The Portsmouth Treaty

The Portsmouth Treaty

Back in power, Nuri al-Said set about reordering Iraqi politics, serving as prime minister throughout most of the war years. He was succeeded by Hamdi al-Pachachi and Tawfi q al-Suwaidi. It was during these years that democratic infl uences took hold in Iraq, especially during the extremely brief premiership (February 23–June 1, 1946) of al-Suwaidi, who in a fl urry of liberal activity “ended martial law, closed the al-Faw detention camp, lifted press censorship, introduced a new Electoral Law, . . . [and] permitted political parties to form once again” (Tripp 2000, 114). At this time, the two most important political parties were al-Hizb al-Watani al-Dimuqrati (National Democratic Party, or NDP) and Hizb al-Istiqlal (Independence Party).

One of the most important events in the 1940s was the renegotiation of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, and it was al-Said’s political ally Salih Jabr (Iraq’s fi rst Shii prime minister) who took upon himself the delicate task of setting down the fi nal dates for the British withdrawal of its armed forces from Iraq and the rescinding of its bases.

Negotiated in secret, for fear of Iraqi popular wrath, the treaty signed at Portsmouth on January 15, 1948, did, in fact, set a timetable for British withdrawal—1973 (which was 15 years past the expiration date of the 1930 treaty)—but hedged it with a clause that stated that in case of war, the British could return and take occupancy of “their” bases (Tripp 2000, 120). When the story came out, Iraqis were predictably outraged. The treaty was abandoned after 20 ministers resigned, street protests took over the capital, and Iraqi security forces shot at demonstrators, causing further anger.

The fury unleashed by the Portsmouth Treaty brought together a number of political parties such as the NDP, the Communist Party, and the Baathists (members of the Arab nationalist Baath Party). The same constellation of political groupings were to gain in strength throughout the next decade. In July 1958, they became signifi cant players in the postmonarchy age.

Arab Nationalism, Iraqi Nationalism, and the Question of Palestine

There were many issues that defi ned postwar politics, the most important of which was the role of “the Arab nation” during the postcolonial age. The Palestinian question was but one aspect of that issue. From as early as 1936, when nationalist agitation for an Arab Palestine spread across all classes and social forces in Iraq, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s, when mass popular movements took up the slogan of “Palestine Is Arab,” the question of Palestine dominated politics, unseated governments, and contributed to the large revolutionary social movements that eventually brought about the monarchy’s demise. Still, overall, the Palestinian question came second to the conditions in Iraq and the larger Arab nation.

Generally speaking, there were three political groups that vied for the honor of supporting the Palestinian issue in Iraq: the Communist Party, the socialist parties represented by the old Ahali movement, and the Arab Baath Socialist Party. Other institutions, such as the army, were also profoundly torn by the loss of Palestine in 1948 and, at certain periods, espoused broad nationalist sympathies, later on kept in check by the prime minister and the palace. But there were substantial differences in how the question was raised by different Iraqi parties at different times.

In May 1947, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov called for “an independent, dual, democratic, homogeneous Arab-Jewish state” (Batatu 1979, 597). This was a radical departure for the Soviet Union, which had long championed the cause of an Arab Palestine, and correspondingly threw the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) leadership in total panic.

Emerging out of internal Soviet interests, the statement nonetheless bewildered the Iraqi Communists. Eventually, after a year of internal struggle, the ICP threw its weight behind an Arab-Jewish state, thus accepting the principle of partition that had been severely criticized by the Arab countries, only to fi nd that it had fallen into a trap of its own making. The USSR repudiated its own statement some years later, and the ICP followed suit, but not before it had caused grave dissension among different publics in the Arab world, including Iraq.

The Arab nationalist parties were less rigid and more general about their support for Palestine (tending to confl ate it in the 1930s and 1940s with neocolonialist machinations in general). The Palestinian cause was central because it was an Arab cause and not primarily because it was an example of the injustices brought about by “the capitalist-imperialist system” on a peasant economy. Even though the economic and political ramifi cations of Zionist migration in Palestine had long been recognized, the nationalist parties thought Palestine was, fi rst and foremost, an Arab nationalist issue. As such, it struck a chord with the newer parties in the nationalist constellation.

The Arab Baath Socialist Party was born in Syria in or around 1941; it did not have great success in Iraq until 10 years later. By 1951, its supporters were ranked in the hundreds. By that time also, it had come under the leadership of Fuad al-Rikabi, who, together with the Baath parties of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, formed a National Front.

This front came together with the Communists and other nationalist parties in Iraq around two central issues: They resisted the Baghdad Pact, an alliance of Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Iraq formed in 1955 to block the Soviet Union from expanding into the Arab world; and they supported Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the artifi cial waterway that linked the Mediterranean Sea with the Red and Indian Seas.

Since its completion in 1869, the canal had been run by the Suez Canal Company, in which Great Britain held a majority stake. The National Front began calling for the end of Nuri al-Said’s (eighth and fi nal) government, the withdrawal of Iraq from the Baghdad Pact, the abolition of martial law, and the pursuit of “positive neutralism,” the cold war policy that came to Iraq from Egypt via Syria in which countries not aligned with either the West or the Soviet Union (or China) used their neutralism to further their national aims. The die was cast. When al-Said’s government fi nally did fall in May 1958, the revolution was but a couple of months away.

Oil and the Development Board

Oil became an important issue in the political struggles of the 1950s, whether between Iraq and the West or, increasingly, as the subtext between Iraqi governments and the people. Until then, oil production had not affected Iraq’s economy in a substantial way. International capital funded and therefore controlled the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), investing millions of dollars to develop the oil industry in Iraq but usually purchasing what it needed for such a task from Western companies.

And except for the construction of the industry’s infrastructure, it required relatively few workers; it is estimated that “between 1929 and 1953, Iraqi oil workers represented no more than 2.7 percent of the total non-agricultural labor force” (Haj 1997, 71). Few of the profi ts stayed in Iraq, too. However, a coup in Iran in 1951 that brought the popular nationalist Muhammad Mossadeq to power led to the nationalization of the AngloIranian Oil Company (AIOC).

Encouraged by these events, Iraqi nationalist parties demanded an immediate renegotiation of the IPC’s agreement with the major Western companies working in Iraq. Under popular pressure, the Iraqi government of the day was able to compel an increase in production and a 50-50 profi t share but failed to drastically overhaul the whole system, as the nationalists had wanted. Nationalization of Iraq’s oil resources was to remain but a dream to be realized only much later on.

The IPC’s royalties, never very large in the 1930s and 1940s, now grew substantially. The government and its advisers sought to harness this windfall by investing oil revenues in development projects throughout the country, and so the Development Board was born. The board was granted 70 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue earnings to plan nationwide projects.

A critical look at those projects shows that most of them were in the agricultural sector, while only a smattering benefi ted industry, always very weak in Iraq. The agricultural projects focused on fl ood control, land reclamation, and water storage; although important for the infrastructure of agricultural lands as a whole, they were long-term projects that did not provide immediate returns.

In Iraq in the 1950s, this was not good enough. They also appeared to primarily benefi t the class of tribal proprietors rather than the impoverished and landless majority, whose concerns were daily taken up by the various nationalist, socialist, and communist parties in the country. The latter had long promoted the idea that a small elite of landed shaykhs and gentry were diverting the country’s riches into their coffers; the large agricultural schemes envisaged by the Development Board only proved the opposition’s claims and buttressed that popular perception.