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International Socialism, Summer 2003


Anne Alexander

Daring for victory: Iraq in revolution 1946–1959


From International Socialism 2:99, Summer 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Few of the US colonial administrators now arriving to take up power in Baghdad know much of Iraq’s history. They may yet pay for their ignorance. The last time the imperialist powers installed a loyal regime in Baghdad, it was overthrown by a massive revolt from below. Yet tragically, it was not Iraq’s workers and peasants who benefited from the collapse of the old order. Instead, the failure of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) allowed the nationalists of the Ba’ath Party to seize the initiative, and ultimately take control of the state itself. With Washington’s approval, the Ba’athists crushed the revolutionary hopes of the 1950s, murdering thousands of Communists in the process. [1]

The crisis in Iraq was only part of a long wave of protest, which engulfed the Middle East after the end of the Second World War. From Egypt to Iran, from Syria to Algeria, the mass movement swept the region. But just as in Iraq, it was nationalist army officers and intellectuals who captured the state at the moment of revolutionary crisis, not organised workers. And having taken power, the nationalist leaders of the 1950s succumbed to the pressures of imperialism. The great powers quickly found new means of maintaining their domination of the Middle East.

The movements of the 1940s and 1950s carry important lessons for activists today. This is the real tradition of anti-imperialism and democracy in the Middle East against the fake radicalism of the dictators and the false freedoms of US ‘liberation’. The role of the organised working class in smashing apart the old colonial order has long been hidden from history, but it should inspire a new generation of socialists. These movements involved masses of workers and peasants – the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised – in remaking the world. Ordinary people fought the police and army, and defied the might of empire in the name of freedom. Despite the failure of their leaders, the history of the national liberation movements show that change does come from below.

The Middle East at the crossroads [2]

The years following the Second World War were marked by instability and turmoil across the Middle East. As the old colonial powers retreated, the social structures they had supported since the 1920s began to crumble. Across the Middle East the 1940s and 1950s were a period of deep revolutionary crisis. The collapse of the colonial-sponsored regimes was not just the work of a handful of army officers. It was the railway workers of Baghdad and the textile workers of the Egyptian Delta, students in Cairo, Alexandria and Damascus, and peasant activists in the valley of the Nile and the hills of Kurdistan, who dealt the death blow to the old order.

A militant trade union movement emerged which began to challenge not only foreign capitalists in the name of the nation, but also local capitalists in the name of the working class. The industrial struggle fed back into the nationalist movement, where street protests were accompanied by massive waves of strikes. [3] Unrest in the cities was shadowed by a gradual breakdown of social order in the countryside. Peasant movements in Syria and Egypt began to emerge towards the end of the 1940s to challenge the pashas for control of the land. [4]

The catastrophe of Palestine played a crucial role in undermining the old order. The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes had the effect of further radicalising the mass movement. The complete inability of the old regimes to defend the Palestinians, despite sending troops to fight the Zionists, was the final nail in the coffin.

However, despite the deep crisis and eventual collapse of the old order, it was not the working class that benefited. The Communist parties, hamstrung by Stalinist ideas of an alliance with the ‘progressive national bourgeoisie’, tied the fate of the working class movement to nationalist goals. Having politically disarmed the workers’ movement, the Communists were then unable to resist repression by the new regimes.

A society in motion

In Iraq, the eruption of a mass anti-colonial movement was the most visible sign of the accelerating change beneath the surface of society. Two new classes – urban workers and the modern lower middle class – dominated the political organisations thrown up by the movement. Their political prominence reflected the growing role of industrial production in the Iraqi economy, and the increasing weight of a modern state bureaucracy in Iraqi society.

The Iraqi working class grew rapidly during the 1940s and 1950s. The outbreak of the Second World War stimulated the Iraqi economy – in particular domestic industrial production – by cutting off the ready supply of foreign goods. The influx of British troops provided an important market for local products, and the army directly employed a large number of Iraqis. [5] Iraqi industry experienced another growth spurt in the 1950s – between 1953 and 1958 industrial production rose by 85 percent. [6]

In particular, the explosive growth of oil production in this period created a strategically vital and technologically advanced industry which employed tens of thousands of local workers. A national strike by Iraqi oil workers, who numbered around 15,000 by 1958, had the power to choke off production in a sector which accounted for 28 percent of GNP and 61 percent of government revenues. [7] The development of a modern transport network created another powerful group of workers. The 1,200 or so workers from railway repair shops at Schalchiyyah, near Baghdad, were key: ‘Stoppage of activity in this place for ten to 15 days would have brought the movement of trains in the whole of Iraq to a complete standstill’. [8]

The structure of capitalism in Iraq gave workers a decisive role in the battle against imperialism. European and US capital directly controlled large parts of the economy. The oil companies were the most obvious – and politically contentious – symbols of the domination of foreign capital. The Iraq Petroleum Company was a consortium of the world’s major oil companies. British Petroleum, which controlled the reserves of neighbouring Iran, had the lion’s share. Shell took around 25 percent, as did a group of the largest US oil companies. A share went to the French government and one individual – Calouste Gulbenkian – owned the rest. In 1925, Iraq’s King Faisal – who owed his throne to the work of British bayonets – was prevailed upon to sign away Iraq’s oil until the year 2000. The company refused to give the Iraqi government a share in the profits, instead offering royalties of four gold shillings per ton of oil. [9]

