- Created: Tuesday, 17 April 2018 14:19
- Written by Eddie Abrahams
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no.100 April/May 1991
Comrades who want to place events now unfolding in Iraq in their proper historical and class context will profit by reading this excellent book - Iraq Since 1958 - From Revolution to Dictatorship. It outlines British imperialism’s role in the founding of modern Iraq and meticulously records a frequently overlooked tragedy – the destruction of the Iraqi communist and workers’ movement at the hands of the Baath Party.
The carve up of the Middle East and the birth of Iraq
In 1920 General Edward Spears wrote that:
'...the French and the British...satisfied each others' appetites after the First World War, by serving up strips of Arab land to each other.'
Until the First World War, the Arab world fell within the domain of a decaying Ottoman empire. This oil rich area became a battleground as Germany, Britain and France fought to replace Ottoman rule. In their struggle, the French and British won Arab support with promises of democracy and independence. But in secret they concocted the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which gave Lebanon and Syria to the French whilst the British got Palestine and Iraq. With Germany's defeat and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the victorious allies were free to carve up the region.
Between 1915 and 1921 British troops 'liberated' Baghdad and Basra provinces from Ottoman rule and completed their new territorial unit by attaching to these Arab provinces the oil rich Kurdish province of Mosul. Their hopes of imposing direct rule after the fashion of the 'Indian Raj' were dashed by nationalist opposition. The British therefore altered tactics and prepared to rule indirectly. They created a dependent ruling class from among the most backward sheiks, landlords and tribal leaders.
These elements were bribed with enormous tracts of land which had hitherto been state property. They were provided with a state, a civil service, an army and, of course, a team of British 'advisers' who had powers of veto. In 1921 the British authorities engineered the election of King Faisal to lead this ostensibly Iraqi government. Anglo-Iraqi treaties ensured the safety and security of British interests both before and after formal independence in 1932. Thus was born modern Iraq.
Between 1932 and the revolution of 1958, Iraq's British-imposed ruling class ruled the roost, making massive fortunes from collaboration with British capital. They did so however amidst the increasing impoverishment of the Iraqi peasantry, a growing class polarisation and the birth of an Iraqi working class.
By 1958 1 per cent of landowners owned 55 per cent of all land held in private hands. At the other end, 64 per cent held just 3.6 per cent of all cultivated land and 600,000 rural heads of households were completely landless. Hundreds of thousands of dispossessed peasants flooded into slums circling the main cities in search of food and work. Thus grew in the construction industry, small factories and most significantly in the oil industry, a small but militant working class. And by its side a larger, impoverished petit-bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, artisans, teachers, civil servants and professionals.
The Iraqi Communist Party
Formed in 1934, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) drew its support from these classes and became a significant force by the early 1940s. It built its influence by uniting the social struggle for better wages, conditions and housing with the national struggle against British control. It targeted for strike action numerous British-owned economic interests and oil in particular. Thus it succeeded in harnessing the ambition and anger of the urban poor - working class and petit-bourgeois. Equally significantly the ICP developed a widespread following in Kurdistan with its policy of autonomy based on self-determination. It was the first Iraqi political party to develop a progressive position on the Kurdish struggle and ICP members edited the first Kurdish political paper.
In the late 1940s, the Party came into its own during a massive nationalist upheaval against the infamous Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. The so-called Portsmouth Agreement was being renegotiated during 1947 and 1949. When the terms of the treaty, prolonging British control for a further 20 years, were announced Iraq exploded into the al-Wathba, the leap, the great national uprising. The ICP was a 'fundamental force' in a series of massive strikes and demonstrations which led to bloody street battles. Government soldiers massacred 300-400 protesters. Hundreds of communists were arrested and in 1949 two leading Party members were hanged in public. Their bodies were left dangling for several hours 'so that the common people going to work would receive a warning'.
The 1958 Revolution and the defeat of communism
For ten years these class contradictions intensified and then exploded into a massive political and social upheaval. On 14 July 1958, the Supreme Committee of Free Officers led by Generals Abd al-Salam Arif and Abd al-Karim Qasim overthrew the British-installed monarchy. The coup unleashed enormous pent-up social energy which almost overnight created mass organisations, trade unions, political parties and popular militias. Rapidly General Qasim became the acknowledged leader of a popular revolution.
The revolution succeeded because it was able to unite two distinct anti-imperialist forces. On the one hand the working class and oppressed whose social and economic conditions spurred them on to a social as well as national revolution. On the other hand a whole strata of the new urban bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie whose nationalism pitted them against the monarchy and the British but who remained hostile to socialism.
