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Iraqi Revolution and Coups

Republican Iraq

The Hashimite monarchy was overthrown on July 14, 1958, in a swift, predawn coup executed by officers of the Nineteenth Brigade under the leadership of Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim and Colonel Abd as Salaam Arif. The coup was triggered when King Hussein, fearing that an anti-Western revolt in Lebanon might spread to Jordan, requested Iraqi assistance. Instead of moving toward Jordan, however, Colonel Arif led a battalion into Baghdad and immediately proclaimed a new republic and the end of the old regime. The July 14 Revolution met virtually no opposition and proclamations of the revolution brought crowds of people into the streets of Baghdad cheering for the deaths of Iraq's two "strong men," Nuri as Said and Abd al Ilah. King Faisal II and Abd al Ilah were executed, as were many others in the royal family. Nuri as Said also was killed after attempting to escape disguised as a veiled woman. In the ensuing mob demonstrations against the old order, angry crowds severely damaged the British embassy.

Put in its historical context, the July 14 Revolution was the culmination of a series of uprisings and coup attempts that began with the 1936 Bakr Sidqi coup and included the 1941 Rashid Ali military movement, the 1948 Wathbah Uprising, and the 1952 and 1956 protests. The revolution radically altered Iraq's social structure, destroying the power of the landed shaykhs and the absentee landlords while enhancing the position of the urban workers, the peasants, and the middle class. In altering the old power structure, however, the revolution revived long-suppressed sectarian, tribal, and ethnic conflicts. The strongest of these conflicts were those between Kurds and Arabs and between Sunnis and Shias.

Despite a shared military background, the group of Free Officers that carried out the July 14 Revolution was plagued by internal dissension. Its members lacked both a coherent ideology and an effective organizational structure. Many of the more senior officers resented having to take orders from Arif, their junior in rank. A power struggle developed between Qasim and Arif over joining the Egyptian-Syrian union. Arif's pro-Nasserite sympathies were supported by the Baath Party, while Qasim found support for his anti-union position in the ranks of the communists. Qasim, the more experienced and higher ranking of the two, eventually emerged victorious. Arif was first dismissed, then brought to trial for treason and condemned to death in January 1959; he was subsequently pardoned in December 1962.

Whereas he implemented many reforms that favored the poor, Qasim was primarily a centrist in outlook, proposing to improve the lot of the poor while not dispossessing the wealthy. In part, his ambiguous policies were a product of his lack of a solid base of support, especially in the military. Unlike the bulk of military officers, Qasim did not come from the Arab Sunni northwestern towns nor did he share their enthusiasm for pan- Arabism: he was of mixed Sunni-Shia parentage from southeastern Iraq. Qasim's ability to remain in power depended, therefore, on a skillful balancing of the communists and the pan-Arabists. For most of his tenure, Qasim sought to counterbalance the growing pan-Arab trend in the military by supporting the communists who controlled the streets. He authorized the formation of a communist-controlled militia, the People's Resistance Force, and he freed all communist prisoners.

Qasim's economic policies reflected his poor origins and his ties with the communists. He permitted trade unions, improved workers' conditions, and implemented land reform aimed at dismantling the old feudal structure of the countryside. Qasim also challenged the existing profit-sharing arrangements with the oil companies. On December 11, 1961, he passed Public Law 80, which dispossessed the IPC of 99.5 percent of its concession area, leaving it to operate only in those areas currently in production. The new arrangement significantly increased oil revenues accruing to the government. Qasim also announced the establishment of an Iraq National Oil Company (INOC) to exploit the new territory.

In March 1959, a group of disgruntled Free Officers, who came from conservative, well-known, Arab Sunni families and who opposed Qasim's increasing links with the communists, attempted a coup. Aware of the planned coup, Qasim had his communist allies mobilize 250,000 of their supporters in Mosul. The ill-planned coup attempt never really materialized and, in its aftermath, the communists massacred nationalists and some well-to-do Mosul families, leaving deep scars that proved to be very slow to heal.

