Iraqi revolt of 1920

The Iraqi revolt against the British, also known as the 1920 Iraqi Revolt or Great Iraqi Revolution, started in Baghdad in the summer of 1920 with mass demonstrations by Iraqis, including protests by embittered officers from the old Ottoman army, against the British occupation of Iraq. The revolt gained momentum when it spread to the largely tribal Shia regions of the middle and lower Euphrates. Sheikh Mehdi Al-Khalissi was a prominent Shia leader of the revolt.

Iraqi revolt against the British
DateMay–October 1920

British victory

 British Empire

Iraqi rebels

  • Shia tribesmen
  • Sunni tribesmen
  • Kurdish and Tyari tribesmen
Commanders and leaders
Sir Arnold Wilson Shalan abu Al-Joun
Mehdi Al-Khalissi
Muhammad Hasan Abi al-Mahasin
Mahmud Barzanji[1]
Other heads of iraqi tribesmen
120,000 men[2] (later reinforced with an additional 15,414 men)[2]
63 aircraft[2]
Casualties and losses
400 killed[4]
600 missing[4]
1,100–1,800 wounded[4]
11 aircraft destroyed[5]
6,000[6]–10,000 killed[5][7]
Estimated civilian toll: 2,050–4,000 killed;[4] 4,800–6,150 wounded[4]

Sunni and Shia religious communities cooperated during the revolution as well as tribal communities, the urban masses, and many Iraqi officers in Syria.[8] The objectives of the revolution were independence from British rule and creation of an Arab government.[8] Though the revolt achieved some initial success, by the end of October 1920, the British had crushed the revolt. Although the revolt was largely over by the end of 1920, elements of it dragged on until 1922.

During the 1920 revolt, another anti-British rebellion took place in the north Iraq by the Kurds, who were trying to gain independence. One of the major Kurdish leaders of the Kurdish revolt was Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji.


After World War I the idea of the League of Nations creating Mandates for the territories of the defeated Central Powers began to take shape after the Peace Treaty of Versailles in 1919.[9] The idea was based on the principle that the territories would eventually become independent but under the tutelage of one of the victorious Entente countries.[9] People in Ottoman provinces began to fear the Mandate concept since "it seemed to suggest European imperial rule by another name."[9]

At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, Great Britain was awarded the Mandate for Iraq, (called Mesopotamia in the Western world 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 Shia mujtahid, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi, issued a fatwa "declaring that service in the British administration was unlawful."[10] 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 the Wadi-us-Salaam cemetery in Najaf, where Shia from all over the world came to be buried.[11] Meetings between Shia ulema and tribal leaders discussed strategies for peaceful protests but they did consider violent action if the peaceful demonstrations failed to get results.[10]

The Revolution

Discontent with British rule materialized in May 1920 with the outbreak of mass meetings and demonstrations in Baghdad. The start of the revolution was centered on peaceful protests against British rule. There were large gatherings at Sunni and Shia mosques which gave proof of co-operation between the two main sects of Iraqi society.[6] At one of the larger meetings 15 representatives were nominated to present the case for Iraqi independence to the British officials. Acting Civil Commissioner, Arnold Wilson, dismissed their demands as impractical.[12]

Armed revolt broke out in late June 1920. Ayatollah al-Shirazi issued another fatwa which read, "It is the duty of the Iraqis to demand their rights. In demanding them they should maintain peace and order. But if the English prevent them obtaining their rights it is permitted to make use of defensive force." [13] This seemed to encourage armed revolt. The British authorities hoped to avoid this and they arrested a sheikh of the Zawalim tribe.[14] 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.[6] The success of the tribes caused the revolt to spread to the lower Euphrates and all around Baghdad.[6]

The British War Secretary, Winston Churchill, authorized immediate reinforcements from Iran that included two squadrons of the Royal Air Force. The use of aircraft shifted the advantage to the British and played a huge role in ending the revolt.[15] 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 to the British authorities.[6]

