Iraqi Nationalism Versus Arab Nationalism

Iraqi Nationalism Versus Arab Nationalism

From the very fi rst, unresolved ideas of identity and political allegiance roiled the revolutionary leadership. Qasim, in the beginning a man of little ideological conviction (Batatu 1978, 808–809), soon became a believer in Iraqi nationalism. Meanwhile, the number-two man in the revolutionary government, Colonel Abdul-Salam Aref (1921–66), worshipped the Arab nationalist leader of Egypt, Nasser, and wanted at once to unite Iraq with the United Arab Republic, the union between Syria and Egypt that had been formed on February 1, 1958, under the leadership of Nasser and the Arab Socialist Baath Party.

One of the founding members of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, Michel Afl aq (1910–89), arrived in Baghdad soon after the coup. With his message of Arab unity, he fanned the fl ames even further. While initially lending support to the idea of Arab unity, Qasim eventually fell back on his particularist ideology, Iraqi nationalism. Supported by the greatest populist movement in the country, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), he began a campaign to unseat the main proponent of the pan-Arab campaign in Iraq, Colonel Abdul-Salam Aref.

Aref was the face of the Iraqi Free Offi cers, the group of military leaders of which Qasim was initially a member and without whose support there would have been no coup. The Free Offi cers looked toward Egypt for their ideology as well as their name. (President Nasser had been one of the original Free Offi cers, along with Anwar al-Sadat, that initiated the coup that overthrew the king of Egypt, Farouq.) That ideology was pan-Arabism (sometimes identifi ed as Nasserism), but in 1958 pan-Arabism for Iraq would have amounted to domination by Egypt, and to a lesser extent by Syria, in the United Arab Republic, as its most junior member.

The Iraqi nationalists’ alarm at the rapidly changing turn of events owed to several reasons. Samira Haj has argued that the economic base for many of the ministers and infl uential power brokers in Qasim’s regime lay in commercial and industrial interests (Haj 1997, 112–117). For the most part, they represented the interests of national capital, which would have been swamped by competition with Syrian and especially Egyptian industries, the latter having undergone a period of expansion after the Egyptian revolution of 1952.

Moreover, the Iraqi Communist Party, which could easily manipulate the Iraqi “street” into demonstrating against any government of the moment if the latter pursued objectives inimical to the ICP’s interests, was against union because it also feared that the more “progressive” Iraqi bourgeoisie would be subsumed within that of Egypt’s. Finally, it is important to remember that Arab nationalism sat uneasily with Iraqi Kurds, and its pan-Sunni component displeased some, if not all the Shiis.

Aref’s removal soon became expedient, if not necessary, to Qasim’s survival. A month and a half after the July revolution, Aref was dismissed from his position in the cabinet and sent abroad to act as Iraqi ambassador to the German Federal Republic. At the same time, Arab nationalists in the government and in the ministries and departments were sacked, with Iraqi nationalists taking their place. When Aref made a surprise return to Baghdad in October 1958, he was immediately arrested and “charged with plotting against Iraq and the life of Qasim, its leader” (Haj 1997, 118). He was convicted of treason and originally sentenced to death but later pardoned—a decision that Qasim would regret.

Social and Economic Developments

During the same month the Qasim regime ushered in a major revolutionary decree, a new agricultural law, the Policy of Agricultural Reform (in Arabic, al-Islah al-Zirai). The law set out to reform, if not dismantle completely, the huge landed estates that had been the mainstay of tribal as well as urban landlords:[It] imposed ceilings on individual holdings (618 acres in irrigated areas, 1,236 acres in rainfall areas) and promised that the sequestrated land would be redistributed to landless fellahin [tribal peasantry] in plots of about 20–40 acres each. In addition, cooperatives were to be set up and new contracts, more beneficial to the peasants, were introduced to regulate relations between landlords and their tenants and sharecroppers (Farouk-Sluglett and Sluglett 1987, 1990, 76).

It has been argued that although this law was viewed in retrospect as a radical change by the landowning classes themselves, for the urban migrants and the sharecroppers in the fields, it was seen as far too “reformist” and “mild” (al-Khafaji 2004, 191). In fact, there is a certain school of thought that believes that, in practice, Qasim’s revolutionary land decree was far less extreme than that laid out in his own pronouncements on the subject and that provisions for compensation as well as the retention of certain properties by landlords was designed to “possibly even lead them [landowners] to become auxiliary allies within a reformed nation” (Haj 1997, 121).

The ICP saw the law as too conciliatory to the class of landed proprietors and totally insensible to the interests of the agriculturists in the countryside; although the party initially continued its support for the regime, eventually the ICPdominated peasant societies were brought out in the streets of Baghdad to function as a powerful lobby in favor of harsher regulations against the landed classes. Furthermore, as the historian Thabit Abdullah has shown, while “almost all who lived off agriculture owned some land” in 1971 (Abdullah 2003, 160–161), the reforms affecting agriculture sharply curtailed its production so that whereas the agricultural sector represented 17 percent of GNP in 1960, by 1980, the fi gure had dropped to 8 percent.

Qasim’s regime also attempted to protect the nascent Iraqi industrial sector. While some writers have inserted quotation marks around the term industrial in the belief that the sector was so underdeveloped that it could barely stand on its own and tottered in between trade and agriculture, both of which it relied on heavily (Haj 1997, 130), some light industries did well under the Qasim government.

Oil extraction and the manufacture of soap, cloth, woolen textiles, and leather profi ted from tax exemptions, tariffs, and bans on foreign imports. Economic nationalism also dovetailed with the government’s very popular Law No. 80, which “confi scated 99.5% of the [Iraq Petroleum Company’s] concession land” (Abdullah 2003, 161). The concessions had been granted in 1952 to encourage the IPC to develop production in the unexploited territories.

Law 80, proclaimed by the Iraqi government in December 1961, took back almost all of the concessionary territory without compensation to the IPC. A justifi cation for the takeback was that the IPC had done nothing with the territory. The IPC was also seen as an exploiter of Iraq’s most precious natural resource and a company that withheld profi ts that were the Iraqi peoples’ birthright: The majority of profi ts originally went to the company’s international investors, and even after 1952, only 50 percent went to Iraq.

The move was logical; a dearth of government revenue necessitated an improvement of the terms agreed with the IPC in 1952. However, despite the passage of the law, the IPC immediately turned the tables on the government by initiating a go-slow policy in the fi elds that it controlled, depriving the Iraqi state of much-needed income. The issue of which sector—the government or the oil companies—was the ultimate arbiter of oil policy in Iraq was only to be resolved under the government of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s.