Commentary Magazine

As Iraq Goes Communist:
Days of Decision in Baghdad

In his book, Nationalism and Communism in the Middle East (1956), Walter Z. Laqueur predicted the collapse of the Iraqi monarchy. In his article, “Nasser and the Iraqi Communists,” in our February issue, he concluded that “the Communists will consolidate their hold over Iraq and extend it to other Arab countries.” 




Compared with the turmoil engendered in the Middle East by the Iraqi revolution, the Berlin crisis is a largely artificial contrivance. A summit meeting on Berlin may have some practical results, but it seems doubtful that the status quo in Europe will be seriously affected. Furthermore, the Soviet government can call off the crisis at any point if it so desires, as the Quemoy battle was called off. Such is hardly the case in the Middle East, in the throes of a deep internal crisis which is largely outside the control of the great powers involved in it. Unlike Europe, furthermore, new political facts are emerging in the Middle East which decisively alter the world power balance. This contrast between the main subject of diplomatic negotiation and the most important center of political change is reminiscent of the winter of 1948-49, when the first Berlin blockade diverted Western attention from the Communist triumph in China; and of the summer of 1955, when the Geneva summit conference drew attention away from the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal which marked the first Soviet breakthrough in the Middle East.

The current journalistic discussions about whether Iraq is already a “People’s Democracy” recall scholastic disputations about the gender of angels. There is no single pattern under which a country becomes a Soviet satellite. The various “People’s Democracies” in Eastern Europe and Asia came into existence under varying conditions. In Prague in February 1948, for example, the transition was dramatic and there can be no doubt about when full Communist control was established. But at what point did the Communists assume full power in such countries as Poland and Bulgaria—sometime in 1947, or much earlier?

Iraq’s President Abdul Karim Kassem, it is sometimes argued, is not a Communist; but Rumania had a non-Communist President for a decade after 1945. The Communist party is not the only political party in Iraq; but sundry Peasant Unions continue to exist in Eastern Europe; there are three or four parties in East Germany, and several also in China, including a “left-wing” Kuomintang. Nor is the nationalization of key industries or the seizure of foreign properties a reliable test; Britain in the one respect and Mexico in the other have gone much further than Iraq, yet there is little question of either’s becoming a “People’s Democracy.”

In the last analysis, the only reliable test is the test of political power: to what extent do the Communists now rule Iraq? Surely they have made great advances since our last report, “Nasser and the Iraqi Communists” (COMMENTARY, February 1959).

President Nasser, alarmed by the growth of Communist influence in Baghdad and by the arrest there of his own sympathizers, came out strongly against Arab Communism last December. The first, comparatively urbane anti-Communist campaign conducted by the United Arab Republic’s press and radio was directed chiefly at the Iraqi and Syrian Communists, who were accused of being factious and separatist. Other Communist parties and leaders were occasionally criticized, too; the criticisms of Nasser made at the 21st Soviet Party Congress by Premier Khrushchev and by Nuritdin Mukhitdinov, the USSR’s leading Moslem politician, were rejected as unwarranted foreign interference in Arab affairs.

Nevertheless, Cairo at this time wished to prevent, at almost any price, any deterioration in its relations with Moscow. In a series of speeches in late February, Nasser reaffirmed his belief in Soviet friendship; he had received assurances, he announced, that no mass emigration of East European Jews to Israel was being contemplated. Accordingly, the anti-Communist campaign in the UAR was toned down. Since the Iraqis had also been fairly restrained in their comments on Nasser, the stage seemed set for a reconciliation between Cairo and Baghdad. It was reported that Nasser and Colonel Kassem would meet on the Iraqi-Syrian frontier and pave the way for a federative alliance between their two states.

This lull in the inter-Arab cold war came to an abrupt end on March 9, with the abortive revolt against Baghdad led by Colonel Shawwaf in Mosul. A rebellion on the part of the pan-Arab and anti-Communist officers had clearly been brewing for some time, with active help from the UAR, but we have no way of knowing whether it was indeed scheduled to begin on March 9, or whether Colonel Shawwaf was provoked to act by a “Partisans of Peace” mass meeting in Mosul. In any case, the uprising was a dismal failure. Whoever was responsible for it had grossly underrated the extent to which the Communists had already acquired key positions in the Iraqi army; they were able to suppress it without much difficulty. Shawwaf, wounded in the bombing of his headquarters, was shot to death in the hospital by a male nurse. The tribesmen who had taken up arms in his support were easily subdued by rival tribes and by the People’s Resistance, the Communist militia.

The next day there were mass demonstrations against the plotters in Baghdad and other cities, and a violent purge of non-Communists got under way. Nasser was publicly accused of complicity in Shawwaf’s revolt. “Death to Nasser the Imperialist and Hashish-eater” was one of the milder slogans. For years the most popular hero of Baghdad, he was now hung in effigy—testimony to the fickleness of the mob in Middle Eastern capitals. The propaganda warfare became incredibly bitter: a Jordanian newspaper commented that more hatred had been stirred up in the populace than the Arabs had felt during their war with Israel.



Nasser, on a state visit to Syria, at first reacted more in sorrow than anger. “Brethren, we have no right to be angry,” he said in Damascus, “for we are people with a mission in which we have long believed, for which we have worked, and for the defense of which we have spilled the blood of martyrs. If we are hurt, offended, or insulted, we have no right to be enraged, because that is bound to harm those who are carrying on the mission.” Such detachment, however, was not long maintained. In a series of speeches, Nasser soon asserted that the Communists had taken over Iraq with the aid of unscrupulous opportunists—including Colonel Kassem. The Iraqi President’s name had previously been kept out of the fight, but now no opportunity was missed to attack the “divider” (kassem in Arabic) of Iraq: he had betrayed true Arabism, he was bringing Iraq under foreign rule, he had unleashed such terror that as many Iraqis had been killed in a day as had been murdered, jailed, and deported in all the long tyranny of Nuri es-Said.

The Cairo newspapers reported “unprecedented massacres” in Mosul and Baghdad. “Members of the Communist party,” Cairo’s official Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported on March 13, “rush into the houses of Arab nationalists and kill them. If they fail to find the master of the house, they kill the women and children. Killing is done on mere suspicion, hundreds of bodies lie on the streets, goods are looted from the shops. One sixty-year-old man was killed simply because he did not salute a Communist flag carried by members of the Communist militia.” Other Egyptian sources claimed that Kassem had gone mad and was suffering from “hysteria and insomnia” (sic). The Communists had given him morphine injections to make him sleep; while he was under the influence of the drug they compelled him to sign state documents, according to a physician just returned from Baghdad. Professor Wajih Abdal Aziz, a Baghdad teacher, reported that “there are no trials; only one sentence for Arab nationalists—death.” A priest named Baqtar said that the Communists went out at night to mark the homes of the Arab nationalists with the letters S, Q, or SQ. In the morning, squads of armed men executed the instructions these letters conveyed: S meant “loot and plunder,” Q meant “kill the members of the household,” and SQ, “loot and kill” (MENA, March 20).

According to one version (Al Gumhuriya, March 16), Kassem was a Western agent: “Butcher of Iraq, you puzzle me! You are neither naive nor stupid. You are a Moslem, yet at the same time you are not a Moslem. You are a Communist and yet not a Communist. Can you then be a Western agent disguised in Communist clothing and hired by the West to strike at Arab nationalism?” Another Cairo source declared that Iraq was another Israel. Most of its new Communist leaders were of Jewish parentage, and so were the Soviet leaders. Israeli women Communists were directing the slaughter of Iraqi patriots, and soon the Iraqis would sign a peace treaty with Israel.

No holds were barred in the Egyptian press attack on Moscow. “Russia has unmasked its eternal Czarist imperialist face,” a Nasserite newspaper wrote, “and it is fortunate for the Arabs that they have at least had their eyes opened to the Communist menace.” Other papers emphatically declared that Communism had now become the greatest danger threatening the Arab world. Nasser himself, in another speech at Damascus, declared that Communism aimed not merely to establish its dictatorship over Iraq, but to detach Syria from Egypt and found a Red “Fertile Crescent.” According to the MENA political commentator (March 18), Khrushchev, convinced that Western influence in the Arab world had been liquidated, was now ready to junk the neutralists, whom Moscow had supported in their effort to drive the West out of the Middle East; but the Arab people would repel the new challenge of Communist imperialism as resolutely as they had fought the West.



The reactions in Iraq were at least as full-blooded. Nasser was a new Pharaoh, a disciple of Goebbels, Hitler, and Mussolini, the head of Egypt’s Masonic Lodges, a whore, a homosexual (a similar charge was made in Egypt against Kassem). A torrent of vituperation—much of it unprintable here—poured from the Iraqi capital. “Hitler and Mussolini also used to act behind a smokescreen of Christianity [sic], just as Abdel Nasser now acts behind the smokescreen of Islam.” Nasser has become an open enemy of the Soviet Union, has renounced the Bandung principles of positive neutrality, has—in short—embraced the Eisenhower Doctrine!

The attacks on Nasser as a “fascist” and “Nazi” are of symptomatic interest; these terms have never had any particularly derogatory force among the Arabs. That they should now be employed leads one to suspect that relatively sophisticated Communists are already applying the party line inside the Iraqi propaganda agencies. This suspicion is strengthened by the attacks on Nasser—Al Ray al Am, March 20, and Baghdad Radio, March 24—for meeting with “Tito the imperialist.” One can often distinguish fellow-travelers from party-line Communists by their attitudes toward Tito.

Still another detail reminiscent of Moscow in 1937 and Prague in 1952 was a dramatic announcement by Colonel Fadhil al Madawi, presiding judge of the revolutionary tribunal in Baghdad. The wife of one of the defendants in the Mosul treason trial, Madawi exclaimed, had offered to kill her husband with her own hands. Madawi also is wont to scream for capital punishment in Vishinsky style: “Kill him—kill the scourge!”

Madawi is the Iraqi revolution incarnate—a combination of Fouquier-Tinville, Senator McCarthy, and Charlie Chaplin. The sessions of his court, which are televised, have become the chief public spectacle of the revolution. There has rarely been anything like it. The accused—a pillar of the old regime, or a pan-Arabist—is brought into the courtroom and the proceedings begin. But Madawi is a man of little patience and wide interests; after a few sentences he interrupts, and is soon discussing Fidel Castro or the situation in Formosa. He mentions the name of Kassem, the “sole leader,” and the courtroom claque bursts into frantic applause. An enthusiastic onlooker gets up and recites a long poem. Madawi is touched, and in a hoarse voice recites one of his own poems. More applause. The defendant manages to get in a few words, but Madawi cuts in again with a speech about Nyasaland and the character of the late Ernest Bevin. He confuses Bevin with Aneurin Bevan, but nobody minds, and he follows this with an obscene joke about Nasser. Madawi is an immense success, and his court is a microcosm of the Iraqi revolution.

Cairo has cried wolf so often that its accounts of Communist terror in Iraq are not readily believed. Still, even discounting all the horror stories, the fantastic tales about burnings of the Koran in Baghdad squares, and similar fabrications, a grain of truth remains in the picture Cairo presents. The pan-Arab, pro-Nasser elements in Iraq have indeed been suppressed, and the Communists dominate the Baghdad streets and most of the ministries.



We have seen four distinct stages of the Iraqi Revolution since the uprising last July 14.1 In the first stage (July-September 1958), the old regime was overthrown; the new military junta was aided by a number of civilian advisers and by the heads of the former opposition parties—the right-wing Istiqlal, the left-wing National Democrats, and the pan-Arab Ba’ath. The Communists were in a minority at this point, and none represented the party officially. In the streets, however, Communist militants, released from prisons and concentration camps, energetically consolidated their hold over mass organizations: the Partisans of Peace; the Workers’ Union and Liaison Committee; the unions of teachers, artists, engineers, physicians, and journalists; the associations of farmers, students, and economists; the Democratic Youth; the Defense of Women’s Rights League; and many others. Even the Chamber of Commerce soon passed under Communist control. Several ulema (Moslem preachers) hailed the Communists as fighters for the social ideals of Islam.

In the second stage (September-December), Colonel Arif, Iraq’s would-be Nasser, was ousted, thus placing the other Ba’athists in the regime under a cloud. They were not deposed just then, but power gradually shifted into the hands of their Communist aides. Wasfi Taher, Kassem’s pro-Communist aide-de-camp, and his brother Loutfi Taher, a party member, now emerged as the eminences grises of the regime. The Communists gained control of the government radio station and most of the Baghdad newspapers. The Kurds in the north, traditionally pro-Russian, declared for the Communists. Most important, the party achieved full control of the People’s Resistance.

In the third stage (December 1958-March 1959), the leading pan-Arabists, including Colonel Arif and Rashid Ali (who had just returned from seventeen years in exile), were brought to trial. Nasserites and members of the right-wing Istiqlal were removed from leading positions in the government. The non-Communist wing of the National Democrats, led by Kamil Chaderchi, lost influence. Minister of Information Hussein Jamil flew to India and did not return; his functions were assumed by his Communist deputy. Pan-Arabists in the army high command were also purged—including the head of the military academy and the commanders of the first, second, and fifth divisions. The Communists gained decisive influence in the air force, tank corps, and military intelligence. A Communist, Taha ash Shaikh Ahmad, took over the political police.



The latest stage began with the suppression of the Shawwaf revolt. Since then the Communists have been consolidating their hold throughout the country, while the purge of pan-Arabists is reaching into the middle ranks of the government and army. In fact, the Communists seem almost ready—if it were not for certain international complications—to proclaim the foundation of the first Arab “People’s Democracy.” Their achievement in ten months has been spectacular.

The Times of London complained the other day that the Iraqi Communist party is somewhat of a mystery and has no overt leadership. This is not quite correct. In recent months, leaders of the party have appeared quite openly, and local papers have even published short biographical sketches of some of the “Old Bolsheviks.” The Politburo, roughly speaking, consists of three groups: those imprisoned in Iraq under Nuries-Said (Aziz al Haj, the agit-prop leader, spent fifteen years, Mohammed Abu el Iss twelve, in various prisons and camps); those who returned from exile in Cairo, Damascus, or Paris; and those who were stationed in Eastern Europe (presumably Sofia) and have been groomed for ultimate leadership of a Communist Iraq.

One of the best known members of this Politburo is Abdul Kader Ismail. He began his political career in the early 30’s in Chaderchi’s populist group (today’s National Democrats). He helped found a society “to combat illiteracy” (i.e., to study Lenin), was expelled from Iraq in 1937, returned in 1945, and had to leave again in 1947. After that, he lived in Egypt, where he occasionally wrote articles on such subjects as “Marx and the National Question.” President Nasser may have had him in mind in complaining about ungrateful Iraqi Communists, “whom we gave food and shelter.” Other well known Politburo leaders are Professor Abdulla al Bustani of Baghdad Law School, a leader of Communist intellectuals, and Mohammed Hassan al Uwaidi, who is said to be the party secretary and who may be identical with “Salim Adel,” the Iraqi representative at the 21st Congress in Moscow.

Outside the Politburo are two groups who proved important in the struggle for power: the “independent” lawyers and the pro-Communist colonels. The Communists are no exception to the fact that politics in Iraq are dominated by lawyers. The group of so-called “independent” lawyers, led by Aziz Sharif, Tawfiq Munir, and Kamil Kazanji, has been serving the party for fifteen years, but has remained nominally “independent” for tactical reasons. (Kazanji, who was killed in the Mosul uprising, was officially a left-wing National Democrat, but he was much closer to the Communists than to Chaderchi. He may have been slated to lead his party into a merger with the Communists, to become an Iraqi Grotewohl or Fierlinger.) In the past, the task of these independents was to set up new “progressive” parties whenever the Communist party itself was outlawed. On occasion, the legal front leaders and the illegal party leaders quarreled; Aziz Sharif, for example, once espoused a united-front line which the then-secretary of the Communist party violently attacked as a “liberal deviation.” Now that the party is out in the open, there is no need for window-dressing organizations of the type the lawyers used to set up; but the Communists still do require sundry “mass organizations” to manipulate public opinion, and the lawyers will be useful.

The pro-Communist colonels include Madawi (who is Kassem’s cousin), two of the President’s aides, Wasfi Taher and Ghadban as Sad, and air force commander Jalal al Awqati. None of these men has read Marx or Lenin; a serious Communist would consider the level of their political education extremely low. They are ambitious men, but not very clever; in their intellectual makeup and social origins, they are of the same type as Colonel Nasser and his Cairo associates. The degree of their Communist sympathies varies with circumstances. With sufficient inducement, some would shift their political loyalties tomorrow; a few may in due course become authentic Communists; in the case of a lasting Communist victory, most of them would be gradually discarded. At the present time, however, their powerful service to the Communist cause cannot be discounted.



The rival world blocs have both, curiously, tried to remain aloof from this struggle between Nasserism and Iraqi Communism. East and West have similarly expressed their regret that Arab should fight Arab. For once, however, the Soviet Union has been slightly less successful than the West in a maneuver of this sort. Although Khrushchev has repeatedly declared that the USSR will never cease to support the United Arab Republic, the future of Soviet-Egyptian relations is now very much in the balance. Moscow has tried hard to have it both ways and keep out of the propaganda war, but whether it can refrain much longer is doubtful. Gradually, it will have to pay the price for its involvement in the Middle East. An all-out Soviet attack on Nasser would surely have serious repercussions among his various Arab, Asian, and African admirers.

The tendency in Washington and London has been to give the new Iraqi regime the benefit of the doubt. The extent of Communist influence has been underrated, but it is difficult to say what other approach the Western powers could take; they have been compelled to act “as if” the Iraqi regime is still independent and neutral. London seems inclined to regard the future of Iraqi oil as the decisive test; but this may be misleading, for the Communists would doubtless prefer the orderly withdrawal of the British to a sudden expropriation, which would damage Iraq’s economy more than it would the West. A Communist government may be perfectly willing to do business with the Iraq Petroleum Company up to the very moment it is ready, with Soviet aid, to assume full control.

Another erroneous assumption now current is that the Cairo-Baghdad split is a conflict between “nationalism” and “international Communism.” It is, in fact, a struggle for power within the Arab nationalist movement, of which the Communists are accepted as part and parcel not only in Iraq but elsewhere in the Arab world. The Arab Communists are as nationalist as Nasser, and Communists besides; his attacks on them as “foreign agents” are much less effective than some Western observers presume. In any event, it would be most unwise—even on tactical grounds—if further disillusion with Iraq led Western statesmen to put their money on Nasser; he needs Western enmity, not friendship, to retain his status as a bona fide Arab nationalist.

On the whole, Nasser’s position is not enviable. His struggle with Iraq is a race against time in which the odds favor Baghdad. Unless he can succeed in overthrowing the present Iraqi regime in the next year, his own chances of survival are not good. Theoretically, a reconciliation is still possible, but things have gone so far that it seems highly improbable. In the propaganda war now raging, Nasser speaks with the louder voice (his radio and newspapers reach a wider audience), but his arguments have their strongest appeal to the most backward and reactionary elements among the Arabs. His exhortations to combat godless Communism with the Holy Koran may have some success in the remoter regions of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but in the big cities even the mob will soon develop a sales-resistance to it (they are not all that religious). Meanwhile, Nasser is losing his hold on the intelligentsia and the new educated classes whose support he needs most. He has promised so much, especially in the economic and social fields, and so little has come of it despite all the foreign aid he has obtained. Living standards in Egypt continue to decline, and the once prosperous economy of Syria is in dreadful disarray. Even a foreign adventure is no way out for Nasser; the auspices are less propitious than ever before.

The Iraqi economy is not in good shape either. The workers have been on strike or at celebrations in Baghdad just about every Monday and Thursday. Wage demands are being pressed everywhere, and productivity—according to the Iraqi press itself—has much decreased. Prices have skyrocketed. Nevertheless, Iraq is a richer country than Egypt and it can now count on almost unlimited Soviet aid.



Although the Communists have taken power in Iraq in all but name, they can lose it if they are reckless. There are two great differences between Iraq today and Eastern Europe a dozen years ago, one less favorable and one more so to the Communist cause. On the one hand, the Iraqis do not have the benefit of the presence of the Soviet army; if civil war were to break out, it is by no means certain that the Soviet Union could or would intervene. On the other hand, pro-Communist and pro-Soviet sentiment within Iraq is far stronger than it was in any East European country (with the possible exception of Bulgaria) after World War II.

Power in Iraq is now shared by a coalition which includes the pro-Communist colonels, the “independent” lawyers, and the Communist party itself. It would be most prudent for the Communists to prolong this coalition until party control is firmly established in the hands of loyal cadres. Over-assertive moves on their part now might not only provoke new counterattacks with Iraq, but would doubtless have undesirable repercussions elsewhere in the Arab world and in Asia. Thus, it may be a year or two before the situation is ripe for the establishment of an openly Communist government, the appointment of a party member as chief of state, and so on.

“Our demands are in no way socialist demands,” the Iraqi party secretary declared on April 1, thus indicating the deliberateness with which the Communists would like to proceed. Nevertheless, unforeseen circumstances and the unpredictable human element may compel the party to make its move earlier. The pathetic colonel Kassem has been built up as the great hero and “sole leader” of their revolution, and thus far he has served the Communists well. But what if a group of dissatisfied officers captures his prestige for its own purposes? What of possible splits in the Communist ranks (the history of Iraqi Communism is full of them)? The party emerged from underground in July with about two thousand militants; since then, it has had to absorb thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of new recruits, including such ideologically dubious characters as Madawi, the Taher brothers, and the other Communist colonels. All these things present difficulties for the Iraqi Communists in the present stage of their revolution.

On the other hand, if the Communists do consolidate their power over Iraq, it will be without direct Soviet assistance—and, as Khrushchev must have learned from Stalin’s experience, such native revolutions always cause trouble for Moscow at a later stage. Khrushchev may be well advised not to put too much trust in either the ability or the loyalty of the Iraqi Communists, or like Elizabeth I, “in trust he may find treason.” Khrushchev does not seem to be the trustful kind, in any case, and he knows that his new Arab comrades are not of the same Communist mettle as Lenin and Stalin, Mao and Tito. Whatever their faults, however, the Baghdad Communists have been fare more energetic and skillful than their adversaries. And their relative superiority has, for some time now, been the surest key to events in Iraq.




1 Before the revolt, there had been two parallel conspiracies in the Iraqi Army. The larger group, headed by Colonel Abdul Selim Arif, was pan-Arab in orientation; a smaller cell, to which Kassem belonged, was under Communist control. The two groups united in 1956. Then, according to Fa'iq as-Samarai, Iraqi Ambassador to Egypt until this March, the Communists betrayed the pan-Arab officers to the government of Nuri es-Said. Samarai, one of the civilian leaders in the uprising, charged in his letter of resignation (March 27, 1959) that, as a result of Communist duplicity, “a series of transfers and retirements was carried out which embraced most of the free officers [a list of names follows] . . . the Communist cell had apparently found that it would be better for them to kill two birds with one stone. . . .”

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