The British-backed monarchical regime of King Faisal and Prime Minister Nuri El Said was overthrown in an Arab nationalist revolution on 14 July 1958, which established a republic under Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim. Said and the royal family were killed and the British embassy, long known to be the power behind the throne, was sacked by a mob with the loss of one British life.
British embassy officials described it as ‘popular revolution’ based on ‘pent-up passions of hatred and frustration, nourished on unsatisfied nationalist emotion, hostility to autocratic government, resentment at Western predominance, disgust at unrelieved poverty’.
The regime Britain had supported for so long was one of the most unpopular in the history of the Middle East. The British were well aware of its repressive features. A Foreign Office brief noted, for example, that ‘wealth and power have remained concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners and tribal sheikhs centred round [sic] the Court’.
Three months before the revolution, Sir Michael Wright, Britain’s ambassador in Baghdad, told Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd that ‘the constitutional position in Iraq is very like what it was in the United Kingdom at the accession of George III’.
In one stroke, the popular nationalist revolution had removed a pro-British regime and a key pillar of British imperial policy in the Middle East. Still worse, Qasim was conceded by British planners as being personally ‘extremely popular’. Although in the early days of the regime, Qasim was tolerated by Britain, he soon joined the ranks of Sukarno in Indonesia, Jagan in British Guiana and Nasser in Egypt as popular, nationalist enemies to British interests in the Third World. Compared to the previous Said regime, Qasim’s was relatively benign but his rule was certainly autocratic and his police force often savage in its repression. These factors, however, had nothing to do with the British stance towards it.
The threats posed by Qasim were aptly summed up by a British member of the Iraq Petroleum Corporation, which controlled Iraq’s oil, in a memo to the Foreign Office just months before the regime was overthrown. Qasim, he noted: ‘wished to give Iraq what he considered political independence, dignity and unity, in brotherly cooperation with other Arabs and in neutrality between the world power blocs; he wished to increase and distribute the national wealth, partly on grounds of nationalist and socialist principle, partly out of simply [sic] sympathy for the poor; on the basis of economic prosperity and justice he wished to found a new society and a new democracy; and he wished to use this strong, democratic, Arabist Iraq as an instrument to free and elevate other Arabs and Afro-Asians and to assist the destruction of “imperialism”, by which he largely meant British influence in the underdeveloped countries’.
Qasim’s policy on oil is the subject of a huge amount of correspondence in the declassified files and a major reason why British planners wanted him removed. The background was that in 1961 Qasim announced that the government wanted to take more than 50 per cent of the profits from oil exports and also complained that the companies were fixing the price favourable to themselves. In a law in December he purported to deprive the IPC of about 99.5 per cent of its concession, the expropriated areas including valuable proven oil fields. A draft law setting up a new Iraqi National Oil Corporation had been published in October 1962 but had not come into force by the time of the coup that removed Qasim in February 1963.
Also of major concern to Britain was Iraq’s claim to Kuwait. In 1961, Britain landed troops in Kuwait supposedly to defend it from an imminent Iraqi attack. The declassified files, however, show that Britain fabricated the Iraqi threat to justify a British intervention in order to secure the reliance of the leaders of the oil-rich state on British ‘protection’, as described in Web of Deceit.
The Qasim regime fell, its leader executed, on 8 February 1963 in a coup under General Abdul Arif and Prime Minister General Abdul al Bakr of the Ba’ath party, which thus secured power for the first time. The coup was the result of substantial CIA backing and organisation and was masterminded by William Lakeland, stationed as an attache at the US embassy in Baghdad. The US had previously actively conspired to murder Qasim and the CIA’s Health Alteration Committee, as it was called, once sent Qasim a monogrammed, poisoned handkerchief, though it either failed to work or never reached its victim.
According to author Said Aburish, the US had insisted beforehand on implementing a detailed plan to eliminate the Iraqi Communist party as a force in Iraqi politics, meaning physical extermination of its members. The CIA thus provided the February coup leaders with a list of names for the campaign, around 5,000 of whom were hunted down and murdered. They included senior army officers as well as lawyers, professors, teachers and doctors. There were pregnant women and old men among them, many of whom were tortured in front of their children. The eliminations were mainly done on an individual basis, house-to-house visits by hit squads who knew where their victims were and who carried out on the spot executions. ‘The coup is a gain for our side’, Robert Komer, a member of the National Security Council, told president Kennedy immediately after.
Saddam Hussein, then a junior Ba’ath party member, was closely involved in the coup. As an Iraqi exile in Cairo he and other coup plotters had since 1961 benefitted from contacts with the CIA arranged by the Iraqi section of Egyptian intelligence. During the coup Saddam had rushed back from Cairo and was personally involved in the torture of leftists during the massacres.
Britain had also long wanted to see the fall of Qasim and the secret files confirm this in the months before his ouster. Was Britain more directly involved in the coup? The declassified files contain mentions of British willingness to be involved in ousting Qasim, and several of the files from this period have not been declassified. It does appear that Britain may have known of the coup in advance, but there is no direct evidence that Britain was in contact with the coup plotters, unlike the US.
