Lessons to be learnt from 1920 al-Sadr-led revolt

 

IRAQ: 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 black-masked militia battled occupation forces in the street's 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 currently leading a second revolt.

The 1920 revolt was eventually put down after four months when British forces bombarded the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, but only after 500 British troops and 6,000 Iraqis had lost their lives.

American forces preparing to take on al-Sadr the younger would do well to learn the lessons of history.

The revolt began with rumours that Iraq, newly-liberated from Ottoman rule by the British, was not about to be handed over to the locals. In protest the influential cleric Mohammad al-Sadr formed the Independence Guard. Made up of discontented Shia, the guard rapidly attracted 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 the holy city of Kerbala, a fatwa was issued declaring service in the British administration unlawful. Units of the Independence Guard set up offices in the major southern cities of Iraq, while Shia and Sunni leaders in Baghdad arranged massive demonstrations.

Britain at first chose to ignore their protests, blithely carrying on with its policy of giving limited self-rule to the Iraqis.

In June, British authorities announced that elections would be held for a Constituent Assembly - the same month the US-led administration in Iraq is planning to transfer power.

But meanwhile armed revolt was breaking out in central Iraq, triggered by the arrest of one of al-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 met with immediate sympathy from tribal leaders around Karbala and Najaf.

In Najaf and Karbala, British garrisons were quickly overwhelmed by the rebels and the surrounding countryside placed under al-Sadr's control.

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 and by September the revolt was flagging.

In Baghdad, Sunni leaders began to express reservations at the wisdom of following a revolt led by clergy members of the Shia majority. Many Shia 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 Shia and Sunni communities against the occupation.

Its leaders were exiled or kept under house arrest. Al-Sadr himself kept a low profile, later to resurface as a prime minister in the country.

But the effect 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 fledgling country.

Defeated but unbowed, the Shia community was left out of government for the next 80 years. Their exclusion from power has provided a powerful source of resentment currently driving Moqtada's second revolt.

With America so far successful in recapturing al-Sadr-controlled Kut, it appears the US military, as with British before them, will eventually force al-Sadr to capitulate.

But the US will then face the struggle of involving Iraq's Shia majority - moderate or radical - in a future administration.