Iraq in Revolt

British officials in Iraq had warned that the population would not long tolerate direct military rule. The British military authority had styled itself as a liberating force from “Turkish tyranny,” and British colonial authorities were flummoxed and anxious over the declarations of independence of the Iraqi National Congress at Damascus in March 1920 on the one hand, and declarations of support among many in Iraq for a return of the Ottoman military to expel the British. The colonial authorities were unprepared for the Iraqi uprising that emerged in late May 1920, but those in Baghdad had been warning London of such a possibility for months.41

At the beginning of May, British reports noted that the pro-British Arab independence faction, made up of former officers close to Faysal and his brother cAbdallah, would only prevail if Britain granted some form of constitutional native rule. Otherwise, the pro-Ottoman camp would certainly prevail in winning the allegiance of the majority of the population, particularly since such sentiments were already popular. The Jewish leaders of Baghdad and the Shici clerics of Najaf and Karbala were the most favorable to a resumption of Ottoman rule.42 News from Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cilicia was in wide circulation, and outrage over the results from the San Remo Conference united opposition against the British occupation.

The month-long Ramadan fast fell in May during 1920. Nightly antioccupation demonstrations took place in towns and cities after breaking the fast, and after prayers. In the first weeks, demonstrations featured patriotic poems and orations. British officials were astounded to learn that Sunni and Shici Iraqis celebrated the breaking of the fast together preceding these demonstrations, and responded by banning public assemblies. The ban had the effect of causing demonstrations to become larger and more raucous, as nationalist leaders began to systematically organize opposition.43 British intelligence claimed all the nationalist agitators had been members of the Ottoman Unionist or CUP Party. By the second week in May, the more remote British garrisons were under frequent attack from Abu Kamal on the upper Euphrates to the Persian Gulf.

By June, the entire region was in a state of revolt. As elsewhere, ex-Ottoman officers led the main insurgent bands. Rebels defeated and captured most of the smaller British garrisons, and it was only by the use of airpower and the hurried dispatch of additional bombers and other aircraft from India and Egypt that the major towns could be defended. Iraqi revolt leaders presented a number of petitions to British authorities and to the League of Nations demanding independence and the right of self-determination for Iraq.44 British politicians, from Lloyd George on down, cast about for a solution to the crisis, but renouncing British control was never considered. British newspapers criticized colonial administrators and politicians strongly and complained that the cost of suppression would exceed 40 million pounds sterling, and would result in many dead British soldiers. Public discussions questioned the need to maintain British control over Iraq, but The Times noted that a prominent former general, John Cowans, only recently retired, was scouting Baghdad for an oil company. The New York Times reported that Cowans had been named managing director of one of the world’s largest oil companies, Royal Dutch Group, which expected to control the new oil fields of Mesopotamia.45 Forces of the Government of India and the Royal Air Force eventually suppressed the insurgency, as “countless towns and villages were destroyed.”46 Air power served as the principal tool of counter insurgency and villages along the rivers were bombed and strafed from the air.47

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