Joe Hendren

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Are We Seeing a Popular Revolution

in Iraq?

Peace Researcher 29, June 2004

Iraq is under military occupation by a foreign power.  Sunni and Shia Muslims put aside their differences and turn memorial services into political rallies, while religious leaders call on the people to throw off the bonds of imperialism.  The arrest of several independence leaders leads to strikes and violent demonstrations.  Administrative posts are largely held by foreigners, creating a lot of Iraqi dissent.  Nationalist political activity continues to rise, and insurgents are active in Najaf and Karbala.  Iraq is in a state of anarchy.

This is not 2004.  The year is 1920 and Iraqis are demanding an end to Britain’s post World War I mandate over Iraq, a mandate most Iraqis regard as thinly disguised colonialism.  ‘The Great Iraqi Revolution’, as it is known to Iraqis – is recognised as a key event in modern Iraqi history.  It marks the first time Shia and Sunni, town and tribe came together in national effort, a national effort aimed at ending a foreign occupation.

Last month the Sunni city of Falluja was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since the US invasion.  In response to the deaths of four American “security contractors” (or mercenaries) on March 31, US Marines staged a month long siege of the city of 300,000 men, women and children.  Over 600 Iraqis are estimated to have died, with civilians making up the vast majority of the casualties. There are reports of Shia militants assisting the Sunni resistance in Falluja (2).  Some soldiers in the new US controlled Iraqi army refused to fight in Falluja, and some even gave their weapons away (3).

On April 9 this year, some 200,000 Sunni and Shia Muslims joined together to denounce the American occupation of Iraq , and to show their solidarity with the people of Falluja and the uprising led by Moqtada al-Sadr.  In unity, Sunni and Shia’s chanted “Long live Moqtada, long live Falluja, long live Basra, long live Karbala” (2).

The split between the Shia and Sunni dates back to the seventh century, and arose from a dispute over who had the right to lead the Islamic world.  Sunni Muslims have dominated the governing class of Iraq throughout Iraqi history, often to the detriment of Shias.  Saddam Hussein dealt with the Shia majority harshly, and often oppressed the Shia to consolidate his own power.  Following the fall of Saddam, Iraqi Shia’s look forward to playing a greater role in the government, but the US raises fears the Shias ultimately want to establish an Islamic republic, similar to Iran.  Many Muslims see these ‘fears’ as US propaganda.

The main preacher speaking at the April 9th rally, Dr Harith al-Dhari dismissed American concerns of sectarian religious conflict as an excuse to extend their stay.  “Here in this mosque and in this gathering we have the proof that all groups are united.  We all want the coalition to leave the country”.  At the end of his sermon he called for a two-day general strike in government offices and a boycott of American and British goods (2).

The Great Iraqi Revolution and the Path to Republican Government

In 1920 over 100,000 armed tribesmen joined anti-occupation forces as a popular uprising spread throughout the country (4).  It was only with great difficulty that the British bought the revolt under control, with a combination of Royal Air Force bombers, machine guns and reinforcements from India and Iran.  Secretary of the War Office, Winston Churchill, fully supported the use of chemical weapons “against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment” (5).  Following the uprising the British replaced the military regime with a provisional Arab government, assisted by British advisors but with supreme authority still resting with Britain’s high commissioner to Iraq, Sir Percy Cox.

Following the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British appointed an Arabian prince, Faisal ibn Hussein al Hashem as the first king of Iraq, a leader who enjoyed some support among nationalist military officers.  But his kingship was only officially recognised once he had signed the Anglo-Iraq Treaty (1922), a treaty that placed military and economic control of Iraq in British hands (6).  The treaty was the cause of a great deal of controversy in Iraq and it took two years before the treaty was grudgingly ratified an elected Constituent Assembly.  Following the discovery of oil in the Kirkurk region of Iraq in 1927, Britain strengthened its ‘relationship’ with Iraq with the signing of a 25 year peace treaty (1930).  This new treaty required the Iraqi ruler to formulate a common foreign policy with Britain, retain British military bases and allow posting of British troops in the country, in exchange for a guarantee of British protection against foreign attack.

