A People’s History of Iraq

Iraq was under Turkish rule in the 19th century as part of the Ottoman Empire. The UK imperialist government took control away from the Turks in 1917 and established a "British Mandate" in Iraq in 1921. Resistance to both UK control and the domination of Iraqi society by traditional Iraqi feudal landlords began as early as July 1920 with a failed Iraqi uprising against British imperialism. About 10,000 Iraqis, mostly rural tribesmen, were killed by the UK’s occupation army of 101,000 troops (many of whom were colonized Indian soldiers from Britain’s India colony) before the rebellion was finally suppressed in October 1920. Over 450 British soldiers were killed while putting down this Iraqi insurgency.

By 1924, students at Baghdad’s School of Law had formed a study circle, led by the first Iraqi Marxist, Husain ar-Rahhal, which published a journal on December 28, 1924 that called for both the liberation of Iraqi women and the overthrow of Iraq’s traditional feudal landlord leadership. As late as 1958, 55% of all privately-owned land in Iraq was still owned by 1% of all Iraqi landholders and mullahs; and 17% of all privately-owned Iraqi land was held by only 49 Iraqi landlord families. So it was not surprising that Baghdad students in the 1920s saw that the democratization of a predominantly agrarian Iraqi society required the redistribution of land ownership in a more equitable way and the disempowerment of Iraq’s feudal landlords, as well as the ouster of foreign imperialists like the British. Predictably, British colonial authorities in Iraq undemocratically shut down Husain ar-Rahhal’s newspaper in the 1920s before it could make an impact on Iraqi public opinion.

Britain’s support for the Zionist movement’s settler-colonization activity in Palestine during the 1920s also created fear among Iraqi students that their British rulers were planning to support the creation of another Zionist colony in Iraq. When Sir Alfred Mond visited Baghdad on February 8, 1928, students demonstrated against his visit and his support for Zionism and 20,000 protesters marched to Baghdad’s railway station.

Despite the desire of people in Iraq to be free of foreign domination, the British government had, in 1921, set up a puppet Hashemite feudal monarchy in Iraq during the pre-1932 British Mandate period. The British next created the Iraq Petroleum Company, which was jointly owned by British, Dutch, French and U.S. oil companies. The Iraq Petroleum Company was then granted a lucrative 75-year concession of Iraq’s oil resources by the UK’s puppet monarchy.

The foreign oil company profits from Iraq’s oil resources, however, were not used to minimize the effects of the Great Depression on Iraqis after 1929. By 1930, the decline in the value of Iraq’s date and grain exports had dropped by 40% and Iraq puppet government revenues began to decline. Over the next few years, salaried employees were dismissed, salaries were reduced and the wage rates for unskilled workers in Basra’s railways and oil fields were decreased. By March 8, 1935 an Association Against Imperialism had been founded in Baghdad which, in its March 11, 1935 manifesto, summarized the economic situation of Iraq at this time:

"Today, the English and the ruling class are partners in a compact that aims at perpetuating the oppression and exploitation from which we suffer…The oil and other raw materials of the country have become a preserve for the English and Iraq has been turned into an outlet for their goods and surplus capital and into a war base…The ruling class, for its part, plunders the proceeds of taxes, misappropriates lands, and builds palaces on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates. The millions of peasants and workers, in the meantime, continue to starve, and bleed, and writhe in anguish."

The Association Against Imperialism’s March 1935 manifesto ended by listing as its immediate goals the following demands:

"the cancellation of all debts owed by the peasants; their deliverance from all onerous taxes; the distribution to the poor of state lands; and the granting to them of the necessary credits;

"the guaranteeing to the workers of freedom of assembly and of speech; the reopening of their clubs and trade unions; the enactment of a law protecting the workers…against arbitrary dismissals and ensuring them against starvation in their old-age; and the realization of the eight-hour day in all Iraqi and foreign-owned places of work…

"Down with English imperialism!

"Down with all enslaving treaties!"

By May 1935, unsuccessful rural tribal uprisings had also broken out in the mid-Euphrates area of Iraq. An underground political group, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Iraq, then began publishing an illegal Iraqi newspaper in July 1935, Kifah-ish-Sha’b ("The Struggle of the People"), in the cellar of a Baghdad hospital.

In its August 1935 issue, the Communist Party of Iraq’s illegal newspaper indicated that underground party’s immediate political goals in Iraq were the following:

Expulsion of imperialists; independence to Kurds; cultural rights to all Iraqi minorities;  distribution of land to Iraqi peasantry;  abolition of all debts and land-mortgages; seizure of all properties belonging to the imperialists–including the banks, the oil fields, and the railroads–and the expropriation of the vast agricultural estates of Iraq’s feudal landlord rulers; concentration of power in the hands of Iraqi workers and peasants; and launching social revolution without delay in all areas of Iraqi life.