Transport and public utilities were also governed by similar ‘concessionary agreements’ with European capital. British companies ran Basra port and the railway system. [10] Generations of imperial civil servants had worked hard to maintain the direct domination of British and French capital in the Middle East. Now they found that these companies quickly became a focus for nationalist anger. The concessionary companies – once seen as convenient cash cows by European shareholders and government officials – brought the battle for national liberation into the workplace and proved to be a fertile training ground for a new generation of industrial activists. Railway and port workers in Iraq formed the core of the Communist Party’s industrial organisation during the 1940s and 1950s. [11]

The expansion of a secular education system and the exponential growth in the government bureaucracies helped to create a small but important modern lower middle class. [12] The social crisis radicalised this layer, who provided many leaders of the Communist and nationalist movements of the time. Crucially the modern middle class found itself excluded from political power, which remained in the hands of the large landowners. [13] In Iraq this process coincided with religious and ethnic faultlines. A small secular-educated Shi’i and Kurdish middle class emerged in Iraq in the 1940s, only to find its development blocked by the continued Sunni and Arab domination of the political system. [14] For Sunnis outside the ruling class, the army provided an important vehicle for upward mobility.

The crisis of the old regime

The corrupt and repressive Hashemite monarchy was British colonialism’s legacy to the people of Iraq. At the end of the First World War the first king, Faisal, had briefly created an Arab kingdom centred on Damascus, before being ejected by French troops. British advisers now lobbied for him to be offered the throne of Iraq. Creating the new Iraqi monarchy proved to be a difficult task. It took thousands of British troops and £40 million to suppress a huge uprising in 1920. [15] Unrest and nationalist agitation continued for months afterwards.

A combination of repression and bribery eventually secured Faisal’s place on the throne. Iraq gained nominal independence in 1932 and a seat in the League of Nations. In reality little changed: British advisers remained firmly in power behind the scenes, and a treaty between the two governments maintained Britain’s military domination of Iraq. [16] It was the negotiations over the extension of this treaty which provided the spark for a wave of mass protests across Iraq in 1948.

Even in the 1920s the social base of support for the Iraqi monarchy had been very thin. By the 1940s this layer was even more isolated, as new social forces, such as the growing working class, the urban poor and the new middle class, combined in protest at its continued domination. The government’s usual answer was increased repression. Parties were banned, strikers shot down, and Communists executed in public. As early as 1946 even the British embassy was wringing its hands in despair. A report from the chancery in Baghdad to the Foreign Office noted: ‘With the old gang in power this country cannot hope to progress very far’. [17]

A growing sense of social polarisation added to the tension. The cost of basic goods sky-rocketed during the 1940s, and although wages rose as the war economy expanded, they could not keep pace with the cost of living. [18] With the end of the war, jobs dependent on the British army evaporated, adding thousands to the ranks of the unemployed when prices and rents remained ruinously high. War profiteering combined with an oil boom allowed a thin layer of the elite to indulge in conspicuous consumption. The arrogance of the rich sharpened the anger of the nationalist demonstrations. In the minds of many Iraqis, the interests of their own ruling class were indistinguishable from the interests of British imperialism.

Moreover, foreign capitalists were not the only people who were getting rich. Large landowners dominated the small local ruling class. A boom in agricultural production increased the wealth and power of this tiny handful. In an effort to provide a social base for their imported monarchy, British colonial officials had played an important role in consolidating the power of this class. Changes to the property laws during the 1920s made tribal sheikhs’ and politicians’ fortunes overnight. The landlords had every interest in continuing to work with the colonial powers to maintain their domination of the Iraqi economy. As Phebe Marr explains: ‘Iraq [was] highly dependent upon the export of two primary products – oil and agricultural products – the one controlled by foreign interests and the other by a group of wealthy landlords’. [19]

Meanwhile industrialisation, even on a small scale, pulled people out of the villages into the great urban centres. Baghdad’s population doubled in size between 1922 and 1946. [20] However, many migrants did not find the work they were looking for. Instead they swelled the growing ranks of the urban poor and unemployed. ‘Sarifahs’ – mud-walled houses thatched with reed matting – sprang up on the outskirts of Baghdad to absorb the newcomers, who featured prominently in the crowd scenes of the crisis. [21]

However, despite the bankruptcy of the monarchy, none of Iraq’s nationalist opposition parties developed a mass membership while nationalist leaders of an earlier generation often played a leading role in the repressive governments of the period. [22] In fact, as in Egypt in the same period, the nationalist movement moved quickly leftwards, drawing its leaders from precisely those new social groups which had no stake in the existing system. Iraq’s political future was being decided at the level of the street, where the parliamentary parties had little influence.

Majid Khadduri sums up neatly the dilemma of the establishment after the fall of Salih Jabr’s government in 1948. The leaders of the parliamentary opposition parties:

… seem[ed] to have co-operated only to force the Jabr government to resign, but were wholly unprepared to follow up their victory and achieve power. Their weakness became the more apparent when the parties appealed to the mob (presumed to have been under their control) to stop street demonstrations; the mob would not listen to them. [23]

The rise of the Communists

Organised Communist activity began in Iraq during the 1930s. Cells sprang up in Nasiriyyah, Basra, Baghdad and other towns. A small core of activists travelled to Moscow to enrol at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), a Communist Party training school. [24] The KUTV’s most influential Iraqi graduate was Fahd (Yusuf Salman Yusuf), the party’s secretary-general between 1941 and 1949.

