Witnessing Iraq's Last Revolution

By Evans, George | Contemporary Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Witnessing Iraq's Last Revolution


Evans, George, Contemporary Review


IRAQ, broken by war, revolution and the military despots who have ruled it since the overthrow of the monarchy forty-five years ago, faces an uncertain future. The appointment of an Iraqi governing council, in effect an interim government with limited power, is a tentative step towards full self-rule but political stability let alone a freely functioning system of democratic government remains a distant prospect in a country that has been dominated and oppressed by the army and its political generals for most of its existence as an independent state.

To provide some much needed historical background, we are fortunate to have a searching comprehensive new study of the Middle East by ten leading American historians and academics which focuses on 1958, the year that marked the high tide of Arab nationalism, inspired as it was by hopes of pan-Arab unity. * It was the creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in which Egypt and Syria merged to form a single (short-lived) state under Gamal Abdel Nasser which dashed such hopes and threatened to sweep the whole of the Arab world into revolutionary turmoil. American marines landed in Beirut to ensure the survival of the Lebanon. British paratroops were dropped in Amman to support King Hussein in his endeavour to keep Jordan out of Nasser's clutches.

These events, ominous as they seemed at the time, were soon overtaken and overshadowed by the revolution in Iraq which brought the mob on to the streets of Baghdad on the morning of July 14, 1958. In the orgy of violence and bloodshed which followed, King Faisal II and Crown Prince Abdel Ilah were murdered on the steps of the royal palace. The veteran, pro-Western Prime Minister, Nuri al-Said was killed the following day as he tried to escape the vengeance of the mob. A new republic was duly proclaimed by yet another military dictator, Brigadier Abdul Karim Qassim, the leader of the so-called Free Officers who staged the coup.

Virtually no one in British circles, writes William Roger Louis, Professor of English literature and culture at the University of Texas, questioned the assumption that Nasser himself directed and motivated an expansionist pan-Arab movement or that he might have been the hidden hand behind the Iraq revolution. He appeared to be making a tentative bid for all of the Middle East. For the Arabs however, he was the hero of the day, having in spite of all the odds emerged triumphant from the invasion of Egypt by British, French and Israeli forces in the Suez war two years earlier. There is not much doubt about any of that though Dr Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Middle East history at the University of Chicago, believes the revolutionary upheaval was driven almost entirely by powerful social and political forces within Iraqi society. While the Soviet Union and Egypt strongly opposed Iraqi policies such as the Baghdad Pact and the Eisenhower doctrine, he writes, it was an exaggeration to say that they incited domestic opposition to the Hashemite regime. Try telling that to the Jordanians or to the many among the crowds lining the streets of Baghdad on the morning of July 14 who had little doubt about the role played by the Soviet Union and the Egyptians.

Today, nearly half a century on, Iraq is again in turmoil in the wake of a war in which the American and British forces routed the Iraqi army and put paid to the brutish regime of Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks. Winning the peace is another matter. The reconstruction of Iraq as a durable and prosperous democracy is a more formidable task which could take years to complete. Deep political and ethnic differences stand in the way. The Shias, nearly sixty per cent of the population, long dominated and oppressed by the Sunni minority, may have a majority on the new interim governing council but it is unlikely to quench their thirst for overall power in an Islamic fundamentalist state.

Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, believes that the American attempt to impose democracy on Iraq is futile. …

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