Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Iraq

….years of Stalinist betrayals in Iraq helped pave the way for the Baathist regime to come to power, destroying the 1958 democratic revolution and dealing crushing blows to the working class. That was the counter-revolution. That’s one of the main obstacles working people in Iraq have faced….

And that’s why Washington has found a host of groups openly backing or going along with the imperialist assault and occupation—from most of the Kurdish parties, to Shiite organizations that are part of the U.S.-run Iraqi Governing Council, to the Iraqi Communist Party.


Imperialist plunder of Iraq has long history


Since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, control over Iraq has been at the center of the rivalry of imperialist powers to dominate the vast oil reserves of the Middle East. The rulers in London, in particular, looked with greedy eyes on both the oil wealth and the maritime role of the entire Arab-Persian Gulf region, strategically located between the British "jewels in the crown" of India and its north African possessions.

In the years leading up to World War I, German companies constructed rail lines from southwest Turkey to Basra in southern Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then known. The British government, then the dominant imperialist power, feared such a presence by its rival threatened its trade routes to India and the broader region and its growing oil interests. London sought control of the newly discovered oil fields under Ottoman rule, and concluded exclusive oil pacts with local governments. In 1913, for example, the British government secured an agreement with Kuwait, receiving the promise that Kuwait would only sign oil contracts with those appointed by London.

With the opening of the war British forces landed at the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and advanced against Turkish troops at Basra. By the spring of 1918 Britain had extended its rule over all but a narrow strip of Mesopotamia. London gained leverage over its imperialist rivals in the war by promising Arab nationalist movements post-war independence in return for siding with Britain against Germany, which was allied with the Ottoman empire. Three major anticolonial societies had been formed in Iraq--the League of Islamic Awakening, the Muslim National League and the Guardians of Independence.

At the 1919 Versailles "peace" conference, however, where Washington, London, Paris, and Rome imposed settlements on their defeated rival in Berlin, and established the League of Nations to legitimize their domination, Mesopotamia was declared a protectorate of the United Kingdom.

In spite of promises of granting independence, London had, in fact, with the agreement of czarist Russia, signed a secret agreement with Paris on dividing up the Ottoman empire. The Sykes-Picot agreement between the imperialist powers allotted southern Mesopotamia to Britain, and awarded Syria to France. This pact was brought to light after workers and peasants came to power in the Russian revolution and the Bolshevik government published its terms along with other secret treaties.

By July 1920 a popular rebellion in Iraq threatened continued foreign occupation. The British Royal Air Force suppressed the revolt with a massive aerial bombardment of Arab villages, including the use of poison gas. Responding to a proposal to use chemical weapons as an experiment on "recalcitrant" Arabs, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war, said, "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes."

In the wake of the 1920 rebellion and hoping to disguise its colonial rule over Iraq, the British replaced its military regime in Baghdad with a provisional Arab government subordinate to a British high commissioner. At the 1921 Cairo Conference, London installed Faisal ibn Husayn as Iraq’s first king. 

A protectorate of London

In 1922, London imposed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty, to last for 20 years, instructing the king to "heed British advice" on all matters affecting British interests and on all fiscal policy as long as Iraq remained in debt to London. British officials would be appointed to posts in 18 departments to act as advisors and inspectors. To insure Iraq’s continued debtor status, the treaty required the protectorate to pay half the bill for British resident officials, among other expenses. London agreed to provide various kinds of "assistance" and to propose Iraq for membership in the League of Nations "at the earliest moment."

British interests in the new Arab protectorate mainly centered on the oil-rich former Ottoman province of Mosul. Prior to the fall of the Ottoman empire the British-controlled Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) held concessionary rights in Mosul. London rebuffed the Iraqi government’s insistence on a 20 percent equity in the company as had been the agreement with Ottoman-ruled Turkey. Fearing that without British backing the League of Nations might return Mosul to Ankara, the monarchy submitted to the terms of the British colonial masters. The final agreement contained none of the Iraqi demands and granted the TPC, now renamed the Iraq Petroleum Company, a concession for 75 years.

Mosul is located in the predominantly Kurdish region in northern Iraq. At the end of World War I, the Kurds were also promised by London and Paris that in exchange for their support against Germany, the Ottoman Sultan would be required to grant autonomy to Kurdistan. But the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was scrapped after the young Turkish nationalist Mustafa Kamal, known as Atatürk, reestablished control over the Kurdish areas in eastern Turkey. In addition to northern Iraq, Kurdistan includes parts of Turkey, northern Iran, north eastern Syria and a small section of Armenia. The Kurdish fight for independence in Iraq and the broader region remains a pivotal issue today.

A new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty was signed June 30, 1930. It granted London the use of air bases near Basra and at Al Habbaniyah, including the right to move troops across the country. The 25-year treaty became effective with Iraq’s admission to the League of Nations in 1932.

