A People’s History of Iraq: 1963 to 2005

The first post-Ba’th regime in Iraq was headed by Abdel Salem Aref from November 18, 1963 until his death in a helicopter crash on April 13, 1966. At first, the anti-communist, but pro-Nasserist, pan-Arab nationalist Iraqi activists exercised a special influence on the post-Ba’th regime’s policies; and Aref’s government nationalized all Iraqi banks, all Iraqi insurance companies and 32 large Iraqi industrial and commercial firms on May 26, 1964. But by July 1965, the political influence of the pro-Nasserist Iraqi activists had declined; and following their failed attempt to seize political power in Iraq in September 1965, the leading pro-Nasserist, pan-Arab nationalists fled the country.

The Iraqi activists who were leaders of the Communist Party of Iraq’s branch in Kurdistan managed to escape execution or imprisonment between February and November 1963, during the first anti-communist Ba’th regime. Initially, these surviving party leaders in Kurdistan expressed support for the anti-communist, but pro-Nasserist Aref regime–especially, in light of the1964 improvement in relations between Nasser’s government in Egypt and the USSR government (which the Communist Party of Iraq considered to be its international political ally).

But after the Aref regime ordered the Iraqi military to continue to wage war in Kurdistan in opposition to Kurdish self-determination demands and began pursuing a less pro-Nasserist policy, the surviving Communist Party of Iraq leaders began to characterize the Aref regime as dictatatorial. On April 5, 1965, the Communist Party of Iraq then called for the overthrow of the Aref regime

By the spring of 1965, two-thirds of the Iraqi Army was bogged down in the Iraqi government’s attempt to militarily suppress the Kurdish campaign for self-determination in Iraq. The membership of the Communist Party of Iraq, meanwhile, was still about 5,000 at this time–despite the executions during the February 1963-November 1963 period of Ba’th Party rule.

After Abdel Salem Aref’s death in the 1966 helicopter crash, his brother–Major Abdel Rahman-Aref–succeeded him as Iraq’s president. The following year, the Iraqi military only suffered casualties of 10 killed and 30 wounded, when it ineffectively supported the unsuccessful attempt by the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies to block the Israeli government’s seizure of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, during the June 1967 "Six-Day War". On July 10, 1967, an Iraqi politician named Taher Yahaya was chosen as the Rahman-Aref government’s premier and asked to form a new cabinet.

Between April 1966 and June 1967, meanwhile, the Communist Party of Iraq opposed Rahman-Aref’s anti-communist and anti-Nasserist regime; and–influenced by Che Guevara’s writings on the Cuban Revolution–apparently considered adopting a political strategy of guerrilla warfare in Iraq. By September 17, 1967 a faction within the Communist Party of Iraq, the "Communist Party of Iraq -Central Command," had split from the main party and was calling for armed struggle in Iraq, a unitary Arab-Jewish democratic state in Palestine and an Arab people’s liberation war against all the other undemocratic, repressive Arab states.

On December 24, 1967, however, Rahman-Aref’s regime, under Taher Yahaya’s premiership, seemed to be seeking closer economic ties to the Soviet Union. An agreement was reached for the Soviet Union to furnish Iraq with oil drilling machines for use in its North Ramailah oil field and to help the Iraqi government market the oil of Iraq’s state-controlled Iraq National Oil Company.

The Ba’th Party was repressed within Iraq between November 18, 1963 and July 1968 by the Aref brothers’ nationalist, yet anti-communist, military regime. But Ba’th activists of Shiite religious backgrounds were apparently repressed more severely by the Aref regime’s police (who were primarily of Sunni religious background) than were the Ba’thists of Sunni religious background. The apparently CIA-backed Ba’thists of Sunni religious background from Takrit were thus able to reorganize the Ba’th Party in 1964 under the leadership of 40-year-old Said Ahmad Hassan Al-Bakr and 27-year-old Saddam Hussein. By July 1968, the Ba’th Party was able to return to power in Iraq by means of two coups, which were supported by the U.S. oil companies that were angered by the Rahman Aref regime’s oil deal with the Soviet Union.

In the first July 1968 coup, an alliance of Ba’th Party leaders and a clique of palace officers who were Rahman-Aref’s closest advisors overthrew the Rahman-Aref regime. At 2 a.m. on July 17, 1968 the head of the Ba’th Party’s Republican Guards, Abd-uf-Rahman ad-Daud, occupied the Broadcasting House in Baghdad with a number of tanks and Republican Guard battalions. Simultaneously, the head of the Rahman-Aref regime’s military intelligence network, Abd-u-Razzaq an-Nayet, took control of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and arrested Iraqi Premier Taher Yahaya. Ba’thist tanks then encircled the Iraqi presidential palace at 3:30 a.m. and Rahman-Aref was arrested. At 7:28 a.m., the new pro-Ba’thist coup regime leaders then broadcast a proclamation; and by 9:30 a.m. the ousted Rahman-Aref had been flown to the UK.

A second coup was then initiated by the apparently CIA-backed Ba’thist leaders on July 30, 1968 to remove the close advisors of Rahman-Aref who had supported the July 17, 1968 coup from their positions of power. After additional Iraqi military officers had been won over by the Ba’th leaders for this follow-up coup, the Iraqi Army’s Tenth Brigade’s tanks moved into Baghdad. The Rahman-Aref regime’s military intelligence netowork head who had aligned with the Ba’th leaders to pull the July 17, 1968 coup, Abd-u-Razzaq-an-Nayet, was sent into exile.

The presently imprisoned Saddam Hussein, who headed the apparently CIA-backed Ba’th Party’s National Security Bureau, was then given control of the second Ba’th regime’s Internal Security and Military Intelligence government operations. The Ba’th Party remained in control of the Iraqi government until the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Republican Bush Administration. By 1976, the number of Ba’th Party activists in Iraq had increased to 10,000 and the number of Ba’th Party supporters in Iraq had jumped to about 500,000.

In 1967, the Democratic Johnson Administration had sent former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson to Baghdad to assist the Ba’th Party, according to a December 24, 2003 column by Larry Everest which was posted on The Athens News website. Reuters also reported in an April 20, 2003 article, titled "Ex-U.S. Official Says CIA Aided Ba’thists," that former U.S. State Department official and National Security Council staff member Roger Morris revealed that in 1968 "the CIA encouraged a palace revolt among Ba’th party elements." According to Morris, the post-July 1968 Ba’th regime "was unquestionably midwifed by the United States, and the [CIA’s] involvement there was really primary."

Although still denying the Communist Party of Iraq legal status, the post-July 1968 second Ba’th regime pardoned all Iraqi political prisoners in September 1968 and allowed exiled Communist Party of Iraq activists to return to Iraq. But in 1969, at least 20 members of the Communist Party of Iraq faction that had split off to form the "Communist Party of Iraq-Central Command" group were arrested by the regime and killed by torture. After breaking down under torture, the surviving leader of the Communist Party of Iraq-Central Command faction, Aziz al-Hajj, was put on Iraqi television by the Ba’th regime to call on his followers to cooperate with the Ba’th regime. In addition, 53 Iraqis were also executed on alleged spying charges by the Ba’th regime in 1969.

In April 1969, tension between the U.S.-government-backed Shah of Iran’s regime and the Ba’th regime increased when the Shah declared a 1937 Treaty which gave Iraq control of the Shatt-al-Arab border waterway null and void and ordered Iranian troops to march to the Iranian-Iraqi border in large numbers. During this same year an alliance developed between the anti-communist Ba’th regime and the pro-Soviet German Democratic Republic which led the Ba’th regime to temporarily tolerate the Communist Party of Iraq until March 1970. On March 21, 1970, however, the Ba’th regime arrested the surviving Communist Party of Iraq leadership and hundreds of surviving Communist Party of Iraq members. Two months before–following an unsuccessful January 1970 Shah of Iran-backed right-wing coup attempt in Iraq–the Ba’th regime had hung or shot 29 Iraqi military officers and 12 Iraqi civilians for allegedly being involved in the coup plot.

The post-1968 Ba’th regime apparently combined its policy of domestic political repression with a policy of democratic economic reform The Ba’th regime prohibited the expulsion of Iraqi peasants from their land, further reduced the maximum amount of land a large Iraqi landlord could own and freed Iraqi peasants from previously required tax payments. The post-1968 Ba’th regime also introduced national health insurance for all Iraqis, mechanized agriculture, created people’s markets and reduced middleman exploitation of the Iraqi peasantry. Minimum wages for Iraqi workers and state subsidies for bread were also increased by the Ba’th regime. In addition, price controls that benefited Iraqi consumers and more extensive social security benefits for Iraqis were established by the Ba’th regime.

After the U.S. government and Israeli government-backed Shah of Iran’s regime seized the Arab island of Abu Musa in November 1971, the post-1968 Ba’th regime also signed a 15-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. At the request of the Shah of Iran, the Republican Nixon Administration’s CIA then began to provide $16 million in covert military aid between 1972 and 1975 to the leaders of the Kurdish campaign for self-determination within Iraq. By providing covert military aid to the Kurdish leaders, U.S. State Department officials like Henry Kissinger apparently also hoped to de-stabilize a Ba’th regime which it now felt was becoming too friendly with the Soviet Union.