There are some intriguing references, however. Five months before the February coup, a note by a Foreign Office official refers to the British ambassador’s view ‘that the sooner Qasim falls the better and that we should not be too choosy about doing things to help towards this end’. The ambassador, Sir Roger Allen, was also reported to be supporting ‘a forward policy against Qasim’. One note from Allen five weeks before the coup refers to a coup plot against Qasim and that ‘we have been assured that the plot is carefully worked out in detail and that the names of all those destined for key positions has been chosen’; but this note does not suggest that General Arif, who eventually led the coup, would be its figurehead. Allen also notes the importance of his staff in Baghdad not ‘appearing to be aware or mixed up in plotting and I have recently emphasised again to members of the staff, including the new Air Attache, that we must always act with the greatest caution’.
Eleven days before the coup Ambassador Allen was told by the US charge d’affaires in Baghdad that ‘it was time to start building up a credit with Qasim’s opponents, against the day when there would be a change of government here’. Allen concluded that ‘for the first time since I have been here, I have the feeling that the end may just possibly come in the foreseeable future’. This does seem like a tip-off, at least, from the US, whose embassy was closely conniving with the plotters. Indeed, one day after the coup, on 9 February, Roger Allen cabled the Foreign Office that the new Minister of Defence ‘was expected to become Air Force Commander in the event of a coup’ – indicating some kind of advance knowledge.
What is indisputable is that British officials in Baghdad and London knew of the massacres and welcomed the new regime carrying them out. The files make clear that Roger Allen and another embassy official were monitoring Iraqi radio reports on the first two days of the revolution – 8 and 9 February. Messages from the new regime called on people to ‘help wipe out all those who belong to the Communists and finish them off’. They urged people to ‘destroy the criminals’ and to ‘kill them all, kill all the criminals’. These announcements were all repeated several times. Allen told the Foreign Office on 11 February that ‘the radio has been exhorting people to hound down the communists. Such fighting as had taken place seems to have directed at any rate in part against communist sympathisers’. He sent a transcript of all these messages to the Foreign Office on 15 February.
Britain’s Military Attache in the Baghdad embassy said in a despatch of 19 February that on 9 February there was ‘firing throughout the city’ and the ’rounding up of communists’, adding: ‘since the embassy is in a communist stronghold area, considerable small arms firing was heard throughout most of the day’. On 10 February the embassy was telling the Foreign Office of the ’rounding up of Communists’ and ‘some sporadic shooting in various parts of the city’. On the same day, the Foreign Office noted that ‘strong action is being taken against the Communists’.
On 11 February, the embassy was reporting ‘some firing’ in outlying districts where there were believed to be Communists, with ‘stories of heavy casualties, presumably among civilians, but these are not confirmed’. By 26 February, the embassy was saying that the new government was trying ‘to crush organised communism in Iraq’ and that there were rumours that ‘all the top communists have been seized and that fifty have been quietly executed’, although adding that ‘there may be no truth in this’.
The following month – March – a letter from the Iraq Petroleum Corporation to the Foreign Office referred to ‘the hunt for communists’ and that ‘it remains to be seen how far they will be physically destroyed’. Writing six weeks after the coup, a Foreign Office official refers to a ‘bloodbath’ and ‘we should not wish to be seen publicly to advocate such methods of suppressing communism’. ‘Such harshness’, the official noted, ‘may well have been necessary as a short term expedient’.
‘The communist menace was tackled with determination’, Britain’s ambassador to Iraq reflected in a note to Alec Douglas Home in May, adding that the Iraqi government said there are now 14,000 political prisoners and that ‘the prisons are still overflowing with political detainees’. By June, Foreign Office official Percy Cradock – later to become chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee – noted that ‘the Iraqi regime is continuing its severe repression of communists’, with 39 executions recently announced.
It was recognised by the Foreign Office that the massacre of the Communists was an entirely offensive operation. It noted on 9 February, for example, that killings were occurring at ‘a time when there is no indication of a Communist threat or of any effective opposition to the new government’.
British officials in effect supported these massacres. Roger Allen told the Foreign Office a week after the coup that ‘the process of winkling out Communists in Baghdad and the towns is continuing’ but that ‘a Communist problem will remain’: ‘The present government is doing what it can, and therefore it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself so that this communist threat may gradually diminish’.
The new government, he wrote, ‘probably suits our interests pretty well’. In a different despatch on the same day he wrote that since ‘communist opposition is likely to continue’ and that, in his view, there was no alternative to this government, ‘it is therefore essential for it to get consolidated quickly’. It will ‘need all the support and money it can get’.
By this time the Foreign Office had already sent round a memo to various embassies explaining the British attitude to the coup. It noted that the new regime ‘has already taken strenuous action against local communists’ and that ‘repression of the local communists’ will probably be maintained, while one of its other key problems will be ‘the pacification of the Kurds’. ‘We wish the new regime well’, the memo states, after referring to the deterioration of British relations with the previous Qasim regime.