After this newspaper developed a circulation of 500, however, police agents of the British imperialist-backed monarchy began to arrest members of the underground political group; and, after December 1935, further publication of the newspaper was prevented.

The unpopularity of the puppet regime enabled an Iraqi general named Bakr Sidqi to overthrow the Iraqi government in an October 1936 coup and members of the Communist Party of Iraq organized popular support for the coup in Baghdad’s working-class neighborhoods. Mass demonstrations in support of the new coup regime were then held in Iraqi towns on November 2 and November 3 of 1936.

On March 17, 1937, however, General Bakr Sidqi, began threatening to crush the Communist Party of Iraq. Twenty thousand Iraqi workers who had been influenced by the underground Iraqi communist group, including Iraq Petroleum Company workers, then went out on strike on April 5, 1937. But following the assassination of General Bakr Sidqi on August 10, 1937, the coup regime’s police began to suppress Communist Party of Iraq agitators. By the end of 1937, Communist Party of Iraq leaders were either exiled or in jail; and four pro-fascist Iraqi Army colonels, who were also loyal to British imperialism and the Hashemite monarchy, now controlled the coup regime until 1941.

In December 1940, however, the underground Communist Party of Iraq launched a new party newspaper, Ash-Shararah ("The Spark"), which was secretly produced until 1942 by using government stenciling machines belonging to the Land Registry’s Typewriter Division. By 1942, the newspaper had a readership of 2,000.

In April and May 1941, meanwhile, an attempt was made by some nationalist Iraqi officers to eliminate continued British influence in Iraqi politics. Four nationalist Iraqi colonels marched their troops into Baghdad and installed Rashid Ali-al-Gailani as Iraq’s new premier on April 1, 1941. Besides being supported by anti-fascist, left-wing nationalists, Rashid Ali’s anti-British regime was apparently also supported by pro-fascist right-wing Iraqi nationalists. So some of the mass anti-imperialist street support for the new Rashid Ali regime in April and May 1941 apparently was manipulated and expressed in anti-Semitic attacks on Iraqis of Jewish background.

Despite the Rashid Ali government being recognized by the Soviet Union a few days later, this regime prohibited political parties and trade unions; and it was apparently unable to stop the anti-Semitic attacks by its nationalist supporters in the streets on Iraqis of Jewish background. After more British troops were sent to re-occupy Iraq on June 1, 1941 and the right-wing nationalist Rashid Ali regime collapsed, several hundred Iraqis of Jewish background were killed by the disappointed, nationalist Iraqi street demonstrators on June 1 and June 2, 1941. In a June 1943 self-criticism of its role in Iraq between April and June 1941, Communist of Party of Iraq leaders later concluded that their support of the Rashid Ali regime and movement had been a political mistake, because the pro-Rashid Ali right-wing nationalist movement was too pro-fascist in its political orientation.

Following the collapse of Rashid Ali’s regime and the imposition of martial law in Iraq between June 3, 1941 and March 2, 1946, the most influential Iraqi left-wing anti-imperialist political leader during the 1940s was Yusuf Salman Yusuf–who was more popularly known in Iraqi left circles as Fahd. Under Fahd’s leadership between 1941 and 1947, the underground Communist Party of Iraq attracted a mass base of Iraqi support and became more politically influential in Iraqi society.

In Baghdad and throughout the country after 1945, many underground party cells were formed in Iraq and support for the Communist Party of Iraq began to develop within the Iraqi military camps. By 1946, under Fahd’s leadership, several thousand Iraqis were members of the Communist Party of Iraq.

Between February 1942 and April 1945, when British imperialism was a World War II ally of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Iraq did not work for the overthrow of the puppet feudal monarchy in Iraq. Yet in April 1945 the Railway Workers Union, whose leaders were members of the Communist Party of Iraq, held a 15-day strike in Iraq. Although the striking railway workers were granted wage increases, their railway workers union was declared an illegal organization by Iraqi authorities following the strike.

After martial law was lifted by the monarchical regime on March 2, 1946, press censorship was ended, Iraq’s detention camp was closed and five Iraqi political parties were finally allowed to engage in aboveground legal political activity. On May 23, 1946, however, the government of Arshad al-Umari reversed the monarchical regime’s liberalization policy.

But a new wave of anti-imperialist Iraqi popular revolt soon began to sweep the country again after June 1946. Organized by a coalition of the Communist Party of Iraq-led League Against Zionism and the illegal non-communist National Liberation Party, 3,000 students and workers in Baghdad marched on the British Embassy on June 28, 1946 to demand both the expulsion of the British imperialists from Iraq and justice for the Palestinians.

