Iraq Table of Contents

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 (see Glossary) 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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress