1920 Iraqi Revolt

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1920 Iraqi Revolt (Arabic: ثورة العشرين) was a revolution against the British colonialism. In 1920, Iraq was announced to be a protectorate of Britain, and in the summer of the same year Iraqi people revolted against the British.

The revolution aimed at the formation of an independent Iraqi government. The clergy played a significant role in the formation of the revolt. In fact, it was under the leadership of Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Shirazi. The revolt is known as "Thawrat al-'Ishrin" (the Revolution of the Twenty). The revolt was suppressed by the Britons after a few months.

Occupation of Iraq by Britain

After the beginning of World War I, Britons advanced from Persian Gulf and attacked Iraq which was part of the Ottoman Empire then. Different Iraqi people and tribes joined Ottoman forces to prevent the British aggression, although they were dissatisfied with the Ottoman government. Al-Sayyid Muhsin al-Hakim, who later became a prominent Shiite marja', went to the war with Britain. And some Shiite scholars in Samarra, such as Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shirazi, issued a fatwa to the effect that the war with Britons was a religious obligation.

After a while, most parts of Iraq were occupied by Britain, and after the end of World War II, the whole Iraq came to be occupied.

The Referendum

Because of certain events and issues, the British government decided to hold a referendum in Iraq to inquire the opinions of Iraqi people concerning the following three issues,

  • Do people prefer an Arabic government extending from northern borders of the state of Mosul to the Persian Gulf, which is a protectorate of the British government?
  • If people prefer such a governmental system, do they agree that an Arabic prince or nobleman be the head thereof?
  • If so, who do they prefer to be the head of the government?

Opponents believe that the British government tried to lead the results of the referendum to the continued presence of Britain in Iraq.

In 1919 Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi Shirazi issued a fatwa about the referendum to the effect that "no one can govern Muslims except Muslims." Representatives of Sunni and Shiite Iraqis issued a statement in 1919, expressing their preference for an Arabic government from Mosul to the Persian Gulf under one of Sharif Hussain's sons as the king. They also expressed their preference for a legislative assembly centered in Iraq. According to opponents, despite people's oppositions, British representatives only registered the votes of British advocates and ignored the true opinion of Iraqi people.

Start of the Revolt

People in parts of Iraq revolted against the British government in the summer of 1920. The revolt was known as "Thawrat al-'Ishrin" (Revolution of the Twenty), and lasted for three months.

Ayatollah Mirza Muhammad Taqi Shirazi's fatwa
It is an obligation for Iraqi people to pursue their rights and they must observe peace and security during their actions to realize their wants, and if Britons refuse to acquiesce to people's wants, people are permitted to resort to force to defend themselves.

After Ayatollah Shirazi's fatwa and his permission for armed conflicts, people and tribes were encouraged to revolt against Britain. The revolt was supposed to start on Tammuz 3 (June 19), but for some reasons it started, instead, on Sivan 30 (June 16).

The revolt was intended to expel the British occupiers out of Iraq and give rise to an independent Iraqi government. The revolt engaged almost one-third of the country. It occurred in middle parts of Euphrates and provinces such as Nasiriyah. According to researchers, the majority of Sunni tribes did not join the revolt.

Many people wanted an Islamic-Arabic government under the leadership of one of Sharif Hussain's sons, together with a legislative assembly.

According to researchers, Shiite scholars and clergies played a crucial role in the 1920 Iraqi Revolt. Ayatollah Shirazi was the leader of the revolt. And clergies such as Sayyid Abu l-Qasim Kashani, Shaykh Mahmud Jawad al-Jaza'iri, and Sayyid Muhammad Ali Hibat al-Din Shahristani were influential figures in the revolt. Leaders and heads of nomads also played an effective role in the revolt.

The Britons claimed that foreign countries, such as Germany, Turkey, and even the US had roles in causing the revolt.

Reasons for the Revolt

A variety of economic, social, and political reasons have been enumerated by researchers for the 1920 Iraqi Revolt. However, the most important reason for the revolt is said to lie in political and religious factors. Since the occupation of Iraq until 1920, the British government kept promising independence and sovereignty to Iraqis. The promises were made through statements, speeches, and even the referendum. However, in 1920 in the San Remo Conference, the Allies in World War I accepted British kingdom over Iraq, or Mandatory Iraq, and so Iraqis became disappointed of their sovereignty.

The Defeat of the Revolt

The Britons had at their disposal much more advanced and larger amounts of heavy weaponry than Iraqis did. Britain made effective use of its air force in the battle as well. Moreover, aids for British forces were dispatched to Iraq from Iran and India. All this led to the military advantage of the Britons and the defeat of Iraqis.

Ayatollah Shirazi died in 1920 in the middle of the revolt, which left a negative impact on the revolt as well.


The number of Iraqis killed in the revolt amounts to over 9000 people, in contrast to 426 British casualties. Britain spent about forty million pounds for the battle.

In the end, the British government decided to establish an Arabic government in Iraq, and at the same time, preserve its power and interests. In 1921, Faisal the son of Sharif Hussain was appointed by the Britons as the king of Iraq. Although the Shi'as were advocating the monarchy of one of Sharif Hussain's sons at first, they opposed Faisal's rule for two reasons,

  • He was given the power by the Britons,
  • In Faisal's government, there was no Shiite authority in ten main positions, thirty five district governors, and eighty five local administers except in religious cities, which led to Shiite oppositions.

See Also