With its militant record, its links with the working class and its underground organisation, the ICP effectively took command of most trade unions and mass organisations. It set up its own militia to defend the revolution. It also took the leadership of the Students' Union, the Youth Federation, the Women's League and the Engineers', Lawyers' and Teachers' Unions. The masses flocked to it. In January 1959 the Party was forced to announce that it could not accept any more new members as its administrative machinery could not cope. The Party and the masses controlled the streets of Baghdad and with demonstrations of up to 500,000 began pressing for fundamental social and economic change and in particular for land reform.
The spectre of communism began to haunt the imperialists. CIA boss Allen Dulles stated that the situation in Iraq was 'the most dangerous in the world'. The threat of a genuine social revolution led to a split in the alliance which carried through the revolution. At a government level this expressed itself in the rift between Abd al-Karim Qasim who relied on communist support and Abd al-Salam Arif who unfurled the banner of Pan-Arabism and anti-communist nationalism.
Central to the programme of Pan-Arabism was the call for the political union of all Arab states. However the populist and radical rhetoric was but a cover for a systematic struggle against Arab communism. Nasser, the outstanding exponent of Pan-Arab nationalism, had by the end of 1958 launched an all out attack against Arab communist parties, and the Syrian and Iraqi parties in particular. Arif and his supporters, in calling for union with Egypt, hoped to deploy Egypt's anti-communist laws against the Iraqi Communist Party and thus strengthen the hand of the anti-communists.
But these measures promised no immediate return. The communists still controlled the streets. Something more decisive and forceful was required to stem the advance of the working class. At hand and ready to wield the cudgel for the Iraqi and imperialist bourgeoisie was the Baath Party and the less significant Nasserite and other nationalist organisations.
The Baath Party in Iraq was formed in 1951 and developed support from the anti-communist elements of the Army. It was tiny compared to the ICP, never enjoying the latter's support and popularity. It did not need any popularity, its main function being to provide the counter-revolution with a base in the army and with gangs of thugs and killers.
From late 1958 the Baath Party, with the help of the police, organised systematic murder and terror against communists. In October 1959, a gang of Baath Party assassins carried out an unsuccessful attempt on General Qasim's life. The leader of the gang was Saddam Hussein who subsequently rose to the top of the Party. By 1961 the ICP reported that 286 Party members and supporters had been murdered and thousands of families forced to leave their homes. By such means the Baathists slowly pushed the communists off the streets.
These actions however failed to eliminate the ICP or destroy the working class movement which remained a force to be reckoned with. The Baath Party therefore plotted and prepared for its total and thorough destruction. In 1963, in alliance with other nationalist army officers, it organised a successful military coup. Its single-minded purpose was to finish off the Iraqi communist movement. To quote from Sluglett and Sluglett:
'The months between February and November 1963 saw some of the most terrible scenes of violence hitherto experienced in the post-war Middle East. Acts of wanton savagery and brutality were perpetrated by the Baath and their associates...[as they] set about the physical elimination of their rivals.'
Party members were shot in the streets, or herded into concentration camps, tortured to death or executed after mock trials. For nine months during which the Baath remained in power the killing and the torture continued. In this struggle the Baath received lists of communist names from the CIA. These massacres marked the effective demise of the largest and most popular communist movement in the Arab world: a movement which could have acted as a vanguard for socialism in the entire region.
One disappointing aspect of the book is the rather sketchy discussion of the strategy and tactics of the ICP during the period of the 1958 Revolution. A thorough examination of inner party debates which led to a decision not to seize power in 1959 would throw a great deal of light on its relations with the Qasim government, on the role of the USSR, and on opportunist trends within the party itself.
The subsequent history of Iraq, the consolidation of the Baath Party, its transformation into a vehicle for the enrichment of an Iraqi bourgeoisie, its relations with imperialism and with the Soviet Union and its bloody war against the Kurdish people, are all considered at length. An account of the country’s economic development helps explain the material basis for the expansionist and imperialistic ambitions of the Baath Party. The story is brought up to date with a chapter on the invasion of Kuwait which eventually led to the destruction of these ambitions.
Iraq Since 1958 - From Revolution to Dictatorship by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett (IB Tauris, 1990, 346pp, £9.95)
An edited version of this article was also published as chapter 1.8 of The New Warlords: from the Gulf War to the recolonisation of the Middle East