Iraqi Whispers Mull Repeat of 1920s Revolt

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Whispers of “revolution” are growing louder in Baghdad this month at teahouses, public protests and tribal meetings as Iraqis point to the past as an omen for the future.

Iraqis remember 1920 as one of the most glorious moments in modern history, one followed by nearly eight decades of tumult. The bloody rebellion against British rule that year is memorialized in schoolbooks, monuments and mass-produced tapestries that hang in living rooms.

Now, many say there’s an uncanny similarity with today: unpopular foreign occupiers, unelected governing bodies and unhappy residents eager for self-determination. The result could be another bloody uprising.

“We are now under occupation, and the best treatment for a wound is sometimes fire,” said Najah al Najafi, a Shiite cleric who joined thousands of marchers at a recent demonstration where construction workers, tribal leaders and religious scholars spoke of 1920.

The rebellion against the British marked the first time that Sunni and Shiite Muslims worked in solidarity, drawing power from tribesmen and city dwellers alike. Though Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic minorities are rivals in the new Iraq, many residents said the recent call for elections could draw disparate groups together. A smattering of Sunnis joined massive Shiite protests last week, demanding that U.S. administrators grant the wishes of the highest Shiite cleric for general elections.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani has been unbending in his demand for direct elections instead of U.S. plans to select a new government through caucuses. At the request of L. Paul Bremer, the American envoy to Iraq, and several members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, the United Nations is sending a team to Iraq to study the feasibility of holding elections in time for the transition of power this summer.

Sistani’s representatives expect widespread civil disobedience and violence if elections are deemed impossible.

“They know what will happen if they do not listen to us,” said Sabah al Khazali, a religious scholar who joined last week’s demonstrations. “They know this is a warning.”

The historic rebellion has broad resonance. A band of anti-American insurgents has named itself the “1920 Revolution Brigades,” and Sistani himself, in a newspaper advertisement this month, asked Iraq’s influential tribes to remember that year.

“We want you to be revolutionaries … you should have a big role today, as you had in the revolution in 1920,” the ad said.

Elderly tribal leaders recently discussed revolution amid plumes of incense smoke and the gurgle of tobacco-filled water pipes. Many men on the 50-member Independent Iraqi Tribes council proudly claimed ancestors who rose against the British in 1920. They likewise would join a revolt if Sistani and other clerics gave the word, they said.

History writers are less kind in their assessment of the rebellion’s outcome. In 1920, the League of Nations awarded Britain the new mandate of Iraq as part of secret deals made during World War I. Just six months into British rule, Iraqi opposition was growing. After the unrest deteriorated into three months of death and anarchy, the British plucked an Arab nationalist fighter from exile in the United Kingdom and installed him as king. The monarchy lasted until 1958, when a military coup turned Iraq into a republic.

To many Iraqis, today’s U.S. occupation reads like an old play with modern characters: America as the new Britain, grenade-lobbing insurgents as the new opposition, and Ahmad Chalabi and other former exiles on the Governing Council as the new kings.

“We’ve sacrificed many martyrs and we would do it again,” said Sheik Khamis al Suhail, the secretary of the tribal council. “In 1920, we faced a struggle between Muslims and non-Muslims in Iraq. We are living under basically the same conditions now, and revolution is certainly possible.”

Iraqi Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the country’s population of 26 million, look to Sistani for leadership.

“If Sistani called for revolution, I would sacrifice my life for the good of my country,” said Hamdiya al Niemi, a 27-year-old street vendor whose father raised her on stories of the 1920 uprising. “My father was so proud talking about that time, how we kicked out the British and how we should never allow foreigners to rule our land.”

The al Hamdani tribe, with thousands of members across Iraq, provided key organizers of the 1920 revolt. These days, the family name is linked to the cream-filled confections sold at the popular al Hamdani pastry shops throughout Baghdad.

Yaser al Hamdani, a 28-year-old tribe member whose great-uncle fought in the revolution, said he’d give up his job in the steaming bakery for a rebellion.

“Of course I would join,” Hamdani said. “There would be bloodshed along the way, but sacrifice is important for success.”
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Courtesy Raja Mattar