Overview of the Middle-Eastern War, Part VIII: Iraq
In 1953 Prime Minister Nuri al-Said was a man with nothing to lose. His ironfisted methods of keeping the Iraqi population in control had earned him many vengeful enemies. As the situation in Iraq was slowly sliding out of control, al-Said was becoming increasingly vengeful and paranoid towards his subjects.
During his various terms in office, Nuri al-Said was involved in some of the key policy decisions that shaped the modern Iraqi state. In 1930, during his first term, he signed the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. This unpopular document allowed the British to keep control of the internal situation of Iraq, and it was also used as a justification of the British military intervention that toppled the pro-Axis government of Rashid 'Ali al-Gaylani. For the rest of WWII, Iraq was occupied by British troops. Nuri al-Said was once again put back in power with the king's regent, and the Foreign Office supported the two leaders' attempts to consolidate power and marginalize their political enemies during and after the war.
After the war Britain also sought to legalize a permanent military presence in Iraq even beyond the terms of the 1930 treaty, although it no longer technically had World War II to justify its continued presence there. Luckily Nuri al-Said and the regent increasingly saw their unpopular links with Great Britain as the best guarantee of their own position, and were thus extremely willing to cooperate in the creation of a new Anglo-Iraqi Treaty. In early January 1948 PM al-Said himself joined the negotiating delegation in England, and on January 15th the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed.
It provided for a new alliance between Iraq and Britain on the basis of equality and complete independence and stated that "each of the high contracting parties undertake not to adopt in foreign countries an attitude which is inconsistent with the alliance or which might create difficulties for the other party."
An improvement of the 1930 treaty, this treaty sought an alliance on the basis of mutual interests. The two air bases, which were often the subject of criticism, were returned to Iraq. British forces were to be evacuated, and Iraq would be supplied with arms and military training. The annex to the treaty stressed the importance of the air bases as "an essential element in the defense of Iraq." Britain's use of the bases in the event of war, or threat of war, would be dependent on Iraq's invitation. The treaty also provided for the establishment of a joint defense board for common defense and consultation. Both parties agreed to grant each other necessary facilities for defense purposes.
The response to the treaty on the streets of Baghdad was immediate and furious. After six years of British occupation, no single act could have been less popular than giving the British an even larger legal role in Iraq's affairs. Demonstrations broke out the following day, with students playing a prominent part and the Iraqi Communist Party acting as the main organizing force. The protests intensified over the following days, until the police fired on a mass demonstration, leaving many casualties. Iraq´s government implemented extremely harsh policy of repression against the protesters. At mass demonstration the next day, police fired again at the protesters, and casualties were heavy. In his struggle to implement the treaty, PM al-Said had become a hated figure who had effectively destroyed his credibility in the eyes of the common people. From now on he and king were simply British-sponsored tyrants. The internal situation in Iraq was highly volatile in other ways as well. The emerging oil industry was causing rapid price inflation, while privitization of agriculture was dividing the rich and poor by increasing margins. The pro-British Iraqi politicians kept a tight reign on the political process, and the frustrated voices of the populace were thus never heard.
World War II had only exacerbated Iraq's social and economic problems. The spiraling prices and shortages brought on by the war made the life of poorer Iraqis extremely difficult. While wealthy landowners were enriching themselves through corruption, the salaried middle class, including teachers, civil servants, and army officers, saw their incomes depreciate daily. Even worse off were the peasants, who lived under the heavy burden of the 1932 land reform that had permitted their shaykhs to make huge profits selling cash crops to the British occupying force. The worsening economic situation of the majority of Iraqis became the main source of support for opposition parties. It was in this political environment, seething with discontent and lacking peaceful means to express it, late in 1947, that the British announced that they would continue the occupation of Iraq in a limited scale. This controversial decision was most likely a reaction to the continued Soviet presence in northern Iran - while the Red Army sure was a useful buffer between the occupied Caucasus and the oilfields of the Gulf region, British military planners wanted to maintain permanent military presence in this strategically important region as well.
