#63 - Irak - 80 years of imperialist oppression

February 2003


As this pamphlet goes to press, the Middle East may be on the verge of yet another Gulf War. For months this threat has been hanging over the heads of the Iraqi people. By now, however, Bush's war rhetoric, although originally largely designed for domestic purposes, seems more and more likely to result in real warfare on the ground.

If a war does break out, in one or other form - and the US leaders still have a whole range of options in this respect - it will certainly not be aimed at protecting the West from Saddam Hussein's alleged "weapons of mass destruction." The charade of the UN arms inspections has exposed this for the pretext it really is - a cynical lie designed to frighten the public in the US and in Britain, but also in the rest of Europe, into lining up behind outright imperialist aggression. And in passing, this has also, once again, exposed the dead-end of relying on imperialist institutions such as the United Nations to uphold the rights of peoples.

Nor will this war be dictated by Western leaders' fears of a future catastrophic shortage of oil supplies, which they supposedly have to prevent by tightening their control over Third World producing countries. In and of itself, such an explanation would already be a condemnation of Bush's policy. But even this is still giving imperialism far too much credit. In fact, Western leaders will have no excuse whatsoever, not even an illegitimate one, for this act of imperialist banditry.

The truth is that the imperialist powers are not any more threatened today by an oil squeeze than they were in the early 1970s, when the oil "majors" imposed a huge increase in petrol prices across the world, while shifting the blame onto the producing countries. In reality, Third World oil producing countries are, have always been and will always be, entirely dependent on the West's oil consumption and the monopoly of the oil "majors" over Western domestic markets.

No, this war will have no justification of any kind. It will be aimed purely at reasserting imperialist domination, by punishing yet again, or getting rid altogether of Saddam Hussein's regime. At the same time it will be used to get Western public opinion used to the idea that such bloody thuggery against poor countries is legitimate, or at least inevitable.

This threatening war will probably mean many more casualties among the Iraqi population - and possibly a bloodbath if it turns into a full-blown war of invasion. It will mean more large-scale damage to what remains of the country's half-destroyed infrastructure and this, again, will affect the poorest more than anyone else. The Iraqi population stands to pay a heavy price for Bush's imperialist plans. And this, in and of itself, is a good enough reason to condemn this war.

But beyond the war itself, what will come next? What future does imperialism have in store for the poor masses of Iraq?

If nothing else, the huge military build up of US and British forces in the Gulf points to the possibility that Western leaders intend to re-establish some form of more direct control over Iraq, at least in the form of a more pliable regime. If so, this would merely be a resumption of the state of affairs which prevailed up until the overthrow of the British-imposed Iraqi monarchy following the 1958 revolution.

In the light of history, there are obvious reasons for imperialism to have such an objective - reasons which go far beyond the desire to secure tighter control over Iraq's oil. Indeed, for most of the 20th century, the Middle East as a whole has been a permanent powderkeg and a thorn in the flesh of the imperialist powers. And time and again the Iraqi population has played an important role in the region's resistance against Western oppression, while contributing towards the region's political instability at the expense of imperialist profits.

Over this period, the imperialist leaders tried various devices to keep the lid on the Iraqi masses. From the quasi- colonial regime of the British mandate days, they moved to the more hypocritical semi-colonial regimes of the subsequent decades until, finally, they chose to support, albeit discreetly, the Baath party's coup in the late 1960s and to rely on the subsequent dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But, as it turned out, each one of these regimes proved to have its own sell-by date from the point of view of imperialism, either because it was overthrown, because it failed to contain the poor masses, or because it backfired on imperialism in some other way, as was the case when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Today the imperialist powers may be looking for an alternative to the regime of their old henchman, Saddam Hussein. How they will go about finding it remains to be seen. But one of their main fears will certainly be a possible backlash from the Iraqi population and, more generally, from the population of the whole region. And with good reason, too. The poor masses of Iraq have a long record of fighting imperialist oppression as well as fighting against their exploitation by their own privileged classes. It is this record that we have tried to outline in the present pamphlet

A focus for imperialist rivalries

Like most of today's Middle Eastern countries, Iraq was an artificial creation, carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of World War I. But it was by no means a barren land. In particular, the fertile land stretching from Baghdad to Basra in the South and Mosul in the North, was the birthplace of some of the world's most ancient civilisations.

During the 16th century, most of the Middle East, including Iraq, was integrated into the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire, then in its progressive phase. Today's Iraq corresponds with three provinces established under the Ottoman Empire. The Southern province of Basra was dominated by Shiite Muslim Arabs who had historic ties with what is today's Iran. The central province, around Baghdad, was also mostly Arabic, but split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. And, in the North, the Mosul province had a mostly Kurdish population, largely Muslim as well, but with a Sunni majority. In addition there were various ethnic and religious minorities spread across the three provinces - Assyrians, Yazidis, Christians, Jews, etc..

The flexible rule of the Ottoman Empire was never a brake on the social and economic development of its Middle Eastern provinces, at least not during its phase of expansion. While the imperial administration kept centrifugal forces under control in order to preserve the integrity of the empire, it provided for the development of vital transport and urban infrastructure and gave a large degree of administrative autonomy to the local elites for the day-to-day running of affairs. So that in Iraq, and in fact in most of the Middle East, large towns developed under Ottoman rule, together with an affluent local merchant class and sophisticated intelligentsia. At the same time, the historical links inherited from the pre-Ottoman days remained intact across the region.

By the 19th century, however, the Ottoman empire had gone into decline. It became easy prey for the rising European capitalist classes. For the Middle East, with its huge territory unified by the Ottoman empire, the progress achieved in Europe as a result of the bourgeois revolution could have been a major step forward. Instead of that, however, the rival European powers initiated a process which led eventually to the break up of the region - also thereby undoing much of the progress achieved over the previous three centuries.

Britain was the first European power to get its foot in the door. Its imprint can still be seen today along the coasts of the Arabian peninsula, in the form of the so-called "oil emirates" - these artificial statelets in which a few feudal families managed to survive far beyond their time, until today, by playing the role of security guards for Western oil companies. But these statelets would never have come into existence in the first place, had it not been for the desire of British companies to secure safe, deep-sea harbours for their ships and for their ships only. In particular, this was how Kuwait, itself the cause or rather the pretext for the past twelve years of on-going war against Iraq, was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Britain, before becoming a British protectorate in 1899 and the location of the first Western military base in the Middle East, in 1907.

