Commentary Magazine

Iraq's Impact on the Middle East: Baghdad's Year of Revolution
A Firsthand Report

At first glance, the streets of Baghdad do not appear to have changed since the revolution of July 14, 1958, which overthrew the old monarchy and established the Iraqi Republic. Baghdad’s heat remains stifling, its quarters congested. The same dense, aimless looking masses of people stream up and down Rashid Street, hemmed in by the big, honking cars and the red city buses originally built for the London Transport Authority. The men’s bright, American-style sport shirts are topped by their Arab headgear, and everywhere one sees women in black abbayas, and the children in the nightshirts known as dashdasha. Everywhere, too, are the sick and the crippled, sprawling half-naked on the sidewalks, awaiting the alms of the passerby. Smelly pools of “water” still gleam blackly on the streets and up the small side alleys. Returning to the same Arab coffee houses in which I had whiled away time during my last visit three years ago, I found the same managers, sitting at the entrance over their “cash registers,” copper trays into which the customers drop their ten or fourteen fils; even some of the old customers recognized my face. In the markets, the same cheap manufactured goods, with an occasional rare example of fine Persian handiwork, were being sold to a silent crowd of black-veiled women and leisurely tribesmen.

The number of veiled women has decreased: that is one visible change. Three years ago, I recall how I stared at a girl student whose abbaya had slid from her shoulders, revealing a blue silk dress underneath, as she climbed into a taxi—I hadn’t seen an unveiled woman in weeks. Today, perhaps a third of the girls on Rashid Street are unveiled. Others wear their black abbayas as overcoats, open in front and showing bare arms and necklines often cut very low. In the evening, one sees “progressive” families: the shirt-sleeved husband walking alongside his unveiled wife in her cotton dress, and two steps behind, the mother-in-law, shrouded by her abbaya, with the children by her side.

But very soon one becomes aware of a more significant change in Baghdad. Three years ago the Iraqis were eager to talk to European visitors about their troubles. In the coffee shops, students and middle-class people would talk for hours about being exploited by colonialism, denounce Britain and Premier Nuri as-Said, and fulminate against the government’s political repressions. “Nuri’s spies are all around us,” they would say. “Didn’t you notice two or three of them following you up Rashid Street?” The “spies” were humble creatures, known to everybody, who earned a few fils by denouncing their fellow citizens. Their presence did not deter people from speaking against the government.

Now the foreigner feels a vast silence surrounding him. If he asks how things are, he gets in reply evasive formulas—“God be praised for everything he is pleased to send!”—or short, careful answers: “Things are wonderful now! We have had a revolution. The people are free. I hope you are going to write favorably about our country.” Conversations have an odd way of dropping off after a few stock phrases. Many times a third person—the proprietor of the coffee house perhaps—intervenes to stop them. Old acquaintances, one learns, do not care to be seen in the streets with a foreigner. In general, the Iraqis now appear to be suspicious of all foreigners.



Thus, it is difficult for the European to gauge how the Iraqis feel about their new regime. It is evident that most of the simple people are proud of “their” revolution. They obviously do not wish to revert to the old regime—which has been officially depicted for a year now as the “perished epoch of the traitors.” But Iraqis are wary about discussing the new regime, for the semi-comic old police spies have been replaced by Communists, in far greater numbers. It is not rare for a citizen under their surveillance to be denounced as a Ba’athist traitor, beaten, or even killed—it’s happened all over town. In these circumstances, only one brand of political opinion seems completely safe: a public expression of trust, confidence, and faith in the “leader,” the “pious son of the people,” the “friend of the millions” and the “savior of Iraq,” General Abdul Karim Kassem.

Admiration of Kassem is, of course, officially fostered. His picture is on all the walls, in offices and living rooms, on every desk. Each day, every newspaper prints at least one photograph of him, plus essays on his personality, his achievements, his dedication to the people. His name is mentioned several hundred times a day on the radio; his speeches are broadcast over and over, and other programs are interrupted by selected quotations from them, framed in suitable military music. Songs are sung about him and the revolution, and specially trained men, with booming voices, interrupt his speeches at set points to cheer in unison. Whenever Kassem drives through the streets of Baghdad, people throng around his station wagon. Boys dance, hands clap, mothers lift up their children, the name of the “Za’im” (leader) is on all lips.

The enthusiasm sometimes borders on religious veneration. In one shop window I saw a picture of the Imam Ali, squatting in the traditional attitude, a big curved sword in his hand; over his face, the shopkeeper had pasted a portrait of Kassem cut out of a magazine. The markets offer calligraphic inscriptions, like the Koranic verses that decorate the walls in orthodox homes, which implore “the creator of heaven and earth” to preserve Kassem. In the evenings groups of young men run through the streets at a funny trot, clapping their hands, and rhythmically intoning Kassem’s name; the steps and the rhythms are those of the liturgy for the blessed Husein, son of Ali, in the mourning ceremonies of Muharram.

This cult of Kassem is believed by some to be the best means for promoting stability in Iraq. “If all loyalty is concentrated on Kassem,” the argument goes, “there won’t be any more plots and conspiracies.” But others—intellectuals, businessmen, and politicians—collaborate in the personality cult from somewhat less pure motives. Many groups—including the Communists—are wary lest their enemies “capture” the leader. Kassem, for his part, has managed with remarkable nimbleness to avoid being captured.

Kassem himself makes a striking impression. Lean, intense, nervous to the point of jumpiness, he obviously enjoys his hold on the masses, and never seems to tire of acknowledging their adulation. When he makes one of ibis long, unprepared, rambling speeches, he pauses at the appropriate points to permit the chanting and cheering of the masses and their leaders. One can easily believe what Iraqi officials say: that Kassem desires to supervise personally the slightest details of the government, that he sleeps only a few hours a night and gulps down his meals while conducting business. He has no family, and only one friend, the erratic Colonel Fadhil al Madawi, the presiding judge of the “people’s court”—perhaps more of an embarrassment than a friend.

A singleminded ascetic of considerable will power and nervous energy, Kassem has been greatly underrated, perhaps because he is not an intellectual. He is, nonetheless, a man with a formidable feeling for power, who has learned to rely on his own instincts rather than on fellow statesmen or ambassadors, and who seems to sense when it is time to strike—and when he should be patient.



Such is the man whom fate has placed between the Communist party and their threatened domination of Iraq. The Communists, who have come very close to total victory, have recently suffered serious setbacks; it remains to be seen whether their losses are only temporary.

For nearly a year the Communists were tilling political fields to which Kassem devoted scant attention. A military man, he thought primarily in terms of fire-power, tanks, and machine guns. The Communists, meanwhile, concentrated on the minds of the Iraqi people. Kassem, preoccupied with possible intrigues by the Ba’athists and pro-Nasser Arab nationalists, granted the Communists a virtual monopoly in the so-called “ideological” field in exchange for their support against his rivals. The Communists, for their part, also provoked the nationalists to violence, which made them appear even more dangerous in the General’s eyes. (There is evidence that the intrigues of pro-Communist opportunists, such as Wasfi Taher, provoked the “plots” of Colonel Abdul Selim Aref and Rashid Ali Galieni: the anti-Communist revolt in Mosul last March was precipitated by a demonstration of the “Partisans of Peace.”)

While the “plots” of the nationalists occupied Kassem, the Communists pursued their “ideological warfare.” This phrase seems comparatively innocent to somebody in the West: booklets, leaflets, demonstrations, violent newspaper articles, and the infiltration of schools and universities. All this, naturally, was part of the picture in the Iraqi upheaval. Besides, there were the “mass organizations”: the Partisans of Peace, the Democratic Youth Organization, the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights, and so on and so on. The trade unions were formed after (the revolution with Kassem’s blessing; and the Communists, having helped found most of them, became the most active elements in all of them; they completely dominate the over-all General Confederation of Labor. “Committees to Safeguard the Republic” were formed within the government departments. Their function was to put pressure on the civil servants, and people who opposed Communist activities risked losing their jobs or being jailed, or—at the very least—becoming the target of harassment by their fellow employees. In this manner, the Communists came to dominate both the Teachers Union and the Students Union.

Less successfully, the Communists attempted to organize the peasants. They started a General Federation of Peasant Societies under a Communist secretary, Farhood, before there were any individual peasant societies; a license from Kassem gave their General Federation a virtual monopoly in the countryside. The peasants, however, were individualists, and the Communist party lacked cadres in the rural areas; some of the peasant societies came under the domination of the National Democratic party, while other societies grew unruly and provoked counteraction by local authorities.

But the chief weapon in what is described, all too academically, as “Communist penetration” was not propaganda or organization. It was physical terror. To be sure, special conditions helped the Communists: general poverty and ignorance, a lack of political experience and civic courage, nationalist fervor, the fact that the unpopular old regime had fought Communism. The basic fact remains that, in Iraq as elsewhere, Communism had to be imposed by violence—or the threat of it.

The Iraqi Communists worked systematically to prevent anybody from uttering, publishing, or broadcasting any political views counter to their own. If, in large measure, they merely bullied intellectuals into silence or collaboration, they also committed a great many criminal acts—murder, torture, looting, beating, and arson.

The abortive revolt in Mosul last March gave them their chance to pursue such acts on an unprecedented scale. They had their own armed organization, the People’s Resistance Forces, as well as their street mobs and disciplined “mass organizations” and “trade unions.” They enjoyed the collaboration and support of the police and sections of the army; the police in those days would jail without trial whomever the Communists identified as a “Ba’athist.” Communist students from Baghdad University rode north to Mosul en masse, organized in units of the People’s Resistance Forces or of the Democratic Youth Organization, and returned boasting of the atrocities they had committed. Some walked around for weeks carrying blood-smeared ropes.

During the mass funeral in Baghdad for the Peace Partisan Kamil Kazanchi, who had been killed at Mosul, a Communist gang visited the three remaining small anti-Communist newspapers, wrecked (their printing plants, and beat up their employees. Only one of these papers, the tiny Al-Fajr el-Jadid, has reappeared. Armfuls of copies are sold in narrow side alleys by little boys, who risk a beating by Communist toughs.

After the Mosul uprising, the Communists were strong enough to have their opponents in the universities arrested or expelled. Their trade unions, which had demonstrated daily in the streets for most of the second half of March, were doing so again during the first half of May. It seemed, indeed, that the Communists had triumphed. Civic courage has never been a particular virtue in Baghdad, where the traditional method of treating a powerful enemy is to smile and scrape, until he gets careless—then the dagger or poison. In May, most people smiled at the Communists; the price of firearms, meanwhile, soared on the Baghdad free market.



At this point, the Communists grew over-hasty. Instead of consolidating their gains, they pressed for full power. At the end of April, they had begun to demand representation in the government. Kassem reminded them mildly in a May Day speech that he had not yet authorized any activity by political parties. He also persuaded the National Democratic party, which holds several key ministries, to announce that it would cease its activities. The Communists pretended that the National Democrats had misunderstood the wishes of the “leader,” but Kassem, at a press conference at the end of June, reiterated his desire to prohibit party activities during the “period of transition.”

The Communists then tried another tack. They formed, and petitioned Kassem to recognize, a “National Front” embracing, along with them, the so-called Kurdish Democratic party and a splinter group of the National Democrats. Their petition bore the signatures of a large number of prominent leftist politicians and journalists, high government employees, leaders of the trade unions and “democratic organizations,” and nearly all the deans of the various faculties and colleges of Baghdad University.

Kassem refused to recognize the National Front. He alleged that the National Democrats who had signed were not representative, and he persuaded the Kurdish Democratic party, too, to announce that it had ceased activity. The best-known of the Kurdish leaders, Mustafa el-Barazani, at one time a refugee in the Soviet Union and reputedly a former general of the Soviet army, had never signed the petition, and it was he who now repudiated the members of his party who had signed.

Parallel with this public debate between the “leader” and his Communist “followers” about party activities, there was surely a sub rosa struggle for control of the three armed forces in the country: the army, the police, and the People’s Resistance. Kassem appears now to have won this struggle, and his chief lieutenant, the recently promoted Major General Ahmed Saleh el-Abdi, also has gained considerable power. The most critical period seems to have been the last week of June, when the chief of police, Abd-el-Baki Kadhem, almost certainly a Communist, was replaced by a man loyal to Kassem; and the commander of the army’s Second Division stationed in Kirkuk, Colonel Jenabi, also a Communist, was arrested for spiriting off ammunition. Other highly placed officers with Communist leanings (among them Taha Sheikh Ahmed, head of military intelligence, and Awkati, commander of the Iraqi Air Force) are also said to have fallen.

Apparently in May and June the Communists challenged Kassem before they had the power to overthrow him. They seem to have resorted to plots and intrigues in the army when all other means of influencing Kassem failed. They also appear to have organized more “trade unions” and “mass organizations” (not to speak of the peasant societies) than they could handle. These front organizations lacked discipline and steadiness, and their dizzy momentum apparently forced the pace of the Iraqi Communist party, leading it to act prematurely. The recklessness of the front organizations became quite evident in the later rioting at Kirkuk.



On the eve of the first anniversary of his revolution, General Kassem announced a long debated reorganization of (his cabinet. The Ministry of Economy was split into five new ministries, Which meant the downgrading of Ibrahim Kubbeh, the former Minister of Economy and author of the economic agreements with Russia. Kubbeh has been given the new Ministries of Agrarian Reform and Petroleum—which are less important than they sound since at present Iraq’s petroleum policy is fixed by international agreement, while the High Committee on Agrarian Reform is headed by Kassem himself. Meanwhile, Muhammed Hadid, the Minister of Finance and an anti-Communist, has added the new Trade Ministry to his responsibilities. He thus became a kind of counterpoise to Kubbeh, a nominal National Democrat, who was the only minister openly to support the Communist-proposed National Front.

Along with the downgrading of Kubbeh and the promotion of Hadid, Kassem nominated four new ministers—three of whom had signed the petition for the National Front. Many observers felt that this was a concession Kassem had made to the Communists so that he could celebrate the anniversary of his revolution in peace. An Iraqi who sympathizes with the National Democrats, however, expounded a more subtle explanation to me. First of all, he said, “The three new ministers who are said to be pro-Communist are not the ones the Communist party wanted chosen. They would have preferred one of their real party leaders, such as Abdul Kader Ismail el-Bustani, or one of his brothers, or else Aziz el-Haj. Second, those who became ministers are people we consider ‘recoverable.’ They went along with the Communists as long as they were honored as heads of the Communist front organizations. Now we think they will work with us.” There is something in this explanation. I heard Dr. Faisal es-Samir, the new Minister of Guidance and former chairman of the Teachers Union, pick his way carefully through a press conference and not deviate an inch from the government line while admitting that his personal opinion, “which may be erroneous,” diverged. He left the impression of carefully distancing himself from the Communist position.

In a speech at the military academy on the first night of the celebrations, however, Kassem made what appeared to be another concession. He announced that political parties would be officially licensed before next January 6, and that “within one year, there will be elections for a parliament.” The Communists seemed delighted. All talk of a National Front had miraculously ceased two days before Kassem’s announcement, and the Communists in Baghdad furiously acclaimed the “leader” in the days that followed. But had the Communists really gained? Many of the passages in Kassem’s speech were, at the very least, ambiguous. “There shall be freedom for the people and no freedom for the enemies of the people,” he said, provoking frenzied applause from the section of the audience in which the trained claques were assembled. “But I do not agree with those of you,” continued Kassem, “who want to decide for themselves who are the enemies of the people. This can be decided only by the law and by the authorities.” This time, the applause came from another group: the military officers.

In this ambiguous situation, the Communists used mixed tactics, combining mass violence with their official participation in the celebrations. On the second day of festivities, a mob attacked the printing plant of the newspaper Baghdad, which is pro-Kassem and anti-Communist, smashed its presses and linotype machines, and scattered its newsprint over what used to be called Ghazi Street; the editor and his staff escaped over the roofs of neighboring houses, and the publisher disappeared. The army arrived at the scene fifteen minutes later, but took no prisoners. At an inquest that afternoon, the state awarded the paper the compensation of two thousand pounds, but the money has not yet been paid. Nor has the paper reappeared.1

Another Communist mob attacked the house of Colonel Shams ed-Din Abdallah, president of the first military court. The Colonel had been suggested as a possible successor to Madawi as president of the “people’s court”; he would also preside at any future trial of Colonel Jenabi, the pro-Communist commander of the Second Division. He managed to defend himself with his revolver, however, and killed at least one of the assailants before the army arrived.



While these civilities were being exchanged in Baghdad, in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, the Communists allowed the situation to get out of hand.

For some time, there had been tension in Kirkuk between the city’s two distinct ethnic groups. The Turkomans, who have lived in the old city since Ottoman times when they were settled in the deserted citadels of Kirkuk and Erbil, represent the stable city-community; merchants and proprietors of all kinds are Turkomans. The Kurds, who migrated from the hills when the two cities started to grow, are more dispersed and on the average less prosperous. There had been trouble between the two communities ever since Colonel Shawaf’s revolt in March.

Although it would be gross oversimplification to class all the Kurds of Iraq as pro-Communist, a large section among them have long considered Soviet aid essential to their goal of an autonomous or independent Kurdistan. These Kurds have, moreover, been penetrated by authentic Communists, who simply want Kurdistan annexed to the Soviet Union, and who have assumed positions of leadership in the Kurdish Democratic party. Although Mustafa el-Barazani, the party’s best-known leader, now seems to have thrown in his lot with Kassem, Communists I spoke to maintained that the other five members of the Kurdish Democrats’ Central Committee are more reliably pro-Communist. My Communist informants also noted the “pact” between the Communist party and the Kurdish Democrats, according to which the Communists do not maintain party branches in Kurdistan but encourage their sympathizers to join the Kurdish Democrats.

In Kirkuk itself, which is at the fringe of Kurdish territory, both parties existed—the Kurdish Democrats for the Kurds to join, and the Communist party for the Arabs and Turkomans. The Turkomans, however, proved resistant to Communism; in several trade unions, they outvoted their pro-Communist Kurdish and Arab colleagues. Approving Kassem’s attempts to contain the Communists, the Turkomans prepared to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution by erecting 133 triumphal arches at the expense of their community.

Meanwhile, the Communists throughout Iraq had at first decided not to celebrate the anniversary. As Communist students at Baghdad University told their professors: “This is not the anniversary of our revolution; our revolution is still to come!” There is evidence that they planned a series of uprisings throughout the country; Adhamiya, one of the “nationalist” quarters of Baghdad, expected a Communist attack on July 13. Apparently there was a rather sudden change of plans. On July 13, the Communist students came to their professors and volunteered to join in the celebration the next day; agitation for the National Front ended at the same time. There was a report that the Soviet delegation to the anniversary festivities was responsible for these counsels of prudence.

However, the new Communist strategy did not prevail in Kirkuk, where quarrels broke out between the Turkoman celebrators and the Kurdish Communists. Fights at the city’s bridge, in the two cinemas, and in one of its biggest cafés, ended with several persons wounded, and most of the Turkoman triumphal arches were burned. Then the Communist-dominated People’s Resistance Forces stormed the police station, looted the arms stored there, and drove the Turkomans into their homes.

Troops of the Second Division, composed largely of Kurds, were sent to Kirkuk to restore order, but instead took the side of the Kurds. Some of its units shelled Turkoman houses and the troops were soon in command of the whole town. (After Colonel Jenabi of this division was arrested, no new commander seems to have been appointed, and many of the officers and non-commissioned officers under Jenabi’s pro-Communist influence remained in their posts. Jenabi in his time had disarmed the Turkoman population.)

On July 15 and 16, the Communists, with the help of the Second Division, ruled in Kirkuk. Refugees coming in to Baghdad reported that a red flag flew over the town and army cars were roving the deserted streets, their loudspeakers giving orders in the name of the National Front. A committee consisting of the secretary of the local Communist party, the mayor (a Communist), and six Kurdish officers, exercised supreme power, and had designated the homes of anti-Communists to be looted by the “mass organizations” and the People’s Resistance Forces. The mayor, according to the refugees, had ordered the executions of several groups of Turkoman notables and had them buried in mass graves outside the town.

The mutiny in Kirkuk was finally put down by 50 armored cars under Colonel Fuad Aref, the brother of the imprisoned Abdul Selim Aref. A few days later, Kassem gave out the number of dead as 120, the majority “executed” by the Communists in conditions of great cruelty. Kassem himself is said to have visited Kirkuk on July 21 or 22. On his return, he showed the press photographs taken there and blamed “a faction which I do not wish to name” for the atrocities. Furious, he claimed to have proof that the unnamable faction had planned risings all over the country. He shouted at the Communist Aziz el-Haj, who was present: “I know all about you and your traitorous plans. This is a last warning! I am strong enough to smash all traitors!”

Meanwhile, Ahmed Saleh el-Abdi, the military governor of Baghdad, had taken over. In a series of curt ordinances, he limited the activities of the People’s Resistance, forbidding them even to wear their uniforms; he declared illegal the “Committees to Safeguard the Republic” among government employees; and he ordered all persons possessing weapons to surrender them within three days. Behind the scenes, too, there was undoubtedly an anti-Communist purge among the officers: the government announced the dismissal as pro-Communists of 800 cadets who had recently graduated to the rank of lieutenant.



Why did Kassem fail to come out openly against the Communist party? The answer can only be that he does not yet wish to burn all bridges between himself and the Communists; he hopes still to keep them on his side. To understand why he cherishes such unreasonable hopes, one must examine the non-Communist political forces in Iraq.

The National Democratic party includes the most important of Kassem’s ministers; unfortunately, the party consists of not much more than a few separate groups of such notables. There is the “left” splinter group, the people who signed the petition for the National Front. There are also several groups of personal followers and retainers of the socialist but anti-Communist ministers Hadid (finance and trade) and Jawad (foreign affairs); several clusters of businessmen have gathered around them. In addition, there is a group of young people who aim at strict reform of the party’s life, a clear program, and a grass-roots organization; the recognized head of this group is Husein Jamil, the former Minister of Guidance who is now ambassador to Teheran.

Two newspapers represent the views of the National Democrats, and they diverge considerably. Al-Ahali follows a rather confusing line, compounded of “positive neu-tralism,” admiration of Mahatma Gandhi, good relations with the “socialist bloc,” friendship with the Iraqi Communists, and complaints against their violence. Ath-Thaura, on the other hand, has recently come out openly against the Communists and since then has rivaled in popularity the Communist Ittihad esh-Sha’ab (still the most widely read Baghdad paper) and the para-Communist al-Bilad. Although the National Democrats’ ranks include the two most important ministers in the government, next to Kassem, the party lacks any clear program or roots in the population.



However, there is a large section of the Iraqi population whose sympathies are best described vaguely as nationalist. Their organizations—the Ba’ath and the Istiqlal—have been disbanded and their feeble attempts at revolt checked by the government, with Communist assistance. The nationalists are, nevertheless, still very much alive—hide their views as they may behind professions of loyalty to Kassem.

To be sure, the Communist and government campaigns against Nasser and the Ba’ath have had some influence. Not all the nationalists are sure now that Nasser is a valid symbol of Arab unity. One is often asked about the situation in Damascus: “Is it true that the Syrians really hate Nasser now?” There are even reproaches: “Nasser encouraged the revolt in Mosul, and then let us down without any real support,” or, “All Nasser wants is our oil and our money.”

But despite disillusion with Nasser, the nationalists in Iraq have not abandoned the ideal of Arab unity. They profoundly resent being cut off from the main currents of Arab political, cultural, and social life. They are not impressed by the palliatives which the government has offered to mitigate Iraqi isolation. Good relations with tiny, far-off Tunisia, aggressive propaganda against Israel, military aid to the Algerian rebels, and official hostility toward France cannot compensate for the lack of Egyptian newspapers and magazines, for the fact that only old American films are running in Baghdad (most Arabic films are Egyptian), for the fact that letters to and from Egypt or Syria take from six months to a year to arrive—if they ever do.

The nationalists are separated from Kassem not so much by Nasser as by the imprisonment of Colonel Aref, who remains a hero to many people. Conceding that he was out-maneuvered by Kassem, they still insist that Aref was “the true hero of the revolution,” who cherished the “wishes of the Arabs.” Kassem, on the other hand, they look upon as a power-hungry opportunist. “Kassem will always collaborate with the Communists,” they say. “He must use them because he fears us.” There is considerable truth in this observation.

In any case, the nationalists are too widely dispersed and too carefully watched to be able to make a formal change of policy. They lack, especially, effective leaders. One young nationalist told me of his visit to Jaber Omar, the first Minister of Education after the revolution, upon the latter’s recent release from prison. The youth remonstrated with Omar: “I’ve been telling you all along that the Communists are better organized than we are. They captured the elite and the intellectuals because you allowed them to infiltrate the schools. Before it is too late, we nationalists must organize in our own defense.” The former Minister of Education’s only reply was: “This thing will blow over. It is like a fever blister on an otherwise healthy body; don’t scratch it and it will eventually burst. Time is on our side.”

The very creed of the nationalists seems to engender this kind of passivity. The Arab nation already exists—a “healthy body”—and they do not feel obliged to work toward it with the same energy with which the Communists pursue their goals. When all is said, the nationalists are at bottom too diffident.

Nevertheless, their numbers must be reckoned with. Indeed, the whole of Iraq today appears to be divided, in a kind of checkerboard pattern, into “Communist” and “nationalist” territories. It is common in Baghdad to say that such-and-such a quarter is “Communist,” While such-and-such is “nationalist.” When one goes from the Kadhimiya to the Adhamiya district in Baghdad, for instance, the slogans on the walls change from “Long Live the National Front” and “Integration of the People and Army” in Kadhimiya, to “Iraq Is Part of the Arab Nation” and “No Communism and No Colonialism” in Adhamiya.

In the open country, the division into red and black districts seems even more sharply drawn than in the cities. The old strife between neighbors has been overlaid by the all-encompassing feud between “nationalist” and “Communist,” just as Shi’ite and Sunnite or “southern” and “northern” tribes used to split and settle in separate units in the olden times. Because Kerbela is “nationalist,” Nejef, its rival holy city, must be “Communist.”



From this political checkerboard, one may infer that about half the population—at least of the Arab part of the country—are “nationalists.” A substantial number of them may be counted on to support Kassem enthusiastically, but these are the simple people, attracted by the cheering and the slogans. Their chiefs in the “nationalist” districts would certainly make any real support for Kassem conditional on his swinging the country to “Arab” policies; in the end, most of them would prefer another leader, more authentically their own, and the masses would, doubtless, follow their chiefs.

Kassem, on the other hand, feels he cannot afford to break with the Communists because he simply cannot rely on the other half of the population. He knows that the Communists are trying to overthrow him, or make him a figurehead, but with good reason he suspects the nationalists of the very same aims. His own survival depends on maintaining the balance between the two forces.

Furthermore, Kassem is committed to a policy of revolutionary change in Iraq. He knows that the “achievements of the revolution” thus far consist mostly of projects—projects whose realization will require the enthusiastic work of the nation. He hopes the Communists will supply the spirit to “mobilize” the masses for these tasks. There is no evidence that he has yet become skeptical about the party’s willingness to deliver that “spirit” even if it does not achieve absolute power; on the other hand, there is a great deal of evidence that Kassem is afraid to appeal to the nationalists and their spirit.

As I have been writing (this report, I have been listening to Radio Baghdad, whose carefully apportioned programs give the range of the political forces now at work in Iraq. On the one hand, there are telegrams congratulating the President for his condemnation of the Kirkuk massacres. “Leader, go onward, we follow you!” declare the wires from the Turkomans of Kirkuk, from army officers, and from inhabitants of the “nationalist” quarters of Waziriye and Adhamiya in Baghdad. On the other hand, there are programs of the type sponsored regularly by the League for the Defense of Women’s Rights. The last one I listened to consisted of letters and cables to Iraq sent by women from all the “socialist” countries, protesting against the mistreatment of “progessive” women by the “Cairo reactionaries.” For this kind of propaganda Kassem must obviously still rely on the Communists. So long as he is forced to accept their aid, they will make him pay their price.




1 Baghdad had been officially prohibted for several months, until its editor, Khudr Abbasi, asked Kassem at a press conference why his paper had been banned. The editor thought the ban had originated with Wasfi Taher, Kassem's chief personal aide. But Wasfi Taher, who was present, denied any knowledge of it, as did Kassem himself. Thus, Baghdad was authorized to reappear. It had been coming out for little more than a week when it was destroyed.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.