As World War II approached, German imperialists attempted to exploit anti-British sentiment in Iraq. In 1941 the Arab nationalist prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali, placed conditions on British troop movements in the country and ousted members of the monarchy, who then escaped to Jordan. London retaliated by landing forces at Basra, and justifying its second occupation of Iraq on the grounds that Baghdad had violated the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. The monarchy was once again installed on the force of British arms.

London’s colonial empire, like that of Paris, was shattered by anticolonial movements throughout Asia and Africa during and after World War II. In Iraq this was spurred by the British suppression of the 1936 Palestinian revolt and subsequent partitioning of Palestine in 1947. The "Free Officers’ Movement" in Iraq aimed at ousting the king and ending foreign domination. In 1952 when depressed economic conditions led to widespread protests against the monarchy, the government responded by declaring martial law, banning all political parties, suspending a number of newspapers, and imposing a curfew. 

British colonial rule shattered

On July 14, 1958, army officers led by Brigadier Abd al Karim Qasim and Colonel Abd as Salaam Arif overthrew the monarchy. They met virtually no opposition, as Iraqis poured into the streets in support of the revolt. King Faisal II was executed along with many others in the royal family.

The July 14 Revolution, as it is known, permitted the formation of trade unions and implemented a land reform aimed at dismantling the feudal structure in the countryside. It also challenged the profit-sharing arrangement of the oil companies. Public Law 80 dispossessed the British-controlled Iraqi Petroleum Company of 99.5 percent of its concessions and restricted it to areas currently under production. The Qasim government announced the formation of the Iraqi National Oil Company to exploit any new production sites.

The new government was supported by Arab nationalists and members of the officer corps--many of whom were adherents of Baathist movements. The government was also backed by the Stalinist Iraqi Communist Party. Baath was an Arab political party, first formed in Syria and Iraq in 1941, that espoused pan-Arab unity. 

Rise of Baathism

The Baathist Party came to power in a short-lived counterrevolutionary coup in 1963 that beheaded the vanguard of the 1958 revolution. A young officer named Saddam Hussein, who had participated in an earlier attempt to overthrow the Qasim government, rose in the Baath party through a bloody factional struggle. The Iraqi Baathist Party, which returned to power in 1968, is a bourgeois party that, as expediency dictates, has resorted to nationalist and anti-imperialist demagogy to rationalize its repressive and expansionist course. In 1979 Hussein became president of Iraq.

The Baathist regime halted revolutionary mobilizations of workers and peasants, while setting on a path of industrialization. In 1972 Iraq nationalized the oil industry. In response, Richard Nixon, the president of the United States, which had emerged as the main imperialist power after World War II, replacing London, placed Iraq on a list of nations supporting "terrorism."

Baghdad, however, was not on a course to challenge imperialism and the rights and prerogatives of capital. With the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 by Iranian workers and peasants, one of the main pillars of imperialist domination in the region had fallen. Washington publicly encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran to take back the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, which the U.S. government had forced Iraq to cede to the shah’s regime four years earlier. The Iraqi government complied, sending its army to invade Iran in 1980 for what became an eight-year war.

Prior to Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Washington, Paris, and other imperialist regimes had been cultivating their ties with Baghdad for more than a decade. Trade with Iraq continued and the U.S. government regularly sent top-level delegations there up through the first half of 1990.

Baath party beheaded 1958 revolution


Among the institutions of the Iraqi state targeted by U.S. and British forces is the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Air attacks have leveled party offices in several cities, and the party’s apparatus has crumbled before the rapid imperialist advance. Meanwhile, seeking justification for their assault, the imperialist propagandists have trumpeted the Baathists’ repressive record.

This is a shift from the backing that Washington and London gave to Saddam Hussein’s regime throughout the 1980s, up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

For working people in Iraq, the Baath Party has consistently governed on behalf of the country’s capitalist rulers. In fact, the first Baath Party government, brought to power by a military coup on Feb. 8, 1963, dealt Iraqi workers and farmers the single biggest defeat in the country’s modern history.

In those events Baathist leaders joined a number of military officers in overthrowing the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem. The new regime executed Kassem and other prominent figures, and imprisoned thousands of members of the Iraqi Communist Party and other opponents in makeshift camps. Three days after the coup, the new government was recognized by Washington, London, and other imperialist powers, as well as by Moscow.

In carrying out these ferocious purges, the Baathist government decapitated the vanguard of the revolution of 1958. The July 14 Revolution, as it is known, had begun with the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy. Iraqi working people poured into the streets in celebration of that victory.

Kassem’s government, supported by nationalist-minded forces that included a wing of the Baath Party, had legalized trade unions and implemented a land reform aimed at dismantling feudal domination of the countryside. It placed heavy curbs on the operations of the British-controlled Iraqi Petroleum Company and established the Iraqi National Oil Company.

