In 1908, the British discovered large quantities of oil deposit near Masjid – Suleiman in Arabistan/Khuzistan. 1 Iraq was sparsely populated. The first estimate of population we have was published in 1930. There were about two million people, and of them 8 per cent were nomadic, 48 per cent were tribal cultivators (semi-nomadic), 32 per cent were settled village dwellers and 12 per cent were urban dwellers. Politically, the tribal units were grouped into hierarchies of chiefs and notables. The authority of the leaders called sheikh in the singular and shuyukh in plural was due to personal influences, largess and nobility of lineage. In theory among the Shia tribes, leadership was confined to one lineage for each tribe. However, in practice, leadership was dependent on the success of the leader in defending tribal patrimony and in resolving and managing conflicts. Political behaviour was fluid, flexible, pragmatic and adaptive. 2

The Ottoman province of Mesopotamia came under British control during the First World War. Just after the First World War, Britain, the premier power in Mesopotamia, had to tackle the Arab uprising. In November 1919, Syria attempted to stir up an anti-British uprising in Mosul with the aim of unifying Syria and Mesopotamia. But this attempt was unsuccessful. 3 A.L. MacFie rightly argues that neither Germany nor Bolshevik Russia was responsible for stirring up rebellion in Mesopotamia. Rather, internal factors were responsible for the anti-British uprising in the land of Euphrates and Tigris. 4 The anti-British Arab uprising was at its height from June to September 1920. Arab nationalism and tribalism played an important role in this rebellion. The tribal sheikhs felt that their power structure was threatened when the British introduced taxes, which were to be collected centrally. 5 British invasion of Mesopotamia in 1914 and occupation

intervention in local society and diversion of resources from civilian to military needs. As early as 1916, Britain in order to alleviate shipping shortages decided to use the resources of Mesopotamia to sustain the British and Indian troops. The net result was food shortages and inflation during 1917-18. British state building in the post-First World War era, especially after the collapse of Ottoman power, resulted in the British confronting local cultural patterns. The downward penetration of an external power caused unrest among the inhabitants. It is to be noted that the Ottomans left the turbulent tribal society of southern Mesopotamia almost untouched. But British demands for manpower and agricultural resources continued even during 1919-20. All these grievances culminated in the anti-British uprising during 1920. 6

The top British leaders were living in a world of fantasy and had no idea about the Arab uprising, which was to burst forth soon. In March 1920, Winston Churchill claimed that 2,000 to 3,000 white troops and 6,000 to 7,000 ‘native’ troops would be able to secure Mesopotamia. Thanks to the First World War, the Arabs were well armed. For example, after the Battle of Shaiba, the Arabs fell on the retreating Turks and looted thousands of rifles. Besides taking rifles from the fugitives and the deserters, the Arabs also acquired rifles from those left by the defeated forces in the different battlefields. In many cases, the British themselves had issued rifles and ammunition to those tribes, which were deemed anti-Ottoman in their political orientation. The Turks themselves after the end of the First World War distributed arms and munitions among the anti-British Arab tribes. After 1945, the Japanese pursued a similar policy in Indochina and in Indonesia to create troubles for the Allies. Further, anti-British organizations in Syria after 1919 started supplying arms and equipment to the recalcitrant Arab tribes. Finally, the Arab chiefs themselves bought rifles from the arms markets in the Persian Gulf and Syria. The price of Turkish Mauser and British Lee Enfield rifles was 20 sterling pounds each, before 1914. But by 1919 the price had fallen to five sterling pounds per piece due to greater availability of such rifles in the black market. In 1920, in Mesopotamia, the tribes in total had about 300,000 rifles. And those tribes which rose against the British had about 50,000 to 60,000 rifles. 7

When the outbreak occurred in Mesopotamia, Lieutenant General Aylmer Haldane commanded 60,200 men (excluding those in Persia and those sick and in transit). Of them, 7,200 were British and the

addition, Haldane had about 80,000 non-combatants. And of the latter, only 5,500 were of the regimental establishment. The rest included personnel of the Labour Corps, Inland Water Transport, dairy farms and ice-making plants. 8 On 2 July 1920, the tribal uprising started at Rumaytha/Rumaitha and lasted till October of that year. The rebellion resulted in 312 British and Indian soldiers KIA and 1,228 WIA. 9

Haldane had to detach a brigade for guarding the Turkish prisoners of war. Further, he had to care for the safety of 900 British women and children in Mesopotamia. In addition, troops had to be diverted to take care of the Assyrian and Armenian refugees. For mobile operations, Haldane had at his disposal, 4,200 British troops and 30,000 sepoys and sowars. These military personnel were from many units, which were severely understrength and suffered from an acute shortage of officers. Haldane was able to make use of five batteries of armoured cars. Of them, one was stationed in Persia; the others were distributed at Mosul and on the line of communication (LOC) between Baghdad, Mosul and along the Euphrates line. The armoured car units were manned by men borrowed from infantry units. And the armoured cars were old and quite a number were unserviceable due to excessive wear and tear. Just after taking command in Mesopotamia, Haldane asked for tanks. He argued persuasively that Mesopotamia being a ‘tank country’, tanks would be useful for conducting COIN operations. However, the War Office somewhat strangely informed him that none was available and not a single tracked armoured vehicle could be sent for several years. 10 One wonders what had happened to the British tank fleet, which was used in France during the Great War.