In this article Benjamin Curry goes to the roots of the revolutionary history of the Iraqi people which is far from the barbarism which it is often labelled with by the bourgeois media today.
The State and the Crisis of 1936-1941
From the occupation of Iraq following the First World War until their departure in 1932, the British succeeded in enmeshing themselves in a series of contradictions in their attempts to build a reliable state apparatus. Whilst trained Iraqi forces were needed to uphold private property, the social basis of capitalism and landlordism, embodied in the newly propertied landlord-sheikhs, mallaks and the monarchy, represented only the thinnest social stratum. Furthermore, the ignorant and narrow-minded ruling elite had neither the experience nor the inclination to involve themselves in state-building. The few “reliable” pairs of hands that the British could find, such as Nuri al-Said who occupied the position of Prime Minister eight times from the 30’s until the revolution of 1958, were little more than undisguised, self-serving cynics who earned the deserved odium of the majority of the population.
It wasn't uncommon therefore for individuals from other class backgrounds, particularly from modest middle class families, to ascend the ranks of the officer corp. With the crisis in society reaching agonising proportions – with distress on the land, backwardness in all quarters and the nation humiliated before British imperialism – the younger officers tended to view the ruling class and its representatives at the head of the state who had adapted to this situation, with well deserved contempt. This state of affairs, which prevailed across the dependent colonial and semi-colonial nations and particularly in the newly partitioned Arab nations, lead to increasing restiveness within the armies, which became hotbeds of conspiracies and plots.
In an attempt to forestall any threat from this quarter, and to limit the power of the monarch, the British undertook a policy of hobbling the standing army from the earliest period of their mandate. Against the central apparatus of the state the British played off the sheikh's bands of personally loyal retainers, granting self-governance to these gangs and creating a scourge for the peasantry. Following the British departure from Iraq however, the king cut out his own course and launched a policy of conscription and expansion of the army, which now stepped forward with its own opinions on how to extract Iraq from its backwardness.
On 29th October 1936 Iraq was plunged into a period of disequilibrium when armed regiments loyal to the nationalist officer, General Bakr Sidqi, entered Baghdad. Presented with a fait acompli, the king, who had nationalist inclinations of his own, accepted Sidqi’s dismissal of the old government. Meanwhile, sensing the anti-British mood that surrounded the coup, the closest collaborator of British imperialism, Nuri al-Said, fled the scene.
Despite the fact that Bakr Sidqi had few liberal, democratic or anti-imperialist credentials – indeed Sidqi had been well favoured by the British for his role in butchering restive Shia tribesmen – the liberal bourgeoisie around al-Ahali newspaper immediately pinned their colours to Sidqi’s mast and were rewarded with a clutch of ministries in the new government. The ICP, in line with its "stageist" approach of subordinating its struggle to the methods of the liberal bourgeoisie, also gave its full support to Sidqi as a supposed representative of the "progressive bourgeoisie".
The policy of the ICP from 1936-41 anticipated in a farcical manner the tragic policy that Communist Parties across the region would conduct in the 1950's. Unlike the Nasserist coup of 1952 in Egypt and the revolutionary events that accompanied the coup in Iraq in July 1958, the 1936 events were met with little popular enthusiasm. The support that the ICP rendered Sidqi was duly rewarded when the general launched a blistering ideological attack on the Communist Party. By early 1937 the liberal opposition - having served their purpose of providing Sidqi with a democratic, reforming mask - were also cast aside.(8)
With tumult and disarray within the state, the working class now took its signal to push itself through the cracks that were opening up within the ruling class. In late March 1937 a wave of strike action swept Iraq, the first of its kind. From the ports to the railway workshops to the oil industry; the Iraqi working class gave its first indication of the beginning of an awakening, and it moved not under the leadership of any other class but under its own impulses and direction – principally that of the Communist Party.