Britain was not the only European power to loot the Middle East, of course. In the second part of the 19th century, French banks took over the state finances of the Ottoman empire. Indeed, by 1870, the Imperial Ottoman Bank, which acted as the Empire's central bank, was in effect controlled by the Paris-based Banque de l'Union Parisienne.

Needless to say there was no love lost between British and French companies fighting for a share of the Ottoman loot. But the rivalries between European powers reached new heights in the last decade of the 19th century, with the saga of the "Baghdad railway" - a projected line which was meant to link Turkey to Basra via Baghdad. It took no less than 20 years for the main rivals - Britain, France, Czarist Russia and Germany - to come to an agreement over this project, which, in fact, amounted to the sharing out between them of more or less every source of profit that they could think of in the Ottoman Empire!

It must be said that in the meantime, a new factor had began to exacerbate the rivalries between the four contending powers - oil. Large reserves of oil had been discovered near Mosul as early as 1870, but as long as its main commercial use was street or home lightning, these reserves did not generate much interest. However, everything changed when, at the turn of the century, the British Admiralty decided that in future its ships would have to use diesel fuel instead of coal. Oil became a strategic resource and as Germany was claiming exclusive mineral rights alongside the rail tracks financed by its banks' loans, the saga carried on. In the end, the agreement reached in 1914 forced Germany to give up the monopoly position it claimed over two-thirds of the line, as well as its demand for mineral rights. In exchange Berlin received a share of what was soon to become the Iraqi Petroleum Company.

The break-up of the Middle East

However, World War I cancelled out this agreement. First neutral, the Ottoman Empire finally joined Germany's side. Three days exactly after the beginning of the war, a British force from India crossed over, via Kuwait, with the aim of occupying as much of today's Iraq as possible, up to and including the Mosul oil fields. As it happened, they did not do very well, since it took four years and large reinforcements before they were even able to reach their destination. In doing this, however, it was not Germany that Britain was fighting, but France, in preparation for the postwar settlement, when the Middle East agreement would have to be renegotiated, this time without Germany (at least such was London's gamble).

The following period, up until 1925 when the borders of Iraq were more or less finalised, was dominated by secret diplomacy and war - a war which carried on far beyond the end of the World War itself.

Without going back over the details of this period, it should be recalled that the main lever used by Britain to weaken the military strength of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East was the support of Arabic feudal leaders and clans, which was obtained by making all sorts of promises about an independent Arabic state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Of course, London never intended to honour such promises. In fact, the postwar settlement divided the Middle East into two areas - one dominated by Britain (including today's Jordan, Palestine and Israel, Iraq and Egypt) and the other under French control (Syria and Lebanon). In addition, France was awarded the 25% share of Iraqi petroleum that had been granted to Germany by the 1914 agreement - and this share was soon taken over by a purpose-built company called CFP (French Petroleum Counters, which later became Total and merged recently into TotalFinaElf).

In fact this re-division of the Middle East between the two rival powers went much further, since initially the settlement involved the virtual disappearance of Turkey as an independent state. It took a nationalist uprising led by the Turkish leader Mustapha Kemal to foil this plan. The final result was that by the end of the 1920s, only two Middle Eastern countries could be considered as independent, having no Western military bases on their territory - Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

In line with the so-called "philosophy" of the postwar period, the word "colony" was considered a dirty word - but not the word "mandate". So the "international community", in the form of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN, granted France and Britain a "mandate" to take over their respective shares of the Middle East. In other words, the so-called "international community" was already serving as a cover for the dirty deals of imperialism - proof that Bush father and son only needed to re-enact old history!

The main victim in this postwar settlement was, of course, the Arabic world. The old historical ties which had kept it together, even during Ottoman rule, could have provided the foundation for a large independent Arabic entity. Even on a capitalist basis, the existence of such an entity would have signified progress. In particular it would have been in a much better position to oppose the plundering of its resources by imperialist companies. But this was precisely what Britain and France wanted to avoid - and why, therefore, despite their rivalry, they joined forces to impose this balkanisation on the Middle East, in order to undermine its capacity to resist.

The explosive birth of Iraq

These events did not take place in a vacuum, however. The Middle Eastern populations had held on to the illusion that the downfall of the Ottoman Empire would finally mean an end to foreign occupation. When foreign occupation continued, under a new guise, anti-Western protests started to take place. These began in Egypt, in 1919, spread to Syria and finally peaked simultaneously in Syria and Iraq, in 1920.

In Iraq, it was Britain's occupation which triggered a backlash. The staff of the occupying administration were pure products of the British India Office, complete with the touch of aristocratic racism this implied. But Baghdad was not Calcutta. Its merchant class and petty-bourgeoisie had never been treated in such a way, not even under Ottoman rule. As to the population as a whole, it certainly did not like being parasitised by the new occupants and was keen to see their backs once and for all.

The realisation that Britain's promise of an independent Arab state was an illusion finally sunk in across Iraq. This led to an un-coordinated uprising against the British, from July 1920. More or less all Iraqi social layers were involved and it took British troops over 3 months of systematic repression to crush it. Even then, many punitive expeditions had to be organised well into the following year in order to disband armed groups which had reassembled in various areas.

In London it was decided that the political and financial cost of the Iraqi uprising had been far too high. It was hard for the government to justify in front of public opinion that hundreds of British soldiers were still being killed in "non-colonial" Iraq two years after the official end of the World War (the number of "rebels" killed was never announced nor even estimated)!

So a political U-turn was initiated, which was formulated at the time with a remarkable degree of cynicism by the head of the political department of the India Office, Sir Arthur Hirtzel: "What we want to have in existence, what we ought to have been creating in this time is some administration with Arab institutions, which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves: something that won't cost very much, that Labour can swallow consistent with its principles, but under which our political and economic interests will be secure."