The Beginning of the Revolution

Al Rumaitha incident

Declaration of revolution in al-Mashakheb

The Kufa Conference

Spread of the revolution to the Middle Euphrates

The Samawah Front

Battle of Al-Khodar

Al-Khodar is a small village on the left bank of Euphrates River. On July 30, Hadi al-Maqoutar arrived from the city of Najaf to incite the inhabitants of the village to join the revolt against the English.[16] He had what he wanted as the tribes living in that area began to sabotage the railway and telegraph lines passing through the area.[17] The commander of the British forces in Iraq, General Haldane, ordered the forces stationed at the Khadr train station to withdraw immediately to the city of Nasiriyah, where the tribes that joined the revolution then attacked the station. This was on August 13, when they were shooting fire towards the station. The station had a normal train and two armored trains but soon an incident happened to the first armored vehicle, which led to a problem. The British troops went by regular train only, and the train arrived at Ur's station safely in the same evening.[18]

Battle of Al-Bawakher

The guards of the city of Samawah were divided into two sections, one of which was led by Colonel "Hai" and camped on the river in a place called Hsija coast near the city and the second was led by Captain "Rasel" and encamped around the city train station that was near the city wall. Both the sections became encircled after the British withdrew from the village of Al-Khoder and the rebels tighted the siege on them day after day.[19] On the 26th of August, three warships and two regular ships moved from Nasiriyah to rescue the forces in Samawah. After fierce battles between the rebels and the ships, two warships and a regular ship reached to the Samawah guards after the withdrawal of one of the warships on August 27 and returned to Nasiriyah. The rebels managed to seize one of the regular ships[20] The station fell into the hands of the rebels after fierce battles between them and the British forces when the British forces tried to get out of the station camp by a train, a large number of bodies fell from both sides during the confrontations.[21] After this battle, the rebels besieged the main guards camp, which was led by Colonel Hai and asked him to surrender, but Colonel Hai rejected the request. the siege lasted for about two months until it they were rescued on November 14.[22]

The Fall of Samawah to the British

The commander of the British forces in Iraq sent a telegram to General Kongham, who was busy cracking down the rebellion in the Diyala region, asking him to return to Baghdad on September 16[23]. On October 1st, General Kongham moved his forces from the city of Ur heading north. On the 6th of that month he arrived at Al-Khoder where he was able to occupy it after he countered a resistance from the rebels. The British forces, while moving towards the city of Samawah, burned the villages on both sides of Euphrates River near the town of Al-Khoder.[24] On the 12th of the same month, the British forces arrived near Samawah. The next day they moved towards the city and faced a strong resistance from the rebels stationed around the city. After a fierce battle, the rebels withdrew from their fortified positions. On the 14th day the British troops entered the city and faced no Resistance, they broke the siege of the British forces, which was confined to the coast of Hassija near the city.[25] As on November 12, a battle took place between the British forces and the rebels of Bani Hajim clans at Sawir Bridge, which is also known as the Imam Abdullah Bridge, located 6 km north of the city of Samawah, in which 50 people were killed and more wounded. The number of British deaths is between 40 and 50.[26] Due to this battle, General Kongham summoned a person named Mr. Mohamed to negotiate with Bani Hejim tribes. After negotiations between the two sides, an agreement on the conditions of extradition was finally signed in the city of Samawah between the parties on November 20th with the Bani Hajim and Fakhoudha tribes. Al-Rumaitha town was handed over after the signing of this agreement between the two parties. It should also be noted that the British did not arrest any of the elders of Bani Hajim.[27]

Revolution in Karbala

A radical Shia cleric by the name of al-Sadr led the revolt.