The end for Sidqi came on 11 August 1937 when he fell under the bullets of an assassin. This did not settle the crisis in the regime however. On 4th April 1938 King Ghazi – who had been a thorn in the side of the British due to his sympathetic attitude towards the nationalist officers and his agitation for unification with Kuwait – died in mysterious circumstances, most likely at the hands of the British. He was succeeded by his son, Faisal II, who would reign as King of Iraq until the 1958 revolution. Being still a boy his uncle, Abdul Ilah, a faithful ally of the British took the reigns as regent and soon Nuri al-Said himself was returned to power with the assistance of a further coup. British interests seemed firmly back in the saddle but the nationalist officers, who remained in their positions, had other ideas.
In 1941 a group of four nationalist officers availed themselves of the discontent with the rule of Nuri and the regent, and the conditions of the World War, to depose the pair. Whereas Nasser would, after his 1952 coup in Egypt, use the classical Bonapartist method of resting upon the mass movement to cut a semi-independent course, Iraq's officers could rest on no such movement and so instead looked towards Hitler and German imperialism as an alternative point of support. The regime however was doomed to a short lived existence. The British undertook to reoccupy Iraq, depose the nationalist officers and reinstate Nuri and the regent, ushering a new period of occupation that would last until well into the 1940's.
Iraq was once more under the jackboot of British imperialism. The army was again reduced and conscription brought to an end as the British reasserted their control. The contradictions that riddled the Iraqi state were far from diminished however. The monarchy emerged from the crisis more undermined than ever and a dangerous precedent had been set for a new generation of officers to intervene in the national political scene.
More importantly however, the period beginning in the early 40's saw class antagonisms in Iraq heated to boiling point and all of this would reflect itself in continuing discontent in the ranks of the armed forces. The exploitation of the country’s newfound oil wealth propelled an economic boom in the 40's which enriched a thin stratum of the population whilst the general conditions for the majority continued to decline. The main effect of the oil boom for ordinary people was the influx of huge amounts of money into circulation and the resultant inflation of prices.
With no Chinese wall isolating the army from the rest of society, the moods of the different classes inevitably found their reflection with splits in the armed bodies of the state as well as the penetration of revolutionary parties into the ranks. The results of galloping inflation on the lives of soldiers and their families were only compounded by the British policy of reigning in the state, the net result being the creation of a parlous state of affairs that produced an ideal ground for the spread of revolutionary and conspiratorial ideas.
In the cities the migration of peasants continued to swell the ranks of the reserve army of labour, whose pressure combined with inflation to bear down on wages. Ironically the source of Iraq’s huge natural wealth became the fount of further impoverishment and oppression for the masses. Economic distress was coupled with humiliation by the British dictatorship. With few moments of reprieve during the course of the “democratic” British occupation, the period was one of repression and clandestinity for worker and peasant activists.
The Wathbah and its results
The simmering discontent within society inevitably began to express itself with the growth of strikes, protests and political agitation of all hues picking up from the mid-40’s. For a brief period of months the British experimented with the legalisation of trade unions and workers' organisations. However, this only led to the working class immediately going on the offensive with huge strikes in Basrah's port and the railway workshops in the environs of Baghdad. Far from taming or channelling the mood of discontent building up in the depths of society, legality only served to reveal the full extent of Communist influence in fierce outbursts; with the Schalchiyyah railway workshops of Baghdad now emerging as a major center of Iraqi communism - similar to the role the Putilov works in Petersburg played for Russian revolutionaries 30 years before.
In panic the imperialists quickly clamped down and once more illegalised the unions. Communists were swept up in a wave of repression, hundreds of political prisoners being left to languish in Kut jail including the party's general secretary, Fahd. The British imperialists and their Iraqi agents could see the storm clouds coalescing on the horizon and set upon reaffirming the 1930 Anglo-Iraq Treaty, which granted the British unlimited rights to intervene in Iraq’s affairs as a bulwark against revolution. To ease the way for the treaty the hated British stooge, Nuri al-Said, stepped aside as prime minister and gave way to Salih Jabr in early 1947; the two travelling to England to begin negotiations in December of that year. The masses were not about to be deceived by a slight shuffling at the top of the pack however, and the negotiations served to blow sparks onto the bone-dry tinderbox of Iraqi society.