However, unlike in its older colonies, Britain did not have a purpose-trained Iraqi political personnel that could be entrusted with such delicate matters. So, having failed to deliver to its feudal Arabic wartime allies the promised independent Arab state, London offered some of them unexpected "royal" positions in "monarchies" which had just been invented in the backrooms of the Foreign Office. One of these allies, Faisal, was thus promoted to "King of Iraq", in August 1921, without the Iraqi population having even the smallest chance of a say. So much for Britain's grand "democratic role" and never mind, even, the fact that this Faisal came from a feudal clan based in Saudi Arabia. But then his brother, Abdullah, had just been appointed king of Jordan by London, a few months before, therefore initiating the so-called Hashemite royal dynasty which is still in power in Jordan today.

In 1922, a treaty formalised the content of the so-called British "mandate": Iraq's foreign policy and finances remained in British hands; permanent RAF bases and British troops were to guarantee the protection of British assets, together with locally-recruited militias; Britain would set up and train an Iraqi army, but it would retain full control of it. On top of it all, the Iraqi state had to carry the financial burden for all British expenses resulting from this treaty and a share of the Ottoman debt repayment to Western banks, not to mention the cost of a range of public works contracts which were to go to British companies only. If this was not colonial status, what was it?

Nevertheless, all this diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing could hardly mask the thunder of canons from the war which was still raging in the North of today's Iraq. Since 1919, the Kurdish population had been in turmoil. Political chaos in Persia (as Iran was called at the time) and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire had raised the possibility of a united Kurdistan. In 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres had even explicitly mentioned such a possibility. But it was also this Treaty which planned to wipe Turkey off the map. And when Mustapha Kemal's uprising made this impossible, the Treaty of Sèvres had to be forgotten, together with the idea of a united Kurdistan. What made matters even worse was that Mustapha Kemal was just as determined to take over today's Iraqi Kurdistan as Britain was - because of the Mosul oil fields.

So, war went on almost continuously between 1919 and 1925 in Iraqi Kurdistan. At first British troops tried to crush the Kurdish resistance, without much success. This was the time when Churchill, then Colonial secretary, famously suggested that the RAF should use one of Britain's "weapons of mass destruction", mustard gas, against the Kurdish population. Subsequently this war took the form of a war by proxy between Britain and Turkey, in which Turkey helped the Kurdish guerilla forces to push back the British army.

In the meantime a boundary commission set up by the League of Nations had been "examining" Britain's and Turkey's claims over Northern Iraq and the Mosul oil fields. But just like the UN today, its ancestor was merely an instrument of the richest imperialist countries. So, in 1925 the League of Nations found in Britain's favour. Turkey had to give up its territorial and mineral claims, in return for 10% of the royalties earned by Iraq on its Mosul oil over the next 25 years. As to the Kurdish population, it ended up in an even worse situation than before, being now split between four countries instead of two.

The deep contradictions of the new Iraq that came into existence in the mid-1920s reflected its artificial origins. The majority of its population were Shiite Muslims, but King Faisal's ruling administration was almost exclusively recruited from among local Sunni Muslims, with an army of British civil servants to oversee their work. Iraq's Kurdish North, containing more or less 20% of Iraq's population, may have provided the country with huge reserves of oil, but it also represented a permanent powderkeg. Finally, as a result of the latest changes made by Britain to Kuwait's borders, Iraq's only deep-sea harbour was now 90 miles inland, at Basra, at the end of the Shatt al-Arab, a long estuary that it shared with Persia - which meant that all maritime traffic to and from Iraq was effectively under the control of the British Navy operating from Kuwait, at the other end of this estuary.

Eventually, in 1929, London announced that it was prepared to grant independence to Iraq. Another treaty was signed in 1930 and Iraq became independent in 1932. However, this did not change much with regard to the relationship between London and Baghdad. Iraq did take over responsibility for its own foreign policy and finances, but RAF bases remained on its territory, complete with their staff and equipment, in order to "maintain the necessary lines of communications within the Empire", as London claimed. Iraqi ambassadors were appointed across the world, but in Baghdad, everything was run by British "advisors" sitting in ministerial backrooms. Iraq was sitting on enormous oil resources, particularly since the discovery of huge fields around the northern town of Kirkuk, in 1927. But on the eve of Iraq's independence, the Iraqi Petroleum Company, now a joint venture between the forerunners of BP, Shell, the French CFP and the US company Mobil, was awarded a monopoly over all present and future oil production in Iraq, thereby depriving the new country of any control over its own natural resources!

To all intents and purposes, therefore, Iraq remained a British colony.

1936 - The emergence of the poor masses

The 1930s saw a new wave of rebellion which spread across the Middle East and beyond, to the French colonies of North Africa. One of the features of this wave was that for the first time, its main contingents came out of the ranks of the poor masses, particularly the fledgling urban working class. In the Middle East, this wave of unrest reached its highest point in Syria, where the French administration was confronted with a 50-day general strike in 1936, but it also manifested in Palestine and in Iraq.

In fact the Iraqi regime was threatened from different directions. First, it had to face the resistance of ethnic and religious minorities which reacted violently against the increased discrimination and repression they had experienced since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. So, between 1931 and 1936 alone, the British-trained Iraqi army crushed four major minority uprisings - Kurds, Assyrians, Southern Shiite tribes and Yazidis.

But the main threat against Baghdad's regime came from the ranks of the poor. The first Iraqi trade unions had been formed by nationalist activists in the late 1920s, among small artisans and home workers but also in the railways, for instance. Between 1931 and 1934, these unions were responsible for a number of large strikes and campaigns - in particular a 15-day general strike against tax increases, in 1931, and a three-month boycott of the British-owned Baghdad Electricity Company.

At the same time, a new political opposition was emerging, which had nothing in common with the traditional nationalist forces. Its main representative was the Ahali party (People's party), which had been launched in the late 1920s by a group of Iraqi students at Beirut's American university. Its programme was a mixed bag, borrowed from the French Revolution, the US declaration of independence, the pamphlets of the Fabian Society and other similar sources. It was a reformist party which did not have a very clear idea as to how things could be changed or which direction they could take. But it was a party which considered propaganda as a useful tool to educate the poor masses and many of its members saw collective action as a means to improve the social conditions of the majority.

