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Culture: History of Iraq: 1947 - 1963
Friday, 22 September 2006 Written by Garrett Johnson
One thing you commonly heard before the Iraq invasion (and since then) is that Iraq has no national identity.
An artificial state, created by the British after World War I, Iraq has no national identity or tradition of political pluralism. "Similar to Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Iraq's ethnic and religious factions have been forced together by brute force and authoritarian rule.
This concept was used to both criticize the invasion of Iraq (as above), and to rationalize the invasion (i.e. why should they care who rules them?). However, is that concept accurate? It certainly is accurate when you talk about Kurdistan. By 1947 the Kurds had fought six different rebellions for independence (with many more to come). But what about the rest of Iraq, where the majority of the population lives? Do they think of themselves as Iraqis, or Shias and Sunnis?

To answer that you need to look at Iraq's history.

Nuri al-Said
I left off Part Four of this series in 1947. The British were just ending their second occupation of Iraq. They had re-installed the corrupt and hated Nuri al-Said as Prime Minister and the detested Prince Abdul Ilah as Regent of the monarchy. WWII and the emerging oil industry was causing rapid price inflation, while privitization of agriculture was dividing the rich and poor by increasing margins. The Old Guard, as symbolized by Nuri, kept a tight reign on the political process, so the frustrated voices of the populace were never heard.

In early 1947 a general election was held in this climate. However, it was so obviously rigged that every one of the newly allowed opposition parties boycotted the election. Nuri resigned as PM because of pressure applied by this exposed farce, and Salih Jabr became the new PM.

Salih Jabr, the first Shia Prime Minister of Iraq and the father of the current leader of the Free Iraq Council political party, was a reformer. But Jabr already had two strikes against him: 1) he had alienated many on his rise to power, and 2) he underestimed the task at hand.

Jabr wanted to renegotiate the 1930 Treaty, the same treaty (created while Iraq was occupied the first time, and signed by Nuri) used as justification for Britain's invasion of Iraq during WWII. Jabr actually managed to force several important concessions from Britain, so much so that the new Treaty of Portsmouth "provided for a new alliance between Iraq and Britain on the basis of equality and complete independence". The Treaty was signed on Jan. 15, 1948.

al-Wathbah Uprising

But Jabr had underestimated the bitterness in Iraqi society against the British.

In January 1948 there was the most impressive mass uprising in the history of the Iraqi monarchy, known as al-Wathbah. The movement was sparked off by the students and it later spread to the workers and to the peasants that occupied the land in many part of the country. Several huge demonstrations took place with tens of thousands on the streets. On January 27 the police shot dead between 300 to 400 hundred people, but this did not stop the protesters. The prime minister was forced to flee to Britain and a new government was formed.

In May a new wave of repression ended the protests with the declaration of martial law...
The revolt wasn't just because the Iraqi people didn't want anything to do with Britain anymore, there were economic and other political reasons, but Britain was the trigger for it.

At this point you have to wonder why the Iraqis would care so much about this treaty if there wasn't any national identity? While there was the 1920 Revolution, you couldn't really call that a nationalist movement since Iraq didn't really exist at that point. However, the al-Wathbah Uprising of 1948 can be pointed out as the first real expression of nationalist pride and outrage at foreign intervention in Iraq. 58 years have passed since then. Do you think that Iraqis have grown any fonder of foreign occupation since then?

The al-Wathbah Uprising had three results: 1) the Treaty of Portsmouth was repudiated, thereby reinstating the 1930 Treaty, 2) Nuri al-Said and the rest of the Old Guard came back into power, and 3) a schizm between Nuri and the Regent Abdul Ilah formed. Nuri supported even tighter control of the political process, while Ilah wanted a more moderate approach. The British grew to distrust Ilah.

1948 was also notable for another reason - Iraq took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Between 8,000 and 10,000 poorly equipped and undertrained Iraqi soldiers were soundly defeated and returned even more alienated from the Iraqi government. Their poor condition could be attributed to Nuri's decision to drastically cut the defense budget after the 1941 Golden Square Coup almost cost Nuri his life. The war also had the effect of forcing the government to redirect a huge portion of their budget from vital social services.

In 1950 there were about 150,000 Jews living in Iraq. They had been there since the Babylonians exiled them from Judea in 597 B.C. But now they weren't welcome. The Iraqi government passed a law allowing them to leave as long as they gave up their citizenship. 85,000 left the first year. A few bombings later the number went up to 120,000, and by 1970 the Jewish community, like the Assyrian community before them, was all but gone.

