The Shawwaf Revolt of 1959

The Shawwaf Revolt of 1959

The agricultural law of October 1958 helped escalate the struggle between Arab nationalists and Iraqi nationalists, culminating in the bloody events of March 1959 in Mosul. Colonel Abdul-Wahhab alShawwaf, commander of the Fifth Brigade in Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, lent his name to a major revolt against Qasim’s regime; the revolt, generally speaking, allied landowning tribal shaykhs of the Shammar tribe to Arab nationalist parties against the Communist-led popular quarters of the city.

Although the latter were numerically inferior to the combined weight of the nationalists and conservative landowners, they were able to fi nd support in certain elements of the armed forces, the artisans in the city, and the agriculturists of the Christian villages surrounding Mosul (Batatu 1979, 870–879). There was also some belated support for the Arab nationalists from Egypt and Syria, but in the end, it did not prove conclusive.

The causes for the Shawwaf revolt have variously been attributed both to the institution of the new agrarian law (which threatened the large landholdings of shaykhs and notables in the northern region) and to the assault on Arabism, a principle held dear by many of the Free Offi cers who had instigated the 1958 revolution.On March 8, 1959, the main Mosul radio station broadcast a manifesto in the name of Colonel Shawwaf declaring Qasim a traitor and castigated in vociferous terms the anti-Arab nationalist forces for bringing about the social, economic, and political ruin of the country.

Although the Arab nationalists were able to garner some rapid successes within the city, the communist-led counteroffensive was too strong; al-Shawwaf himself was killed in the early stages of the rebellion. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Air Force, under the command of progovernment forces, repeatedly hit the barracks of the Fifth Brigade, and tanks entered the city. The Arab nationalists, once a defi ant force of opposition, were decimated one by one.

The city descended into chaos as urban notables fought against tribesmen; Kurds, Yazidis, and Arabs joined opposing sides; and peasants and workers were executed for belonging to the Arab Socialist Baath Party by ICP sympathizers, who counted the working classes as invaluable allies. “The days of March” resulted in the execution and outright murder of hundreds of people and is still remembered as an indescribable bloodbath, topping even that of the July revolution.

Historian Hanna Batatu makes the excellent point that the massacres that took place over four days in Mosul arose out of a combination of ethnic and sectarian causes, as well as of class interests (Batatu 1979, 863–871). For instance, he notes that the conscripts of the Fifth Brigade, who were Kurdish, fought against their superior offi cers, who were Arab; Kurdish landed shaykhs sided with Arab landholding shaykhs against their own peasants; and in certain poor quarters of Mosul, Arab laborers supported Kurdish and Christian peasants against their own coreligionists.

Overall, it was not the fragile sense of community, society, and state affecting Mosul that stands out in the 1959 revolt but the way that one party made expedient alliances over class, ethnicity, and sect to emerge as the supreme organization in the country. However, the rise to power of the ICP, whose sway now extended over the press, labor unions, and universities, eventually brought about the seeds of its own downfall, and the collapse of its alliance with Qasim’s government.

Communists against Nationalists

The communist “tide” (dubbed in Arabic, al-madd al-shuyui) was a highly volatile period in Iraq’s history that has yet to be properly documented. Briefl y, it signaled the rapid ascension of the ICP to power and infl uence and the just as speedy dissolution of the Arab nationalist parties in the country. A purge of thousands of military offi cers and government ministers ensued, as Communists supplanted left-leaning, liberal, and traditionalist party members in offi ce and in the army.

By late 1959, the ICP numbered about 20,000 members, and its attendant professional associations and unions correspondingly attracted thousands of affi liates. A lawyer and member of one of Iraq’s infl uential families confi ded to this writer that the atmosphere at Baghdad University was suffocating at the time; Communists periodically entered classrooms in full session or the university cafeteria to “kidnap” or openly attack students. The Communist paper al-Ittihad al-Shaab (The peoples’ union) was thrust in the faces of students and professors alike and woe to those who dared to challenge it.

Some communists or “fellow travelers” have written riveting memoirs refl ecting upon that time. A one-time member of the Central Committee of the ICP, Dhannun Ayyub was originally a schoolteacher from Mosul who became a newspaper editor and then, under Qasim, director-general of the Ministry of General Guidance (Wizarat al-Irshad al-Amma). As such, he was made responsible for the press, radio, television, and cinema in Baghdad.

Claiming that he deplored the events of Mosul, and especially the brutal assassinations of noncommunists in the city, he was nonetheless initially seen as a procommunist sympathizer who staffed the ministry with members of the Communist Party. A reformer who dismissed more than 100 ministry employees in one week because of their purported ineffi ciency, Ayyub increasingly became a vocal defender of Qasim in his ongoing duel with the Egyptian president Nasser on Iraqi state radio (Ayyub 1984, n.p.).

The dictum of “power corrupts” may well have applied to him. Ayyub, who by his own admission had now become a pro-Qasim partisan, parted ways with the increasingly vociferous Communists over ideology and tactics, only to be labeled a “renegade” and even an “Afl aqi” (a covert supporter of Arab nationalism, in reference to one of the cofounders of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, Michel Afl aq).

It was this tension between the ICP and the more traditionalist socialist/nationalist parties such as the National Democratic Party (NDP), the emergent Baath Party in Iraq, the Iraqi nationalists, and the pro-Qasim faction that set the scene for the revolution’s fi rst year. Qasim had watched with growing frustration as the Communists grew in strength, while other parties were marginalized; as a man who believed that political balance was essential to his survival, this was not a good omen.

At fi rst, he attempted to rein in the Communists or mollify them by turn with further appointments. However, after the Communists’ responsibility for the horrifying events of Kirkuk in July 1959 became widely known—120 houses, stores, and cafés largely belonging to the Turkmen minority were burned to the ground, some with their occupants still inside, on the grounds that they belonged to members of an anticommunist ethnic minority—Qasim began to arrest a number of powerful ICP leaders and to dismiss others from their government posts.

This attempt to curb the ICP was cut short by a Baathist attempt on Qasim’s life in October 1959 (one of the wouldbe assassins was a 22-year-old Saddam Hussein). Again, Communist fortunes rebounded, as the attention of the government switched to hunting down Baathist cadres to avenge the attempted assassination of “the Sole Leader,” Qasim’s sobriquet.