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Culture: History of Iraq: Oil, Commies, and Ba'ath
Sunday, 24 September 2006 Written by Garrett Johnson
Political reality in 1952 Iraq was a repressive monarchy that was largely seperated from political currents of the world. By 1963 Iraqi politics was dominated by three things: the Cold War, Oil Power, and the Ba'ath Party. Those three things (plus the Kurdistan problem), would dominate Iraqi politics for decades to come, and continue to influence our current occupation of Iraq today.
Up until this point I've done this series on Iraq's History in a linear fashion. However, the rise of these three subjects, the way they are interconnected, and the way that it has influenced America today, requires a closer, seperate examination.

Oil Politics

  The Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), originally called the Turkish Petroleum Company, had a virtual monopoly on all oil exploration in Iraq in 1952. From the time that oil was discovered in Kirkuk in 1927 to the time that oil was discovered in Basra in 1938, very little actual oil production was done. This was partially due to the low global prices, and partly due to the fact that the multinational oil companies that controlled the IPC (read, Texas Oil Companies) didn't share Iraq's interests. It's this history of intentional oil production suppression in Iraq that lends credibility to the claim by Greg Palast that we didn't invade iraq to steal their oil, but instead to keep it in the ground.

However, on February 14, 1952, things began to change when the Iraqi government renegotiated the IPC's license. Not only did Iraq start getting 50% of the companies profits, but also 1) minimum production levels were set, 2) domestic refineries would get oil at below market rates, and 3) Iraqis would have a say in how the company was run. This agreement was further amended in 1954 and 1955, both times in Iraq's favor.

The First Intifada

   There was another political movement that temporarily peaked in 1952 as well - the communist movement. Iraq Communist Party was far ahead of every other arab nation at the time. From its emergence in Iraq in 1934 the ICP was dominated by the Shia community. However, until 1941 it was weak and ineffective. That changed when Yusuf Salman Yusuf took over the party on 29 October 1941. Yusuf was an interesting character. But to make a long story short, he built the ICP into a real player in grassroots Iraqi politics. This got him arrested in early 1947.
 Fahd and two of his comrades were executed on the 14th February 1949; their bodies left hanging on the entrance to the ministry of defence for three days. This action gave enormous public sympathy to the ICP, and, it could be argued, fostered resentment to the monarchy from a large portion of the Iraqi population.
 His execution was done during the military crackdown in the aftermath of the al-Wathbah Uprising, the first uprising the ICP was involved with.

   However, the ICP then immediately made the mistake following the Soviet policy and endorsed the partitioning of Palestine. This was viewed as a betrayal and membership fell rapidly.

  At that point two things happened: 1) the Soviet Union directly interviened by sending 200 recruits, and 2) Baha'uddin Nuri emerged as the new leader. The ICP then started focusing less on politics and more on building labor unions. This was extremely successful.

  Then in mid-1952 the Regent decided to cancel national elections. In August of 1952 three Basra workers were killed by police for the crime of going out on strike. Not long after peasants began to revolt in rural Iraq. The Iraqi communist-supported, 250,000 strong, Partisans of Peace sensing an opportunity, organized anti-regime street demonstrations in Baghdad in November.
the "Intifada" demanded that civil liberties be guaranteed in Iraq, that a political system of free, direct elections be established and that the regime's treaty with the UK government be abolished. On November 22, 1952 a mass demonstration in Baghdad demanded: "Anglo-American Imperialists, Leave Our Country!"

 The following day, Iraqi communist leaders led more anti-imperialist street protests in Baghdad. Iraq's head of the Communist party, Baha u-d-Din-Nuri, was on the streets of Baghdad on November 23, 1952, "when at about one o'clock in the afternoon the United States Information Service library was burned" by protesters.

   The monarchy's police then killed twelve of the protesters. In response, the anti-imperialist Iraqi demonstrators burned down the local police station. The Iraqi Army was then called into Baghdad to suppress the protests, martial law declared and all dissident Iraqi political leaders were locked up.