The first battle came in March 1935, in Southern Iraq, when landless farmers rose spontaneously against the conditions imposed on them by the rich landowning class. For the first time in Iraq, farmers demonstrated behind banners demanding land reform and communal democracy. These protests were soon crushed by the army, but they marked the beginning of a much larger movement, which was to spread in the urban areas during the following period.

In October 1936, a group of anti-monarchist officers, led by one of the army's very few Kurdish senior officers, general Bakr Sidqi, staged a bloodless coup and a new government was formed under Hikmat Sulaiman, a seasoned politician who had recently joined the Ahali party. Half of the ministries went to members of the Ahali party and a raft of social reforms were immediately announced. During the following week, huge marches were held in the country's largest towns to support the new government, while demanding improved conditions for the poorest. Strikes developed in all industries and workers flocked to join the new trade unions which were formed in the course of these strikes.

There were certainly widespread illusions that the army was going to resolve the country's problems, that it would free it from British domination and sort out social injustices. The new regime sought to capitalise on this support by resorting, on occasion, to socialist rhetoric. But this did not mean that the army was prepared to allow reforms to go beyond certain limits. When proposals for land reform were published, landowners reminded the army hierarchy of its duty. On 17 March 1937, Sidqi and Hikmat Sulaiman turned against the regime's left-wing supporters and launched a wave of repression.

Within a week, the regime's attacks were met by large strikes. Starting from the Basra docks, the National Cigarette Company in Baghdad and the Kirkuk oil fields, the movement spread across the country, lasting over two months. But this was already too late. The poor masses had never been prepared for such a U-turn on the part of the army. They were taken unawares, without having had the time to prepare themselves for a confrontation.

As to the army, it proved on this occasion, both to the Iraqi capitalists and to the imperialist leaders, that it was now capable of exercising political power, including against a popular mobilisation which could have threatened the existing social order. And in fact, from then onwards, the Iraqi military were to be the godfathers of successive political regimes, whether they chose to appear in the forefront of the political scene or not.

1945-49 - The emergence of the Iraqi CP

The aftermath of World War II saw another large wave of social and anti-imperialist unrest across the Middle East. This period also saw a growing disengagement of the old colonial powers. The pressure of the US, which was determined to see the dismantling of the European spheres of influence, played a role in this. But in some countries, such as French-occupied Lebanon and Syria, it was the population's mobilisation which kicked out the colonial administration. In other countries, such as Egypt and Iraq, the chaos caused by the war in the imperialist system of domination opened the way to large political and social movements. And for the first time, the Communist parties played a leading role in these mass movements in several countries.

In Iraq, the roots of the Communist movement could be traced back to the mid-1920s. But for a long time, due to the on-going repression and the difficulties of communicating within the country, this movement remained split into a number of local circles which operated largely independently from one another. The events of 1935-37 provided communist activists with their first chance to develop political activity almost openly - in the new trade-unions which emerged out of the militancy of this period and in the Association of People's Reform, the legal organisation formed in 1936 by the Ahali party.

It was during this period of 1935-37 that the communist movement won the activists and the credit which were to become the building blocks of its future mass party. By 1945, owing to the hardships imposed on the masses by the wartime governments, the marginalisation of the nationalist parties and, above all, the prestige of the USSR as a result of its role in defeating Germany, the illegal Communist party emerged as the only national opposition party in the country. At that point, according to police records, the three main communist parties organised over 7,200 members and probably much more organised and unorganised supporters - at a time when the National Democratic Party, the largest legal party in Iraq had just under 7,000 members.

The postwar unrest began in May 1946, with a series of large demonstrations demanding the departure of the British troops which had settled there during the war. In early July, oil workers went on strike in Kirkuk, led by CP activists. One week into the strike, the police fired at a strikers' march, killing ten of them. This was the spark that set alight a huge strike wave across the country. In the meantime, an uprising had been launched in Iraqi Kurdistan, using weapons supplied by the USSR. In Baghdad, the military regime declared a state of emergency and initiated a wave of bloody repression which lasted until the end of 1947.

Then, in January 1948, came the episode of the Treaty of Portsmouth. In and of itself, this Treaty with Britain was nothing new as it merely repeated the same arrangements already included in the 1930 Treaty. Except that in the conditions of the postwar period, a whole section of Iraqi public opinion was now strongly in favour of cancelling all such treaties with Britain. What is more, the regime had chosen to sign this new Treaty secretly for fear of a backlash. As it turned out, this was a total miscalculation since, to a large extent, it was precisely this secrecy which infuriated the population and sparked off a new wave of unrest, as soon as news of the Treaty leaked out.

Initially, university students staged two weeks of strikes and demonstrations. Then on 20 January 1948, in Baghdad, the police opened fire on a large march which many workers had joined, killing several protestors. From this point onwards, the protest gathered more and more momentum and spread across the country. After a week of this rising tide, the army opened fire on another demonstration in Baghdad, with machine guns this time, killing 300 to 400 people.

After this bloodbath, the government resigned under pressure from London and the Treaty of Portsmouth was repealed. This did not prevent the regime from resorting once again to repression, if only to make up for the fact that it had been forced to back down by a popular mobilisation. The Communist party, whose activists had led many of the demonstrations, paid the heaviest price, in particular with the public hanging of its three main leaders in February 1949.

The events of the late 1940s in the Middle East were just the beginning of a mass movement that was to develop further over several decades. Throughout the Third World, national liberation movements had emerged during this period. But in the Middle East, in addition, a whole working class generation had accumulated a new political experience by using the weapons of the class struggle. And many of its best elements were now in the Communist parties, which they saw not just as a vehicle for national liberation but also for social emancipation.

However, the policy of the Communist parties did not meet these expectations. In accordance with Stalin's line, far from promoting a revolutionary policy aimed at transforming society, these parties sought alliances with nationalist parties, which amounted to placing the poor masses in their tow. In the political context of the Middle East, this policy was suicidal for the Communist parties and a disaster for the masses who were looking towards them.

Applied to the situation of Iraq, this meant that the Communist party never tried to offer an independent policy to the poor masses. Instead, whether in the 1940s or later, it always put forward objectives such as "a national democratic government", which amounted to lining up the poor masses behind the banner of the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie, if not the bourgeoisie and anti-monarchist generals.