Unwitting of the scale of the events they were about to usher in, the bourgeois nationalist Independence Party took the initiative in calling the first demonstrations. On 5th January 1948 they called for student protests against the secret negotiations. Intending to march from Baghdad Law School to the royal palace, the students were met by mounted police and live ammunition. Many were injured. On the 6th January a new demonstration was called, this time in protest at the police repressions and drawing in students from all the opposition parties, including other bourgeois nationalist parties and the ICP’s student wing. (10)
It was clear that the embers of protest, now lit, were waiting for the next gust to burst into flames. On 16th January the humiliating results of the treaty were made public and events began moving at lightning speed. Under the initiative of a Communist-organised front of opposition parties, a three day student strike and continuous demonstrations took place. The mobilisations peaked with a huge march on 20th January. Now the working class threw its tremendous social weight onto the scales. Students were accompanied by railway workers, the proletarian hard core of the ICP, and thousands of impoverished mud hut dwellers from the periphery of the city. Police fired once more with live rounds into the crowd. Students fell dead; more still were murdered at the hospital where they attempted to accompany their fallen comrades to the morgue.
Suddenly anger turned to rage – before evening the streets were streaming with vast numbers of Baghdadi workers and youth, and at the head of every throng were Communists. The ruling class immediately took fright and on 21st January the king’s regent renounced the treaty in order to diffuse the movement. The bourgeois nationalists, up to this point actively involved in the demonstrations, similarly took fright when presented face to face with the stirring masses. The Independence Party, whose actions had ironically initiated the events, declared that their aims were met with the repudiation of the treaty by the regent and called for protests to end. The “left” nationalists of the National Democratic Party (the successor to al-Ahali) continued to verbally call for the resignation of the government of Salih Jabr but in practice they too urged for “calm” and a cessation of protests.
The Iraqi national bourgeois were weak and dependent upon British imperialism from their very inception and it ought to come as no surprise that in the decisive moments they acted with utter cowardice and fled the field. They entered the streets in the early days of the Wathbah with the intention not of overthrowing the government but of frightening the regime and imperialism with the prospect of unrest so as to receive concessionary crumbs from their table. However, at the first show of strength by the working class, and when confronted with the tasks of a genuine social revolution they immediately pulled back and cowered behind the monarchy and imperialism.
The movement shrugged off the flight of its fair-weather friends and continued to gather momentum. The only ones willing to fight through to the end were the workers lead by the Communists, and behind them all classes of the urban and rural poor, and the lower layers of the middle classes. These forces, in themselves, were more than sufficient to bring down the regime and establish a revolutionary government. This lesson was now being learnt by thousands of individuals, not through books but through the school of revolution itself.
Within the ranks of the Communist Party the most farsighted cadres were rapidly drawing the conclusion that the task of leading the Iraqi revolution fell to the working class alone, and that this meant the seizure of power by the Communist Party, not only without the assistance of but directly against the bourgeois nationalist parties. On 1st February 1948, days after the peak of the movement, an internal ICP circular entitled “The Essence of Our Movement for Independence” denounced the “politically and economically weak national bourgeoisie” who were “disposed to come to terms with the imperialists at the expense of the masses” out of fear of “the growing over of the democratic into the socialist revolution” (11).
These remarks precisely expressed the actual situation of the Iraqi revolution. Had these correct theses been taken to their logical conclusion the ICP would have been politically equipped for the historic tasks now upon the party. However, the Menshevik-Stalinist position of the leadership of the ICP continued to prevail. As the principal tasks of the revolution were bourgeois-democratic (repudiation of the imperialist treaty, democratic elections, land reform and so on) the ICP leadership persisted in the false conclusion that the leading role in the revolution must therefore be taken up by the national bourgeoisie, and that the ICP ought therefore to seek out an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist parties at any cost.
On 23rd January huge demonstrations were convoked by the Communist Party. New, more radical slogans began to be heard that went far beyond scrapping the Treaty and the miserably low horizons of the bourgeois democrats: “For a people’s revolution!”, “Long live the unity of the workers and students!” and “Long Live the Republic!”(12) The Communist leaders however repudiated these slogans as the work of provocateurs and limited their demands in an attempt to bring the bourgeois democrats back on board. They were not fighting for Communism, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or even a Republic, they insisted; they only wanted the repudiation of the treaty, a free, democratic environment and the formation of a “democratic” government of all the “patriotic” parties; including the very same parties that had withdrawn from the struggle and opposed it in the preceding days!