Fahd’s most trusted comrades were mainly drawn from a layer of working class party members. They included Zaki Basim, a tannery worker and later a clerk; Ali Shukur, a railway driver; and Ahmad Abbas, the son of a peasant, who later worked in the railway repair shops in Schalchiyyah, and then a textile factory, before finally becoming a mechanic. [25]

The rise of these men to prominent positions in the party leadership was the outward sign of a deeper shift towards systematic industrial organisation. Majid Khadduri, writing not long after the revolution of 1958, argues that Fahd’s influence was decisive in achieving this change of direction: ‘His significance was not so much in providing leadership for the movement – his leadership was by no means universally accepted by Iraqi Communists – but in shifting its appeal from the intellectuals to the masses’. [26]

Hanna Batatu provides a detailed account of how this was done. The Communists played a vital role in the struggle for trade union rights. The Communist Party dominated 12 of the 16 trade unions legalised between 1944 and 1945: ‘the drafts of their programme were in Fahd’s own handwriting’. [27] A network of members and supporters began to take shape in key industries: ‘The party sought before everything to convert the railways, the port of Basra, and the oilfields into Communist fortresses’. [28]

The prominent role played by Communists in leading mass strikes in all these workplaces is a testament to the success of this strategy. According to Batatu’s calculations, workers formed around 25 percent of the ICP under Fahd’s leadership. Five years after his death, despite increasing government repression, they still formed around 20 percent of all known ICP members. [29]

Work among university and secondary school students brought thousands of young activists into contact with the party’s ideas. Students played a crucial role in the mass protests – the signal for the uprisings of 1948 and 1952 was given by students spilling onto the streets of Baghdad. The movement of the 1940s and 1950s was a revolt led largely by young people and the party reflected this in its ranks – in 1947, 74 percent of the rank and file activists were under the age of 26. [30]

In other crucial ways the ICP came to represent the hopes of a generation. The mass movement carried in it the seeds of a challenge to the sectarian structure of Iraqi society. The interweaving of state and sect was most obvious in the historic exclusion of Iraq’s Shi’i majority from the machinery of government. [31] One factor pulling Shi’is into the Communist Party during this period was growing anger at their continued oppression by the state. Shi’is made up most of the rank and file of the party and 47 percent of its leadership by 1955. [32] The influx of Shi’i members was also an expression of increasing class polarisation within the Shi’i community. Despite the appointment of two Shi’i prime ministers in 1948, ever larger numbers of young Shi’is had come to oppose not only ‘the authority or actions of any one particular government, but the entire order of Iraqi society and politics’. [33]

The ICP’s Kurdish members also played a prominent role in the party leadership. In Kurdistan the party began to develop a base in the countryside by taking on the local landlords, the aghas. The party supported a peasant uprising in Arbat, near Sulaymaniyyah, in 1947. The revolt exploded after the landlord, Sheikh Latif, told the villagers to give him a third of their crops, instead of the customary tenth. The ICP’s support meant that the uprising, which forced a compromise from Sheikh Latif, won the backing of townspeople in Sulaymaniyyah. The peasants were no longer isolated. As David McDowell explains, ‘Arbat was something of a watershed: for the first time in living memory, the peasantry had taken on the agha class, demonstrating that change was a real possibility’. [34]

Although Kurdish nationalism would revive after 1958, during the 1940s and early 1950s the Communists’ support for Kurdish national rights combined with their defence of Kurdish peasants and workers meant that in many areas of Kurdistan the ICP could count on much greater support than the nationalist Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In fact, the Communist Party pulled the KDP leftwards, marginalising traditional leaders such as Mulla Mustafa Barzani, father of today’s KDP leader, Mas’ud Barzani. [35]

Out of all the Communist parties in the Arab world, the ICP came closest to building a mass revolutionary party. By 1947, the organisation counted around 1,800 members – no mean feat for an underground party. [36] Under the impact of repression, membership levels had fallen to around 500 on the eve of the 1958 revolution, but the fall of the old regime opened the floodgates. Police figures put the number of party members at 25,000 at the height of the ICP’s influence in 1958-1959. The party’s daily paper was selling 23,000 copies. In addition the party dominated the League for the Defence of Women’s Rights with its 25,000 members, the Iraqi Democratic Youth Federation which claimed 84,000 members by mid-June 1959, the Partisans of Peace with around 250,000 members and the General Federation of Trade Unions which claimed to organise 275,000 workers and artisans by 8 July 1959. [37] The ICP also dominated – thanks to its growing influence in the army and the reserves – the militia forces of the People’s Resistance, a semi-official paramilitary body, which counted 25,000 members by 1959.