Artillery rounds fell around the golden dome of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, while al-Sadr's black-masked militia battled occupation forces in the streets of Iraq's holy cities. The year is 1920, and the radical Shia cleric terrorising British occupying forces is Mohammad al-Sadr - whose great-grandson Moqtada al-Sadr is now leading a second revolt. The 1920 revolt was eventually put down after four months when British forces bombarded the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but only after 500 British troops and 6,000 Iraqis had lost their lives. When the British expeditionary force captured Baghdad in March 1917, "liberated" Iraqis were baffled by the apparent lack of planning for what was to come next. The revolt began with rumours that Iraq, liberated from Ottoman rule, was not about to be handed over to the locals. Sir Arnold Wilson, Iraq's civilian administrator from 1918, pushed ahead with his plan to incorporate the country into the British Empire, against the wishes of his oriental secretary, Gertrude Bell. A brilliant, indefatigable man of the empire, Wilson was to be deeply humbled by the Shia rebellion. Four months of fighting blamed on his insistence on direct rule left him convinced that autonomy should be granted to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Mohammad al-Sadr formed an "Independence Guard" from discontented Shi'ites, rapidly attracting Sunni dissidents from Baghdad and central Iraq. When the 1920 San Remo conference duly handed the mandate for Iraq to Britain, the reaction was immediate. In Karbala, a fatwa was issued declaring service in the British administration unlawful. Units of the Independence Guard set up offices in the major southern cities while Shi'ite and Sunni leaders in Baghdad arranged massive demonstrations. Britain at first ignored their protests and continued the policy of giving limited self-rule to the Iraqis. In June, British authorities announced that elections would be held for a Constituent Assembly. But armed revolt was breaking out in central Iraq, triggered by the arrest of one of Sadr's deputies - another foreshadowing of events last week. The arrest of two of Moqtada's clerics last weekend prompted the current uprising. Fatwas declaring an all-out war were issued and British garrisons in Najaf and Karbala were quickly overwhelmed. Rebellions sprang up in Basra, and Kurdistan in the north, but by September the revolt was beginning to flag. British forces, finally realising the danger, stepped into overdrive, arresting tribal leaders and flooding the country with troops. In Baghdad, Sunni leaders began to express reservations at the wisdom of following a revolt led by Shi'ite clergy. Many Shi'ite tribes in the south of Iraq had yet to take up arms. When British forces shelled Najaf and Karbala into submission in October, the fighting came to an end. The Iraqi revolt of 1920, which began as a general protest against British rule, ultimately failed to unite the Shi'ite and Sunni communities against the occupation. Its leaders were exiled or kept under house arrest. Sadr himself kept a low profile, later to resurface as a prime minister in the country. But the effects of the revolt were profound. Ultimately, it curtailed the British occupation in Iraq. The mandate was scheduled to last 25 years but instead the British pulled out after 12, retaining influence but diminishing control over the country. Iraq's Shi'ite community, defeated but unbowed, was left out of government for the next 80 years. Its exclusion from power has provided a powerful source of resentment currently driving Moqtada's second revolt. With American forces recapturing Sadr-controlled Kut, it appears that US military power, as with British before them, will eventually force the cleric to capitulate. But it will then face the uphill struggle of involving Iraq's Shia majority - moderate or radical - in a future administration. The US-led administration should also be warned that Shia clerics have drawn their own conclusion from the 1920s revolt - and are confident this uprising will last longer. A key part of the revolt was with Karbala, family’s from all background fought together such as the Al-Alawad and the koumouna family both fought ruthlessly and showed great strength against the British. The Al-Alawad family was referred a lot by Miss bell in her letters such as the letters from Baghdad.Karbala was carnage lots of family’s were shipped of to prison cams in different island some came back but some unfortunately didn’t survive.Women and there children were alone there men were missing some ran away to seek refuge some all gathered in there houses so if they died they died at once.Some family and militiamen came to agreement with the British they agreed that the British will give them land and beautiful houses if they fought with the British.