Throughout 1959 the ranks of the ICP swelled as the party increased its presence in both the military and the government. In 1959 Qasim reestablished diplomatic relations between Iraq and Moscow, an extensive Iraqi-Soviet economic agreement was signed, and arms deliveries began. With communist fortunes riding high, another large-scale show of force was planned in Kirkuk, where a significant number of Kurds (many of them either members of, or sympathetic to, the ICP) lived in neighborhoods contiguous to a Turkoman upper class. In Kirkuk, however, communist rallies got out of hand. A bloody battle ensued, and the Kurds looted and killed many Turkomans. The communist-initiated violence at Kirkuk led Qasim to crack down on the organization, by arresting some of the more unruly rank-and-file members and by temporarily suspending the People's Resistance Force. Following the events at Mosul and at Kirkuk, the Baath and its leader, Fuad Rikabi, decided that the only way to dislodge the Qasim regime would be to kill Qasim. The future president, Saddam Husayn, carried out the attempted assassination, which injured Qasim but failed to kill him. Qasim reacted by softening his stance on the communists and by suppressing the activities of the Baath and other nationalist parties. The renewed communist-Qasim relationship did not last long, however. Throughout 1960 and 1961, sensing that the communists had become too strong, Qasim again moved against the party by eliminating members from sensitive government positions, by cracking down on trade unions and on peasant associations, and by shutting down the communist press.

Qasim's divorce from the communists, his alienation from the nationalists, his aloof manner, and his monopoly of power--he was frequently referred to as the "sole leader"--isolated him from a domestic power base. In 1961 his tenuous hold on power was further weakened when the Kurds again took up arms against the central government.

The Kurds had ardently supported the 1958 revolution. Indeed, the new constitution put forth by Qasim and Arif had stipulated that the Kurds and the Arabs would be equal partners in the new state. Exiled Kurdish leaders, including Mullah Mustafa Barzani, were allowed to return. Mutual suspicions, however, soon soured the Barzani-Qasim relationship; in September 1961, full-scale fighting broke out between Kurdish guerrillas and the Iraqi army. The army did not fare well against the seasoned Kurdish guerrillas, many of whom had deserted from the army. By the spring of 1962, Qasim's inability to contain the Kurdish insurrection had further eroded his base of power. The growing opposition was now in a position to plot his overthrow.

Qasim's domestic problems were compounded by a number of foreign policy crises, the foremost of which was an escalating conflict with the shah of Iran. Although he had reined in the communists, Qasim's leftist sympathies aroused fears in the West and in neighboring Gulf states of an imminent communist takeover of Iraq. In April 1959, Allen Dulles, the director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, described the situation in Iraq "as the most dangerous in the world." The pro-Western shah found Qasim's communist sympathies and his claims on Iranian Khuzestan (an area that stretched from Dezful to Ahvaz in Iran and that contained a majority of Iranians of Arab descent) to be anathema. In December 1959, Iraqi-Iranian relations rapidly deteriorated when Qasim, reacting to Iran's reopening of the Shatt al Arab dispute, nullified the 1937 agreement and claimed sovereignty over the anchorage area near Abadan. In July 1961, Qasim further alienated the West and pro-Western regional states by laying claim to the newly independent state of Kuwait. When the Arab League unanimously accepted Kuwait's membership, Iraq broke off diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbors. Qasim was completely isolated.

In February 1963, hemmed in by regional enemies and facing Kurdish insurrection in the north and a growing nationalist movement at home, Qasim was overthrown. Despite the long list of enemies who opposed him in his final days, Qasim was a hero to millions of urban poor and impoverished peasants, many of whom rushed to his defense.

The inability of the masses to stave off the nationalist onslaught attested to the near total divorce of the Iraqi people from the political process. From the days of the monarchy, the legitimacy of the political process had suffered repeated blows. The government's British legacy, Nuri as Said's authoritarianism, and the rapid encroachment of the military (who paid only scant homage to the institutions of state) had eroded the people's faith in the government; furthermore, Qasim's inability to stem the increasing ethnic, sectarian, and class-inspired violence reflected an even deeper malaise. The unraveling of Iraq's traditional social structure upset a precarious balance of social forces. Centuries-old religious and sectarian hatreds now combined with more recent class antagonisms in a volatile mix.

A Decade of Coups

The Baath Party that orchestrated the overthrow of Qasim was founded in the early 1940s by two Syrian students, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad Din al Bitar. Its ideological goals of socialism, freedom, and unity reflected the deeply felt sentiments of many Iraqis who, during the monarchy, had suffered from the economic dislocationa that followed the breakup of the old Ottoman domain, from an extremely skewed income distribution, and from the suppression of political freedoms. Beginning in 1952, under the leadership of Fuad Rikabi, the party grew rapidly, especially among the Iraqi intelligentsia. By 1958 the Baath had made some inroads into the military. The party went through a difficult period in 1959, however, after the Mosul and Kirkuk incidents, the failed attempt on Qasim's life, and disillusionment with Nasser. The Baath's major competitor throughout the Qasim period was the ICP; when Qasim was finally overthrown, strongly pitched battles between the two ensued. The Baath was able to consolidate its bid for power only with the emergence of Ali Salih as Saadi as leader.