The widespread opposition to the treaty in Iraq led Iraqi governing officials to ponder the treaty for over a year.  Britain made it clear that the treaty was its price for ending the British mandate of Iraq.  The treaty was ratified, but only after the British High Commissioner threatened to suspend the constitution drafted by the assembly unless Iraq accepted the treaty.  While Iraq became a member of the League of Nations in 1930, most Iraqis “considered their independence incomplete as long as British troops were stationed on their soil” (7)

On the death of Faisal I in 1933, his son Ghazi succeed him.  Widely known for his nationalist views, Ghazi I died in a car accident in 1939, with most Iraqis suspecting the British had some involvement in his death.   The British role in quelling the Arab revolt in Palestine (1936-39) further inflamed anti-British feelings among military officers, and inspired the formation of the ‘Free Officers’ movement to remove the monarchy.

In April 1941 Ghazi’s four-year-old son Faisal II, his regent and his mother are forced to flee following a coup launched by the Prime Minister, Rashid Ali Gailani.  This anti-imperialist victory has a prominent place in Iraqi history books.  A bronze statue of Gailani holds a prominent place in Baghdad’s Andalus Square.  Gailani’s coup falls following a British counteroffensive, who reinstall pro-British Nuri al-Said as Prime Minister.  One of the military officers who supported Gailani returns to his village of Auja near Tikrit, where he would act as a mentor to a young Saddam Hussein.

On the 14th of July 1958 a military coup by the ‘Free Officers’ led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim seizes control of Iraq.  Nuri al-Said and the royal family are assassinated.  Most Iraqis welcome the overthrow of the monarchy as an end to indirect British rule.  The date of the coup is celebrated by a large monument in Baghdad’s Liberation Square, showing an Iraqi man freeing himself by bending the bars of British subjugation. 

The pride in Iraqi independence and the distaste of foreign imperialism is moulded in the monuments of town squares.

Troops, Bases, Sovereignty verses Imperialism, Old and New

In the wake of the 1958 coup, a rich Baghdad banking family were among those to flee Iraq.  This family included a 13-year-old Ahmed Chalabi (8), now a leading member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a favourite of the neo-conservative ideologues running the US occupation.  A favourite who is also a convicted fraudster.  But even Chalabi says that Washington must hand Iraqis control over their country’s oil revenue and security forces or the June 30 transfer of power will be meaningless (9). 

It appears Chalabi is no longer a favourite.  On the 20th of May US troops and Iraqi police surrounded Chalabi’s house and raided officers of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a group Mr Chalabi leads.  US officials accused Chalabi of interfering with an investigation into alleged corruption of the UN oil-for-food programme.  An INC official, Qaisar Wotwot linked the “provocative operation” to Chalabi’s demands for full Iraqi control of oil revenues and security (10).

“… My relationship with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is now non-existent.  I am America’s best friend in Iraq; if the CPA finds it necessary to direct an armed attack against my home you can see the state of relations between the CPA and the Iraqi people”.  Then, in a turnaround unthinkable even a couple of months ago, he told the Americans to get out.  “Let my people go.  Let my people be free”, he said.  “We are grateful to President Bush for liberating Iraq but it is time for the Iraqi people to run their own affairs” (11)

The plans of the Bush Administration to dominate Iraq economically, politically and militarily after the so called handover of sovereignty on June 30 have remarkable similarities to some of the terms forced on a reluctant Iraq by the British in the treaties of 1922 and 1930.  While the US has not imposed a formal requirement to consult on foreign policy issues, the presence of large US military bases and the largest US embassy in the world will enforce ‘consultation’. 

The US plans to build four permanent military bases in Iraq, to enhance its military presence in the region and to ensure US domination of key strategic resources.  As Jim Lobe points out, this could be the key reason the US resisted giving the United Nations control over post war Iraq, as other members of the UN Security Council would most likely veto the bases (12).  Following the handover, coalition forces will no longer be in Iraq as part of a military occupation, but at the ‘invitation’ of the interim government.  A Status of Forces Agreement will be required if the troops and the bases are to stay, much like the Anglo-Iraq treaties allowed the presence of British troops and bases more than 80 years ago.  While Colin Powell says that the US will withdraw its troops if the interim government makes such a demand, he knows that such a demand is unlikely.  In my view, Powell’s statement is nothing more than a White House political ploy to mask the fact that real sovereignty is being withheld.

