The Kuwait Question
Despite ICP criticism of Qasim’s economic and social reforms as too reformist and limited to change the life of the poor, Qasim has gone down in Iraqi history as a champion of the poor. He was the ﬁ rst ruler of modern-day Iraq to envisage the housing of Baghdad’s disadvantaged classes, establishing Revolution City (a large housing project later to be renamed Saddam City and eventually Sadr City).
He was also a secular nationalist who spent funds on health and education and changed the law to ameliorate the legal situation of women with regards to marriage and inheritance. Moreover, he allowed the establishment of trade unions and tried his best to improve workers’ conditions.
Nonetheless, Qasim’s increasingly erratic frame of mind, especially in the latter years of his rule, caused him to veer away from internal developments toward external, largely manufactured crises that had the power to aggravate the country’s political stability. One such crisis occurred over Kuwait, making Qasim the second Iraqi ruler (after King Ghazi I in the 1930s) to threaten the emirate. Tragically, he was not to be the last.
In order to understand the context of Qasim’s démarche on Kuwait, it is important to retrace some of Iraq’s history in 1958. In the last year of the monarchy, Iraq and Jordan, prodded by the United States and the United Kingdom, had decided to form the Arab Federation to counteract the effects of the very popular United Arab Republic (UAR), the union between Egypt and Syria spearheaded by Egyptian president Nasser.
Nasser had appealed to the Arab “street” over the heads of Arab governments to join the UAR and ensure Arab unity, a campaign that was ultimately directed at the pro-Western governments in the Arab world and their patrons. Iraq and Jordan were ruled by kings (and ﬁ rst cousins) descending from the Hashemite family, but other Arab countries with a pro-Western tilt were also invited to join.
Iraq’s prime minister under the Arab Federation was Nuri al-Said, an astute politician who realized that the federation needed additional members to gain international legitimacy. Because it seemed a useful exercise, with which the British initially found favor, Kuwait’s shaykh was invited to Baghdad to discuss his country’s membership in the Arab Federation.
Kuwait was a British protectorate at the time, having ceded external sovereignty in 1899 in exchange for ﬁ nancial subsidies and military support to protect itself from Ottoman annexation. When the shaykh remained noncommittal about Kuwait’s joining the federation, al-Said asked the British ambassador to intervene on Iraq’s behalf. For good measure, he also proposed that the boundary line between Iraq and Kuwait could be settled if Kuwait were to join the federation.
But the British stalled, and the Iraqi monarchy’s days were numbered. In July, the revolution overthrew the monarchy and with it, the Arab Federation. When Qasim became “the Sole Leader” of Iraq, the question of Kuwait had faded in the background. It only returned to the spotlight in 1960 after Kuwait requested that its two large neighbors, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, demarcate their common borders. Saudi Arabia agreed; Iraq refused.
After Kuwait became independent from the British in 1961, Qasim sent the emir of Kuwait a frosty telegram without extending his congratulations, as was diplomatic usage (Khadduri and Ghareeb 1997, 64).
Kuwait immediately saw the writing on the wall; this was conﬁ rmed when, four days after Kuwait became independent, Qasim declared at a press conference that “Kuwait was ‘an integral’ part of Iraq on the strength of their past historical links” (Khadduri and Ghareeb 1997, 65).
Qasim’s position, essentially the same as King Ghazi’s had been, was that Kuwait had been part of the province of Basra during the Ottoman Empire and that its status as a British protectorate was never valid. Qasim then took the bold step of “announcing that he was appointing the ruler of Kuwait as qaimaqam of the district, subordinate to the governor of Basra” (Tripp 2000, 165).
On the strength of persistent rumors that Iraq’s forces were concentrating near Kuwait, the emir of Kuwait immediately invoked Britain’s pledge of assistance in case of external threats, and Britain obliged. On July 1, 1961, Britain landed 7,000 troops in the desert emirate, while Saudi Arabia dispatched 1,200 soldiers.
Even the Arab League, founded in 1945 to further Arab policies and foster cooperation among Arab nations, of which Iraq was a founding member, spurned Iraq’s explanation and sent 3,300 soldiers to defend Kuwait, a member since its independence. Between this and his ongoing clashes with the United Arab Republic, Qasim ended up diplomatically isolated from the rest of the Arab world. And even though the Soviet Union blocked Kuwait’s entry into the United Nations in 1961, after Qasim’s assassination in 1963, it changed its position and voted to admit Kuwait into the world body.
Foreign debacles aside, Qasim’s internal problems proved insurmountable and eventually led to his demise. In 1962, in the midst of a ferocious war against the Kurds led by Qasim’s generals, members of the KDP sent out feelers to the Baath Party and other Arab nationalist groups, who remained inﬂ uential within the army, stating that Kurds would lay down their arms once Qasim was overthrown (Tripp 2000, 168).
At the same time, the Baathists continued to cement their ties with Arab nationalist parties and to work covertly with other political groups in their preparation for a coup against the government.
On February 9, 1963, Qasim was overthrown and executed by members of the Baath Party, who had long despised his communist associations. He was defended to the last by the poor and disenfranchised members of the populace; according to Thabit Abdullah, “[I]ntense street battles continued for several days with the most stubborn resistance offered in the poor neighborhoods” (Abdullah 2003, 166).