The problem was that despite all the moderation of the Communist leaders, the national bourgeois could see the force that stood behind them: the workers and poor. Any revolution which achieved genuine democracy could do so only by the revolutionary action of this class and, just as the aforementioned internal ICP circular explained, it could not be assured that these classes would not go on to expropriate the bourgeoisie themselves. On 26th January, upon the return of Nuri al-Said and Salih Jabr from England, the people again surged onto the street. That night protesters were met with machine gun fire as the government resolved on ending the unrest. The ICP called for demonstrations across Baghdad the morning after and were met by huge, seething crowds. Two crowds coalesced on opposite sides of the Tigris: on the West huge numbers of students and railway workers; on the East thousands of poor mud hut dwellers. The police set up sniper nests and brought in armoured units to keep the two demonstrations from merging and becoming an uncontrollable mass. Whilst the throngs in the West were hemmed into a city square, the crowds in the East made a tremendous surge across the Mamum bridge in an attempt to link up with their comrades on the other side of the river. The police mercilessly opened fire across the bridge and dozens began to fall. Shortly after the demonstrators in the West broke out the police cordon and were met by the same armoured units that had massacred the people minutes earlier. Again they opened fire and dozens more fell. 300-400 people fell dead that day on Mamum bridge. (13)
Facing the magnitude of their crimes and the furious, mourning crowd, the police took flight in panic. Salih Jabr, sensing mortal danger, fled for his life to England. The regime now stood in mid-air and power lay in the street. All it would have taken would have been for the conscious and organised revolutionary masses to declare themselves as the power and the regime would have been powerless to resist. However the ICP completely rejected the perspective of taking power alone. Had the party put forward a clear and decisive plan for taking power it would rapidly gain the necessary support to organise a successful insurrection. Powerless to repress the movement further, the regime was now prepared to make any concession necessary simply to retain power. The regent now brought in Muhammed al-Sadr to form a government, a leader of the 1920 revolution and a perceived reformer, with the hope of deceiving the masses and calming them down.
Whilst the leaders of the ICP remained incarcerated in Kut prison, the party began rapidly expanding its activities in the wake of the revolutionary upturn. The student movement continued to simmer; strikes broke out among the most important layers of workers in the railways, ports and oil pumps (14); in the provinces agrarian revolt broke out here and there; and everywhere streams of workers joined the Communist Party's organisations.
However, as must occur if the class struggle is not fought to a decisive victory, the momentum of the revolutionary movement ebbed and the ruling class - having waited in the aisles - now impatiently sought their revenge. After just six months, the government of al-Sadr was dismissed and Nuri al-Said was brought back to the premiership to complete the job of crushing the embers of revolution. As the Arab-Israel war broke out the militarisation of Iraq gave ample scope for the ruling class to begin clamping down on its domestic enemies.
In this job the Stalinist bureaucracy now gave tremendous assistance to the triumphant reaction: despite the historical anti-Semitism of Stalin and the ruling clique in Moscow, the Soviets now gave criminal support to the partition of Palestine in an attempt to wheedle their way into the diplomatic good books of the newborn state of Israel. The ICP were given orders to adopt the same party line. This meant that, the last shred of sympathy that the non-Communist masses had for the ICP evaporated. This served to divide and diffuse the revolutionary movement sufficiently that the counter-revolution could turn the situation to their bloody advantage.
Everywhere communists were rounded up; police spies broke up every Communist organisation of significance; in Kut prison communists were quietly murdered; and Fahd and two of his comrades were retried and sentenced to death. This time the sentences were carried out and the bodies of the condemned men were strung up publically in the city squares of Baghdad as a direct message to the poor and working classes.