Revolution in Najaf

Revolution in Diyala

Revolution in Deltawa

Battles of the Assyrians

Revolution in Kurdistan

Revolution in Shahrban

It was announced in the town of Shahraban (Miqdadiyah) on August 14, where Bani Tamim clan attacked the town, people of the town have cooperated with the clan as happened in the town of Khalis, but the governmental Sarai, where the British and the soldiers of the Shabana were staying didn’t surrender to the rebels, After hours of confrontation between the two sides, the rebels managed to take control of the Governmental Sarai (Qushla), at the evening , five Britons serving in the Sarai were killed in the battle[28].After controlling the town, the rebels cut off the railway running through the town, In Shahraban after the rebels managed to control the town there was a big conflict between the town elders and Bani Tamim clan which resulted in battles between the two parties.[29] On September 7, the English troops led by General Kongham arrived near the town and after an unequal battle between clans and English troops, the latter managed to enter the town on 9 September.

Revolution in Khanaqin and Qazelarbat

On August 14, the Dalw clan, under the leadership of its leader Khesro Bek, attacked the city of Khanaqin. The city was occupied with little resistance. The rebels and those with them looted Dar al-Saray and all the governmental departments in the city. They took down the British flag and took up the Ottoman flag. The rebels appointed Khurshid Bek as the ruler of the city.[30] The clans of Qazarbat also attacked the English and occupied the town and looted the building of the governmental Sarai in the town. On the morning of August 16, the Khanaqin revolutionists, led by Karim Khurshid Bek, attacked the Bawa Mahmoud camp, where the British army was holed up after the arrival of the reinforcements.[31] A battle ensued between the two teams, ending with the defeat of the rebels, leaving 15 dead.[32] On August 19, a British force led by Colonel Kaskel arrived in the vicinity of Khanaqin without any resistance. The latter, along with his forces, punished the villages that joined the revolution. The next day the colonel succeeded in conquering Khanaqin. On the evening of August 24, the siege was lifted from the garrison of Qargan, where British soldiers were holed up, and the governor of Qarlzabat Ahmed Dara had taken refuge there. On August 27, the English forces took control of the town of Qazelerbat.

Revolution in Kafri

On August 22, Ibrahim Khan, one of the leaders of the Dalw clan and his companions, ascended to the top of Jabal Baba Shah Sawar overlooking the city of Kafri and opened fire on the governmental Sarai in the town.[33] The assistant of the political ruler of the town Captain Salmon to go out himself to the mountain to negotiate with Ibrahim Khan, and as soon as  Captain Salmon arrived at the mountain, he was surprised by the rebels arresting him, Then the rebels attacked the town and occupied the governmental sarai and took down the British flag . As soon as the news of the occupation of the town by the rebels have reached the political ruler of the city of Kirkuk Major Lunkerk, The latter moved with his army towards the town and after a bloody battle between the two sides the English forces have won and the town was conquered.[34]

Revolution of Zubaa mn Shamr

Revolution in the Muftaq Brigade

Revolution in the Souq al-Sheioukh

On August 27, the governor of Nasiriyah, Mager Dijbren, who was a former political governor in 1918, visited the town of Suq al-Sheioukh[35].Where he met with the chiefs of the town and tried to convince them not to join the revolution.  As soon as Magoger Digber has returned to the city of Nasiriyah, he wrote a report to the British governor in Baghdad, Arnold Wilson.[36] The assistant of the political ruler of the town, Captain Platts and his British companions, managed to escape from the town on September 1 by a British steamer anchored there and the ship steered them safely towards Nasiriyah.[37] There was no looting for the town of Souq al-Sheioukh, as the rest of the towns of lewaa Muntafiq suffered from looting and destruction of the governmental Sarai. Sheioukh Muhammad Hassan al-Haidar managed to preserve all these properties.[38] On 4 September, two military ships left Nasiriyah and the two ships arrived at the Hawar, located south of Souq al-Sheioukh. Both were heavily armed by the rebels and a battle between the two sides lasted for approximately half an hour.[38]

