Arab Insurrection in Iraq (1920–1922)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Great Britain vs. Arab nationalists in Iraq
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Iraq (principally rural regions)
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Arab nationalists sought independence for Iraq.
OUTCOME: Although the insurrection was put down, it prompted the British to look for honorable means
of withdrawing from Iraq; withdrawal did not occur until 1936.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Britain and India, 60,000; Iraq, unknown
CASUALTIES: Britain and India, 2,269 killed, wounded, or missing; Iraq, 8,450 killed
TREATIES: Treaty of alliance between Britain and Iraq, October 10, 1922
Under the mandate system, instituted by the League of Nations following WORLD WAR I, the three disparate provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra were merged into a single political entity in an attempt to decree a nation out of very diverse peoples. The new country, Iraq, was placed under British control, but British statesmen were by no means agreed on what Britain’s policies in and toward Iraq should be and just what kind of government should be set up. On the one hand, the Colonial Office proposed to exert direct control on Iraqi affairs in order to protect British interests in the Persian Gulf and in India. On the other hand, some British leaders thought it best to accommodate and conciliate Arab nationalists by means of a government of indirect control through an indigenous government under British supervision.
While British politicians debated this issue, events took a hand. Early in 1920 Emir Faisal (or Fay-al) I (1885– 1933), son of Ali ibn Husayn, leader of the Arab Revolt (against the Turks) in 1916 (see WORLD WAR I: MESOPOTAMIA), created an Arab government in Damascus and was proclaimed king of Syria. In Damascus a group of Iraqi nationalists convened to proclaim Faisal’s older brother, Emir ’Abd Allah, king of Iraq. This action triggered nationalist agitation in northern Iraq, which subsequently spread to tribal areas in the middle Euphrates region. By the summer of 1920 Iraq was in full-blown revolt against British rule, except in the major cities of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, where British military forces were garrisoned.
The British responded to the Arab nationalist revolt with force tempered by a degree of moderation, for even as British authorities acted against the nationalists, they looked more earnestly for a way to satisfy the growing public sentiment favoring withdrawal from Mesopotamia. To Arab demands for Iraqi independence, Britain responded in 1921 with an offer of the Iraqi throne to Faisal I, who would establish an Arab government, albeit under nominal British mandate. Faisal responded that he would accept the throne
only if it were offered by the Iraqi people. This position gave him a nonaggressive means of suggesting to the British that the mandate be replaced by a firm treaty of alliance. In March 1921 British colonial secretary Winston Churchill (1874–1965), advised by T. E. Lawrence (1888– 1935) (a.k.a. “Lawrence of Arabia” for his touted deep affinity with the Arab cause), presided over a conference in Cairo to settle affairs in the Middle East once and for all. Sir Percy Cox (1864–1937), recently made high commissioner for Iraq, had already set up a provisional government when the Cairo Conference met. On July 11 the conference declared Faisal king of Iraq, provided that his government should be “constitutional, representative, and
democratic,” and directed Cox to conduct a plebiscite to that effect.
Faisal was crowned king on August 23, 1921. He signed a treaty of alliance with Great Britain on October 2, 1922. In return for a promise to prepare Iraq for membership in the League of Nations “as soon as possible,” the English had managed to reproduce most of the conditions of the old mandate without ever using the word itself. Not surprisingly, the treaty ran into strong opposition in the Iraqi Constituent Assembly but was finally ratified under pressure from the British on June 11, 1924. In July the assembly adopted a constitution, but it did not go into effect until King Faisal signed it on March 21, 1925. Meanwhile, Iraqi nationalists, extremely dissatisfied with the British treaty, demanded immediate independence. It took five years, but ultimately the British capitulated, signing another treaty on June 30, 1930, which established a mere “close alliance” between the two countries and “frank” talk on matters of foreign policy affecting
their “common interests.” The new treaty was to go into effect after the now independent Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations on October 3, 1932.
See also DRUSE REBELLION; KURDISH RESISTANCE AGAINST IRAQ; PERSIAN REVOLUTION (1921).
Further reading: Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1985); Eliezer Tauber, The Formation of Modern Syria and Iraq (Ilford, U.K.: Frank Cass, 1995).