Hanna Batatu points out that this exponential growth in membership carried with it its own dangers, as thousands flocked to a party which seemed to have the favour of the new leaders of the country. [38] However, even five years later, on the eve of the Ba’ath Party coup of 1963, a local Communist organiser estimated there were 5,000 members in Baghdad alone. [39] The same year, Iraqi police files listed the names of over 200 party members in Basra workplace party branches. [40] As Batatu explains:

In 1963, when the boot was on the other foot, the Ba’ath was never able at any time to bring together one third of the crowds that the Communists attracted in 1959 ... In such poor and strictly labouring places such as Al-Thawrah town or Tabbat al-Akrad on Al-Rasafah side, and Kreimat or Al-Shawwakah districts on the Karkh side of Baghdad, a thrill of hope greeted their rise to great influence. [41]

The ICP’s weakness lay in its politics rather than its organisation. Having achieved ‘great influence’, through its pivotal role in the nationalist and democratic struggle, the party was incapable of offering independent leadership to the workers’ movement at the point of crisis. The party leadership maintained that the struggle in Iraq would have to pass through two stages – first a national and democratic revolution against the colonial power and its local allies, and only then could workers raise the question of social revolution. [42] As a result, when the party faced a choice between challenging the Free Officers’ leader, Abd’al-Karim Qassem for power in 1959, and thus breaking their alliance with the nationalist forces he represented, the ICP chose to back away from the brink. Such a step would have required not only a break from decades of Stalinist orthodoxy, but also a break with Moscow as well as setting the Iraqi Revolution on a collision course with Western imperialism. The results of the ICP’s retreat were tragic – within a year the party had been forced back into the underground, hundreds of Communists were killed and the stage was set for the rise of the Ba’ath Party.

From uprising to revolution

Iraq’s historical vocabulary is rich in the language of protest. Al-Wathba, al-Intifada, al-Thawra – all these words make an appearance during the 13-year period of crisis. ‘Al-Wathba’ (the Leap) comes first: 1948’s mass urban rebellion against the old regime and the British. The revolt was crushed. Communist leaders died on the gallows and the party was forced underground. ‘Al-Intifada’ (the Uprising) followed: student protests of 1952 marked the mass movement’s return to the streets. 1958 saw the outbreak of revolution, ‘al-Thawra’.

The first great explosion of protest came as the Iraqi government entered negotiations over the revision of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930. Iraq’s independence from Britain at the end of the mandate in 1932 had little substance while the treaty remained in force. Iraqi politicians promised to accept British ‘guidance’ in matters of foreign policy and the RAF controlled Iraq’s key air bases. Attempts to renegotiate the treaty in 1948 triggered ‘al-Wathba’ – a massive urban uprising led by students, workers and the urban poor. However, as Hanna Batatu describes, the protests had a sharp edge of class anger:

It was the social subsoil of Baghdad in revolt against hunger and unequal burdens. It was students and Schalchiyyah [railway] workers braving machine guns on the Ma’mun Bridge and dying for their ideas. [43]

The central demand of the protests was the cancellation of the treaty and when the government announced the new terms – which amounted to the treaty’s extension, rather than its abrogation – huge demonstrations broke out in Baghdad. [44] Led by school and university students, the protests were quickly radicalised by brutal repression. On 26 January 1948, the police fired on unarmed demonstrators, killing many:

The demonstrators advanced, seemingly determined to cross [the bridge] in spite of any losses. For an instant the police, losing some of their assurance, hesitated. A few minutes later, however, a volley of shots burst forth. Only a 15 year old girl, Adawiyyah al-Falaki, who carried a banner and marched at the head of the column, crossed unscathed. [45]

The protests scored an early success. Salih Jabr, Iraq’s first Shi’i prime minister, was forced from office and the Iraqi government refused to endorse the treaty he had signed.

What was new about this movement was not its desperate courage, but its core of working class militants. The uprising of January 1948 followed more than two years of rising industrial struggle. In 1946 an important strike by oil workers in Kirkuk played an important role in radicalising the movement. Iraq Petroleum Company workers’ confidence to take on the government and the company reflected a growing sense of militancy in the trade union movement.

As the huge street protests of 1948 subsided, major strikes continued. Railway workers struck in March and April, while postal workers went out in April and May. [46] In April the oil workers of the Iraq Petroleum Company struck again, demanding wage rises of between 25 percent and 40 percent. [47] The Communist Party played a key role in the organisation of the strike, which centred on the K3 pumping station. The strike committee organised round the clock picketing, marshalling 3,000 strikers so efficiently that production completely stopped. As one of the strike’s leaders put it later, ‘In a word, the dictatorship of the proletariat was established at K3 on 23 April, if the comparison is apt.’ [48]

Attempting to starve the strikers back to work, the company and the government eventually cut off food and water to the pumping station, which was surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert. In response, the workers organised a march on Baghdad, 250 kilometres away. Although they were finally stopped and arrested short of their destination, the ‘Great March’ of the K3 workers quickly became the stuff of legend. [49]

The relationship between the nationalist and the class struggle was a key factor in maintaining the dynamic of mass protest, as Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett describe:

Almost all manifestations of opposition by organised labour during the 1940s and 1950s tended to combine claims for higher wages and better living conditions with the struggle for national independence, and it was often against British-owned and British-controlled concerns that the strikes and demonstrations were concentrated. This made the labour movement both more articulate and more effective than either its numbers, its cohesion, or its apparent lack of economic muscle might suggest. [50]

The demands of the movement reflected the coalescence of the anti-colonial, democratic and economic struggles: the repudiation of the treaty with Britain, an investigation into the repression of the demonstrations, dissolution of parliament and the calling of new elections, democratic freedoms, freedom of political parties to organise, and an immediate improvement in food supplies. [51]

The outbreak of war in Palestine added to the tension. Protests in solidarity with the Palestinians had been growing in strength during the previous two years. The League Against Zionism, which was led by Jewish members of the Communist Party, had organised many of the earlier protests. In 1948 however, the Communists were temporarily disoriented by the USSR’s recognition of the state of Israel. At the same time the government launched a severe crackdown, arresting hundreds of activists, and eventually executing Fahd and other Communist leaders in January 1949.

