Revisiting History: Sheikh Mahmud’s revolt

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The Kurdish Globe
By Azad Amin

Although a Suleimaniya government was established with the support of a British officer after World War I, it was the British forces, particularly the Royal Air Force, that suppressed and brought an end to the first Kurdish experience in governing and self-determination.

Following the end of WWI and the evident dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds as loyal subjects of the Sublime Porte began to consider their place and position in those chaotic years. The early Kurdish nationalists in the capital of the empire, Istanbul, excited with the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principles that included the right of self-determination of the oppressed people under Ottoman control. A Kurdish political organization established in Istanbul, Kurdistan Teali Jamiyeti (Society for the Rise of Kurdistan), put into its program the application and implementation of Wilson’s principles.

While the early leading Kurdish nationalists were active in Istanbul, the local Kurdish leaders in Kurdistan began to challenge the authority of Ottoman Empire and embarked upon a nationalist path to establish an independent Kurdish political entity. Sheikh Mahmud’s case, as one of those local Kurdish leaders throughout Kurdistan, was different mainly due to the proximity of Suleimaniya to the British forces and the British interests to control the vilayet of Mosul. Suleimaniya, at that time, belonged to the vilayet. By the end of the war, British forces occupied Mosul and came as close as to Kifri in south Kurdistan. The first contact between Sheikh Mahmud and British officers took place in Kifri.

Sheikh Mahmud

Sheikh Mahmud was from the influential Sheikh Berzenji family in southern Kurdistan. The family came to prominence after the suppression and demise of the Baban Amirate in the 19th century by the Ottoman Empire. Sheikh Said Berzenji, father of Mahmud Berzenji, is reported to have cured the favorite son of the Sultan Abdulhamid and he “enjoyed carte blanche with local officials, enriching himself at the expense of Suleimaniya’s citizens.’ Sheikh Said, who had gained control over the Hamawand tribe through intermarriage, then revolted against the Young Turk Constitutional government in 1908. Without sufficient troops to defeat Sheikh Said’s forces, the Ottoman officials persuaded the sheikh to come to Mosul for negotiations. In Mosul, he and his other son, Sheikh Ahmed, were killed in a public affray organized by the Ottoman authorities. After his death, his son Sheikh Mahmud took his place and revived the insurrection, which continued up to the outbreak of WWI.

Ironically, despite his father’s and his own revolt against the Young Turk government, during the war Sheikh Mahmud fought alongside the Ottoman army against the British forces in Shuaiba in southern Iraq. However following WWI, Sheikh Mahmud became one of the most distinguished Kurdish nationalist leaders in southern Kurdistan.

Sheikh Mahmud’s stronghold was the city of Suleimaniya, but he had influence as far as Rawanduz, Koy-Sancak, Raniya and Kirkuk. David McDowall, a British historian on Kurdish history argued that Sheikh Mahmud had “his opponents, among the Jaf and Bajalan tribes and notably among the [Sheikh] — the Talabani [Sheikhs] of Kirkuk, who were his Qadiri rivals, and the Nakshibandi [Sheikhs] of Biyari and Tawila. Indeed, on account of such opposition the townspeople and tribesmen of Kirkuk and Kifri were specifically excluded from [Sheikh] Mahmud’s area of authority.” However, Refik Hilmi’s memoirs provide a contrast to McDowall. Hilmi, who worked with Sheikh Mahmud inferred that he had great influence and popularity among the population of Kirkuk, including the Talabani Sheikhs, so: “Thousands of people waited four hours for the return of Sheikh Mahmud to Kirkuk, the plain of Kirkuk was indeed a very interesting sight. The Tariqqas of Sheikh Ali Talabani and Sheikh Ahmed paid the expenses for the reception ceremony of Sheikh Mahmud’s return.”According to Hilmi, the popularity of the sheikh extended throughout southern Kurdistan: “The Mosul governor released the sheikh and permitted his return to Suleimaniya. When this decision was heard, the people all over Kurdistan and especially in Erbil, Kirkuk and Suleimaniya rejoiced and celebrated.” Despite McDowall’s claim, the reason for the exclusion of Kirkuk province from the sheikh’s area of authority must be sought within the context of British policy in Iraq in general, and in southern Kurdistan in particular.