The police of the puppet Iraqi monarchy first clubbed the anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist Iraqi protesters; and then they started shooting at them. One demonstrator, a Communist Party of Iraq member named Shaul Tuwayyeq, was killed and four other protesters were wounded.

The June 28, 1946 Iraqi police shooting of Iraqi demonstrators marked the first time that the Iraqi monarchy’s police had ever shot at peaceful Iraqi protesters since the British government had set up its puppet regime. A few days later, on July 3, 1946, 5,000 workers at the Iraq Petroleum Company facility in Kirkuk, under the leadership of Communist Party of Iraq activists, went out on strike for higher wages. In the Iraqi town of Gawurpaghi, the striking workers then began to hold mass meetings.

On July 12, 1946, however, the police of Iraq’s puppet monarchy tried to break up a meeting of the striking workers in Gawurpaghi by shooting at the oil workers. Ten Iraqi oil workers were killed and 27 oil workers were wounded in what is known in Iraqi history as the "Massacre of Gawurpaghi."

To prop up its puppet regime, the UK imperialist government then sent more British troops into Iraq in August 1946. But the increase of UK troops in Iraq provoked more street protests, leading to the resignation of the monarchical regime’s premier, Al-Umari, on November 16, 1946.

The puppet royal government’s new premier, Nuri as-Said, promised free elections. But on November 26, 1946 the Communist Party of Iraq leader Fahd called for the overthrow of the puppet monarchy’s government and an end to British imperialist control of Iraq.

On January 18, 1947, however, the Iraqi monarchy’s Nuri as-Said government arrested Communist Party of Iraq leader Fahd and another party leader, Zaki Basim, in the house of a Baghdad pharmacist. Fahd and Zaki Basim were then taken to the Iraqi police investigation department in Central Baghdad, flung into latrines and beaten with canes. According to the 1978 book The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu, "the police preferred to cane first and interrogate after."

When the Iraqi police beatings failed to break Fahd and Zaki Basim, they were both transferred to cells in the Abu Ghraib military prison. The cells were "narrow, damp, and without air, and so dark that they soon lost the sense of day and night," according to The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. They were allowed to exercise only half an hour each day; and a petition to transfer Fahd and Basim to healthier cells was ignored by the puppet monarchy’s regime.

Yet in April 1947, there were still 3,000 to 4,000 members of the repressed Iraqi Communist Party in Iraq. Fahd and other imprisoned leaders of the Communist Party of Iraq then declared a hunger strike on June 13, 1947. In response, Fahd and some other party leaders were brought to trial before the Iraqi High Criminal Court on the 8th day of their hunger strike and charged with "incitement to armed insurrection" and "propagating communism among members of the Iraqi armed forces."

On June 23, 1947, Fahd, Zaki Basim and the Iraqi pharmacist at whose home they had been arrested, Ibrahim Naji Shmayyel, were found "guilty" and were sentenced to death. Thirteen other Communist Party of Iraq activists were sentenced to hard labor. The severity of the death sentences for Fahd, Basim and Shmayyel provoked world-wide protest. In response to this protest, Shmayyel and Basim’s death sentences were reduced on July 13, 1947 to less than 15 years imprisonment; and Fahd’s death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life. On August 14, 1947, Fahd and Basim were then transferred to Kut prison.

Fahd’s life imprisonment sentence did not stop the anti-imperialist protests in Iraq from continuing. Under the feudal monarchy’s 1930 treaty with the UK government, the British imperialists were allowed to occupy two air bases on Iraqi soil. After the Communist Party of Iraq’s newspaper called for the overthrow of the monarchy’s Salih Jabr regime, anti-imperialist Iraqi students demonstrated on January 4, 1948 to demand that no re-negotiated agreement to allow the UK government to retain its bases in Iraq be signed by the Iraqi monarchy. On January 16, 1948, the terms of the Iraqi puppet government’s new Portsmouth treaty with UK imperialism were announced: the British military was still allowed to occupy two air bases in Iraq and only minor changes in the 1930 treaty were made.

To protest against this Portsmouth Agreement, the Iraqi college students immediately began a 3-day strike on January 16, 1948; and the Communist Party of Iraq activists who led the Student Cooperation Committee organized a mass protest march in Baghdad, which included Iraqi workers, on January 20, 1948. The Iraqi puppet government’s police first beat and then shot at the march, killing two demonstrators and wounding seventeen when the protesters fought back.

The following day, on January 21, 1948, the puppet government disowned the Portsmouth Agreement. But the Communist Party of Iraq activists kept the demonstrations going. Enormous crowds were mobilized to pack the streets on January 23, 1948 and the next few days.