From the Cold War to the downfall of the monarchy

The 1950s - the decade of the Cold War - were characterised by a more openly aggressive policy on the part of US imperialism in the Middle East. First there was the help provided by the CIA to overthrow the liberal regime of Mossadeq in Iran, in 1953, as a punishment for his nationalisation of Western oil assets in the country. Later on, in 1958, a US intervention force landed in Lebanon to protect the power of the ruling Maronite bourgeoisie which was threatened by a popular insurrection.

But this decade also saw the development of Pan-Arab nationalism, as a form of nationalism embracing the whole of the Arab world rather than just one of its constituent countries. For the populations of French-dominated Morocco and Algeria, British-dominated Egypt and Iraq, and for the Palestinians hunted out of their lands by Zionist gangs, this notion of Arab nationalism fitted in with the common experience they had of imperialist oppression. Politically, the objective of Pan-Arabism was the setting up of a single unified Arabic country.

The popular appeal of Pan-Arabism was such that many organisations and politicians endorsed it, often for dubious reasons. The most prestigious among these politicians was undoubtedly the Egyptian leader Nasser, although it was also he who demonstrated in the most striking way the limits of this perspective, when he turned it into a demagogic instrument designed to serve a narrow nationalist policy.

However, Pan-Arabism also inspired a whole generation of genuine activists across the Middle East. And yet the Communist parties never managed to find the language and the perspective that might have attracted these activists towards them. In fact the CPs remained prisoners of their own alignment behind the most narrow forms of nationalism. This should not come as a surprise. Arguing that the poor masses had a common interest across the Middle East required the preparedness to fight for the demands of these poor masses, including against their local exploiters - something that the CPs' nationalist (or sometimes even Pan-Arabist) allies would never have tolerated.

And because the Communist parties were the only political currents with some influence in the region's working class, this meant that the perspective of unifying the poor masses of the Middle East behind a common social banner against imperialism and the local exploiters, was never raised.

To go back to Iraq. It spent most of the decade under a dictatorship which was brutal, anti-communist, deeply corrupted and servile towards the imperialist powers. A contemporary British commentator compared the Iraqi political system to "a pack of cards which comprises the elite, with seats in the Senate, a rotten borough to elect them to the lower house and American commercial agencies to pay their bill; it is an ill-assorted pack with no kings, no queens, but many knaves."

In July 1952, the military coup of the Egyptian "Free Officers", which was to bring Nasser to power some time later, found an immediate echo in Iraq. The youth flooded the streets to demand democratic reforms and strikes broke out. Several hundred died in the repression and thousands were arrested. But this did not prevent more marches the following year, this time against the CIA and its role in the coup against Mossadeq in Iran. Repression was stepped up again, but to no avail. By then the regime was already doomed.

In 1955, the Iraqi regime signed up to a new anti-communist coalition called the "Baghdad Pact", which brought together Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Britain, for the explicit purpose of providing joint military protection to Western oil assets in the Middle East - against the USSR, maybe, but primarily against the region's populations. By the same token it created an official channel for Britain to have a say in the running of the Iraqi armed forces. As a result, this pact was seen as yet another humiliation by a large section of the Iraqi population but also by many Iraqi officers and soldiers.

All this was taking place at a time when Nasser's policy seemed increasingly successful. Having got Britain to withdraw its troops from Egypt, Nasser appeared to be making a decisive step down the road of Pan-Arabism with the planned launch of a United Arab Republic with Syria (although, as it turned out, this was to be short-lived). In addition, Nasser had made a spectacular appearance at the Conference of Non-aligned Countries in Bandung, where a number of poor countries had declared their refusal to side with any of the Cold War camps - a declaration which was very popular among the Iraqi opposition and even among the army. Of course Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal, the following year, only increased his prestige, particularly after the forces sent by Britain, France and Israel to stop him, were forced to turn round.

It was on this backdrop that, following Nasser's example, a clandestine organisation of "Free Officers" was set up in the Iraqi army. On 13 July 1958, this organisation led a coup without meeting any resistance. The royal family was executed and, the next day, the coup leader, General Qasim, was welcomed in Baghdad as a liberator. The crowd which flooded the streets of Baghdad was estimated at over 100,000, with CP activists being in the lead of most demonstrations. The same day, Qasim issued the following statement on the radio: "The affairs of the country must be entrusted to a government emanating from the people and working under its inspiration. This can only be achieved by the formation of a popular republic to uphold complete Iraqi unity, to bind itself with bonds of fraternity with Arab and Muslim countries to work in accordance with UN principles, to honour all pledges and treaties in accordance with the interests of the homeland, and to act in compliance with the Bandung conference resolutions."

The Hashemite monarchy that Britain had placed in Iraq was therefore gone forever. However, just as in 1936, having immediately given total support to the new regime, the poor masses were about to be deprived once again of what they already considered as their own victory.

The 1958 revolution

There was nothing radical about the ideas of the senior officers who were behind this coup, neither in political, nor in social terms. They stood simply and squarely within the narrow framework of Iraqi nationalism.

The first measures of the new military republic were designed to do away with the institutions left over from the previous regime - including its phoney "democratic" institutions. At the same time, the fixed exchange rate between the Iraqi currency and the pound was ended, diplomatic relations were established with China, the USSR and a number of Eastern European countries, and Iraq's participation in the Baghdad Pact was cancelled (this cancellation was to be completed the following year by the departure of the last British technicians from the former RAF bases).

However, regardless of the generals' intentions, their coup opened the way to a political, intellectual and cultural explosion. All sorts of organisations, publications, discussion groups, etc.., began to emerge without waiting for their legalisation. In workplaces, workers flocked into the old clandestine trade-unions, where they still existed, or into new ones, where they did not. So that within a year of the coup, Iraqi trade unions had a membership of 275,000, or over half of the country's waged workforce. In most cases those who initiated these new organisations, into which tens of thousands of workers and youth were flocking, were CP activists.

The same, rather chaotic creativity prevailed in preparing for the economic and social reforms announced by the new regime. Numerous committees were set up to discuss these reforms and they were more open and democratic than anything seen before. The land reform adopted in October 1958 was among the reforms which came out of these committees. Due to subsequent events, its implementation did not go far enough, nevertheless it did transform conditions and social relations in the countryside. Along the same lines, in 1959-1960, Qasim's regime was to build a whole new city for the mud-hut dwellers of Baghdad, including over 10,000 houses, with roads, markets, schools, medical centres and public baths. This town was called Ath-Thawrah, or "The Revolution".