After a brief lull in the early 1950s, the movement re-emerged with the Intifada, or uprising, of 1952. External events were by now adding to the pressure on the old regime. The nationalisation of Iran’s oil by prime minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1951 and Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt helped the re-emergence of the nationalist movement. The announcement of land and social reform in Egypt acted as a spur to the movement in Iraq. [52] In response to growing pressure from below, Nuri Sa’id, many-times prime minister and a key figure in the old regime, announced that his Constitutional Union Party was calling for the reform of the electoral system.

A crack had opened in the walls of the establishment, and the mass movement surged through the gap once again. Student strikes over local issues quickly turned into mass demonstrations calling for direct, free elections. Workers joined the protests, which retained a hard anti-imperialist edge:

[On 22 November] joined by workers from the Kazimayn factories who happened to have a half-day holiday, the demonstrators broke into the US Information Service offices and burned its papers and books, and set fire to the offices of the Iraq Times and BOAC. They also assaulted a police station, set fire to it and killed four of the policemen inside. [53]

The government quickly reacted by declaring martial law and banning all political parties. The regent abandoned any pretence of democracy to rule by decree. Repression did gain the old regime a breathing space of a few years, although it did not prevent the resumption of Communist activities, with the founding of the Partisans of Peace movement. The Communists also attempted to bring together a joint ‘National Front’ with the nationalist parties, Istiqlal (Independence) and the National Democrats. [54]

By the mid-1950s discontent was also spreading in the army. The Suez Crisis radicalised a whole generation of officers who were inspired by the success of Nasser in Egypt. The foundation of the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact in 1955 also pushed many towards rebellion. However the nationalist officers were still a small minority inside the army, two groups of maybe 200 people in total. [55] In the event, this handful of men proved sufficient to finish off the Iraqi monarchy. On 14 July 1958 the Free Officers group launched a coup. Army units marched on the royal palace where the king and the crown prince were killed. Nuri Sa’id was hacked to death by an angry crowd as he tried to flee, disguised as a woman.

The monarchy had come to an end. A few rounds of shelling had sufficed to shake it down. Except for the feeble resistance of the guard at Nuri’s house, not a hand had been lifted in its defence. [56]

The Free Officers in power

Far from ending the revolutionary process, the Free Officers’ coup marked the beginning of a deeper crisis. The huge demonstrations which greeted the news of the coup of July 1958 set the pattern for the next year. Throughout this period the Communists and their allies dominated the streets of the major cities. By April 1959 some accounts put the numbers on Communist-led demonstrations as high as a million, a phenomenally high level of popular mobilisation for a country of around 6.5 million inhabitants. [57]

The Free Officers were in no position to lead this mass movement, unlike the Communists who had a network of experienced activists spanning the country. The officers’ movement was small, politically inexperienced and divided. The new leaders of Iraq lacked a concrete programme of their own, and had to relate to the mass movement through others. As Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett argue, the army officers who led the coup were not a cohesive body:

Those in power lacked both experience and a shared ideology, with the result that fundamental issues of principle, such as who was in command, and what form of governmental and political system should be adopted, remained unresolved. The parallel with Egypt in the first few months after July 1952 is striking. [58]

The Free Officers faced their first challenge from the left within a few days of taking power. As the monarchy came crashing down, Communist Party activists organised armed resistance cells across Baghdad. Abd’al-Karim Qassem, Iraq’s new president, and the dominant figure in the Free Officers, quickly passed a law forbidding the creation of armed groups outside the state. However, Qassem’s lack of a political base of his own pushed him into authorising the creation of the ‘People’s Resistance Force’ in August 1958 – essentially the Communists’ resistance cells under another name. The Communist Party dominated the new body, which enrolled 11,000 young men and women within a few weeks of its founding. [59]

As the political crisis gathered pace, the signs of social revolution followed in its wake. New laws cut rents by 20 percent, the price of bread dropped by a third, and the eight-hour day was established. Labourers’ wages rose by as much as 50 percent in the first year of the new republic. [60] These changes were a direct response to the growing confidence of organised workers. Although the trade unions were not formally legalised until 1959, by the evening of 14 July 1958 trade union activists were meeting to reconstitute union committees and reorganise their underground networks. The dominant force in the trade unions was once again the Communist Party, which won the leadership of most of the legal trade unions in early 1959. [61]

The countryside saw a period of intensifying pressure from below combined with reform from above. Qassem limited the power of the big landowners and organised the redistribution of thousands of acres of land to the peasants. The land reform barely kept pace with the radicalisation in the countryside. In Kut and Amarah, peasants began to sack the sheikhs’ estates and seize the land for themselves. [62]

Events outside Iraq contributed to the growing sense of crisis. Gamal Abd’al-Nasser was locked in a bitter struggle with the Communist Party in Syria, following the union of Syria and Egypt in February 1958. Nasser was revered as the hero who had defied the old colonial powers over the Suez Canal in 1956, and he had moved closer to the Soviet Union, despite his persecution of the Communists in Egypt. [63] As soon as the Free Officers seized power, radical nationalists including the Ba’ath Party launched a campaign to unite Iraq with Nasser’s United Arab Republic (UAR).

Neither Qassem, who had no desire to hand the presidency of Iraq to Nasser, nor the Communists, who argued that joining the UAR would mean the end of Iraq’s hard-won democratic freedoms, supported the demand for total unity. The ICP organised huge demonstrations acclaiming Qassem as ‘sole leader’ of the Iraqi Revolution, hoping to build his support as a counterweight to Nasser. [64] When Qassem clashed with his vice-president, Abd’al-Salam Aref, who supported closer relations with the UAR, the Communists threw their weight squarely behind Qassem, although Aref called for the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry. [65]

In September Qassem removed Aref from power, and by November the former vice-president was on trial for his life. The foreign press interpreted Aref’s fall from grace as a sign of the growing power of the Communists – journalists were soon telling their readers, ‘Iraq Goes Red’. [66] Anxious talk of a ‘Red Fertile Crescent’ reverberated in the corridors of the State Department in Washington. US marines had already been sent to Lebanon to prop up the right wing Maronite president, Camille Chamoun, in July 1958. US warships prowled the Gulf, while the Pentagon declared a nuclear alert. [67]

Local and international tensions intersected in Mosul in March 1959. The oil-rich city in northern Iraq had a reputation for social conservatism – Communist organisation was weaker in Mosul than in Baghdad or Basra. Mosul’s political temper, combined with the city’s closeness to the Syrian border, made it a likely target for nationalist officers who opposed Qassem and supported Nasser. By early 1959 rumours that the Mosul garrison was planning a coup against Qassem were beginning to circulate. In response, the Communist-led Partisans of Peace called a huge rally for 6 March. Around a quarter of a million people marched through the streets of Mosul that day, once again under the slogan ‘No leader but Abd’al-Karim Qassem!’

As the last of the marchers were leaving the city the next day, fighting broke out between supporters of the Ba’ath Party and the Communists, providing the trigger for the expected coup, which was backed by the UAR. The rebellion was eventually crushed by the People’s Resistance and troops loyal to Qassem, but not before the fighting had spread along the ethnic and religious faultlines in Mosul. Yet, as Hanna Batatu points out, the overwhelming divide in the conflict was class:

Arab soldiers clung not to the Arab officers, but to the Kurdish soldiers. The landed chieftains of Kurdish al-Gargariyyah sided with the landed chieftains of Arab Shammar ... the poor and the labourers of the Arab Muslim quarters ... stood shoulder to shoulder with the Kurdish and Aramean peasants against the Arab Muslim landlords. [68]

As Iraq slid towards civil war, the CP mobilised hundreds of thousands in a demonstration on 1 May in Baghdad. Protesters called on Qassem to give the ICP a seat in the government. However, when he refused, the ICP was ill-prepared. This was the moment of real crisis – would the ICP openly challenge Qassem for power? The party issued a statement affirming that the ICP would continue to place ‘its entire energies and forces at the disposal of the government of the revolution, in an unconditional manner, for the defence of the republic against threats and against the dangers of plots and aggression’. [69]

The final blows were struck in Kirkuk in July 1959. Qassem relented and allowed ICP supporters a place in his cabinet, although this turned out to be a meaningless victory. While he welcomed them as cabinet ministers on the one hand, Qassem was busy organising a purge of ICP supporters from the army. [70] Violence in Kirkuk on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution provided the opportunity for a thorough crackdown. The Turcoman minority, which had traditionally dominated the political life of Kirkuk, was beginning to face a challenge from a Kurdish-dominated ICP. Fighting broke out over the route of the procession to mark the first anniversary of the revolution. Dozens were killed, most of them Turcomans. A wave of arrests of ICP activists followed, while the party leadership wavered. Party leaders criticised the Mosul events and disowned those implicated in the violence. [71]

This was followed by a comprehensive attempt to break the ICP. Qassem legalised a tiny rival faction in place of the real ICP and mounted an attack on the ICP leadership of the trade unions. Party publications were banned and ICP activists were targeted by nationalist hit squads. The Communists’ supporters in government were dropped from the cabinet one by one. [72]

Despite a brief respite in the autumn of 1959, the ICP’s influence continued to ebb away. The Ba’ath Party grew more confident. A young Ba’athist activist, Saddam Hussein, took part in an attempt on Qassem’s life in 1959. Although the attempt failed, within four years the Ba’athists were able to overthrow Qassem and massacre thousands of Communist activists, foreshadowing General Pinochet’s bloodbath in Chile by a decade.


Why did the Iraqi Communists come so close to power, and yet still fail? A crucial role was played by the Soviet leadership. In 1959 an emissary arrived from Moscow to tell the ICP’s leadership that they could expect no help from the USSR if they seized power. However, despite this outside pressure, when the ICP’s politburo debated the possibility of breaking with Qassem, a minority were in favour of ‘daring for victory’ and taking power. [73] The problem they faced was that throughout 1958, the party had made no political preparations for such a struggle. The party mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants under the slogans of national unity, rather than behind their own class demands. Rather than fight to increase the social content of the nationalist struggle, the Communists generally worked to smooth over cracks in the cross-class alliance. When Abd’al-Salam Aref raised the possibility of nationalising Iraq’s oil industry, it was the pro-Communist minister of economy, Ibrahim Kubba, who reassured the multinationals that their investments were in safe hands. [74]

In the eyes of the party leadership, the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 was a bourgeois-democratic revolution, not a prelude to socialist revolution. This was why the party pinned its hopes on influencing Qassem, rather than preparing to seize power. The limited gains of the republic had to be preserved at any cost. In November 1958 the ICP attempted to revive its alliance with the nationalist parties, even though its erstwhile partners, the nationalists and the Ba’athists, were moving to the right.