Rise of the sheikh and British policy

Having been appointed as Hukumdar of Suleimaniya in December 1918, Sheikh Mahmud proved to be, in A.T. Wilson’s words “our most difficult problem.” The cause of the problem was the conflicting approaches to the question of the future of Kurdistan envisioned differently by British officials and the sheikh himself. Mahmud was not content with the political arrangement and had a larger picture of Kurdistan in his mind than that of the Suleimaniya division which the British had granted to him. In February 1919, the Suleimaniya division included the Kifri and Kirkuk districts and extended to beyond Rawanduz in the north. Sheikh Mahmud, as Wilson noted, “was, however, in no way satisfied: He claimed that he had a mandate from all the Kurds of the Mosul vilayet and many in Persia and elsewhere to represent to us their desire to form a unitary autonomous state of which he was to be the head under British protection.”

Britain was not prepared to give Sheikh Mahmud space and support for consolidation of his power in Kurdistan. On the contrary, as early as March 1919, they took several measures to curb his power. Major Noel, who was often called the “Second Lawrence” of the Kurds, was replaced by E.B. Soane as political officer to the Suleimaniya division. Soane was an open critic of Noel’s policy of creating a tribal confederation in Kurdistan. He argued that

“in the beginning a system of administration, which one may call the Tribal system, was adopted. It was considered by the Political officer in charge [Major Noel] that this would best meet the national aspirations and preserves the characteristic features of Kurdistan. It was considered by Sheikh Mahmud equally desirable to institute the tribal system as by that means he could more easily bribe or threaten the chiefs, could more readily centralize the control in himself, and more rapidly attain the position of absolute power which was his aim. The system of direct government by officials, which naturally tends to disintegrate tribes and create a democratic and industrious homogenous population, was by no means to his taste.”

Soane further argued that “revival of the tribal system was a retrograde movement. Already, south Kurdistan had become largely detribalized and had a measure of prosperity, in consequence, had been its lot in prewar times. Now the political officer, accepting the views of Sheikh Mahmud, devoted his energies to retribalizing. Every man who could be labeled a tribesman was placed under a tribal leader. The idea was to divide south Kurdistan into tribal areas under tribal leaders — Ideal for the clansman but fatal for trade, civilization and tranquility. The tribal system was an idealistic one, and like so many idealistic schemes, it broke down when brought into contact with dishonest and mundane human nature.”

New arrangements were carried out by British officials to curtail Sheikh Mahmud’s area of influence and activities. Wilson, who had a poor opinion of Sheikh Mahmud, stated “it was — clear that we could not prudently lend our active support to Sheikh Mahmud’s pretensions to the hegemony of any considerable group of tribes, and, this being the case, it was generally agreed that it was necessary to modify our policy in southern Kurdistan by the introduction of some sort of administration on lines similar to those in force in Iraq.” In his memoirs Hilmi argued that British political officers were trying to diminish the sheikh’s influence and authority among the people. Apart from that, a number of localities such as Kirkuk, Kifri, Koi Sancak, Rawanduz, Halabje and the Jaf lands were excluded from Sheikh Mahmud’s control. Such developments inevitably caused the sheikh to become uneasy. British officials sensed and interpreted his apprehension in a different light, as Soane reported: “Sheikh Mahmud had viewed with annoyance the separation of Kifri and Kirkuk, the defection of the Jaf, his failure to impress himself on Koi and Rawanduz and now began to take active steps against the British Government” He collected round him the malcontents and ne’er-do-wells of the district and considered how he might avenge himself upon the British Government because it had detected and scotched his plans for the prostitution of the idea of a free and prosperous Kurdistan to his personal lust of power.”

