians over whether the participants in the revolt were inspired by Iraqi nationalism or by other motives.

A great deal of anti-British rebellion occurred in the north by the Kurds
Kurdish people
The Kurdish people, or Kurds , are an Iranian people native to the Middle East, mostly inhabiting a region known as Kurdistan, which includes adjacent parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey...

, who were trying to gain independence. One of the major Kurdish leaders was Sheik Mahmoud Barzinji
Mahmud Barzanji
Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji or Mahmud Berzenji was the leader of several Kurdish uprisings against the British Mandate of Iraq. He was sheikh of a Qadiriyah Sufi family from the city of Sulaymaniyah, which is now in Iraqi Kurdistan...

. During the revolt, Britain used white phosphorus
White phosphorus (weapon)
White phosphorus is a material made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus that is used in smoke, tracer, illumination and incendiary munitions. Other common names include WP, and the slang term "Willie Pete," which is dated from its use in Vietnam, and is still sometimes used...

 bombs against Kurdish villagers. These weapons were also used in Al-Ḥabbāniyah in Al-Anbar province, and the British continued to use these tactics throughout the 1920s in Iraq.


After World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 the idea of the League of Nations
League of Nations
The League of Nations was an intergovernmental organization founded as a result of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War. It was the first permanent international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace...

 creating Mandates for the territories of the defeated Central Powers began to take shape after the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The idea was based on the principle that the territories would eventually become independent but under the tutelage of one of the victorious Entente
Allies of World War I
The Entente Powers were the countries at war with the Central Powers during World War I. The members of the Triple Entente were the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire; Italy entered the war on their side in 1915...

 countries. People in Ottoman provinces began to fear the Mandate concept since “it seemed to suggest European imperial rule by another name.” At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, Great Britain was awarded the Mandate for Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

, (called Mesopotamia at the time) as well as the Mandate for Palestine. In Iraq the British got rid of most of the former Ottoman officials and the new administration was composed of mainly British officials. Many people in Iraq began to fear becoming part of the British Empire. It was at this point that one of the most eminent Shi’a mujtahid, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, issued a fatwa “declaring that service in the British administration was unlawful.” There was growing resentment to new British policies such as new land ownership laws, which upset tribal leaders, and especially for the new tax which people had to pay to be buried in Najaf
Najaf is a city in Iraq about 160 km south of Baghdad. Its estimated population in 2008 is 560,000 people. It is the capital of Najaf Governorate...

, where Shi’a from all over the world came to be buried. Meetings between Shi’a ulema and tribal leaders discussed strategies for peaceful protests but they did consider violent action if the peaceful demonstrations failed to get results. Discontent with British rule materialized in May 1920 with the outbreak of mass meetings and demonstrations in Baghdad.

The Revolution

The start of the revolution in May 1920 was centered on peaceful protests against British rule. There were large gatherings at Sunni and Shi’a mosques which gave proof of co-operation between the two main sects of Iraqi society. At one of the larger meetings fifteen representatives were nominated to present the case for Iraqi independence to the British officials. Acting Civil Commissioner, Sir Arnold Wilson, dismissed their demands as unpractical. Armed revolt broke out in late June 1920. Ayatollah al-Shirazi issued another fatwa that seemed to encourage armed revolt. The British authorities hoped to avoid this and they arrested a sheikh of the Zawalim tribe. Later an armed band of loyal tribal warriors stormed the prison and set him free. The revolt soon gained momentum as the British garrisons in the mid-Euphrates region were weak and the armed tribes much stronger. By late July, the armed tribal rebels controlled most of the mid-Euphrates region. The success of the tribes caused the revolt to spread to the lower Euphrates and all around Baghdad too. British War Minister, Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

, authorized immediate reinforcements from Iran
Iran , officially the Islamic Republic of Iran , is a country in Southern and Western Asia. The name "Iran" has been in use natively since the Sassanian era and came into use internationally in 1935, before which the country was known to the Western world as Persia...

 that included two squadrons of the Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

. The use of aircraft shifted the advantage to the British and played a huge role in ending the revolt. There were also tribes that worked against the revolt since they were recognized by the British authorities and profited from this acknowledgement. Eventually the rebels began to run low on supplies and funding and could not support the revolt for much longer while British forces were becoming more effective. The revolt ended in October 1920 when the rebels surrendered Najaf and Karbala
Karbala is a city in Iraq, located about southwest of Baghdad. Karbala is the capital of Karbala Governorate, and has an estimated population of 572,300 people ....

 to the British authorities.


Around 6,000 Iraqis and around 500 British and Indian soldiers died in the revolt. The revolt caused British officials to drastically reconsider their strategy in Iraq. The revolt cost the British government 40,000,000 pounds which twice the amount of the annual budget allotted for Iraq and a huge factor in reconsidering their strategy in Iraq. The new Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

, decided a new colonial administration was need in Iraq as well as the British colonies in the Middle East so he called for a large conference in Cairo. In March 1921 at the Cairo Conference, British officials discussed the future of Iraq. The British now wanted to control Iraq through more indirect means, mainly by installing former officials friendly to the British government. They eventually decided to install Faysal ibn Husayn
Faisal I of Iraq
Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, was for a short time King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920, and was King of the Kingdom of Iraq from 23 August 1921 to 1933...

 as King of Iraq. Faysal had worked with the British before in the Arab Revolt
Arab Revolt
The Arab Revolt was initiated by the Sherif Hussein bin Ali with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.- Background :...

 during World War I and he enjoyed good relations with certain important officials. British officials also thought installing Faysal as king would prevent Faysal from fighting the French in Syria and damaging British-French relations. For Iraqis the revolt served as part of the founding of Iraqi nationalism although this conclusion is debated by scholars. It also showed unprecedented co-operation between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims although this co-operation did not last much longer than the end of the revolt.

See also

  • Gas in Mesopotamia
    Gas in Mesopotamia
    It has been claimed that the British used toxic gas against the Kurds in Mesopotamia, during the Ath Thawra al Iraqiyya al Kubra or Iraqi revolt against the British in 1920, in the period of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia...

  • British Mandate of Mesopotamia
  • RAF Iraq Command
    RAF Iraq Command
    Iraq Command was the RAF commanded inter-service command in charge of British forces in Iraq in the 1920s and early 1930s, during the period of the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. It continued as British Forces in Iraq until 1941 when it was replaced by AHQ Iraq...

  • List of modern conflicts in the Middle East

Further reading

  • Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007
  • Fieldhouse, D.K. Western imperialism in the Middle East 1914-1958. Oxford University Press, 2006
  • Spector S. Reeva and Tejirian H. Eleanor.The Creation of Iraq, 1914-1921. Columbia University Press, 2004
  • Atiyyah, Ghassan R. Iraq: 1908-1921A Socio-Political Study. The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973
  • Vinogradov, Amal. “The 1920 Revolt in Iraq Reconsidered: The Role of Tribes in National Politics,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.3, No.2 (Apr., 1972): 123-139
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