Abdul-Salam Aref’s Presidency (1963–1966)

Abdul-Salam Aref’s Presidency (1963–1966)

After Qasim’s death, his erstwhile revolutionary comrade-in-arms now turned bitter enemy, Colonel Abdul-Salam Aref, became head of the government. At fi rst, Aref was an unrepentant Nasserite Arab nationalist who sought to coexist with Baathist elements in the army, air force, and government; in fact, Baathists held a majority in the National Council of the Revolutionary Command that held power in Iraq following the coup. Aref’s vice president was the Baathist Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr (1914–82), and the most infl uential member of the government was Ali Salih al-Sadi, interior minister and secretary of the Baath regional command (al-Qiyada al-Qutriyya).

Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett have chronicled the horrifying fi rst months of the coup in which the National Guard, a Baathist irregular paramilitary force under the command of Munther al-Wandawi, controlled the streets of the capital and indiscriminately arrested, imprisoned, and murdered the opposition, at fi rst the Communists and later on any hapless bystander (Farouk-Sluglett and Sluglett 1987, 1990, 85–87). By the late summer of 1963, the uneasy political coalition that had brought Aref’s Free Offi cers (Nasserites) into power had begun to show massive cracks, and al-Sadi and al-Wandawi’s targets had switched from Communists to Nasserite Arab nationalists, represented by Aref himself,

Relying on a newly formed praetorian unit, the Republican Guard (at fi rst staffed solely with soldiers from the 20th Infantry Brigade) as well as members of his tribe, the al-Jumayla, Aref moved to strengthen his position. Allying himself with disillusioned Baathists (Tripp refers to them as “conservative” Baathists who were horrifi ed by the excesses of the left-wing elements of the party), Aref confronted the Sadi-Wandawi faction head on, leading to a decisive defeat of al-Sadi and his henchman, al-Wandawi, at the hands of units loyal to Aref. By November 1963, Aref had become the undisputed president of the Iraqi republic.

Thus came to an end the fi rst attempt of the Baath Party to control Iraqi politics. Internal divisions (whether consisting of economic inequalities, sectarian distinctions, a tenuous ideological base, or military-civilian differences) had weakened the party and allowed its enemies to successfully challenge its fractured leadership. The brief one-year National Guard regime of terror under the increasingly unstable Sadi-Wandawi leadership effectively entrenched mob rule in Baghdad; unsurprisingly, it rapidly brought about its own demise.

The Aref government that trounced the rebels was itself a patchwork affair, but it relied on a loyal tribal base, Aref’s expeditious alliance with a few well-chosen men from Tikrit (a city on the Tigris River approximately 95 miles northwest of Baghdad) who represented the military wing of the Baath Party, and Arab nationalist groups that were more infl uenced by Nasser’s political agenda in Egypt than Aref himself was.

To secure the loyalty of the latter, Aref indulged in symbolic gestures designed to buttress his Arab nationalist credentials. By 1964, and for a combination of factors (chiefl y having to do with the souring relations between Egypt and Syria, which had ended their union in 1961), the moment for a revived United Arab Republic seemed to have passed, and Egypt no longer held the same fascination for Arab nationalists in Iraq that it had in the past.

Nonetheless, Nasserist thought still possessed a certain cachet in Iraq. It was therefore deemed wise to inaugurate a few symbolic “unity projects” recalling Aref’s commitment to Nasserism:[These] were launched with great ceremony: a preliminary accord on unity between Nasser and ‘Aref in June 1964, the establishment of a “unified political command” in December 1964 and the adoption of the eagle of the UAR as the national emblem of Iraq in 1965” (Farouk-Sluglett and Sluglett 1987, 1990, 95).

Following on the heels of these projects, Aref pursued the Egyptian example by nationalizing all banks, insurance companies, and the majority of Iraq’s industries in July 1964. The nationalization of private enterprise was supposed to create a more effi cient state-run industrial sector; in effect, it delayed it, because the country had not as yet developed a large enough pool of managerial talent that could run the new state companies. Capital fl ight also denuded the country of the necessary wherewithal to start afresh.

As Tripp has pointed out, even though Aref’s emulation of Egypt led to his impulsive nationalization decree, “the dominant feature of Iraq’s economy, accounting for about onethird of its GDP, was neither agriculture nor industry, but oil” (Tripp 2000, 178). Consequently, negotiations were resumed between the Iraqi government (in the person of the oil minister) and the Iraq Petroleum Company in order to work out a fairer deal for the government. As a result of the negotiations that were concluded in June 1965, government oil revenues increased while the IPC received access to the offlimits territory.

However, the IPC was not given exclusive access; the Iraq National Oil Company (INOC, organized in February 1964) also held such rights (Tripp 2000, 181).Once fi rmly established in power, Aref purged his government of those who had helped him defeat the Sadi-Wanadwi regime. First to be eased out were the Baathists, whose representatives—Abdul Sattar Abdul-Latif, Hardan al-Tikriti, and Hassan al-Bakr—were either demoted or transferred as ambassadors abroad.

The next to tangle with the Aref regime were the nationalists who followed Egypt’s example; their supra-Nasserite loyalties had begun to irk the government, especially when their ill-conceived nationalization decrees led to the fl ow of capital outside the country and a corresponding rise in unemployment. The fi nal blow came when the Nasserite air force commander, Aref Abdul-Razzaq, prime minister and minister of defense, attempted to lead a coup against his own government in September 1965 when Aref was outside the country; he was severely defeated by the Baghdad regiment under the command of Colonel Said Slaibi, Abdul-Salam Aref’s kinsman, and the conspirators had to fl ee the country.

As a result, Aref’s government fell back on its one loyal constituency, the al-Jumayla tribe. Abdul-Rahman al-Bazzaz (1913–73) became prime minister in 1965, and his brief civilian rule was one of the highlights of the Aref period. However, the government’s dependence on narrow sectarian and tribal loyalties (the al-Jumayla were Sunnis, as, of course, was Aref) created hostility among the diversity of Iraqis, as did the earlier attempts to forge contentious alliances between various Arab nationalists, Baathists, and Iraqi nationalists.

At the same time, the Kurdish war, which had temporarily come to an end in the fi rst year of Aref’s rule, began once more as the government decided it could not accept Kurdish nationalist demands. Finally, Aref’s versatile use of the word socialism rankled the consolidated Communist party, resulting in the resumption of a communist-termed “violent” struggle against the regime by some party factions. In 1966, however, Aref’s death as a result of a helicopter crash obviated the need of the government to resolve these and other problems that continued to plague the country.