Kassem’s procapitalist regime also took a number of reactionary steps. He banned political parties, including the Stalinist Iraqi Communist Party, whose leaders had supported his government and had campaigned for inclusion in his cabinet. He also launched a military assault in the north against the Kurdish struggle for national self-determination. 

Formation of Baath Party

In addition to its bloody purges, the regime installed by the 1963 coup continued the anti-Kurd offensive. Later that year the Baath Party leaders were themselves purged from the government.

The Iraqi party had been formed in 1954 with the name Baath Socialist Party. The Baathist movement--meaning "rebirth" in Arabic--had originated in Syria, where the party was founded in 1947. The party also exists in Jordan.

The formation of the Baathist parties was part of the rise of Arab nationalism and resistance to the colonial oppression of the major European capitalist powers. The most prominent spokesperson for Arab unity of the period was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president from 1956 to 1970. Nasser’s government nationalized important sectors of the Egyptian economy and in 1956 seized the Suez Canal in the face of British and French government opposition.

The Iraqi party retook power in 1968 in a coup headed by Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. The new government embarked on a course of industrialization, benefiting from the vast revenues provided by oil exports. In 1972 the oil industry was nationalized.

Saddam Hussein rose to become prime minister of the new government in 1970. Within a decade he had emerged victorious from the party’s inner power struggles, assuming the presidency and the leading role in the country’s armed forces.

The president and his supporters have molded the party as a secretive and repressive instrument of their rule. Party cadres function as part of the police and military apparatus, while constructing their own parallel structures of surveillance and repression.

At the same time, Saddam Hussein has built loyalty to his capitalist government on clan and regional lines. His support is based on his home province of Tikrit in the north. Dispensing privileges from its oil revenues, the regime fosters support among a layer of those Iraqis who identify with the Sunni branch of Islam. The Sunni population is more urban than the Shiites in the south, who face even harsher living conditions.

The soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s Special Republican Guard, a 15,000-strong elite force entrusted with the defense of central Baghdad, are recruited primarily from Tikrit and other areas considered loyal to the regime. Several of the guard’s top officers are drawn from Saddam Hussein’s own family.

The armed forces have targeted the Shiites, most of whom eke out a living in the desert or marshes, for ongoing repression. The present regime has also maintained Baghdad’s campaigns against the Kurds. In 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War, both the Kurdish people and Shiites in the south rebelled. The imperialist forces stood aside as Saddam Hussein sent his army to crush the uprisings.

With this police-party dictatorship functioning to stifle opposition by workers and farmers, Saddam Hussein pursued a course of industrialization, militarization, and territorial expansion through the 1980s. Much of the industrial and military equipment was supplied by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.

Saddam Hussein also built ties with the imperialist powers--particularly Paris. 

Regime found favor with imperialism

Baghdad’s expansionist and anti-working-class policies also found favor with U.S. imperialism--most dramatically in the Iran-Iraq war.

The overthrow of the shah by the Iranian workers and peasants in 1979 tore down one of the principal props of imperialist domination in the region. Washington publicly encouraged Baghdad to launch a military offensive to regain the Shatt-al-Arab waterway--relinquished to Iran under U.S. instructions four years earlier.

In September 1980 Baghdad launched its invasion of Iran, touching off a war that lasted eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on each side. While Tehran ceded the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in the 1988 ceasefire, Baghdad returned it in August 1990 to relieve military pressure on its eastern flank as Washington mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops in preparation for the Gulf War.

True to the Baathist tradition, Saddam Hussein used anti-imperialist demagogy to justify its 1990 grab for Kuwaiti land and oil. He cynically attempted to "link" the Palestinian struggle with the invasion, promising to withdraw from Kuwait if Palestinian demands for national self-determination were granted.

It is "the unfortunate fate of the Palestinian issue to be manipulated and used by the Arab leaderships historically for their own ends...whether economic, political, regional, or international," commented Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi in a May 1991 interview with the Militant.

Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait registered a deadly miscalculation. Saddam Hussein had gambled that Washington would take no action. In fact, the imperialists imposed brutal sanctions, staged a massive buildup, and unleashed a bombing campaign and invasion in which 150,000 Iraqis were slaughtered. Over the next 12 years Washington, London, and Paris imposed no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Along with UN sanctions and "weapons inspections," these "patrols" helped to set the stage for the current assault.

In the face of the rapid U.S. and British military drive, the Baath Party leaders have been unable to mobilize resistance, in spite of widespread opposition to the imperialist violations of national sovereignty. They have tried to coerce working people and youth into taking up arms--resorting to the methods of terror that have marked their rule since they dealt workers and farmers an historic defeat nearly 40 years ago.


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