[R-G] Iraq's Shia see 1920 revolt as model for today
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Jan 28 00:19:04 MST 2004
Published on Tuesday, January 27, 2003 by Knight-Ridder Iraqi Whispers
Mull Repeat of 1920s Revolt Over Western Occupation by Hannah Allam
and Tom Lasseter
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
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
"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
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
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."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services
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