The sheikh in uprising

Sheikh Mahmud responded to such British overtures by a revolt in May 1919. He was supported by the Kurdish tribes across Iranian Kurdistan, especially by the Hawraman tribe. He obtained control of Suleimaniya, “seized the Treasury, imprisoned all the British personnel who happened to be present, and hoisted his flag, in place of the Union Jack over the Political Office.” He declared himself ruler of all Kurdistan. However, Sheikh Mahmud’s uprising was short-lived. He enjoyed initial military success against British forces near Chamchamal, but his forces were finally defeated in the Bazyan Pass by mid-June, and the sheikh himself was wounded and captured. He was brought to Baghdad to a military court and sentenced to death, although later pardoned and exiled to India. Wilson wrote that he opposed the pardon “on the grounds that so long as Sheikh Mahmud was alive his adherents in southern Kurdistan would live in hope, and his enemies in the fear, of his eventual return, and that his death would contribute more than any other single factor to the restoration of tranquility.”

Imperial interests vs. nationalism

Some argued that the conflict between Sheikh Mahmud and Britain was inevitable due to the character of the first Kurdish government. McDowall, for example, argued that “trouble might well have arisen with another Kurd in his place. For behind the clash of personality, lay conflicting systems and expectations. There was a fundamental conflict between institutionalized government on the one hand, in which officials were appointed on merit and owed their loyalty to an abstract idea — the state, the administration, the Crown or whatever –and, on the other hand, the highly personalized form of government based on patronage.” This view had been put forward in a different way by Soane who wrote: “it is well to note that had Sheikh Mahmud not precipitated matters, a breach would as inevitably have occurred, for corruption and peculation were, under his guardianship, growing so rife that whatever representative of H.B.M.’s Government might have been present, would have been forced to an issue with Sheikh Mahmud on the point.”

Such reasoning as to the conflict between Sheikh Mahmud and the British forces was not only retrospective, but highly Eurocentric. It is true that Kurdish society was tribal and fragmented, and had always been subjected to the direct or indirect control of imperial powers. A native central administration after the destruction of Amirate (Mir in Kurdish) system by the Ottomans in the first half of the 19th century in Kurdistan had never occurred or been allowed. Should there have been the clear intention of British policy to create a native central administration in southern Kurdistan, Sheikh Mahmud could have managed to create one with the support of British officers. The fact that Kurdish tribes and chiefs initially backed Sheikh Mahmud with the knowledge that he was appointed by Britain indicates as much. Soon after, British officers made it explicit that tribes and other towns and districts were free from Sheikh Mahmud, his prestige and authority was reduced considerably.

The fact is that not only in Kurdistan, but in most of the Ottoman-run Arab regions too where there was no institutionalized government and central administration such as existed in Western Europe. Without the active support and participation of British officers and forces the formation and establishment of Iraq and its central state would not be possible for Iraq was ridden by tribal conflict and as well as religious differences between Sunni and Shiite. This is still the case today after a century since its establishment.

Formation of institutionalized government and authority based on an abstract idea was something unique to Europe with the advent of capitalism and industry. To expect such system to be established in a short period in a fragmented society like that of the Kurds is unrealistic. The clash was rather due to a conflict of interests between the ambiguous policy of Britain and Kurdish nationalist aspirations.

The uprising caused the British officials to contemplate the withdrawal of British officials from Kurdistan. The reason that the British had extended their influence in southern Kurdistan, argued then British Secretary of State Winston Churchill was:

“because they believed that the inhabitants themselves welcomed it, It will now appear that belief was misplaced, and that inhabitants, so far from welcoming British influence, are so actively hostile that strategic railways are required to keep them in check. In these circumstances might it not be the better course to withdraw our political officers and leave the Kurds to their own devices.”

This patronizing and imperial attitude hides the fact that the reason the Britain extended its influence was to control Mosul vilayet and security of Mesopotamia (a name later changed to Iraq) against the growing threat of Turkish nationalists who claimed Mosul. It is true that the Kurds had asked for the extension of British influence into the Kurdish areas, but with the intention of establishing a Kurdish self-government, one not to be subjected to other forces, especially the Arabs.