In any case, one of the remarkable features of this wave of political enthusiasm was the huge current of sympathy that the CP was able to ride, thereby allowing it to experience an unprecedented growth. In fact, even Qasim himself sought to use this enthusiasm, within certain limits at least. For instance, in late July 1958, he called on the youth to form a new militia, the "People's Resistance", whose role would be to defend the regime. Of course, it was the CP who provided most of the cadres for this militia, which it used as a training structure for its youth organisation. But then, Qasim had been careful to insist that the members of "People's Resistance" should bring their weapons back to police stations after each drill.

Qasim's leadership was not accepted unanimously within the army, nor even within the junta of senior officers who led the regime. Soon a split developed between Qasim and another well-known member of the "Free Officers" group, General Arif. In order to drum up support, Arif posed as a Pan-Arabist, promoting Iraq's integration into Nasser's United Arab Republic. To counter his rival, Qasim sought potential allies who would stand, like him, for a strictly Iraqi nationalist point of view. And the only sizeable ally of that kind that he could find was the CP.

This was how a circumstantial alliance between an Iraqi nationalist general, who had not the slightest sympathy for communism, and the Communist party, was formed. This alliance fitted perfectly with the CP's "National Front" policy, which aimed at "cooperation between all national classes and political forces to modernise the country." Predictably, this alliance convinced most of the country's instinctive anti- communists to rally to Arif, regardless of what they thought of his declared Pan-Arabism. However, the struggle between the two men was short-lived. In September 1958, Qasim sacked Arif from all the positions he had in the army and his supporters in the junta were replaced.

It was during that period that the name of Saddam Hussein was heard for the first time - for his part in a failed attempt by a small Pan-Arab group called the Baath party to murder Qasim

As to the CP, from the moment Qasim sought its support, its leaders immediately embarked on a campaign hailing Qasim as "the sole leader". But although Qasim rewarded the CP by setting free all its imprisoned members in August 1958, he stopped short of entrusting it with any official responsibility in his administration. In fact, despite its support for Qasim, the CP was not even legalised and it had to wait until January 1959 before the regime allowed the publication of a CP daily! But even such humiliation did not stop the CP from supporting Qasim - it did not have any other policy to offer to the poor masses, anyway.

Eventually Qasim did invite the CP to join his government - by giving one ministry to one of its leaders and two others to well-known personalities who were close to the CP. But what appeared then as a concession only concealed the fact that he was already preparing the ground to turn against the CP. So, for instance, at the very same time as these ministers were appointed, Qasim decided to reduce considerably the importance of the "People's Resistance" militia - a CP stronghold - while ordering that all officers known for their sympathies with the CP should be sent into retirement. Shortly after this, a wave of arrests struck the CP and "People's Resistance" was completely disbanded.

During the course of 1960, the CP lost almost all the positions it had gained. And yet the CP leadership did not break publicly with Qasim before March 1961, when the police killed several dozen demonstrators in a march organised by tobacco workers who were on strike. But even then the CP leaders used very diplomatic language, as if they hoped that Qasim might decide to change his mind. This mild criticism of Qasim's repressive policy was too little and certainly too late.

1963 - The massacre of communists

Qasim's rule was coming to an end. During the two years before he was overthrown, he made a few spectacular gestures to revamp his image.

For instance, when Kuwait became independent in 1961, he threatened that Iraq would take it over (already!). After all, reintegrating Kuwait into Iraq would have merely corrected a historical theft. But the massive intervention of the British Navy prevented this.

A few months later, after vain attempts to get the Iraqi Petroleum Company to increase production (and therefore the royalties earned by Iraq), Qasim restricted the company's production and prospecting rights to where it was already producing oil. This was the end of the company's monopoly over the whole of Iraq imposed by London just before independence. While this was an enormously popular move in Iraq, it stirred up a huge scandal in the Western oil industry.

Despite these demagogic gestures, however, Qasim had no intention of calling upon the poor masses to defend his regime. Eventually, on 8th February 1963, he was overthrown by a military coup. Thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets, asking for weapons to defend Qasim - a request that Qasim himself turned down. Many of these demonstrators, particularly members and supporters of the CP, were slaughtered while trying to protect, empty-handed, the building of the Defence ministry where Qasim had taken refuge.

Despite the absence of any real opposition, the coup leaders took no chances. As they did not really trust their own soldiers, they organised their own militia, the "National Guard", which recruited mainly from among petty thieves and the like - and Saddam Hussein was part of this militia. That same evening radio-Baghdad called on the population to inform on "communist agents and supporters of God's enemy Qasim" in order to help to "annihilate" them.

What followed was a bloodbath. In poor areas, people fought back with the few weapons they had. In Basra it took the National Guard four days of fighting to take control of the entire town. Then for many weeks, the National Guard did the "cleaning up", compiling long lists of addresses of all those they were meant to arrest. Those who opposed arrest were shot there and then. The others were herded into football grounds. Many among them died under torture in a former Royal palace which had been converted into an interrogation centre. The most lucky among the arrested, so to speak, were sentenced to very long terms in jail, where they often died due to the terrible conditions.

Later on it was estimated that 5,000 CP members had been killed, together with another 30,000 people - and this was without counting those who "disappeared" later in the regime's jails.

There are many reasons to think that this massacre was carried out with the agreement, if not the encouragement and help, of Western intelligence services. In particular the CIA has been accused (and if it was in that part of the world, so was MI6), but also the French equivalent of MI6, the SDECE. It was certainly not a coincidence if the then French president, General De Gaulle, chose to resume diplomatic relations with Iraq (which had been suspended after the Suez affair, seven years earlier) right after this bloodbath!

1968 - The Baath in power

The driving force in the 1963 repression against the CP had been the Baath party ("Renaissance" party). But where did this party come from?

