Iraqi Rebellion (1920)

British army in Iraq
British army in Iraq

The Iraqi rebellion of 1920 was a massive nationalist revolt against the British occupation of the country. In 1915 in the midst of World War I, British and imperial troops moved into southern Iraq and then north toward Baghdad, where they were defeated by Ottoman troops.

In 1917 a new British expedition took Baghdad, and by the end of the war they controlled the northern Iraqi province of Mosul as well. Mosul was of particular importance owing to its oil fields, over which the British meant to retain control.

The initial British occupation met with little Iraqi resistance, but after the San Remo Treaty of 1920 formalized British control under the mandate, Iraqi opposition to a prolonged occupation mounted. The full-scale war that broke out in the summer of 1920 raged throughout the country but was particularly strong in rural areas.

The war united Iraqis representing a complex mix of religious and ethnic groups. Sunni Muslim Kurds in the north, who wanted the British out of Mosul, joined with Shi'i in the south in their opposition to the British.

Shi'i centers around the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf were among the first to resist. Tribal confederacies also joined the struggle, as did women who collected money for the cause and served as messengers. The war raged for four months and took the British by surprise.

Arnold Wilson, the top British civilian official in Iraq, had advocated a policy of direct control and had predicted no difficulties in holding the territory, but as the violence grew and casualties mounted the British were forced to bring in reinforcements. The British smashed the rebellion with military force and even employed the Royal Air Force to bomb tribal armies with poison mustard gas.

Britis employed Royal Air Force
Britis employed Royal Air Force

In the face of British military superiority and internal disputes that prevented a clear-cut chain of command or unified strategy, the revolt was crushed. In the course of the rebellion, over 400 British troops and 10,000 Iraqis had been killed.

The British sent Sir Percy Cox to Baghdad to help bring civilian order, and he set up an Iraqi interim government. At the Cairo Conference of 1921 the British addressed the problems of governing Iraq. The British decided on a policy of indirect rule, whereby the façade of independence would be created through the establishment of an Arab monarchy led by Faysal, son of Sherif Husayn and a member of the respected Hashemite family, which would be closely linked to Britain.

Britain thereby retained real control over the foreign affairs and economic wealth of Iraq, particularly its oil reserves, without assuming the financial costs necessitated by a large military presence and direct rule.