   Despite the arrest of its leaders on November 23, 1952, Iraqi communist activists were still able to organize another mass protest on November 24, 1952 condemning the "dictatorship". The regime's Iraqi soldiers, similar to the Iraqi police on the previous day, opened fire on the demonstrators. They killed eighteen and wounded 84 protesters.

   A new wave of political repression followed in Iraq. By the end of November 1952, 958 Iraqis were jailed as political prisoners and 2,041 Iraqis were temporarily detained. Another two Iraqi political activists were sentenced to death. Then on April 13, 1953, the regime's police arrested Baha-u-d-Din-Nari.
An alternative Pro-American version of this uprising can be read here. While Nuri's government cracked down on Iraq's communist movement, he was never actually able to crush it. The crackdown did little more than radicalize the ICP. However, his brutal, authoritarian policies earned him the approval of American politicians during the height of the McCarthy Era.

   For example, after Nuri's government crushed an oil workers strike with troops in 1953, the Republican Eisenhower Administration pushed through a "Military Assistance Understanding" agreement in April 1954 that saw the first significant shipment of American arms to Iraq. Elections were held shortly after that in which the communist parties won 40% of the seats in Baghdad. Nuri was reselected as PM on August 2, 1954, and the parliment was dissolved the very next day.

The Rise of the Ba'ath Party

Gamal Abdel Nasser
The Iraqi Ba'ath Party didn't start out as an anti-communist tool of American Cold War policy - it became that later.

  The Arabic word Ba'th means "resurrection" or "renaissance". Founded in 1947 as a radical, secular Arab nationalist political party, it functioned as a pan-Arab party with branches in different Arab countries, but was strongest in Syria and Iraq. Because of the party's mixture of strong nationalism with socialism, some have labelled the Baath Party a fascist movement.

   Originally it was created in 1952 in response to three things: 1) the rise of the Syrian Ba'ath Party (which came into power in 1954), 2) Gamal Abdel Nasser's coup in Egypt, and 3) disgust with the corruption and repression of the monarchy. Nevertheless, its climb to significance was slow. By 1955 it had less than 300 members. That same year an 18-year old unknown officer named Saddam Hussein began his involvement with the Ba'ath Party.

The day everything changed

  July 14, 1958, was the day that Old Iraq died - with a hail of bullets on the palace grounds - and a new Iraq was born. (Please see Part V of this series)

   The Supreme National Committee of the Free Officers that launched this glorified coup had at least one member in the communist party - Kamal Umar Nashma. The communists quickly got 100,000 people in the streets in support of the July 1958 Revolution that day. 500,000 turned out in support on August 7.

  The new government quickly set out a proletariat agenda of restricting the big landholders, cutting rent rates, raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich, raising tariffs, and building housing, schools, and medical centers for the poor. Despite the way Qassim worked with the communists, he wasn't one, just an anti-imperialist nationalist. His deputy, Abdel Salem Aref was an admirer of Egyptian leader Nasser and pro-Ba'thist in his politics. This led to a falling out, that also led to an assassination attempt on Qassim in October. Araf was jailed for treason and the Ba'athist newspaper was closed down.

   Then things got serious.

  In February of 1959 the communists in Mosul learned of a Ba'ath coup plot. When the communists demonstrated against the plot the Ba'athist in the army arrested leading ICP leaders, and seized a radio station to broadcast a call for revolt against Qassim's government. Officers loyal to Qassim working with his communist allies put down the coup at the cost of 110 lives.

   Ba'athist in the military were purged and the Soviets granted Iraq a development loan. This didn't please the Eisenhower administration at all. This is when they first used the term "regime change".