Wilson believed that the “idea embodied in President Wilson’s 14 points and confirmed in the Anglo-French declaration on November 8 of substituting nationality, religion or race on the basis of Government in the Middle East in lieu of

Despite the British officials, misinterpretations, Sheikh Mahmud was mainly motivated by nationalist ideals. This can be clearly seen in Wilson’s own writing when he visited the sheikh in a hospital in Baghdad: “I had seen him in hospital when, with a magnificent gesture, he denied the competence of any Military Court to try him, and recited to me President Wilson’s twelfth point, and the Anglo-French declaration of 8th November 1918, a translation of which in Kurdish, written on the fly-leaves of a Qur’an, was strapped like a talisman to his arm.”

Return of the sheikh and second attempt

After a military tribunal Sheikh Mahmud was exiled from Kurdistan. However, in 1922 British officers had no choice but to ask him back to Kurdistan to curb the increasing influence of Kemalist forces in south Kurdistan. By mid-September 1922, Sheikh Mahmud was recalled from his detention in Kuwait and appointed once again as president of the Suleimaniya Council. Once reinstated, Sheikh Mahmud wasted no time to declare his nationalist objective:

“From today I have taken in my hands the tiller of the state and assumed responsibility for the protection of the independence of Kurdistan, A nation which sheds its blood in the cause of freedom can never suffer defeat nor ever be enslaved. The civilized world has decreed that all nations and peoples shall govern themselves according to their own desires.” (Bang-i Kurdistan, issue No. 10, Oct. 15, 1922)

He sent a deputation to Baghdad to put Kurdish national demands before the high commissioner on November 2. The demands included

“official and public recognition of the independence of south Kurdistan; the transfer to the Government of south Kurdistan of all the areas in Iraq inhabited by Kurds; the creation of a Commission to fix the boundary between Kurdistan and Iraq; the official recognition of Sheikh Mahmud as Hukumdar of Kurdistan.”

The sheikh’s nationalist claim was in contrast with the then British policy to incorporate south Kurdistan into Iraq. British-Kurdish relations came to final deterioration when Percy Cox, British high commissioner, rejected Mahmud’s demand to extend his rule to Rania and Koi. Sheikh Mahmud responded by purging all Kurdish officials who were suspected of being loyal to the British. British officers, who had been aware of Sheikh Mahmud’s intrigue with the Kemalists and their alleged plan to attack Kirkuk and Koi, summoned him, but he refused the come. Upon his refusal, the British ordered a suspension of his administration on Feb. 24 and ordered him to leave the town on March 1. A couple of days later, the Royal Air Force bombed government buildings and Sheikh Mahmud had to flee, bringing about the collapse of his second attempt to establish an independent Kurdistan and paving the way for Britain to incorporate southern Kurdistan into Iraq.

Sheikh Mahmud’s second attempt to achieve an independent Kurdistan was not the best. Firstly, Britain began negotiations with the Kemalists in Lausanne in October, which symbolically terminated any hope of an independent Kurdistan as the latter party was fiercely against such an establishment. Secondly, by October and November successful British air raids routed Turkish detachments from their strongholds in southern Kurdistan. This in turn diminished the bargaining position of Kurdish nationalists vis-a vis the British and the Iraqi government. Thirdly, in October 1922, Lloyd George’s coalition government was replaced by a conservative government. Churchill lost his position as secretary of state. It must be remembered that Churchill was one of the most active British policy-makers to advocate the exclusion of southern Kurdistan from Iraq. The new colonial secretary, Leo Amery, contrary to Churchill, did not have strong views on Kurdish affairs.

The establishment of Suleimaniya government and the revolt of Sheikh Mahmud against the British forces are crucial years in modern Kurdish history. It was the first attempt by the Kurdish nationalists to establish an independent Kurdish political entity. A clear declaration of Kurdish self-determination. While the Kurdish elite had an Ottomanist character before WWI and associated themselves as primarily Ottoman and then the Kurds, following the end of WWI, the Kurdish elite, such as Sheikh Mahmud, quickly caught the trend of nationalism as an idea arrived to the region mostly thanks to the Wilson principles, British and French wartime discourse with Arab tribes, and the Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet policy of self-determination of the oppressed people of the East.

What is interesting to observe in this period is the complicated interrelation and interaction of great powers, imperialist interests in conjunction or in conflict with the growing nationalist sentiments of the people in the Middle East, the sentiment that brought to the region by the great powers themselves.











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