It had been formed in 1944, in Syria, as a Pan-Arab party before Pan-Arabism was really in fashion. It often used a more or less "socialist" phraseology, promoting a degree of state intervention in the economy borrowed from Stalinism. But at the same time it saw the class struggle as a diversion from the nationalist struggle and it was opposed to communism as well as any form of democracy, considering both as dangerous diseases originating from the West. Finally, it was a current which set itself the aim to seize political power by means of armed coups rather than mass agitation.

Despite some successes in Syria, the Baath had never had much influence in Iraq. In 1955, the Iraqi police estimated its membership to be only 259 and it had made no significant gains as a result of Qasim's revolution. However it did have some supporters in the higher spheres of the army. And when the generals who led the coup against Qasim offered the Baath the chance to organise the repression, they grabbed the opportunity.

However, once the Baath had accomplished its bloody work on behalf of the generals, it was pushed out and the National Guard was disarmed. Qasim's old rival, General Arif, became president while the Baath was confined to semi-legal status. The army remained in power on its own for the following five years. But the constant rivalries among the army factions in power, the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War and Iraq's failure to intervene in any way in this war - all this contributed to reinforcing the Baath. In July 1968, the Baath felt strong enough to make a bid for power.

On 17 July 1968, a small group of senior officers took over Baghdad with their troops. A Revolutionary Command Council of seven members drawn from the army took over control. Three of these members as well as the new regime's president, General al-Bakr, were Baathists.

A new Constitution was announced in order to provide the regime with proper legal clothing. It declared Islam as the state's religion and "socialism" (meaning by this, state intervention) as its economic foundation. And all state institutions were to be subject to the Baath party's leadership.

Then began a period of repression against all opposition forces, particularly in the army and among civil servants, involving many public executions.

The consolidation of the Baath regime was also achieved by implementing a few social measures. For instance, the repayments that landless peasants who had benefited from the land reform had to make to landowners, were cancelled. Labour legislation was introduced for the first time, together with a minimum wage and an embryonic welfare state. These measures may have helped to improve, to some extent, the economic situation of the working population. But above all, they allowed the Baath party to develop a sophisticated bureaucratic machinery designed to control the working class, stop industrial unrest and prevent the development of any form of independent working class organisations.

Meanwhile arrests, torture, "disappearances", murders, etc.. went on without respite. And these were all the more frequent as each faction within the Baath party leadership had developed its own repressive machinery.

So, for instance, the faction of president al-Bakr was based, on the one hand, on the National Guard - which was both a Baathist militia and the president's personal guard - and, on the other, on the machinery of the Baath party, which was controlled by Saddam Hussein, who was also a relative of al-Bakr. By the end of 1971 this faction was to defeat all the others, after having sidelined or "disappeared" all those who might have represented a potential danger for al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein.

In the meantime Saddam Hussein had become a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, where he was in charge of National Security and the National Guard. In other words, after a decade of military coups and repression against the poor masses, the character who had emerged as the regime's second most important man was one of the least scrupulous thugs of the Baath party.

Towards the liquidation of the CP

This period of the early 1970s was one in which the Iraqi regime was often described as "progressist". Why? Because it signed a friendship agreement with the USSR and, above all, it nationalised the Iraqi Petroleum Company in June 1972.

However, this nationalisation appears less "progressive" when one recalls that it was carried out at a time when the oil companies were trying to get rid of the oil wells they owned. Indeed, this was the period of the first "oil crisis", when the price of crude oil increased by 368% between October 1973 and September 1974. This large increase was the decision of the big oil companies. But it was advantageous for them to shift the blame for it onto the oil producing countries. And in preparation for this, from 1971 onwards, they allowed a number of these countries - including Algeria, Libya, Iran and the very pro-US Saudi Arabia - to nationalise all or some of their oil wells (with due compensation, of course). Needless to say, these nationalisations did not represent a major sacrifice for the big oil companies, since most of their gigantic profits came from refining, transporting and distributing rather than from production itself.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, despite the on-going repression it had experienced since 1968, the CP retained considerable influence among the poor masses and it certainly had more influence than the Baath in the urban areas. So, at the same time as it was hunting down CP activists, the Baath leadership never ceased to make public openings to the CP, hoping that it would eventually allow itself to be lured into an alliance with the regime, as it had done with Qasim.

Of course, the aim of the Baath was primarily to get rid of the CP once and for all. But, on the other hand, the CP's own policy in favour of a national government of all "national progressist parties" gave a certain credibility to the openings made by the Baath.

Eventually, following the signing of the friendship agreement with the USSR, the CP agreed to take part in the National Popular Front suggested by the Baath. Immediately two members of the CP were appointed to government and the following year, after the decision had been endorsed by the party conference, the CP was legalised for the first time in its history. From then onwards, it was able to publish a monthly, a weekly and eventually a daily paper, in which the "anti-imperialist" and "socialist" nature of the regime's policies was duly praised.

On the part of the CP leadership, this amounted to a capitulation. Indeed the conditions imposed by the Baath on the alliance implied that the CP accepted its leading role in every aspect of social and political life and that it effectively gave up any independent political role.

The CP's influence among the population remained very significant, but it was tied up and silenced by its alliance with the Baath. So that when the regime decided that the time had come to move against the CP, it met with very little real resistance.

In fact, this moment came very quickly. In March 1975, in Algiers, the Iraqi regime made an agreement with the Shah of Iran. In exchange for a settlement on all pending border conflicts between the two countries, the Shah undertook to end his military supplies to the Kurdish guerilla forces in Northern Iraq. This allowed the Iraqi army to defeat the Kurds. Having done this, the regime felt in a much stronger position to turn against the CP.

The waves of arrests, torture and executions began at the end of 1975. But the CP said nothing for several months. When it did eventually make an official complaint against these repressive measures against its members, the Baath regime launched a violent anti-communist campaign and increased the level of repression. Summary executions came back, as in 1963, and the repression went on without any respite. In 1978, it became even more brutal. Torture and mutilations became the normal treatment meted out to those who fell into the hands of the regime's thugs. Disused industrial warehouses were requisitioned by the police to store the mutilated bodies and the endless round of families looking for a "disappeared" member while being subjected to the insults of the Baathist thugs began.

The CP leadership waited until May 1979, after it had been banned again, before making the decision to withdraw from the National Popular Front and declare its opposition to the regime. Thereafter, the CP was confined to a precarious illegal existence, cut off from the masses, in guerilla camps set up in Kurdistan or abroad.