Viewed from the perspective of Iraq alone, the Communists appeared to have little choice but to maintain their alliance with Qassem and the nationalist officers. Iraq’s small working class, on its own, could not set about building a socialist society. However, as Trotsky realised long ago in Russia, the crucial factor was not the absolute size of the working class, but the economic and political links between the economies of the ‘developing world’ and the heart of the capitalist system. Events in Iraq were part of a much wider pattern of anti-colonial revolt and working class struggle, which had the potential to develop into a systematic challenge to the capitalist system. This potential existed despite the original aims of much of the anti-colonial movement, which focused on the issues of national liberation and democracy. Where the working class, rather than the bourgeoisie, played the leading role in the fight for national liberation, anti-colonial revolt carried the seeds of socialist revolution. [75]

The revolution in Iraq would not have been possible without the crisis in the region as a whole. In particular, events in Egypt, where the mass movement had already destroyed the old regime as early as 1952, played a key role in the development of the movement in Iraq. Nasser’s rise to power, and in particular his defiance of Britain, France and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956, played an important part in radicalising officers in the Iraqi army. [76] The success of the national liberation movement in Egypt also increased the pressure on Britain, making it far more difficult for it to reassert its control of Iraq.

The influence of Egypt was also felt in a deeper way. Although the workers’ movement in Egypt was unable to take political advantage of the crisis by seizing control of the state, the organised working class was instrumental in the destruction of the old regime. [77] The fall of the Egyptian monarchy in July 1952 owed as much to the textile workers of Mahalla al-Kubra and Shubra al-Khayma as it did to Nasser’s Free Officers. Although Nasser attempted to break the workers’ movement in Egypt by repression in the summer of 1952, he was unable to completely tame the trade unions. Strikes and workers’ protests continued into the mid-1950s. In fact, the need to offer a programme of social reform that would meet the expectations of the mass movement pushed Nasser further towards a confrontation with imperialism. [78] State-led national development, and in particular control of key assets like the Suez Canal, was crucial to Nasser’s strategy. So the Suez Crisis – which played such an important role in destablising the old regime in Iraq – also had its roots in the class struggle in Egypt.

A victory for the Iraqi working class had the potential to give confidence to workers’ struggles right across the Middle East. It would certainly have brought about a sharp conflict with Nasser, but it could also have increased pressure on the Egyptian Free Officers’ regime by reawakening the Egyptian workers’ movement. Iraqi workers would have also found allies in Syria where the trade union movement was fighting Nasser’s attempts to impose state control following Egyptian-Syrian unification in 1958. It was the sectors of the Syrian economy which were most closely linked to Iraq which provided the militant core of the Syrian trade union movement during this period. The Iraq Petroleum Company workers in Syria played a central role in the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.

The threat of imperialist intervention was a powerful factor in pushing the leadership of the ICP away from confrontation with Qassem. After the coup of July 1958, British paratroopers landed in Amman to defend King Hussein from his own disgruntled officers. US troops massed on the Turkish border with Iraq. [79] However, they did not intervene to restore the Iraqi monarchy. It was not until 1967 that the US’s new client state, Israel, felt militarily and politically strong enough to launch a military strike on the key Arab states.

Broadening the struggle in Iraq beyond the limits set by nationalism would have deepened and strengthened the mass movement. The Communists in Iraq found out to their cost that while the revolution remained within those limits it could neither preserve its democratic character, nor offer effective resistance to imperialism. Qassem’s attack on the Communists was followed eventually by a Ba’athist coup. Once the mass movement ebbed away, Qassem’s isolation was exposed. Once in power, the Ba’ath Party proved far more attentive to the interests of imperialism than its predecessors, despite its rhetoric about ‘socialism’ and ‘Arab unity’.

Examining the events of 1958 is not an exercise in nostalgia. All of the questions thrown up by Iraq’s revolutionary crisis are still being asked in the Middle East today. What is the key force in the struggle against imperialism? How is the fight for national liberation related to the struggle against capitalism? How can the ordinary people of the region defeat both their own repressive rulers and the imperialist powers? The mass protests in solidarity with the Palestinians in 2002 and the wave of demonstrations against war on Iraq in 2003 show that a new generation in the Middle East is finding its voice in the streets. The lesson of the 1940s and 1950s must be that both workers’ organisation and revolutionary leadership play the crucial role in turning nationalist and democratic demands into a movement which can challenge the imperial order as a whole.


I would like to thank Dave Renton and John Rose for comments on the draft of this article. I have relied heavily on Hanna Batatu’s monumental study of this period, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton 1978), for much of the detail. References are given throughout the text, but anyone interested in the history of the Iraqi working class movement should read it in full.

