- 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 living rooms.
- 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 uprising.
- "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 general elections.
- 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
- 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."