The Coup That Destroyed Revolutionary Iraq

Almost 40 years ago, Iraq’s – and one of the Arab world’s greatest – living poet, Saadi Youssef wrote:

“Which country have you come to now? Here, you will open

a door to a torture chamber. And one day in a garden

you will see your arms, your eyes, or your speeding heart.”

What hasn’t changed since then is that the torture and the sectarian bombings and killings still go on happily in Iraq, as yesterday’s suicide bombing which killed 26 people demonstrates, more than a decade after a Western occupation invaded a sovereign Arab country on the pretext of bringing democracy. As the social media and twitter pundits and their counterparts in the Western and liberal camps still bay about whether the recent overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo by the military was a textbook military coup or a revolution, it maybe instructive to dwell on a real coup which put an end to a revolutionary experiment in Iraq and decimated the Arab world’s strongest communist party, 50 years ago today, on the 14th day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramazan (February 8, 1963 on the Gregorian calendar). The coup, greenlighted by Washington and carried out by the military-fascist Baath Party, was a major victory for the West against an Arab world made resurgent by the rise of Nasser and the communist and nationalist politics in that world, the calls for Arab unity in the face of Western-backed Israeli expansionism in the region.

Politics in Iraq were further made important by the fact that it had oil, unlike Egypt and Syria, two other key states that were bastions for Arab nationalist politics in the 1950s and 1960s (and would go on to play that role until Nasser’s untimely death in 1970). Iraq not unlike many of its other Arab counterparts, had been granted ‘independence’ as a sop to the influential Hashemite family which had spearheaded the Arab revolt against the Turks in 1916, after one of the deals they had cut with the British over enthroning one of their scions as king of Syria backfired, with the losing candidate now proclaimed King Faisal of Iraq, but not before a slice of the country had been carved off as Kuwait. Faisal’s rule had little legitimacy and he ruled through the support of the army and a pliant cabinet which could be changed at will in connivance with the British proconsul and the Commander of the Royal Air Force, which maintained its bases in Iraq, an early and persistent source of resentment among ordinary Iraqis. These bleak decades were unremarkable save the rise of the corrupt crook Nuri al-Said, who fashioned himself as a rival to Nasser for the Arab nationalist mantle and was to dominate Iraqi politics for almost three decades.

The depredations of postcolonial Iraq took place in the background of a powerful trade-union movement, located within the railways, ports and the oil industries. However what gave impetus to these as well as national struggles for independence was the establishment of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) in 1934, which quickly established itself as a party of Iraq as a whole, embracing its various nationalities and confessions, against heavy odds of censorship and repression from the British and their satraps in Baghdad, under the valiant leadership of Yusuf Salman Yusuf. From its leadership of the great national uprising called the al-Wathba (The Leap) in January 1948 to protest the proposed extension of the humiliating Portsmouth Treaty extending Iraq’s vassal status – in which 400 people were killed in Baghdad – to its spearheading of a strike of some 3000 workers near Haditha in the same year and the full-scale intifadas inaugurated in 1952 which brought out some 6,000 peasants in Amarah province against the landlords, the ICP emerged not only as Iraq’s largest and most popular party, but as the largest communist party in the Arab world. It also adopted a pro-Palestininan and anti-Zionist position, while exposing the shameless secret deals and weaknesses of the Arab rulers vis-à-vis Palestine and Israel. And it paid for its daring sacrifices for the national cause with blood; Yusuf was executed in 1949 and his last words were: ‘We are bodies and thoughts; if you destroy our bodies, you will not destroy our thoughts.’

Meanwhile under Nuri al-Said and his coterie, Iraq descended into economic and political malaise. Its oil safely ensconced within the grip of multinational corporations, just prior to the 1958 Revolution, 80% of its population was illiterate (90% of them being women); less than 20% of Iraqi children went to school. There was only one doctor for every 6000 people; one dentist for every 500,000; one nurse for every 12,000. The cost of living went up five times. Furthermore, the refusal to endorse Nasser and to condemn the 1956 Tripartite aggression against him, combined with inaction over the loss of Palestine to Israel and becoming a signatory to the pro-imperialist Baghdad Pact had discredited the monarchy and its rubber-stamp parliament to such an extent that Iraq became the first Arab country to catch the Nasserist infection when a group of Free Officers led by Abdel Karim Qasim deposed the hated monarchy and proclaimed a republic on July 14, 1958. Like their mentors in Egypt, the revolutionary officers in Iraq pursued an anti-feudal and anti-capitalist program at home and an anti-imperialist foreign policy abroad, which was backed by the ICP. These included: withdrawal of Iraq from the Baghdad Pact; the closing down of British bases; diplomatic and trade relations with socialist countries; an ambitious land reform; asserting greater control over Iraqi oil; housing for the poor living on the margins of Baghdad; a draft constitution; legal recognition of all trade and peasant unions; and subsidized food and essentials.