1. Peter Sluglett and Marion Farouk-Sluglett describe the killings and arrests of Communists following the Ba’athist coup of 1963 as a ‘closely co-ordinated campaign’. They add, ‘It is almost certain that those who carried out the raid on suspects’ homes were working from lists supplied to them. Precisely how these lists had been compiled is a matter of conjecture, but it is certain that some of the Ba’athist leaders were in touch with American intelligence networks’ (P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, Iraq Since 1958 (London 1990), p. 86).

2. For an overview of the early part of this period, see T. Cliff, The Middle East at the Crossroads, in Neither Washington nor Moscow (London 1982), pp. 11–23.

3. Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman provide one of the best accounts of the history of this period in Egypt in Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882–1954 (Princeton, 1987). For the history of Iraq, see H. Batatu, op. cit.

4. G. Baer, Studies in the Social History of Modern Egypt (Chicago 1969), p. 102 and T. Petran, Syria (London 1972), p. 101.

5. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 38.

6. P. Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder, 1985), p. 132.

7. Ibid., p. 130.

8. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 617.

9. A. Sampson, The Seven Sisters (London 1975), pp. 83–84.

10. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 617.

11. Ibid., p. 617.

12. P. Marr, op. cit., p. 140.

13. T. Cliff, The Middle East at the Crossroads, op. cit., pp. 15–17.

14. Y. Nakkash, The Shi’is of Iraq (Princeton 1994), p. 133.

15. S.H. Longrigg, Iraq 1900–1950 (Oxford 1953), p. 123.

16. Under the renegotiated treaty Iraq’s principal air bases, Habbaniyah and Shu’ayba, were to be run jointly by the RAF and the Iraqi Air Force. See M. Khadduri, Independent Iraq 1932–1958 (London 1960), pp. 262–265.

17. Chancery, Baghdad, to Eastern Department, Foreign Office, 16 July 1946, FO 371/52315/E 7045, quoted in P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 309.

18. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 40.

19. P. Marr, op. cit., p. 136.

20. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 38.

21. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 551.

22. For example, a Shi’a leader of the 1920 insurrection against Britain, Muhammad al-Sadr, was chosen by the regent to head a government charged with putting down the uprising of 1948 (H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 557).

23. M. Khadduri, op. cit., p. 270.

24. H. Batatu, op. cit., pp. 411–414.

25. Ibid., pp. 508–509.

26. M. Khadduri, op. cit., p. 360.

27. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 605.

28. Ibid., p. 617.

29. Ibid., pp. 1169, 1204.

30. Ibid., p. 648.

31. Y. Nakkash, op. cit., p. 127.

32. Ibid., p. 133.

33. Ibid.

34. D. McDowell, A Modern History of the Kurds (London 2000), p. 297.

35. See ibid, pp. 298–299 for an account of the KDP’s leftward shift.

36. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 1177.

37. Ibid., p. 897.

38. Ibid., p. 897.

39. Ibid., p. 1213.

40. Ibid., p. 1215.

41. Ibid., p. 899.

42. M.S. Agwani, Communism in the Arab East (Bombay 1969), p. 117.

43. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 545.

44. The renegotiated treaty was not seen as a great improvement on the original by most Iraqis. In the event of war ‘or a menace of hostilities’, the King of Iraq was required to ‘invite’ British forces into the country. Aneurin Bevan, for the British government, seemed surprised at the hostile reception for the revised treaty (M. Khadduri, op. cit., p. 266).

45. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 557.

46. Ibid., p. 563.

47. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 40.

48. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 625.

49. Ibid.

50. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 41.

51. M. Khadduri, op. cit., p. 271.

52. Ibid., p. 278.

53. Ibid., p. 283.

54. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 43.

55. Ibid.

56. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 803.

57. M.S. Agwani, op. cit., p. 123.

58. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 52.

59. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 849.

60. Ibid., p. 841.

61. U. Dann, Iraq under Qassem 1958–63 (London 1969), pp. 123–124.

62. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 834.

63. J. Stork, The Soviet Union, the Great Powers and Iraq, in R. Fernea and W. Louis (eds.), The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited (London 1991).

64. U. Dann, op. cit., p. 109.

65. M.S. Agwani, op. cit., p. 118.

66. U. Dann, op. cit., p. 108.

67. P. Marshall, Intifada: Zionism, Imperialism and Palestinian Resistance (London 1989), p. 79.

68. H. Batatu, op. cit., p. 869.

69. M.S. Agwani, op. cit., p. 127.

70. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 70.

71. M.S. Agwani, op. cit., p. 130.

72. Ibid., pp. 138–140.

73. H. Batatu, op. cit., pp. 901–902.

74. M.S. Agwani, op. cit., p. 118.

75. See Tony Cliff’s Deflected Permanent Revolution (London 1986) for a fuller discussion of these ideas. See also J. Rees, The Democratic Revolution and the Socialist Revolution, International Socialism 83 (Summer 1999), p. 22.

76. P. Sluglett and M. Farouk-Sluglett, op. cit., p. 47.

77. A. Alexander, From National Liberation to Social Revolution: Egypt 1945–1953, in D. Renton and K. Flett (eds.), New Approaches to Socialist History (Bristol 2003).

78. See P. Marshall, op. cit., p. 77, for a brief account of Nasser’s troubled relationship with the US and his turn towards the USSR and the state capitalist development model it offered.

79. P. Marshall, op. cit., p. 80.

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