At first glance the defeat of the revolution opened up the most pessimistic perspective. All of the democratic gains of the revolution were undone and once again the counter-revolution had established itself firmly in power. Furthermore the Communist Party was in disarray, dispersed and crumbling; its historic leaders were either dead, in exile or in prison. However, as the saying goes, history wastes nothing. The Wathbah – or “The Leap” – as it came to be known, represented a decisive turning point in Iraq’s history. Although the Hashemite monarchy survived the revolutionary shock of 1948, the last drop of moral authority had completely evaporated from the regime and whilst the ICP was initially shattered by the triumphant counter-revolution, the bonds between the masses and the Communist Party as their organised expression were now sealed in blood.
The Communist Party’s punishment
All of the efforts of the regime to exorcise the spectre of communism from Iraq were doomed to failure from the beginning, irrespective of how many cells were broken up or how many cadres were arrested or murdered. The fact is that it was Iraqi conditions that fed the growth of the Communist Party. This was fully revealed in each upturn in the class struggle and each revolutionary explosion that developed in the period of the 50's, each of which tended to begin where the Wathbah left off. The first of these explosions came in 1952 with the Intifadah, during which the Communist Party once more shrugged aside all other parties and emerged clearly as the leader of the poor, the working class and the youth.
However, in the early 50's a new "leftist" tone emerged in the propaganda of the party. As is so often the case, ultra-leftism was the punishment that the ICP had to suffer for its earlier opportunist mistakes and in the early 1950's an amateurish left emerged in the leadership of the party lead by the new general secretary, Hamid Uthman. Turning away from the old policy of compromise with the national bourgeoisie, which had brought disaster on the head of the party, the leadership of the ICP looked around for an alternative and – like many Communist Parties during this period – found an apparently more "radical" alternative in Maoist China.
In point of fact however, Mao's China represented no real alternative to the line dictated by Moscow. On the one hand Mao too had held to the Stalinist "stageist" approach and believed that China would have to pass through 100 years of capitalist development before the socialist transformation of Chinese society could seriously be placed on the agenda. It was only “unconsciously”, as it were, that the Maoists came to expropriate capitalism after the flight of the Kuomintang – and with them the majority of the national bourgeoisie – to Taiwan.
Nevertheless, the apparently uncompromising attitude of the Red Army who had expropriated the ruling class in a "People's Revolution" looked like a plausible alternative to a Communist Party reeling from a defeat that had been compounded by its earlier opportunism. In the conditions in Iraq however, with its increasingly combative working class and labour movement, a turn to a peasant "people's war" and direct, immediate confrontation with the state could only spell disaster for the party.
When the party leadership ordered party cadres to enter the streets in opposition to the Baghdad Pact of 1955 and to engage in continuous running battles in the street, without a concomitant mass movement, the results were predictably disastrous for the party.(16) Had an opposition to the Stalinist-Menshevik line of collaboration with the national bourgeoisie existed in the early 50’s that based itself on a return to the traditions of genuine Marxism, as represented by the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, it may well have been possible to politically rearm the party in this period. As it was, the disaster created by the ultra-lefts only served to swing the party once more into the arms of Stalinist opportunism. (17)
The Shifting Balance of Power in the Middle East
One of the most important outcomes of the Second World War was the emergence of a new balance of forces on a world scale. The old powers of Britain and France were now in sharp decline, with the United States filling the vacuum as the dominant imperialist power on a world scale. With the emergence of Israel in the region, all these fluctuations had the most destabilising impact on social and political relations throughout the Middle East. At the same time Stalinism emerged immensely strengthened and appeared as a serious alternative to imperialist subjugation.
In 1952 the crisis in Egypt, one of the most industrialised and populous countries of the region, found its expression in the Free Officers' coup against the British-backed Farouk monarchy. The populist, nationalist rhetoric of the coup struck a deep chord and unleashed a mass wave of enthusiasm. With the mass movement on the street pushing the Free Officers to the left it was the leftward-moving and self-proclaimed Pan-Arabist, Gamal Abdul Nasser, who came to the fore with his ideas of Arab unity and an increasingly brazen defiance of British imperialism.
