What lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920? The first is that this crisis was almost inevitable. The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum — in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders — on the country's future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations "mandate" under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule. In other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalization sufficed to avert an uprising — a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations.Indeed, the US power elite forget the revolt of 1920 at their own peril. Ferguson, however, goes further, arguing that Americans can learn how to maintain an empire successfully from the British experience: "Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. . . . [O]nly by quelling disorder firmly and immediately will America be able to achieve its objective of an orderly handover of sovereignty. After all, a similar handover had always been implicit in the mandate system, but only after the revolt had been crushed did the British hasten to install the Hashemite prince Faisal as king. In fact, this was imperial sleight of hand — Iraq did not become formally independent until 1932, and British troops remained there until 1955. Such an outcome is, of course, precisely what Washington should be aiming for today — American troops will have to keep order well after the nominal turnover of power, and they'll need the support of a friendly yet effective Iraqi government" ("The Last Iraqi Insurgency").
Then as now, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon transcended the country's ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad. But the violence quickly spread to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi — perhaps the historical counterpart of today's Shiite firebrand, Moktada al-Sadr. The revolt stretched as far north as the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and as far south as Samawah, where British forces were trapped (and where Japanese troops, facing a hostage crisis, were holed up last week).
Then, as now, the rebels systematically sought to disrupt the occupiers' communications — then by attacking railways and telegraph lines, today by ambushing convoys. British troops and civilians were besieged, just as hostages are being held today. Then as now, much of the violence was more symbolic than strategically significant — British bodies were mutilated, much as American bodies were at Falluja. By August of 1920 the situation was so desperate that the general in charge appealed to London not only for reinforcements but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells), though these turned out to be unavailable. ("The Last Iraqi Insurgency," New York Times, April 18, 2004)
Evidently, Ferguson has forgotten the lesson of 1958.