Al-Said’s political position was severely weakened by the British decision to stay, while the opposition now began to coordinate its activities against the status quo. Initially the Communists led the way. Iraqi Communist Party had been established in the 1930´s, and it had originally supported the British occupation of the country after Operation Barbarossa had caused Moscow to dictate that all Communist parties should begin to support the Allied cause. Thus the ICP was paradoxically strongly supporting the main allies of the monarchy and the landlords who ruled the country during the war years. The ICP changed its policy and began to criticize the British Army and the monarchy after the Treaty of Kirovograd, reflecting the pressure that came from the growing radicalization among the masses and the cool-down of Allied-Soviet relations. This sudden 180 degree turn hurt the Communist propaganda effort surprisingly little, and the ICP was able to mobilize relatively strong support among the angry and frustrated masses of Iraq.
Al-Said was a ruthless powermonger who knew well that unless the common people would fear the Army and police too much to openly oppose the government, the fate of Iraq´s monarchy would be sealed.
In January 1948 the Iraqi monarchy faced a series of mass demonstrations known as al-Wathbah. This movement was sparked off by the students and it later spread to the workers and to the peasants that occupied the land in many parts of the country. Several huge demonstrations took place with tens of thousands on the streets, and the ICP was actively organizing these gatherings. PM al-Said was forced to temporarily flee to Britain and a new government was formed. PM al-Said came back into power with support of the Army and months-long martial law soon afterwards, but the the Treaty of Portsmouth was repudiated and the original Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 was reinstated.
However, on February 14, 1951, things began to change when the Iraqi government renegotiated the Iraqi Petroleum Company's license. Prime Minister al-Said used the tense Anglo-Iranian relations and the situation of Egypt to his full advantage, and secured a profitable agreement that was quite similar to the one rejected by Iranian government. Iraq was now getting 50% of the companies profits, while minimum production levels were set and Iraqis gained more influence within the company. Despite the fact that the treaty was quite beneficial for Iraq, only a few months later the country was once again in turmoil.
Inspired by the Egyptian Revolution and led by opposition leaders shut out of the political process there were once again mass demonstrations in Baghdad, and demands of nationalization of Iraqi oil industry were raised. The main cause of these huge riots was the government's decision to cancel elections combined with the poor status of the economy. Al-Said´s government responded to these protests by banning all political parties, suspending a number of newspapers, and imposing a curfew, as well as declaring martial law.
Once Operation Damask began, the situation in Iraq started to get out of hand. The opposition used the wide unrest to mobilize massive demonstrantions, demanding that civil liberties had to be guaranteed in Iraq, that a political system of free, direct elections should be established as soon as possible and that the regime's treaty with the UK government should be abolished before Iraq would be dragged into war against fellow Arabs. Soon the ICP battle cry "Anglo-American Imperialists, Leave Our Country!" echoed through the streets of Iraqi cities. The monarchy's police once again used firearms against the demonstrators, and finally the Iraqi Army was called into Baghdad to suppress the protests. Martial law was declared once again, and all dissident Iraqi political leaders were locked up.
Despite the arrest of their leaders, Iraqi communist activists were still able to organize another mass protest on November 1951, condemning the "dictatorship". The regime's Iraqi soldiers, similar to the Iraqi police on the previous days once again opened fire on the demonstrators. A new wave of political repression followed in Iraq. By the end of December 1951, thousands of Iraqis were temporarily detained or jailed as political prisoners. Another two Iraqi political activists were sentenced to death.
Streets of Iraqi cities were violent and restless in early 1950´s, and common Iraqis were desperately waiting for any kind of change to their lives.
While al-Said's government cracked down on Iraq's communist movement, he was never actually able to totally crush it. The crackdown did little more than radicalize the movement while forcing it to go underground. There were other outcomes from the heavy-handed response to the uprising as well. The recently formed Iraqi Ba'ath Party took advantage from the temporarily paralysis of the ICP and sought to increase it´s own influence among the Iraqi middle class, while first Free Officers cells were formed within the Iraqi Army.
But on the surface peace was restored for now. The flow of new oil revenues were channeled to the use of the special Development Board led by the PM himself, and as the Middle-Eastern War continued, Iraq remained officially neutral. Yet in 1953 everyone knew that the situation could change at any moment. The popular Iraqi Communist Party was currently illegal and the recent arrests had left it without an credible leadership. Thus this potentially powerful movement was temporarily out from the effective control of Malenkov´s new government in USSR. Iraqi Ba'ath Party was still too weak to pose a credible challenge to ICP, and the Free Officers were still gathering strength and waiting for right moment to act. And all the while Germans made their own preparations together with Rashid Ali al-Gaylani and his closest aides, who had left to Berlin in 1941...