Increasingly the Nasser regime turned in the direction of the Soviet Union for political and military support and, basing himself on the popular mood of the mass of workers and poor, nationalised much of the property of the imperialist powers. In Syria too the regime began facing in the direction of the USSR and by the 1960’s even went as far as completely expropriating the ruling class and creating the first planned economy in the Middle East, albeit on a bureaucratic and Stalinist basis.
In 1956 things reached crisis point when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. The British and French, imagining that they could strike a quick blow against Nasser and remove a thorn in their side, quickly occupied the Suez Canal Zone but were forced into a hasty retreat by the Americans. The British were completely humiliated but so too were all the powers of the Baghdad Pact, which constituted the Anglo-American "sphere of influence", with Iraq at its centre. Nasser however emerged tremendously strengthened. When a union with Syria was declared in early 1958, and the United Arab Republic (UAR) was formed, the move was met with huge popular enthusiasm across the Arab world as the beginning of a much yearned for socialist unification of the Arab peoples.
The reality, of course, was more complicated. Whilst resting on the mass movement to deliver blows against the imperialists, Nasser never completely broke with capitalism. Meanwhile his regime operated along classical Bonapartist lines, with Communists and trade unionists frequently subject to brutal police repression. The unification with Syria meanwhile was seen on the Egyptian side as a means to expand the market for Egyptian goods; and on the Syrian side as a chance to liquidate all political opposition within the country, and particularly the mass Syrian Communist Party. (18)
Nevertheless these tumultuous events throughout the region had a tremendous effect within Iraq and added to the explosive cocktail that was developing. This was also the case within the army. Since 1952 cells of Free Officers, directly modelled on those in Egypt, began to take form, beginning among the most proletarian section of the military, the engineering divisions. The events in 1956 tremendously quickened the spread of conspiratorial cells within the middle layers of the officer corp and by 1958 the conspirators were waiting for the opportune moment to strike.
The July Revolution
On the morning of 14th July 1958, after a tense and sleepless night, Colonel Abdul Salam Aref led a division of troops on a march towards Baghdad. His orders were to march onward to the Jordanian border, a maneuver that would necessarily involve passing through the capital. Upon arriving in Baghdad a little after 4am however, the units swiftly moved into action and occupied the key tactical positions in the city including the radio exchange, key ministries and the royal palace. In the confusion that reigned, the royal family was mowed down by the machine gun fire of a nationalist officer only vaguely aware of the nature of the unfolding events. Nuri al-Said briefly fled but was later found and killed. The radio now announced to the world what had happened: Iraq was officially a Republic, it had been liberated from imperialism by the revolutionary officers and the people were called upon to support the armed forces!
The response of the people was overwhelming and quickly caused jitters among the instigators of the coup. By mid-morning hundreds of thousands of workers, peasants, slum dwellers, housewives, students, government clerks and rank and file soldiers flooded the streets. What had begun was no mere repeat of 1941 – this was the start of a genuine revolution. If, as Trotsky explained, a revolution can be defined as one of those exceptional periods in human history when the mass of ordinary people begin to take their destiny into their own hands, then this was the start of a revolutionary process that would extend and continue to unfold over several years. First in numbers, energy and standing among the organised forces that mingled with the crowds was the ICP. Workers, peasants, women, students and young people flooded into its organisations.
In the early days of the July regime, the mass outbreak of euphoria that accompanied the fall of the hated monarchy masked the heterogeneity of the officers that had now been thrust to a position of power. The weakness and internal division of the new regime however soon came to the fore and centered on a conflict between the two key conspirators of the 14th July overthrow; Brigadier Abdul Karim Qaseem, now at the head of the government and the armed forces; and his second-in-command, Colonel Aref.
To the extent that any ideology can be said to have given a semblance of unity to the Free Officer movement in Iraq prior to the July Revolution it was fundamentally the same ideology that motivated the officers involved in the 1952 coup in Egypt and the initiators of the 1941 coup in Iraq; namely nationalism and in particular the outlook of Pan-Arabism. It is worth now making a brief detour to consider the nature of "Pan-Arabism" as an ideology and the role that it played in the revolutionary period that opened up from July 1958.
[To be continued...]