Upon assuming power, the Baath established the National Council of Revolutionary Command (NCRC) as the highest policy- making body and appointed Ahmad Hasan al Bakr, one of the Free Officers, as prime minister and Arif as president. The real power, however, was held by the party leader, Saadi. Despite the dominance of the newly established NCRC, the Baath's hold on power was extremely tenuous. The organization was small, with an active membership of fewer than 1,000, and it was not well represented in the officer corps or in the army at large. Its leadership was inexperienced, and its ideology was too vague to have any immediate relevance to the deep-seated problems besetting Iraq in the early 1960s. Its ambiguity of purpose had served the party well during the Qasim era, enabling it to attract a diverse membership sharing only a common aversion for "the sole leader." In the post-Qasim period, that ambiguity was tearing the party asunder.

The party's lack of cohesion and lack of a coherent program had two major effects on Baath policy. First, it led party strongman Saadi to establish a one-party state that showed little tolerance for opposing views. Second, in the absence of strong ideological ties, the Baath increasingly was pervaded by cliques from the same village, town, or tribe. This tendency became even more pronounced during the 1970s.

Troubled by internal dissension and unable to suppress a new wave of Kurdish unrest in the north, the Baath held power for less than a year. Most damaging was the foundering of unity talks with Nasser and the new Baathist regime in Syria. When the unity plan collapsed, Nasser launched a vituperative campaign challenging the legitimacy of the Baath in Iraq and in Syria. Nasser's attacks seriously eroded the legitimacy of a regime that had continually espoused pan-Arabism. Another factor contributing to the party's demise was Saadi's reliance on the National Guard- -a paramilitary force composed primarily of Baath sympathizers-- to counter the Baath's lack of support in the regular army. By bolstering the guard, Saadi alienated the regular army. Finally, the Baath was sharply divided between doctrinaire hard-liners, such as Saadi, and a more pragmatic moderate wing.

With its party ranks weakened, the Baath was overthrown by Arif and a coterie of military officers in a bloodless coup in November 1963. Upon assuming power, Arif immediately announced that the armed forces would manage the country. The governing core consisted of Arif; his brother, Abd ar Rahman Arif; and his trusted colleague, Colonel Said Slaibi. Arif was chairman of the NCRC, commander in chief of the armed forces, and president of the republic; his brother was acting chief of staff, and the colonel was commander of the Baghdad garrison. The Arif brothers, Slaibi, and the majority of Arif's Twentieth Brigade were united by a strong tribal bond as members of the Jumailah tribe.

Other groups who participated in the 1963 coup included Nasserites--an informal group of military officers and civilians who looked to Nasser for leadership and who desired some kind of unity with Egypt--and Baathists in the military. By the spring of 1964, Arif had adroitly outmaneuvered the military Baathists and had filled the top leadership posts with civilian Nasserites. Arif and the Nasserite officers took steps to integrate the military, economic, and political policies of Iraq with those of Egypt; this was expected to lead to the union of the two countries by 1966. (The United Arab Republic [UAR], which Iraq expected to join, existed from 1958 to 1961 and consisted of Egypt and Syria. Arif proposed that Iraq join [partly as an anticommunist measure] but this union never occurred.) In May 1964, the Joint Presidency Council was formed, and in December the Unified Political Command was established to expedite the ultimate constitutional union of the two countries. In July 1964, Arif announced that henceforth all political parties would coalesce to form the Iraqi Arab Socialist Union. Most important for the future, Arif adopted Nasser's socialist program, calling for the nationalization of insurance companies, banks, and such essential industries as steel, cement, and construction--along with the tobacco industry, tanneries, and flour mills. Arif's nationalization program proved to be one of the few legacies of the proposed Egyptian-Iraqi union.

By 1965 Arif had lost his enthusiasm for the proposed union, which had received only lukewarm support from Nasser. Arif began ousting Nasserite officers from the government. As a result, the newly appointed prime minister, Brigadier Arif Abd ar Razzaq, who was also a leading Nasserite, made an unsuccessful coup attempt on September 12, 1965. In response, President Arif curtailed Nasserite activities and appointed fellow tribal members to positions of power. Colonel Abd ar Razzaq an Nayif, a fellow Jumailah, became head of military intelligence. Arif also attempted to bring more civilians into the government. He appointed the first civilian prime minister since the days of the monarchy, Abd ar Rahman Bazzaz. Bazzaz strongly advocated the rule of law and was determined to end the erratic, military- dominated politics that had characterized Iraq since 1958. He also tried to implement the First Five-Year Economic Plan (1965-70) to streamline the bureaucracy and to encourage private and foreign investment.

