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Archive article from The Socialist Issue 295

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Iraq - Imperialism's Grim Legacy

EVEN BEFORE this bloody US and British imperialist invasion, Iraq's history has been one of occupation by foreign powers followed by revolution and reaction, right through to the Ba'ath Party dictatorship.

Kevin Simpson

Capitalism and imperialism have only brought Iraq - a largely fertile area of enormous human and mineral resources - wars, poverty and oppression.

Iraq's land area was part of the Turkish feudal Ottoman empire before World War One. When Britain's army invaded southern Iraq in 1914, their commander said they came not "as conquerors or enemies but as liberators". Their real interests were grabbing control of Iraq's oil fields and using the country as a regional base to extend influence.

Arab people across the Middle East wanted an end to foreign occupation, particularly as the Ottoman empire began to crumble. In return for Arab support against Germany's allies in the region, representatives of British imperialism promised independence to the Arabs after the war.

However, when the war ended British and French imperialism divided up the Middle East into 'mandates' (a form of colonial rule), arbitrarily drawing borders of new countries in desert sands.

The British mandate of Iraq only came into being in 1920, after a military and diplomatic conflict in northern Iraq where the minority Kurdish population wanted autonomy.

British imperialist control of Iraq was first attempted through direct British rule. The response was a mass uprising in southern Iraq in 1920. This is a warning to the Pentagon's plans for 23 US officials to run the interim administration in post-war Iraq.

British imperialism then adopted more subtle methods of divide and rule. They imported Faisal ibn Hussein, (son of the King of Mecca) to be the King of a country he'd never visited before! They also set up a cabinet (which the king could appoint but not dismiss) and a parliament with restrictions on who could be elected.

The British also gave formal ownership of all tribal lands to their sheikhs or rulers, as an alternative force to rest on should the King, government and parliament need pressurising.

Despite this 'democratic' window-dressing, British imperialism ensured political, economic and military control of the new regime, which Iraqi people saw as far from independent - there were growing protests.

The new government claimed to be fervently pro-independence, but its acceptance of humiliating conditions imposed by British imperialism undermined what little authority it had.

Workers' protests

DURING WORLD War Two the British army invaded and occupied southern Iraq. This coincided with growing anti-imperialist sentiment which saw massive protests in 1941, organised by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) which gained most in towns and cities from anti-imperialist discontent within the working class.

Its rank and file members were courageous activists who led many illegal struggles to organise unions and strikes; to fight for land reform amongst the landless poor; and for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. Many ICP activists were imprisoned and even hanged by the regime.

Although the ICP formally had as its final goal a 'Communist' society, its ideas were a mixture of Arab nationalism and a struggle for a more democratic society. However, the country's history had already shown that capitalism could not bring such reforms. Unfortunately, the ICP leadership did not explain this and in effect limited its struggle purely to that of piecemeal reform.

After the war, pan-Arabist and anti-imperialist ideas mushroomed across the Middle East. But across the Arab world there were no mass revolutionary parties prepared to struggle for power and overthrow capitalism.

The huge pressure from below began to affect some junior army officers in different Arab countries who began to discuss the need to overthrow their rotten pro-imperialist regimes.

When Colonel Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952 it unleashed a revolutionary mood across the Middle East.

The Ba'ath Party represented a particular strand of pan-Arabism which saw the Arab nation as one indivisible whole, divided into different countries by imperialism, but identified by common culture, language and history with Islam as its religion. Its nationalist message was designed to mean all things to all classes in society.

The Ba'ath party used 'socialist' rhetoric but from the beginning it was clear that they supported the continuation of capitalism, although advocating a strong state sector to develop industry on a national basis.

While the Ba'ath party gained a small base in Iraq, pan-Arabism initially did not have the same support there as in other Arab countries. In contrast, by the late 1950s, the ICP was a powerful force. Despite conditions of illegality, it had a majority in all the main unions and national youth, student and women's organisations.

Communist Party's criminal policies

AS IN Egypt, a coup by junior army officers led by 'Abd al-Karim Qasim pushed aside Iraq's rotten regime in 1958. This development unleashed a revolutionary mood in society - most of the working class expected an end to imperialist domination and a socialist society to end poverty and oppression once and for all.

From 1958-60 the ICP could have led a successful socialist revolution in Iraq. In 1959, CIA director Allen Dulles claimed that the situation there was the most dangerous in the world and that the Communists were close to a "complete takeover".