In March, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) passed over control of all Iraqi troops and security forces to the Iraqi Ministry of Defence, but it came with a catch, an “emergency” decree ceding “operational control” to senior US military commanders in Iraq (13).  So the Ministry of Defence can organise and develop policy for its forces, but the US will retain the sole ability to order Iraqi forces in or out of combat.  The government will run the police force, but in ‘coordination’ with the US central command (14).  If the gun battles in Najaf or Falluja intensify and become more widespread there is a real chance of strong disagreement between the US and the interim government over how to deal with ‘the insurgents’.  Despite the ‘handover’ of power, Powell insists that the top US military commander in Iraq will remain "free to take whatever decision he believes are appropriate to accomplish his mission." (15)

‘Limited Sovereignty’: Protecting US Interests from Democracy

While the US have previously promised Iraqis full sovereignty by June 30, the White House now talks of ‘limited’ sovereignty.  The interim government currently being set up by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will have no control over Iraq’s military or security forces, and will be restricted to enforcing CPA orders and existing laws.  It will have no power to write new laws or make substantial amendments.  This government will also be heavily influenced by the presence of dozens of American appointees in the civil service, at all levels, a bureaucratic army to protect US interests in Iraq.  Advisers placed inside the new Iraqi ministries will be exclusively American (13).  As a point of historical interest, the 1922 treaty stated that British officials would be appointed to specified posts in eighteen departments to act as advisers and inspectors (5)

Two new ‘watchdog’ agencies, staffed by Iraqis, will oversee government operations.  The Office of the Inspector General will have inspectors seconded inside every Iraqi ministry on the lookout for examples of malfeasance and fraud.  The CPA will appoint these inspectors for a 5-year term, meaning that an Iraqi elected government will inherit these appointments.  A second body, the Board of Supreme Audit will manage a large team of inspectors with wide-ranging authority to review Government contracts and investigate any agency that uses public money.  CPA chief Paul Bremer will appoint a board president and two deputies to this board, appointments protected in a similar fashion to his executive orders. 

If the new bodies are allowed to investigate prior contracts made by the CPA (a moot point) they could start by investigating chief war profiteer Halliburton*, who among other scandals, has been accused of overcharging Iraq for oil imports at the same time the company is in charge of rebuilding Iraq’s oil infrastructure.  A clear conflict of interest.  If the new agencies were able to investigate companies such as Halliburton this would send a clear signal of their political independence.  But if they are prevented from such investigations an entirely different message could be sent.  To some, it would demonstrate that the real agenda is to create a bureaucratic means for Bremer’s political appointees to bully influence on government activities, long after a fully elected government is in place in Iraq. 

US officials claim the interim government must be restricted from changing laws and making permanent decisions in order to prevent it from making decisions that a later elected government would find difficult to undo (13).  Yet this is exactly what the US has already done though the illegal orders issued by the CPA.  Paul Bremer has issued executive orders to remove virtually all restrictions on foreign investment and banking, slash the top tax rate to 15% and to privatise many Iraqi state assets.  As for obstructing a future elected government, the US forced through a proviso in the interim constitution that the CPA’s laws, regulations, orders and directives would remain in force, and could only be changed by a 75% vote by the “Iraqi Transitional Government”, a body that will not exist until elections are held in 2005.  The claims of the ‘US officials’ that they are protecting democracy are nothing but a cruel Orwellian joke – the real agenda is protecting US interests from Iraqi democracy.

The International Community Needs to Act

With Iraq’s long history of standing up to those that would attempt to control it from afar, it is not surprising that the US occupation is now facing a wave of Iraqi nationalism.  From the time Arabs in the provinces of Baghdad and Basra sought independence from the Ottoman Empire, nationalism and anti-imperialism have been popular rallying calls in Iraqi politics.  The popular appeal of al-Sadr and the desire of the people of Falluja for the American troops to leave their city are the modern examples of this. 