Incidents of the city of Nasiriyah

Miscellaneous incidents

Incidents of Tal Afar

incidents of Samarra City

Incidents of anaa

Reasons of the failure of the 1920 revolution


6,000[6] to 10,000[5] Iraqis and around 500 British and Indian soldiers died during the revolt.[6][7] The RAF flew missions totalling 4,008 hours, dropped 97 tons of bombs and fired 183,861 rounds for the loss of nine men killed, seven wounded and 11 aircraft destroyed behind rebel lines.[5] The revolt caused British officials to drastically reconsider their strategy in Iraq. The revolt cost the British government 40 million pounds, which was twice the amount of the annual budget allotted for Iraq and a huge factor in reconsidering their strategy in Iraq.[39] It had cost more than the entire British-funded Arab rising against the Ottoman Empire in 1917–1918.[5]

The new Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, decided a new administration was needed in Iraq as well as the British colonies in the Middle East so 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 as King of Iraq.[40] Faysal had worked with the British before in the Arab Revolt during World War I and he enjoyed good relations with certain important officials.[41] British officials also thought installing Faysal as king would prevent Faysal from fighting the French in Syria and damaging British-French relations.[40]

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 Shia Muslims although this co-operation did not last much longer than the end of the revolt.[42]

See also


  1. اوراق اللواء خليل جاسم الدباغ , د.م. غيث الدباغ , دار دجلة للطباعة والنشر, الاردن
  2. Lieutenant Colonel David J. Dean: Air Power in Small Wars - the British air control experience, Air University Review (Air & Space Power Journal), July–August 1983. Retrieved 16.05.2012.
  3. Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Sammy Salama: Iraq's Armed Forces: An Analytical History, Routledge, 2008, ISBN 0415400783, page 15.
  4. Tauber E. The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq. P.312–314
  5. "Our last occupation - Gas, chemicals, bombs: Britain has used them all before in Iraq", The Guardian, Jonathan Glancey, 19 April 2003, Retrieved 16.05.2012.
  6. Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 43
  7. A Report on Mesopotamia by T.E. Lawrence The Sunday Times, 22 August 1920
  8. Atiyyah, Ghassan R. Iraq: 1908–1921, A Socio-Political Study. The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1973, 307
  9. Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 40
  10. Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 41
  11. 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 (April 1972): 133
  12. 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): 135
  13. al-Rahimi, ‘Abd al-Halim, Al-haraka al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq: al-juthur alfikriyya wa al-waqi‘ al-tarikhi (1900–24) (The Islamic Movement in Iraq: Ideological Roots and Historical Situation, 1900–1924), Dar al-‘alamiyya, Beirut, 1985, 219
  14. 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): 136
  15. 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): 137
  16. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:298.
  17. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:299.
  18. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:300.
  19. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:304.
  20. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:305.
  21. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:307.
  22. علي الوردي ج:5(أ). ص:308.
  23. Haldane - p223.
  24. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:156.
  25. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:157.
  26. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:162.
  27. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:161.
  28. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:51.
  29. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:52.
  30. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:74.
  31. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:75.
  32. Haldane - p158.
  33. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:76.
  34. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:77.
  35. Wilson: vol2.p371.
  36. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:111.
  37. Haldane - p296.
  38. علي الوردي ج:5(ب). ص:113.
  39. 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): 138
  40. 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): 139
  41. Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 47
  42. Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 44

Further reading

  • Rutledge, Ian. Enemy on the Euphrates: The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt, 1914–1921. Saqi Books, 2014
  • Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press, 2007
  • Jackson, Ashley (2018). Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-22196-1.
  • 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: 1908–1921, A 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
  • Lieb, Peter. "Suppressing Insurgencies in Comparison: The Germans in the Ukraine, 1918, and the British in Mesopotamia, 1920," Small Wars & Insurgencies 23 (2012): 627–647
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