 "A secret plan for a joint U.S.-Turkish invasion of the country was drafted by the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff shortly after the 1958 coup. Reportedly, only Soviet threats to intercede on Iraq's side forced Washington to hold back. But in 1960, the United States began to fund the Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq who were fighting for a measure of autonomy and the CIA undertook an assassination attempt against Qasim, which was unsuccessful. The Iraqi leader made himself even more of a marked man when, in that same year, he began to help create the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries [OPEC], which challenged the stranglehold Western oil companies had on the marketing of Arab oil; and in 1962 he created a national oil company to exploit the nation's oil."
 But communists weren't allowed in Qassim's cabinet. In fact, but late summer 1959 Qassim was easing communists out of government posts and releasing anti-communists from prison. Qassim was getting worried by the amount of grassroots power the communists could muster.

   Meanwhile the CIA as on the move. Saddam Hussein had been involved in 1958 in the assassination of his brother-in-law, a CP member. The CIA recruited Saddam Hussein as part of a "six-man squad" to assassinate Qassim on October 7, 1959. Washington feared that the nationalist Qasim might act independently and alter the favorable terms under which their oil companies operated. While Qassim was seriously wounded (he spent two months in the hospital), they failed to kill him. On April 10, 2003 investigative report by UPI Intelligence Correspondent Richard Sale wrote:
Saddam Hussein
" ...In the past Saddam was seen by U.S. intelligence services as a bulwark of anti-communism and they used him as their instrument for more than 40 years. His first contacts with U.S. officials date back to 1959, when he was part of a CIA-authorized six-man squad tasked with assassinating then Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abdul Karim Qasim...In the mid-1980s, Miles Copeland, a veteran CIA operative, told UPI the CIA had enjoyed "close ties" with...Ba'th Party...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.'

   "According to another former senior State Department official, Saddam, while only in his early 20s, became a part of a U.S. plot to get rid of Qasim. According to this source, Saddam was installed in an apartment in Baghdad on al-Rashid Street directly opposite Qasim's office in Iraq's Ministry of Defense, to observe Qasim's movements.

   "Adel Darwish, Middle East expert and author of "Unholy Babylon", said the move was done "with full knowledge of the CIA," and that Saddam's CIA handler was an Iraqi dentist working for CIA and Egyptian intelligence. U.S. officials separately confirmed Darwish's account.

   "Darwish said that Saddam's paymaster was Capt. Abdel Maquid Farid, the assistant military attaché at the Egyptian Embassy who paid for the apartment from his own personal account. Three former senior U.S. officials have confirmed that this is accurate.

    "The assassination was set for Oct. 7, 1959, but it was...botched...Qasim, hiding on the floor of his car, escaped death, and Saddam, whose calf had been grazed by a fellow would-be assassin, escaped to Tikrit, thanks to CIA and Egyptian intelligence agents, several U.S. government officials said.

   "Saddam then crossed into Syria and was transferred by Egyptian intelligence agents to Beirut, according to Darwish and former senior CIA officials. While Saddam was in Beirut, the CIA paid for Saddam's apartment and put him through a brief training course, former CIA officials said. The agency then helped him get to Cairo, they said...

   "...During this time Saddam was making frequent visits to the American Embassy where CIA specialists such as Miles Copeland and CIA station chief Jim Eichelberger were in residence and knew Saddam, former U.S. intelligence officials said.
 Communist supporters filling the streets helped protect Qassim in the coming months and years, but the communist party was still not legally allowed to operate and its influence declined between 1959 and 1963. Meanwhile, right-wing assassins aligned with the Ba'athists were operating on Iraqi streets. Hundreds of leftist leaders were killed and thousands were wounded during the years that Qassim ruled.

   Qassim continued to distance himself from the communists, even to the point of arresting ICP leaders after they demonstrated for peace with the Kurds. At the same time he started releasing Ba'ath members from prison. The ICP's refusal to stand up to Qassim was a major reason for their declining membership.

Oil Power Politics

  Meanwhile, in September, 1960, representatives from Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela gathered in Baghdad for a historic conference. OPEC five founding members agreed to a worldwide oil cartel that would eventually expand to 11 members. This challenge to western energy dominance would never go over well. By coincidence, the CIA tried to kill Qassim again this year. But then Qassim took it a step further.