Ba´ath Party Symbol
In 1952 violence erupted again. Inspired by the Egyptian Revolution and led by opposition leaders shut out of the political process, there were mass demonstrations in Baghdad, "during which 40 people were killed, and strikes at British bases and at the ports of Basra and Fao were equally suppressed with great loss of life." The cause of these huge riots was the Nuri government's decision not to hold elections combined with the poor economy. The Nuri government responded by banning all political parties, suspendind a number of newspapers, and imposing a curfew, as well as declaring martial law.

Over the years Iraq had been educating its middle class, but the govenrment still refused to allow it to participate in the political process or make a competitive wage. This alienated both the middle class and the army, not a combination of enemies you want to create.

There was one other outcome from the heavy-handed response to the 1952 uprising - the BA'ATH Party was formed.

Meanwhile the opening of new oil pipelines, and a new agreement with the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), allowed government revenue to increase dramatically. The Nuri government ignored calls for nationalizing the oil industry. However, because of widespread corruption in the Nuri government, that money never made it down to the masses except as an indirect inflationary effect which further hurt the working Iraqi.

King Faisal II
(Click for larger image)
In 1953 the young King Faisal II comes of age, and formally assumes the throne. However the regent Abdul Ilah now assumes the title of Crown Prince, and continues to dominate the monarchy.

In 1954 Nuri al Said, Prime Minister again, dissolves all political parties. After making "communist sympathies" an imprisonable offence, and suppressing all his other opponents, he stages an "election" in which 85% of the candidates are his unopposed supporters. This attracts the attention and support of the American government.

Quite probably the last major mistake Nuri made was endorsing the Baghdad Pact in 1955 (it included Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Britain). The Baghdad Pact was a British and USA-sponsored answer to Egypt Nasser's United Arab Republic (it included Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen). US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the architect of this Baghdad Treaty.

Entering into an alliance with Britain even while the 1930 Treaty chafed the Iraqi people was not wise. It was made even worse in 1956 when Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt. Nuri as-Said was able to contain the rising discontent only by resorting to even greater oppression and to tighter control over the political process.

The Revolution of 1958

In the center of Baghdad you'll find a must-see site - Liberation Square. The most remarkable feature of Liberation Square is a 30-foot high piece of art work done by famous artist Jawad Salim.

Salim's artwork shows a person breaking the chains of oppression. His work is dedicated to the Revolution of 1958, and the architect of that Revolution was the most popular leader in Iraq's history - Abdul Karim Qassim.

Qassim, unlike all the previous rulers of Iraq, had ordinary origins. He worked his way up in the Iraqi military by virtue of his abilities. This made him very popular with a majority of Iraqis.

The Free Officers worked in cells, and the identity of the participants was kept secret. Only the Central Organization, which supplied leadership of the movement, was known to all the Free Officers. The Central Organization was composed of 14 officers, headed by 'Abd al-Karim Qassim, who held the highest military rank.

Abdul Karim Qassim
On July 14th, 1958, Qassim and his collaborator Abd as-Salam 'Arif, had a golden opportunity dropped into their lap. King Hussein fearing that an anti-Western revolt in Lebanon might spread to Jordan, requested Iraqi assistance. The 19th Brigade was to move past Baghdad and onto Jordan.

However, the commanders of the 19th Brigade were Qassim and Arif, and they had another idea. The Brigade entered Baghdad and seized the government buildings, where Qassim proclaimed a Republic. The coup encountered no resistence. However, that doesn't mean there was no bloodshed.

The entire royal family was executed on palace grounds. The hated Nuri managed to escape the troops that were sent for him, but ran into soldiers on the street later that day. Nuri was dressed as a woman in the burka, but when the soldiers recognized him they immediately put a bullet in him. The soldiers took Nuri's body to the palace where the body of Crown Prince Abd al Ilah was already hanging. Nuri's body was hung up alongside Ilah.

Meanwhile the streets of Baghdad were filled with joyous people, celebrating the deaths of Nuri and Ilah. Eventually the crowds stormed the walls of the palace and tore down the bodies so that they could drag them through the streets, and eventually cut them into pieces.

The political structure of Iraq that had existed since Britain first created the country in 1921 was buried that day.