However, the ICP leadership saw the 1958 revolution as one to establish capitalist 'democracy' and supported Qasim's regime. As the ICP leaders saw things, it was only after a long period of this kind of rule, that the basis could be laid for a struggle for socialism. But as Iraq's history showed capitalism was unable to provide democracy.

The "Free Officers" leading the coup purged representatives of the old regime but left capitalism intact. Whilst resting on the population's revolutionary mood, they always tried to hold back the working class and rural poor from taking power.

Qasim based himself on the ICP's support and its influence amongst the working class, but he dismissed all Communist officers from the army. The regime also refused to hold elections (fearing an ICP majority) and allow the ICP to operate openly.

Post-revolutionary Iraq was very unstable. None of the fundamental social and economic problems were solved and splits developed within the Free Officers.

The revolutionary working class, impatient for change, faced the forces of reaction - representatives of the old regime, pan-Arabist army officers and the Ba'ath party. This situation could not last indefinitely. A successful coup in 1963 brought 'Arif to power with the support of the Ba'ath party and pan-Arabists.

The ICP leadership's mistaken, and unfortunately criminal, policies did not lead the working class to a successful socialist revolution. The party's members paid for this with their blood.

Ba'ath party militias combed the big towns and cities with lists of names of ICP members provided by the CIA. Tens of thousands were arrested and thousands were murdered. Leading ICP members' bodies were hung up in working-class areas to warn them against trying to topple the new regime.

Two further coups in 1968 led to full Ba'ath party control, under the leadership of Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his deputy, Saddam Hussein.

The new Ba'ath regime tried to cover its dictatorial and fundamentally capitalist regime in radical anti-imperialist rhetoric. This led to a trade and friendship pact with the Soviet Union and the nationalisation of the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1972.

The Ba'ath party adopted a dual approach to their political opponents: Kurdish parties fighting for autonomy and the Iraqi Communist Party. They made formal political concessions to them (which were never fully implemented) while physically eliminating or imprisoning them. The Ba'ath regime effectively neutralised their opponents using brutal repression under the camouflage of co-operation.

Dictatorial rule

IN THE mid-70s, Saddam Hussein increased his influence, building security apparatuses under his direct control with members at all levels of the regime in collusion with the CIA. Under his influence, the regime began to increase its economic and political links with western imperialist countries. Finally, (after a previous failed CIA-inspired coup), in 1979 Saddam was declared President of Iraq.

Saddam purged elements whom he feared might be potential opponents. For the next 24 years the Ba'ath dictatorship continued to oppress the Iraqi people, supported by the USA. Saddam, armed, financed and advised by the USA, instigated the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 which led to over 400,000 deaths.

In an attempt to save the regime, (and meeting no opposition to the plan from the US ambassador to Iraq at the time) Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The US however changed sides, fearing the Frankenstein's monster they had created would have too much control over the oil in the region. This resulted in the first imperialist Gulf war since the Second World War. The Iraqi regime's defeat opened the way to ten years of western-imposed sanctions with horrific effects on ordinary Iraqis.

Now US and British imperialism are removing the Ba'ath regime's last remnants. Many Iraqis will feel huge relief that the dictatorship is no more. Others will suspect that this invasion will result in a new political, economic and military colonisation.

Even if it keeps Iraq intact, a new regime based on capitalism won't be able to satisfy the wishes of the Iraqi working class and the rural poor. The Pentagon planners aim for a regime based on the rich Iraqi exile elite which will serve the economic interests of US imperialism and provide a base for future political and military operations in the Middle East.

Nothing short of a socialist confederation of the region, where the majority who produce the wealth have control over how society is run, can form the basis for peace and stability.

The human, mineral and agricultural resources released through a successful socialist revolution could lay the basis for transforming Iraq within a generation and end the persecution of national, religious and ethnic minorities.

A longer version of this article is planned for the website of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI):

The CWI is the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated.


Home  |  The Socialist 12 April 2003  |  Subscribe  |  News 

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In this issue

It's Occupation Not Liberation

Privatising The NHS

Call Centre Workers Fight Job Cuts

Nursery Nurses On Strike

Money for services, Not for War!

War In Iraq - The Endgame

US Plans To Recolonise Iraq

Brown's Budget

USA: Problems in the world's engine room

Iraq - Imperialism's Grim Legacy

Standing For The Millions, Not The Millionaires: Vote Socialist Alternative

Repression And War Is Fuelling Palestinian Anger


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