Despite the Ba’th Party leadership’s previous history of executing Iraqi communist activists, the post-1968 Ba’th regime’s domestic policy of social democratic economic reforms and foreign policy shift towards friendship with the Soviet Union, apparently persuaded the surviving Communist Party of Iraq leaders to temporarily become supporters of the Ba’th regime. On May 14, 1972, for instance, some Iraqi communist activists, as individuals, agreed to take positions within the Ba’th government; and, the following month, Iraqi communist activists were pleased by the June 1, 1972 nationalization by the Ba’th regime of the Iraq Petroleum Company that had previously been owned by UK and U.S. oil companies. Support for the post-1968 Ba’th regime by the surviving Iraqi communist activists continued to increase after September 1973, when the Communist Party of Iraq was legalized by the regime and allowed to publish its party newspaper openly.

Between 1972 and 1976, however, Ba’th Party activists gained control of the Iraqi trade unions, peasant unions and other mass organizations which had, historically, tended to be led by activists who were sympathetic to the Communist Party of Iraq. An agreement with the Shah of Iran also made it easier for the Ba’th regime to suppress the Kurdish campaign for self-determination in Iraq in 1975.

Although the Soviet Union shipped $4.9 billion in weapons to the Ba’th regime between 1975 and 1979, by 1978 the anti-communist Ba’th regime leaders were again repressing the suviving Iraqi communist activists. In March 1978, for instance, twelve Iraqi communist activists were executed for "conducting non-Bathist political activity within the armed forces," according to the Haymarket Books’ recently-published "A People’s History of Iraq" book by Ilario Salucci. Mass arrests of Iraqi communist activists by the Ba’th regime were also made during the summer and fall of 1978.

After the Iraqi Internal and Military Intelligence Chief, Saddam Hussein, took over as president of the Ba’th regime in 1979, the repression against the surviving Iraqi communist activists again intensified. In April 1979, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th regime again completely outlawed the Communist Party of Iraq. According to "The People’s History of Iraq" book, "it is estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 people were arrested in the period 1979-81 (thousands of whom were subsequently detained), while hundreds [of Communist militants] `disappeared’ or were killed."

Not surprisingly, after Iraq’s Ba’th government ordered the Iraqi military to attack Iran in September 1980, the surviving Communist Party of Iraq leaders decided to retreat into Iraqi Kurdistan and form an alliance with Kurdish nationalist activists in Iraq. In 1981, the Communist Party of Iraq then expressed its support for the overthrow of the Ba’th regime by means of armed struggle in the countryside.

The Ba’th regime’s war with Iran lasted eight years and cost the lives of about 500,000 Iraqis and 500,000 Iranians, before an August 1988 cease-fire agreement between the Iraqi and Iranian governments was finally reached. War damage in Iraq resulting from the Ba’th regime’s policy of 1980s military adventurism exceeded $67 billion.

During the 1980-1988 war, domestic political opponents of the Ba’th regime and war against Iran continued to be persecuted. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Iraqis of Kurdish or Shiite background in Southern Iraq were also deported to Iran in the early 1980s by the Ba’th regime. In 1981, meanwhile, an Iraqi nuclear plant near Baghdad was bombed and destroyed by the Israeli government’s jets, in violation of international law.

After 1984, the U.S. government replaced the Soviet Union as the major supplier of foreign military aid to the Ba’th regime. But when the Ba’th regime moved Iraqi troops into the oil-rich area of Kuwait that Iraqi nationalists have traditionally claimed as part of Iraq’s national territory in August 1990, the U.S. government adopted a more hostile policy towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government.

One result of the change in U.S. government policy toward Iraq after August 1990 has been continued suffering for most people in Iraq since 1991. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by the Pentagon’s 1991 attack on Iraq, for instance. Another 1 million Iraqis died as a result of the U.S. government-organized economic embargo between 1990 and 2001, according to a United Nationas estimate.

Continued U.S. military attacks on Iraq and U.S. military intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs has been a bipartisan policy of the U.S. political establishment. The Democratic Clinton Administration, for instance, launched 27 cruise missiles against Iraq in 1996 and 400 cruise missiles against Iraq in December 1998. In addition, Clinton also ordered 600 air raids that killed many people in Iraq in December 1988.

More recently, of course, the Republican Bush Administration’s war machine attacked and occupied Iraq in March, 2003, under the false pretext that the Iraqi government was developing "weapons of mass destruction." Tens of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 2,000 U.S. occupation troops have died as a result of this latest U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Yet in September 2005, the U.S. military occupation force of 138,000 troops has still not been withdrawn from Iraq. But isn’t it about time that the people in Iraq were finally allowed to determine for themselves the direction that the people’s history of their country should go?

Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based U.S. anti-war Movement writer-activist. Image from indymedia.org