   In 1961 Qassim demanded an increase to the government's share of profits and to allow the government 20 percent participation share of the company. The IPC refused both demands. In response Qassim nationalized 99.5% of its concession areas in Iraq, leaving only actively oil producing areas in company control. He also put in motion what would be the Iraq National Oil Company.

The Ba'athist bloody coup

  On February 3, 1963, Qassim learned that a coup was being planned. It had actually been scheduled for last December, but had been postponed. A few days before the coup, the French newspaper La Monde had reported that Kassem had been warned by the USA government to change his country's economic policies or face sanctions. After a couple Ba'athists were arrested the coup was put into place on February 8th.

Saddam Hussein
Not surprisingly, L'Express reported in its February 21, 1963 issue "that the British and US intelligence services had known" of the February 8, 1963 coup in advance, according to the "Iraq under Qassem" book. Citing the January 1, 1994 issue of London's Guardian newspaper as his source, William Blum also observed in Rogue State that "papers of the British cabinet of 1963, later declassified, disclose that the coup had been backed by the British and the CIA." UPI Intelligence Correspondent Richard Sale's April 10, 2003 investigative report also noted that "[former National Security Council Staffer Roger] Morris claimed recently that the CIA was behind the coup, which was sanctioned by President John F. Kennedy..."

   At 8:30 a.m. on February 8, 1963, Brigade General Jalal al-Awqati, the pro-Communist Party of Iraqi Air Force chief, was assassinated near a confectionary shop in Baghdad. At 9:30 a.m., two Iraqi military jets first dive-bombed at Rashid Airport, making its runway unusable. Then they joined other Iraqi MIG-17s in firing rockets and cannons at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. From their camps, other Iraqi military troops were ordered to march and Baghdad's radio transmitter was seized by the Iraqi military coup-plotters. By 9:40 a.m. a statement of the Ba'th-led coup plotters was being aired over the radio.

   At 10 a.m. the Communist Party of Iraq's Central Committee issued a proclamation that called for resistance to the February 8, 1963 coup and stated:

   "A worthless band of reactionary and conspiratorial officers has made a desperate attempt to seize power in preparation for the putting of our country back into the grip of imperialism and reaction."

   Thousands of Communist Party of Iraq and/or Qasim regime supporters then began massing in front of Iraq's Ministry of Defense, forming an outer ring. When Qasim arrived at the Ministry of Defense at 10:30 a.m., the crowd of anti-coup demonstrators outside apparently was begging Ministry of Defense officials to distribute arms to it..

   At 11:30 a.m. hundreds of anti-coup protesters were killed in front of the Ministry of Defense when an Iraqi Army tank regiment linked up with armed Ba'th militia members and fired on the mainly civilian protesters. Although the majority of Iraq's soldiers apparently were against the February 8, 1963 coup, they were indecisive in attempting to resist the coup.

    At 3 p.m. a battle to seize Qasim's headquarters at the Ministry of Defense began which did not end until noon on February 9, 1963. A half-hour later, Qasim was arrested by the pro-coup soldiers; and at 1:30 p.m. Qasim was executed.
 However, the killing was far from over. King Hussain of Jordan told the Al Ahraim newspaper the CIA was supplying a list of names of leftists to be killed. (something that would be repeated a year later in Indonesia)

"This is almost certainly a gain for our side."

    - security advisor to President Kennedy

  Between 3,000 and 5,000 Iraqi civilians died opposing the Ba'athist coup in the first couple days. The reign of terror against leftists and labor leaders was about to start.

 "In the cellars of an-Ninayah Palace...were found all sorts of loathsome instruments of torture, including electric wire with pincers, pointed iron stakes on which prisoners were made to sit, and a machine which still bore traces of chopped-off fingers. Small heaps of blooded clothing were scattered about, and there were pools on the floor and stains over the walls."
The new Ba'athist government then promised not to nationalize the rest of the oil company property and Washington praised them.

Go to Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V,
Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX and Part X of this feature.