In April 1966, Arif was killed in a helicopter crash and his brother, Major General Abd ar Rahman Arif, was installed in office with the approval of the National Defense Council and the cabinet. Abd ar Rahman Arif lacked the forcefulness and the political acumen of his brother; moreover, he was dominated by the ambitious military officers who were responsible for his appointment. The government's weak hold on the country thus became more apparent. The most pressing issue facing the new government was a renewed Kurdish rebellion.

The 1964 cease-fire signed by Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani and Abd as Salaam Arif was short-lived; by April 1965, the two sides were again engaged in hostilities. This time military support provided by the shah of Iran helped the Kurds win important victories over the Iraqi army. Kurdish inroads in the north and escalating Iraqi-Iranian tensions prompted Iraq's prime minister Bazzaz to propose a more far-reaching settlement to the Kurdish problem. Some of the more salient points of Bazzaz's proposal included amnesty, use of the Kurdish language in Kurdish areas, Kurdish administration of their educational, health, and municipal institutions, and the promise of early elections by which the Kurds would gain proportional representation in national as well as in provincial assemblies. When Barzani indicated that he approved of these proposals, the Kurdish conflict appeared to have ended.

The army, however, which had opposed having Bazzaz as a civilian head of the cabinet, feared that he would reduce their pay and privileges; consequently, it strongly denounced reconciliation with the Kurds. President Arif yielded to pressure and asked for Bazzaz's resignation. This ended the rapprochement with the Kurds and led to a collapse of civilian rule. The new prime minister was General Naji Talib, a pro-Nasserite who had been instrumental in the 1958 Revolution and who strongly opposed the Kurdish peace plan.

Arif also sought to further the improved relations with Iran initiated by Bazzaz. This rapprochement was significant because it denied the Kurds access to their traditional place of asylum, which allowed recovery from Iraqi attacks. Arif visited Tehran in the spring of 1967; at the conclusion of his visit, it was announced that the countries would hold more meetings aimed at joint oil exploration in the Naft-e Shah and Naft Khaneh border regions. They also agreed to continue negotiations on toll collection and navigation rights on the Shatt al Arab and on the demarcation of the Persian Gulf's continental shelf.

During the winter of 1966-67, Arif faced a crisis emanating from a new source, Syria. The IPC transported oil from its northern fields to Mediterranean ports via pipelines in Syria. In 1966 Damascus claimed that the IPC had been underpaying Syria, based on their 1955 agreement. Syria demanded back payments and immediately increased the transit fee it charged the IPC. When the IPC did not accede to Syrian demands, Syria cut off the flow of Iraqi oil to its Mediterranean ports. The loss of revenue threatened to cause a severe financial crisis. It also fueled anti-Talib forces and increased public clamor for his resignation. In response, Talib resigned, and Arif briefly headed an extremely unsteady group of military officers.

In the opinion of Phebe Marr, a leading authority on Iraq, on the eve of the June 1967 War between Israel and various Arab states, the Arif government had become little more than a collection of army officers balancing the special interests of various economic, political, ethnic, and sectarian groups. The non-intervention of Iraqi troops while Israel was overtaking the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian armies and was conquering large tracts of Arab territory discredited the Arif regime in the eyes of the masses. To stave off rising discontent, Arif reappointed strongman Tahir Yahya as prime minister (he had first been appointed by Arif in November 1963). Yahya's only accomplishment was to lessen Iraq's economic dependence on the Western-owned IPC: on August 6, his government turned over all exploitation rights in the oil-rich North Rumailah field to the state- controlled INOC. The Arif government, however, had lost its base of power. Lacking a coherent political platform and facing increasing charges of corruption, the government was only hanging on.

Ultimately two disaffected Arif supporters--Colonel Abd ar Razzaq an Nayif and Ibrahim ad Daud--were able to stage a successful coup against Arif, and the Baath quickly capitalized on the situation. Nayif and Daud had been part of a small group of young officers, called the Arab Revolutionary Movement, that previously had been a major source of support for Arif. By July 1968, however, reports of corruption and Arif's increased reliance on the Nasserites (whom both Nayif and Daud opposed) had alienated the two officers. Nayif and Daud acted independently from the Baath in carrying out the coup, but lacked the organizational backing or the grass-roots support necessary to remain in power. In only a few weeks, the Baath had outmaneuvered Nayif and Daud, and, for the second time in five years, had taken over control of the government.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:28:11 ZULU