The First Republic of Iraq

Sweeping changes were made by Qassim. Iraq pulled out of the British/American-created Baghdad Pact and established relations with the Soviet Union. Iraq also withdrew from an agreement that Nuri and Ilah signed with America during their crusade against communism. Qassim let the British know they were no longer wanted, and by May 30, 1959, Iraq was free of British soldiers for the first time since 1915.

On July 26, 1958, the Interim Constitution was adopted, proclaiming the equality of all Iraqi citizens under the law and granting them freedom without regard to race, nationality, language or religion. The government freed political prisoners and granted amnesty to the Kurds who participated in the 1943 to 1945 Kurdish uprisings.

He lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, and demanded the annexation of Kuwait. He was also involved in the 1958 Agrarian Reform, modeled after the Egyptian experiment of 1952.
Qassim also went on a home building bing for Iraq's poor. The most lasting legacy of this is now called Sadr City. In 1961 the nationalizing of the domestic oil industry started. He authorized the formation of a communist-controlled militia, the People's Resistance Force, and he freed all communist prisoners.

Qassim also restructured the central government. All legislative and executive powers were entrusted to the Sovereignty Council and the Cabinet. It soon became clear, however, that power rested in Qasim's hands, supported by the army.

Nothing is perfect in Iraq

Despite all the reforms Qassim passed in a short period of time, there was simply too much that was wrong and had been ignored for decades. Another problem was the fact that the Free Officers had no uniform ideology. Many senior officers resented taking orders from junior officers like Qassim and Arif.

To make things worse, Qassim started alienating his most loyal base of power in 1959. Arif was aligned with the emerging BA'ATH Party and the Pan-Arab ideology, while Qassim found support in the ranks of the communists and Iraqi nationalists. Qassim, being the more senior and experienced, won this battle and Arif was brought to trial for treason where he was condemned to death. He was pardoned late in 1962. Qassim also moved against the communists in late 1959, purging them from the government and military after Communist-led riots in Kirkuk in 1959. This would later turn out to be a huge mistake.

Qassim's Iraq began supporting secessionist movements in the Arab world, and advanced Iraq's claim to Kuwait's sovereignty in June 1961. This alienated both Britain and potential arab allies.

An attempted coup in March 1959, by conservative officers alarmed at Qassim's links to communists was crushed by Qassim's communist allies. Later that year a relatively unknown officer named Saddam Hussein attempted to assassinate Qassim, but only managed to wound him. This led to a crackdown on the Baath Party. Qassim's only reliable support was from the army.

But Qassim's real problems were about to start in the most predictable area - Kurdistan.

Yet another Kurdish revolt

Qassim had promised the Kurds real autonomy, but hadn't followed through with the promise. Mustafa Barzani, who Qassim had allowed to return to Iraq in 1958, wanted full independence, something Qassim could never allow. In September 1961 full-scale fighting broke out in Kurdistan. The army did not fair well, as the Kurdish rebels were often seasoned veterans who had deserted the Iraqi army. This revolt would continue almost uninterrupted until 1970, when Iraq finally granted the Kurds autonomy. By mid-1962 the army began to turn against Qassim.

To make matters worse, Qassim's relationship with the communists gathered him powerful enemies in America, Britain, and their puppet in Iran, the Shah. The CIA began forging ties with the Baath Party.

The domestic instability of the country prompted CIA Director Allen Dulles to say publicly that Iraq was "the most dangerous spot in the world."

In a recent public statement, Roger Morris, a former National Security Council staffer in the 1970s, confirmed this claim, saying that the CIA had chosen the authoritarian and anti-communist Baath Party "as its instrument."
The Fall of the First Republic

The Ba'athist coup of 8 February 1963 was accompanied by street fighting as Communist activists and supporters resisted the coup attempt. Fighting in Baghdad continued for three days, concentrated in the party's strongholds in the poorer, mainly Shia, districts. When the Baath consolidated its power the ICP suffered an unprecedented campaign of mass physical liquidation. Leading figures and cadres of the Party were tortured to death, including Husain al-Radi. The total number of communists killed is unknown, but was certainly in the thousands.
Qassim was one of the first to die in the coup.

Probably the most notable point from the 1963 coup was how the common people of Iraq never stopped loving Qassim, yet they were never able to prevent the coup. The divorce of the political process in Iraq with the average Iraqi was nearly complete.