The continued Israeli occupation of Palestine is also part of the mix, especially now that Bush has endorsed the latest plans of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  Many Iraqis see the US occupation of Iraq and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as interchangeable parts of a single anti-Arab outrage (3).  The ghastly abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib has completely destroyed any remaining US credibility, and this scandal is likely to have further repercussions throughout the Middle East .

Will the armed uprising become as large and as widespread as it did in 1920?  Let us hope another way can be found, as the 1920s revolt led to the deaths of over 9000 Iraqis.  While political solutions are fast running out, a good first step would be to attempt to understand how strongly Iraqis value their sovereignty; it is their history that is driving the forces fighting for freedom in Najaf and Falluja.

A legitimate mediating broker is desperately required.  It may be the source of some hope that despite the UN’s chequered history in Iraq even al-Sadr’s spokesperson, Qais al-Khazaali, says “it is in the interests of the whole world to send peacekeeping forces under the UN flag” (3).  The UN should not go into Iraq as a partner of the US, but should attempt to regain some of its legitimacy by standing strong.  It should agree to send peacekeepers to Iraq only on condition that the coalition forces leave, making it possible for countries that did not support the war to take part in peacekeeping operations.  The UN could cast out Bremer’s law changes as obvious breaches of international law, and convene forums to listen to legitimate Iraqi grievances concerning the interim constitution, easing the way for elections.  A good start for the UN would be to refuse to endorse a puppet interim government that will be subject to American strings.  If the international community strongly defended the right of Iraqis to self determination, Iraqis would not have to fight for their freedom with guns.

If Iraqis considered their independence incomplete in 1930 with British troops on their soil, it is likely that they will feel the same way when they see the US military base at Baghdad International Airport.  Iraqis could reasonably ask ‘who really rules the roost’ each time they go past the gigantic new American embassy, situated in a former palace of Saddam Hussein, a building seen by many as a symbol of Iraqi sovereignty.  It is plain dangerous that Bush and the CPA do not appear to understand the meaning of such powerful symbols – or maybe they do.

Joe Hendren 27 May 2004



  1. The Press (6/4/04), 'Maverick Cleric fuels anti-US violence')

  2. The Guardian (10/4/04) , ‘Sunni and Shia unite against common enemy'

  3. The Nation, 29/4/04; ‘Mutiny in Iraq’

  4. The Guardian (19/4/03), ‘Our last occupation’.

  5. Library of Congress, ‘ Iraq : World War I and the British Mandate’,

  6. Hiro, Dilip (2003), 'Iraq: A Report from the Inside', Granta Pubilcations, London, p. 22.

  7. Hiro, Dilip (2003), 'Iraq: A Report from the Inside', Granta Pubilcations, London, p. 23.

  8. Hiro, Dilip (2003), 'Iraq: A Report from the Inside', Granta Pubilcations, London, p. 76.

  9. The Press (17/5/04) ‘US soldiers claim to have killed 18 of cleric’s gunmen’.

  10. The Guardian (20/5/04 ), ‘Chalabi house raid sparks anger’.

  11. Times, published in the Press (22/5/04), ‘Humiliated Chalabi tells America to quit”, Richard Beeson.

  12. Lobe, Jim (28/11/03) ‘Is it the bases’ ,

  13. Wall Street Journal (13/5/04), ‘Behind the scenes, US tightens grip on Iraq’s future

  14. Washington Post (22/4/04), ‘Limited sovereignty planned’

  15. Aljazeera (15/5/04), ‘G8 demands real Iraqi sovereignty'

* Halliburton – a huge US transnational corporation, with close ties to leading figures in the Bush Administration. It is one of the main contractors for the US occupation forces and the leading profiteer, so much so that it is embroiled in scandals about its ripping off the US military and the American taxpayer in Iraq and Kuwait. Peace Researcher Editor.

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