Near the Royal Hospital in Baghdad on January 27, 1948, however, Iraqi police again fired on a crowd of protesters and killed four more anti-imperialist demonstrators. The Iraqi monarchy’s police then brought armored cars and machine guns to the scene and, when the protesting crowds began to regroup, the Iraqi police began to fire their machine guns at the unarmed people. According to the 1978 book The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, "the total figure for dead and injured" on January 27, 1948, "is commonly set at between 300 and 400."

The Iraqi monarchy’s premier, Salih Jabr, then fled to England during the night following the January 27, 1948 massacre and a new government was formed for the puppet monarchy by Muhammad as-Sadr. During as-Sadr’s term as premier, protests against the puppet government continued. On March 18, April 14 and May 12 of 1948, Iraqi railway workers staged strikes. On April 4, April 6, May 2 and May 8 of 1948, Iraqi port workers staged strikes. And from April 23, 1948 to May 15, 1948, Iraqi oil workers went out on strike.

But in response to the May 15, 1948 establishment of the undemocratic state of Israel by the Zionist movement, the puppet Iraqi government declared martial law and set up military courts for Iraqi civilian dissidents; while non-communist Iraqi nationalists withdrew their support for the Communist Party of Iraq activist-led insurgency in Iraq. Prior to May 15, 1948, Communist Party of Iraq student activists were so popular on campus that they were running some Iraqi colleges. But after the Communist Party of Iraq’s leadership–following the example of the Soviet Union–announced on July 6, 1948 that it was backing the UN’s partition of Palestine plan, popular support for Communist Party of Iraq activists by the anti-Zionist Arab masses in Iraq decreased.

With the help of an ex-candidate member of the Communist Party of Iraq Central Committee–who turned informer on October 9, 1948–the Iraqi monarchy’s security services were able to initiate a new wave of arrests of Communist Party of Iraq activists on November 11, 1948. The new wave of arrests set the stage for the final elimination in 1949 of the jailed Communist Party of Iraq leader and organizer Fahd from Iraqi political life, along with two other imprisoned members of the party’s Politburo, Zaki Basim and Muhammad Hussain Ash-Shabibi.

On February 10, 1949, Fahd, Zaki Basim and Muhammad Hussain Ash-Shabibi were now convicted by the UK’s puppet monarchical regime of having "led" the Communist Party of Iraq from their prison cells; and the three were given death sentences. The 1978 book The Old Classes and the Revolutionary Movements in Iraq described the final moments of the three executed Communist Party of Iraq leaders:

"The sentences were carried out at daybreak on 14 and 15 February [1949]. The three leaders were strung up in different squares of Baghdad city, Ash-Shababi at the gate of al-Mu’adhdham, Basim at the east gate, and Fahd in al-Karlch in the open space that is now called the Square of the New Museum. Their bodies were left hanging for several hours so that the common people going to their work would receive the warning…

"Moments before the close of his life, as he was being led up to the gallows, Fahd is said to have exclaimed in a defiant tone: `A people that offers sacrifices will not die!’…"

Despite the political repression and martial law in 1940s Iraq, as late as May 1950 less than 14,000 of Iraq’s 130,000 to 150,000 people of Jewish background had left Iraq to live within the Zionist movement’s undemocratic new state in Palestine. To "encourage immigration," however, the Israeli government apparently arranged for anti-Semitic attacks to take place in Baghdad. According to the 1977 book Our Roots Are Still Alive by the Palestinian Book Project:

"A series of bombings aimed at Jewish stores, synagogues and cafes stampeded a hundred thousand Iraqi Jews in a panicked flight to Israel. Many years later, an Israeli magazine, Ha’olam Hazeh [5/29/66] published the confession of an Israeli agent, Yehuda Tager. Israelis had been responsible for the bombings in Baghdad to `encourage immigration.’"

The "encouraged" legal immigration of Iraqis of Jewish background from Iraq to Israel/Palestine began in May 1950; and when it ended in August 1951, the number of Iraqis of Jewish background had decreased by an additional 110,000. According to the 1978 book The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, "the Shiite merchants succeeded to first place in the trade of Baghdad after the exodus of the Jews…"  At the same time, the US government, after 1950, began to replace the UK government as the major foreign government that undemocratically attempted to exercise a special influence on the internal political affairs of Iraq, in violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. 

As this "people’s history" of pre-1950 Iraq reveals, Iraqis have been consistently demanding an end to the colonization of their country since the end of World War I. As the current US-led occupation of Iraq draws on, US anti-war activists have an obligation to work for an immediate end to the morally bankrupt attempt to re-colonize Iraq in the 21st century on behalf of US corporate interests.

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


The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq by Hanna Batatu (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ 1978)

Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 8 (1971 edition)(Encyclopedia Judaica: Jerusalem)

Our Roots Are Still Alive by Palestine Book Project (People’s Press: SF, Calif. 1977)

A Short History of Iraq by Thabit Abdullah (Longman:London, 2003)