The revolutionary program which the revolutionary officers in Iraq followed did not break-away with capitalism per se, like Nasser in Egypt, however the major reforms in agriculture broke the back of feudalism in the countryside; and the enactment of Law 80 in 1961 asserted near-total control of Iraqis over their oil (but not full nationalization). However the revolution did not go far enough because despite Qasim’s great personal popularity with Iraqis, he isolated himself from the most popular forces in Iraq, and the wider Arab world: namely the ICP, which had always supported him, and unity with the United Arab Republic, which had united Egypt and Syria under Nasser’s leadership in 1961. Despite the presence of more than 300,000 people in Baghdad on May Day in 1958 demanding from the revolutionary government to induct the ICP in government, Qasim foolishly thought he could isolate himself from both the ICP and Nasserism (he vainly considered himself as the greater leader) and continue to revolutionize Iraq, while waging ceaseless war against the recalcitrant Kurds. Faced with repeated coup attempts by both Baathists and Nasserists, he began to repress his only ally and the best-placed political party to advance the goals of the 1958 Revolution: the ICP. In 1960, more than 6000 trade unionists were dismissed from jobs and the ICP’s application for legalization was cancelled; army officers sympathetic to the ICP or communism were dismissed while those with conservative and right-wing orientation were slowly rehabilitated in the regime after general amnesty. The ICP for its part made no attempt to seize power itself independently of the revolutionary officers, despite having the people on its side and actually knowing in advance what would befall the regime.

The Baathist coup of Ramazan 14, 1963 was sanctioned by the CIA in order to isolate Nasser, destroy the nascent project of Arab unity that had already been envisioned in part in Cairo and Damascus, decimate the strongest Arab communist party and wrest control of Iraqi oil from the Iraqi people. The Secretary-General of the Baath proudly boasted, “We came to power on a CIA train ”, subsequently confirmed by that reliable Arab conduit of Western policy in the Middle East, the late King Hussain of Jordan. Qasim and most of his closest comrades were executed, and repression of the ICP began immediately. After all, this was the party which had the cadres and ideology to seriously challenge the hegemony of the Baath. No lessons from the Baath brethren in Damascus were learnt; it had to be a blood-Baath. During the nine months the Baath were in power, upto 5,000 communists were massacred; another 7,000 were in prison. The ICP tried to resist the coup and valiantly defend the gains of the Revolution during the first three days of the coup, alongwith the poor whose interests the revolution had defended, but their top leaders like Salam Adil were arrested and later executed after mock trials.  The Baath quickly dismantled most of the gains of the 1958 Revolution, while extending the climate of repression, especially against the ICP and the Kurds. It backtracked on the project of Arab unity with its comrades in Syria and Nasser in Egypt. Nine months later, there was a counter-coup and a group of nationalist and Nasserist military officers came to power, but by then the rot had already set in. The Baath staged another comeback in 1968 and despite the fact that Iraqi oil was finally totally nationalized in 1972 and overtures were made to the Soviet Union, following which a joint alliance with the ICP was temporarily made in 1973 and then again under Saddam Hussein in 1980, it was the ICP which suffered as a result of its repeated compromises with the rulers in Baghdad. Unable to ambitiously exercise power when it had the opportunity to do so during and after the 1958 Revolution, it vacillated between compromise with the Baath and armed struggle (in 1967-68 led by the charismatic Guevarist Khaled Ahmed Zaki, then again in the 1980s) and as a result was decimated by the Baath. It only made an official appearance in occupied-Iraq with an appropriate reinvention as the Iraqi Collaborators Party, thoroughly acquiescing in Iraq’s occupation by becoming a part of the US client regime.

It is important to remember the military coup in 1963 which destroyed the Iraqi Revolution and strongest communist party in the Arab world today, because it represented a glorious moment of a possibility of true renaissance in the Arab world, with Nasser as the undisputed leader of the Arab world, Syrian communism and Iraqi oil: a veritable Arab superpower which could have created a new reality in the Israeli-dominated Middle East, perhaps the liberation of Palestine. However because of foolish mistakes committed by both Qasim and the ICP, instead what was delivered was a repeat of the 1953 coup in Mossadegh’s Iran and a confirmation of the iron dictum that the West doesn’t tolerate real democracy in oil-producing countries, by nationalists, elected or otherwise. The Iraqi Revolution might have been saved had Qasim either empowered the communists or allied himself with Nasser; or alternatively had the ICP made an independent bid for power. What followed instead was the destruction of a radical economic and social project, the final nail in the coffin provided by the defeat of Nasserism in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israel war. Communism would never become as strong in the Arab world as in Iraq, though the Sudanese Communist Party found favour with a succession of military regimes in the 1960s, but like in Iraq, never achieved power on its own, and was later on persecuted by another military dictator who suspected their involvement in a coup attempt.  As the great Iraqi poet Badr Shakir as-Sayyab lamented in the middle of the last century:

“So cry for Iraq

For what do you have but tears

But your futile anticipation, for the winds and the masts.”

Except that the winds and the masts now both point to Washington.

Raza Naeem is an Arabic-speaking Pakistani social scientist, literary critic, translator and political activist (of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party) He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in UK, and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He is presently working on a history of pos-Arab Spring Yemen. He can be reached at: