Monday, October 14, 2013

Revolutionary Times, Gen. Qasim And Iraq’s 1958 Coup, Interview With Western Kentucky's Prof. Juan Romero

In 1920 the League of Nations created the British Mandate in Iraq, and the next year the English established a monarchy led by King Faisal I from Syria. By 1932 Iraq officially gained independence, while the British maintained control over its security and foreign affairs. Growing class divisions and clashes between the ruling elite and the opposition and military eventually led to the 1958 coup by the Free Officers and General Abdul Karim Qasim. The new government attempted a dramatic transformation of the economy, class structure, and international relations. Supporters claimed this was the real Iraqi independence movement, because it ended English imperialism, while critics claimed that Qasim set up an autocratic government before he himself was overthrown violently. To help explain this period in Iraq’s past is Western Kentucky University Middle East Historian Professor Juan Romero, the author of The Iraqi Revolution of 1958, A Revolutionary Quest for Unity and Security.

Leaders of the July 1958 coup in Iraq with Gen. Qasim standing center. Next to him on the left is Col. Arif who would later break with Qasim and eventually become the leader of the country (Wikipedia)

1. To understand what led to the 1958 coup people have to understand what Iraq was like under the monarchy. First, there was the economy and the rural-urban divide. What was the situation with Iraq’s agriculture, and how was this a legacy of British rule? Furthermore, why were people moving from the countryside to the cities, and what was life like for them there?

Before I answer your first question I need to address an issue of fundamental importance: What was the nature of the events of July 14, 1958 which resulted in the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy? Traditional Western scholarship has argued that July 14 was a military coup. At least one scholar in the West, Hanna Batatu, has argued that the overthrow of the monarchy constituted a revolution. Arab nationalists, including Iraqi Baathists, concur in Batatu’s assessment. Denying Qasim’s leading role, however, the Baathists contend that he hijacked the revolution. Conversely, I argue that a careful analysis of archival and other primary sources such as memoirs reveals that what many scholars have labeled a coup was something much more complex—a wider conspiracy, a coup, and a revolution. The Free Officers, a group of military officers inspired by their Egyptian namesake, had conspired to topple the monarchy since the early 1950s. All Free Officers were involved in this wider conspiracy, which led to a number of aborted coup attempts. Only a very limited number of Free Officers, however, were privy to the coup executed by Brigadier Abdul al-Karim Qasim, his deputy Colonel Abdul al-Salam Arif, and Colonel Abdul al-Latif al-Darraji. One can therefore conclude that its dual objective was to overthrow the monarchy and to exclude the majority of Free Officers from playing a leading role in the coup. At the same time, there was a strong element of popular participation in the overthrow of the monarchy. Several Free Officers on the Supreme Committee, including Qasim, had initiated leaders of the opposition parties into their plans and asked them to stand by with supporters ready to take to the streets en masse in the event of resistance on the part of the regime. Baghdadis (most likely at least 100,000, but possibly many more) joined the Free Officers who had surrounded the royal Rihab Palace on the morning of the coup, assisting the latter in persuading the Royal Guard to surrender, and ensuring that loyalist troops would not get through to the Palace to rescue the king and crown prince. Furthermore, the civilian crowds in the streets of Baghdad also demonstrated to foreign powers the strong popular participation in the events and the widespread popular support which the Free Officers enjoyed. This was an important reason for the British and American decisions not to intervene in the events of July 14 and the following days. Finally, the radical departure of the policies of the new regime from those of the monarchy add to the revolutionary aspect of the overthrow of the ancien régime. Scholars who argue that the overthrow was just a coup or just a revolution obviously disregard the aspects I have mentioned.       

The rural-urban divide was also a tribal-urban divide characterized by two coexistent legal systems, one system, the Baghdad Penal Code, designed for urban residents and the other, the Tribal Disputes Regulations, for the rural population. The latter had been modeled on a law which had been introduced by the British in Indian tribal areas. The tribal law enabled sheikhs to play a central role in the economic and political life in rural areas, since they controlled tribal lands. The sheikhs were not a very progressive stratum of the population for obvious reasons, a fact which effectively prevented progress. As a result, the common tribesman was held hostage to the arbitrary rule of the tribal chiefs.  

The pre-revolutionary economic system prevalent in the rural areas was an exploitative semi-feudal phenomenon, iqtaʻ in Arabic.  Frequent unrest testifies to the poor conditions in non-urban areas. Most fellahin, peasants, lived in small, primitive, and windowless huts without access to modern facilities or healthcare. Government loans were available to fellahin, but these loans were not used the way they were intended. The fellahin used them to defray immediate costs of living instead of making long-term investments. The destitute condition of the peasants thus made progress impossible, since they had to turn to usurers for extra loans, which made their situation even more hopeless. The monarchic regime made oil revenues available for rural development projects in the 1950s. The impatient fellahin did, however, not benefit immediately from these projects, which normally took many years to complete. Another reason for the poor conditions in rural areas was the dependence of fellahin on landowners for irrigation. Obsolete and ineffective agricultural practices were other obstacles to progress. With the odds against them, the only option peasants had was to migrate to the major cities in search of employment there. Little did they suspect, however, that they would experience similar or even worse conditions in the urban sarifas, slums, which was where most migrants settled.

PM Sa’id was Iraq’s dominant politician before the 1958 coup

2. What was politics like before the coup with Iraq’s Premier Nuri al-Sa’id, and the opposition forces?

Nuri al-Saʻid was Iraq’s foremost statesman and one of the most prominent leaders of the Middle East. He was frequently called upon when the political situation in the country deteriorated and the monarchy needed a strong leader to handle the opposition. The fact that he held the post of prime minister fourteen times testifies to the extent to which the regime trusted him. Nuri, a former officer in the imperial Ottoman army and a product of the old Middle East, displayed little patience with political opponents, making ubiquitous use of the Criminal Investigation Department in the witch hunt for “communists.” As a result, he would often resort to fraudulent elections and stuffing the parliament with his supporters. With such conditions prevailing in the country, the political opposition realized that it had to cooperate in order to force the regime to initiate reform. As a result, several opposition parties formed the so-called National Front and won a number of seats in the Iraqi parliament in 1954 with Nuri temporarily out of office. One of Nuri’s first acts upon his return to office was to dissolve the parliament and hold new “elections” to create a more cooperative legislative body. Such highhanded tactics alienated wide segments of the Iraqi population, including intellectuals, Arab nationalists, political parties, fellahin, and workers. He also alienated junior military officers with his pro-West policies. The latter would eventually be instrumental in his downfall in 1958.   

3. In the 1950s the Free Officers began organizing within the Iraqi army. What brought these soldiers together, and what were they hoping to achieve with the coup?

Initially anti-regime army officers organized themselves in several independent groups. Reasons for their opposition to the monarchy were allegations of poor support from the Iraqi government in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948-49; lack of political freedom and economic progress in the country; opposition to the pro-West policies of the monarchical regime; and the influence of a small number of wealthy families and landowners. Most junior officers were from a middle-class background, so they had little in common with their older pro-regime superiors and shared many of the views of the young participants in anti-regime demonstrations. Their goal was to build a more egalitarian society, increase cooperation with other Arab countries, conduct a nonaligned foreign policy, and to eliminate British influence in their country. The Free Officers represented all political ideologies of the opposition, ranging from the Istiqlal party to the Iraqi Communist Party. This fact was also reflected in the first revolutionary government, which included ministers from all opposition parties and ideologies.

Pro-coup demonstration in Baghdad July 1958 (Jewish Chronicle)

4. Immediately after the coup in July 1958 masses of people took to the streets, especially in Baghdad. What kind of changes were these people hoping the Free Officers would bring about?

Many intellectuals and students had the same goals as the Free Officers; they wanted a say in the political process which had been denied them under the monarchy, and an end to pro-West policies and British influence. The many poor Iraqis wished for a government which would listen to their concerns, provide employment and better housing, facilitate social mobility, and introduce a more equitable economic system in rural areas and civil rights in the country. Students, left-leaning intellectuals, and workers had been particularly active in the numerous protests and demonstrations in major cities prior to the revolution. Provincial towns and rural areas had witnessed widespread unrest as well, including actual rebellions which had required intervention by the army to restore order.  

5. General Qasim saw himself as a champion of the poor in Iraq and started a number of reformist policies to address their needs. One of the major ones was carrying out land reform. How was this done, and did it work out?

The ambitious Agrarian Reform Law limited private landownership, stipulating that the confiscated land be redistributed among Iraq’s fellahin. The Law was, however, difficult to implement due to the insufficient number of land surveyors and experts, a problem which delayed the process considerably. When criticism increased, the government expedited the redistribution of land, which resulted in much confusion as a result of the lack of expertise. The slow progress in land distribution further increased migration to major urban areas, adding to the strain on local authorities. The revolutionary government could have invited foreign experts from neutral countries to implement the Law. This was a delicate issue, however, due to the previous regime’s close cooperation with the West and the conspicuous foreign presence in the country in the monarchical era. Despite these obstacles more progress was made under Qasim regarding redistribution of land in 1959-1962 than under the first five years of Baath/military rule, 1963-1967. Furthermore, in addition to opposition from prominent landowning families the new government also faced criticism from the left. The Communist Party of Iraq advocated the introduction of stricter limitations on the size of land holdings of wealthy landowners, arguing that the Law allowed the latter to retain too much influence in the countryside. The communists also opposed the Law’s stipulation that compensation be paid for expropriated land.   
A Baghdad slum in 1958 (Magnum Photos)

6. How did the new government deal with the urban poor?

Qasim sympathized with the wish of the urban poor that the state improve their living conditions in the horrible squalor of urban slums. Generally speaking, his policies were more successful in urban than in rural areas. Qasim initiated a large number of housing projects, providing inexpensive dwellings for the poorer strata of the urban population. Furthermore, he saw to it that prices were lowered on common staples. These policies ensured the unwavering support of Iraq’s poor for his regime. Qasim was not overthrown by Iraq’s poor, the majority of the population, but by a limited group of disaffected military officers and political opponents.  

7. Iraq was one of the few countries in the Middle East at the time, which tried to renegotiate its terms with foreign oil companies, in this case, the Iraq Petroleum Corporation. What steps did the government want to achieve with the oil industry, and was it successful?

Saudi Arabia had actually renegotiated its terms with the US-owned Aramco as early as 1950. This had led to profits being shared on a 50-50 basis. The Iranian parliament had taken more drastic measures with regard to the British-run Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The Company refused to offer the Iranian government a similar deal, which resulted in its nationalization in 1951. The response of the British government and the Eisenhower administration was to overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government under Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Qasim’s cautious approach to the issue of nationalization was most likely a result of the outcome of the Iranian Oil Crisis of 1951-53. His immediate concern was to consolidate the new regime and to avoid a conflict with the Western powers. National security was therefore an obvious consideration at the time. Qasim was certainly also aware of the consequence of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company in 1956. Incidentally, the Iraq Petroleum Company was equally concerned about the possibility of nationalization and an ensuing crisis which could possibly last for years. As a result, the British appeared to have learned the lessons of 1951 and 1956, despite a powerful weapon which they could have utilized. Qasim was aware of the serious consequences for the country that the freezing of considerable Iraqi assets in British banks would have. With both parties adopting a cautious approach, unlike in 1951 and 1956, a crisis was avoided. The new Iraqi government therefore took only limited action, resulting in gradually increased control over company policies and operations. As a result, one oil concession was terminated early in 1959 and a number of Western experts at the Daura refinery were replaced by Iraqi experts. The latter were assisted by Soviet experts. The Kirkuk oil field concession and installations were nationalized in 1972 and the remaining foreign oil interests in Iraq in 1975.  

8. The promise of the coup, and the reforms Qasim attempted gained the support of the Iraqi Communist Party. What role did it play during the Qasim regime, and how did the relationship between the two change over time? 

Iraqi communism was represented in the revolutionary government from the outset. The Marxist Minister of Economy Ibrahim Kubba obviously exercised considerable influence over the economic policies of the new regime. Qasim thus has to share the credit for certain economic policies with the Iraqi Communist Party, although Kubba himself was not a card-carrying member. The party generally took a more radical stance on policies, such as the Agrarian Reform Law, than Qasim, but the latter consistently settled for a more moderate approach to reform. Communist influence grew steadily, in particular as a result of increasing Arab nationalist opposition to Qasim’s leadership. This development was a result of the Iraqi leader’s realization that he needed the communists as a counterweight to the mounting opposition to his rule among Arab nationalist military officers. When the communists had gained too much power in the eyes of Qasim, however, he decided to reduce their influence and launch an anti-communist campaign in the summer of 1959. Despite Qasim’s attack on the communists they proved his staunchest allies in his time of need. When Qasim’s enemies were closing in on him during the final successful attempt at overthrowing him in February of 1963, the communists besought him to distribute weapons among the capital’s poor to defend the revolution. Wishing to avoid civil war, Qasim refused and was summarily executed by his enemies.

9. Foreign affairs offered both opportunities and pitfalls for General Qasim. He wanted to change Iraq’s pro-Western stance, so what new direction did he lead the country towards?

The new regime declared on the first day of the revolution that it had no intention of continuing the monarchy’s pro-West policy. It announced that the latter would be replaced by a nonaligned foreign policy. This decision was welcomed by the Soviet bloc, which expeditiously recognized the Qasim regime. (Nuri al-Saʻid had severed Iraq’s diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on the eve of his country’s adherence to the Baghdad Pact in 1955). The delay in British and US recognition of the new Iraqi government was one reason for Iraq’s closer economic and military ties with the socialist countries. Surprisingly enough, Iraq’s reorientation towards a nonaligned foreign policy did not result in a withdrawal from the Baghdad Pact. One result of the overthrow of the monarchy, however, was Iraq’s immediate withdrawal from the short-lived Hashimite Iraqi-Jordanian Arab Union, formed in February 1958. Iraq’s military and intelligence cooperation with the Soviet Union was expanded as communist influence grew and pan-Arab criticism of and opposition to his regime increased. Trade, cultural, scientific, and educational relations with Soviet bloc and nonaligned countries developed rapidly. In a serious effort to reduce the considerable trade deficit with Western countries, Britain in particular, the Qasim regime introduced restrictions on the import of goods which could be locally manufactured and reduced the import of luxury items. Furthermore, the new regime laid down new guidelines for foreign trade, stipulating that Iraq conduct trade on the basis of equal trade agreements only. Close ties with socialist and nonaligned countries also enabled Iraq to conduct barter trade with these states. The measures adopted by the Qasim regime with regard to foreign relations thus constituted a radical departure from those of the previous regime.  

10. More problematic for Qasim was how he dealt with Pan-Arab and Arab nationalist ideas and Colonel Nasser in Egypt. Some Iraqis saw the 1958 coup as the first step towards moving towards greater Arab unity in the region, while others wanted to focus upon developing Iraq. Where was General Qasim along this continuum, and what kind of domestic opposition did his stance garner?

Many pan-Arabists in the Middle East, including a number of Iraqi Free Officers, were ecstatic at the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy, an event perceived as a strengthening of the radical camp in the Arab world and a significant step toward pan-Arab unity, believed eventually to lead to a merger with the United Arab Republic. Iraq’s “honeymoon” with Gamal Abdul al-Nasser soon turned into an extremely contentious relationship, however, when Qasim realized that his second in command, Abdul al-Salam Arif, who was close to al-Nasser, was making efforts to remove him from power. When Qasim later suspected that al-Nasser was conspiring against him, relations with the United Arab Republic soured even further and became as acrimonious as they had been under Qasim’s predecessor Nuri. Many scholars argue that Qasim was an Iraqi nationalist (particularist), opposed to pan-Arabism. Like the issue of the nature of the events of July 14, 1958, the reality is more complex than the traditional contention suggests. Qasim did, as a matter of fact, adopt pan-Arab positions on certain issues and Iraqi nationalist positions on other issues. He was a pan-Arabist on defense, education, and foreign policy, and Iraqi nationalist on domestic issues. Ironically, the issue of Arab unity, a primary goal of pan-Arabism, became as divisive an issue in Egyptian-Iraqi relations after the Iraqi Revolution as it had been in the pre-revolutionary era under Nuri al-Saʻid.

11. Most histories consider Qasim a reformer at heart. Your book argued that the 1958 coup brought about more dramatic change to Iraq. Overall, what was left of the monarchist economic and political system and foreign policy after Qasim? 

The monarchical economic and political systems can best be described as exclusivist, since only a very limited group of Iraqis benefited from them. As I have indicated above, the economic, social, and foreign policies of the Qasim regime constituted a radical departure from those of the monarchy. At the same time, the new society which Qasim envisioned retained certain features of the old system. The reason is that Qasim never wanted to unleash a class war, a fact which most likely would have set his regime a part from a more radical leftist government. Had such a regime overthrown the monarchy, it is quite possible that it would have retained the exclusivist features of the monarchy and introduced a system which would to a certain extent have mirrored that of the ancien régime from the opposite end of the political spectrum. What made Qasim’s rule so different from rightist and leftist authoritarian systems was the inclusivist aspect and the element of a degree of popular participation within an authoritarian system of government. In a sense this made him more “revolutionary” than a communist regime would have been at the time due to the unpredictability of his policies. Had he been a leftist radical he would have been a much more predictable leader, allowing less popular participation in the political process.    

12. Finally, there are just as many critics of this period in Iraqi history as supporters. Qasim for example never held elections, limited political parties, and centralized more and more power in his hands. How can you explain the duality in this man and time period that he would try help out the lower sectors of society, yet not allow the public a say in government?  

This is a good but difficult question to address for the obvious reason that Qasim himself would have been the best person to answer it. To a certain degree this is a follow up question to the previous one and the keyword that I used in my answer to that question, “inclusivist,” therefore gives us a clue as to how to answer your question. Qasim’s actions, speeches, decisions, and policies often exude an inclusivist approach to life and politics, a somewhat unusual personality trait in an authoritarian leader. The product of a very polarized society Qasim had drawn the conclusion that he wished to be a leader for all Iraqis, not of one single party, ethnic group, social class, or version of Islam. As a result of this realization, he frequently emphasized in speeches and interviews that he was above politics, obviously a claim which was extremely difficult, not to say impossible, to live up to. Critics will of course argue that the best way to practice inclusivism would have been to invite all Iraqis to have a say in the political process. This criticism tends to disregard Qasim’s experience in life. He had witnessed the corruption of a parliamentary system which had been installed by an imperialist power and which had remained in place until the overthrow of the monarchy. Furthermore, squabbling opposition politicians had proven their impotency with regard to replacing the old regime with a democratic system. Finally, he had also witnessed the squabbling of his Free Officer colleagues and the many aborted coup plans which they had produced. This experience instilled in him distrust of his colleagues and of politicians alike. As a result, his government was that of technocrats without official party affiliations. Like most authoritarian leaders he was convinced that he was the right man to lead his country. Most likely, in Qasim’s mind his inclusivist approach to politics made him particularly qualified for this task. This conviction further consolidated in his mind as a result of his survival skills, including escaping an attempt on his life. This probably led him to believe that he had survived as a result of some kind of divine intervention. His background (Kurdish-Arab, Sunni-Shiʻi) also allowed him to identify with different ethnic groups and religious denominations depending on the audience. His greatest mistake, however, was not to seek a popular mandate soon after the overthrow of the monarchy. He would most likely have secured such a mandate, which in turn would have radically reduced the legitimacy of the challenge from pan-Arab Free Officers. It is worth mentioning that Qasim was overthrown by his Baathist enemies and rivals in the military, not by the majority of Iraqis. Had he offered the latter a say in the political process, it would have been more difficult to topple his regime. Concurrently, it may be true that the Iraqi public did not play a significant role in government, but this does not mean that they played no role at all in forming their destiny. The situation on the ground at the grassroots level was somewhat different, since the revolution to a certain degree empowered the poorer strata of the population, something unheard of in the history of Iraq. Rural workers gained the right to form labor unions and have a say in determining minimum wages. Industrial workers were also allowed to organize in unions and major companies were required to provide housing for their employees. Finally, there was an element of participation in the economic planning process, since the authorities sought the advice and opinion of popular organizations before decisions were made regarding economic projects.         


Farouk-Sluglett, Marion and Sluglett, Peter, Iraq Since 1958, From Revolution To Dictatorship, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2003

Marr, Phebe, The Modern History Of Iraq, Westview Press: Colorado, Oxford, 2004

Polk, William, Understanding Iraq, New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2005

Al-Qarawee, Harith, Imagining The Nation, Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq, Lancashire: Rosendale Books, 2012

Romero, Juan, The Iraqi Revolution of 1958, A Revolutionary Quest For Unity and Security, Lanham, Plymouth: University of America Press, 2011

Sassoon, Joseph, Saddam Hussein Ba’th Party, Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2012

Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, 2008


Steve Donnelly, AICP said...

Really great interview.

It is so important to understand the fellahin and Tribal rules that preceded the coup/revolution, as it is to understand the emergence of technocrats.

One aspect brings the end of tribal/sheik/landowner controls in favor of the emerging unitary concept of one right, one standard, and one rule of law--equally applicable to Qasim's focus on the urban poor.

The other sought, in my view, to rebalance the system (loss of kings) through introduction of the technocrats, and their efforts to implement the Qasim approaches (land reform, food security, public works, infrastructure, housing, education, medicine, etc..)

Whether good, bad, or something else, these were all important dynamics and factions at play in Iraq, and still embedded in the system we stumbled into.

Anonymous said...

Gen. Qasim

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