An internal Foreign Office brief also noted that the new rulers ‘have shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot’ and that it should be ‘somewhat friendlier to the West’.
When Allen met the Foreign Minister of the new military regime two days after the coup, there is no mention in his record of having raised the subject of the killings, while the meeting was described as ‘extremely friendly’. Indeed, there is no mention in any of the files that I have seen of any concern whatever about the killings – the only way in which they affected British policy was to encourage support for those conducting them.
Thus officials noted that they should ‘examine all possible means of profiting from the present anti-communist climate in Iraq’ and to make ‘a major effort to establish links with the new regime’. The Foreign Office recommended various ways ‘to make gestures’ to the new regime, including ‘to be helpful over the supply of arms’ and to ‘provide military training courses if the Iraqis want them’. This memo was written on the same day that Allen sent the Foreign Office the radio transcripts urging Iraqis to ‘kill the criminals’, noted above.
The embassy in Baghdad similarly recommended ‘some kind of warm-hearted gestures’ to ‘those who had suffered in the process of dismantling Communism in Iraq’ – that is, to those who had suffered at the hands of communists, not those who perpetrated the massacres. This would be done in ‘appreciation of the anti-communist effort here’.
London’s policy was to provide diplomatic recognition to the new regime right away and to establish ‘a business relationship’ with it. It was also to ‘make friendly contact as soon as possible with the Baathist and nationalist leaders’ and to invite National Guard members (that is, the organisation which had helped carry out the massacres) to London. But this needed to be done ‘under some other heading’ to keep it secret, officials noted, so as to avoid being seen to publicly identify with any particular group. The policy was shared with the US, where a senior state department official told the Foreign Office that if the coup ‘resulted in a regime of Baathhist complexion its policies were more likely to be acceptable to the United States government’.
It was hoped that one advantage of the new regime was for ‘a chance for a new period in the oil companies relations with the government’ and to replace Qasim’s previous oil policies that were clearly threatening the Western oil corporations which dominated the Iraq Petroleum Corporation.
A week after the coup, Roger Allen was happily reporting that things are ‘almost back to normal’, hoping that the ‘period of frustration’ under Qasim was now over ‘and that there will be scope for relatively constructive work here’. This was in full recognition that ‘the problem of the communists and the slum dwellers is not yet, however, by any means removed’ – therefore, the repression of communists by the regime would presumably continue, as noted above. By April, Allen could refer to ‘our record of friendship for the new regime’.
The Foreign Office also mentioned the need to ‘keep track’ of a new organisation set up by Labour MPs called the British Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Iraq, which had the strange idea of visiting Iraq and investigating the killings. The embassy also ‘warned’ the Foreign Office of similar human rights activities by Lord Bertrand Russell, described as a ‘source of irritation’ in Anglo-Iraqi relations.
Another advantage to the British was the new regime’s stance towards Kuwait. After Qasim was overthrown the British advised Kuwait to preempt any future Iraqi threat to their independence by the new regime by bribing it. The Kuwaitis paid the new Ba’ath government £50 million which, according to Said Aburish, goes a long way towards explaining Saddam’s attempt to intimidate Kuwait in 1990-1, before invading, and force it to pay him money to meet Iraq’s financial needs.
The Baathist regime that came to power in Iraq for the first time in February 1963 was itself overthrown in another military coup in November. By this time, Britain had reduced much of its earlier strong backing for the regime during the massacres and in aggression in Kurdistan; but not for these reasons. ‘They began well’, the British ambassador said in December 1963 after the regime had been replaced. The problem was that the Baathists eventually pursued similar policies to Qasim, including an Arab nationalist foreign policy to attempt to unite Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the United Arab Republic, while it also ‘alarmed the business community with their hints of nationalisation of industry, banking and trade’.
It was not until 1968 that the Baath party, following a succession of governments through the 1960s, took power again and this time held it until the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The 1968 coup brought into power the Baathist General Ahmed al Bakr, who had been Prime Minister after the February 1963 coup, with Saddam Hussein becoming Vice President before taking over from al Bakr in 1979. The 1968 coup was also backed by the CIA, which immediately developed close relations with the ruling Ba’athists.
The Baath party regime of 1968 was also immediately welcomed by Britain: ‘The new regime may look to the United Kingdom for military training and equipment and we should lose no time in appointing a defence attache’, the ambassador in Baghdad wrote. The regime’s new Defence Minister, General Tikriti, was invited to the Farnborough Air Show and was told by the ambassador that ‘it seemed to me we now had an opportunity to restore Anglo/Iraqi relations to something of their former intimacy’. In reply, ‘General Tikriti said that during the Ba’athist regime of 1963 he had greatly appreciated the cooperative attitude of HMG’.
From these roots eventually emerged the Saddam regime, and Britain’s support for it.