Saddam Hussein and imperialism

It was also during this period that Saddam Hussein consolidated his personal leadership and shaped the regime in its present form. The process took six years, from 1973 to 1979 - a period during which Saddam Hussein sidelined every potential rival, one after the other, including president al-Bakr, and appointed members of his extended family to every strategic position. The end of this process was marked by a drastic purge of the Baath itself, with the execution of 22 leading figures, including a quarter of the Revolutionary Command Council, accused of some involvement in an alleged Syrian-inspired murder plot against Saddam Hussein.

During the decade in which the Baath and Saddam Hussein consolidated their power, the West's attitude towards Iraq was totally cynical. Every time there was any talk of imposing something on the oil companies, it generated turmoil in Western capitals. But when the Baath massacred communists or Kurds, the West remained politely indifferent. Even today, when MI5 and 6 are so short of documents to "prove" Saddam Hussein's duplicity that they have used the thesis of a Californian student, has anyone ever heard Blair denouncing Saddam Hussein's massacres of Iraqi communists in the 1960s and 70s? No, of course not! And why, if not because for Western capital and its politicians like Blair, these massacres were and are still considered a "good thing"?

Of course the gestures of the Baath regime towards Moscow - like those of many other Third World countries at the time - had no objective other than the improvement of its bargaining position in order to win a better place in the capitalist world market. And in fact, although the USA did not have diplomatic representation in Baghdad, many of the big public contracts financed by Iraq's oil revenue went to US companies. As to trade, Iraq's main non-military suppliers were, in 1979: first Japan, then Germany, France, the US and Britain, in decreasing order.

As far as weapons were concerned, France soon became Iraq's second largest supplier after the USSR. In 1976, French president Giscard d'Estaing signed the first large official Western arms deal with Iraq, with the sale of 60 aircraft and 200 tanks. Soon after, France sold a nuclear power station to Saddam Hussein (although it was destroyed by Israeli planes shortly before becoming operative).

So far so good. Up to 1979, despite the massacres carried out by his regime, Saddam Hussein was the West's "good guy" in the Middle East. And he became an even better guy when, following the Iranian revolution, the Shah was overthrown against the will of imperialism. Then the Iraqi army became the instrument of Western policy. Saddam Hussein's war against Iran became the West's punishment of a population which had gone "too far" and of a regime which desired to become a regional power.

So Western weapons poured into Iraq. Every government gave the green light to its own death merchants. According to a US Senate report, no fewer than 750 American companies were officially authorised by Washington to export weapons-related goods to Iraq between 1984 and 1990. And this is not to mention the sales which "were not for Iraq" because the official buyer was in Jordan, Yemen or elsewhere, but which in fact were indeed for Iraq.

Until 1990, Saddam Hussein remained a "good guy" and arms sales went on without anyone objecting. Then, all of a sudden, everything changed. In the aftermath of the war with Iran, Saddam Hussein was confronted with Iraq's enormous debt and an immediate demand for cash made by Kuwait. Iraq could not pay and Western banking institutions were not prepared to help out. Saddam Hussein, the hired thug, wanted his pay, but Western imperialism considered it owed him nothing. So Saddam Hussein chose the only road that he could think of - he occupied Kuwait, either because he thought that the West would not mind or else that they would be prepared to take part in some form of bargaining in which Kuwait could be of some use. However, by doing so, Saddam Hussein was targeting oil interests too directly for imperialism to allow him to get away with it. And he became the "bad guy".

One war and twelve years of on-going sanctions and occasional bombings later, the situation has not changed, except for two aspects: Firstly, due to the enforcement of sanctions over such a long period of time, Iraq is now much poorer than it was 12 years ago; and secondly, thanks to the media hysteria developed after September 11th, the US leaders now think that they can get their public opinion to endorse full-blown aggression against Iraq.

So what will the US do? No-one can be sure. But the plans which have been leaked and openly discussed by the press over the past few weeks, are quite revealing. According to these plans, US troops would occupy the country and overthrow Saddam Hussein. But, to quote the comments made by one paper, "in order to avoid anarchy, Washington seems to have accepted the need to recycle most of the state machinery inherited from Saddam Hussein." In other words, instead of trying to subject Iraq to some form of US administration, Bush would use Saddam Hussein's henchmen to keep law and order in the country.

If this plan is true, this means that all the good words about "freeing Iraq from dictatorship", etc.. that we've heard from Blair in particular, are just plain lies. Saddam Hussein may be overthrown, but if his sidekicks are not, the regime will not change. It will remain a dictatorship.

But beyond reducing the human costs of the war for the West and particularly for the US army, isn't a dictatorship precisely what the West wants in Iraq? Let us remember 1991. Why did Bush senior allow Saddam Hussein to repress the Kurd and Shiite uprisings without doing or saying anything and then only moving once both uprisings had been suppressed? Why, if not because the US leaders wanted these uprisings to be suppressed and they preferred that Saddam Hussein did it rather than having to do it themselves.

The same remains true today. The imperialist leaders are certainly worried that their war might upset the political balance in the region, whether in the short term or in the longer term. And in order to avoid this, they need to ensure that all potentially explosive forces are kept under control in Iraq, for fear that they might set alight fires which would be difficult to stop. To this end, they do not want democratic reforms in Iraq, but a good old dictatorship that has already proved its ability to keep the lid on things - the Baath military without Saddam, in other words, or any other form of dictatorship for that matter. What the US have in store for the Kurds is significant in this respect. Washington has negotiated with Turkey the participation of a large contingent of Turkish troops in Iraqi Kurdistan, allegedly for "humanitarian purposes only". But given Turkey's bloody record in repressing the Kurdish population, it is not hard to imagine what this will mean for the Kurds.

But if this is what Bush's and Blair's "crusade" against Saddam Hussein has in store for the Iraqi population, over and above the human and material cost of a war, this is merely another reason to oppose this war. The working class here may not be in a position to stop this war. But it can at least expose the fact that this war has no other justification than the preservation of sordid imperialist interests. And it can make sure that Blair will not be able to claim that he is sending soldiers against Iraq with the support of British workers.