The Guardian May 28, 2003


Iraqi Communist Party: a heroic legacy

by Prakash Karat

Is there a Communist Party in Iraq? If so, what has it been doing? The news 
that the first newspaper to be circulated in Baghdad after the American 
occupation was published by the Communist Party came as a surprise to 
many.

A brief description of the stormy and heroic story of the Iraqi Communist 
Party (ICP) is given here. It is only a bare sketch of the main events, but 
it should help the reader to understand the eventful and tragic history of 
a Party that grew to be the largest Communist Party in the Middle East. It 
became the most influential force in the country at the time of the July 
1958 revolution which overthrew the British supported regime and 
established a republic.

The ICP suffered serious bouts of repression, the worst being in 1963. No 
other Communist Party, with the exception of the Indonesian Party, faced 
such brutal terror as the Party in Iraq.

The saga of the ICP and its tortuous ups and downs is most vividly and 
authoritatively documented in Hanna Batuta's The Old Classes and 
Revolutionary Movements in Iraq: A Study of Landed and Commercial Classes 
and of its Communists, Ba'thists and Free Officers (Princeton 1978). 
This remarkable book is the basis for much of the information on the ICP in 
this article.

There is an interesting parallel in the way communist ideas developed in 
India and Iraq, both were British colonies in the 1920s. In both countries, 
the anti-imperialist fighters got inspiration from the Russian Great 
October Socialist Revolution.

Beginning

The first intellectual to be influenced by Marxist ideas in Iraq was Husain 
al-Rahhal. His parents decided to send him for studies in Europe. He 
boarded a ship from Basra that went to Karachi en route to Europe. Rahhal 
disembarked at Karachi and spent more than a year in India.

It is reported that his stay in India brought him in touch with radical 
ideas which further matured during his studies in Europe. Like many Western 
educated young people of his generation, the reading of Labour Monthly 
edited by Rajani Palme Dutt, which was available in Baghdad, helped him to 
understand communist politics.

The first Marxist study circle (Jamati) was set up by Rahhal along with 
some of his friends in 1924 and included Mahmud Ahmad Sayyid, one of the 
first novelists of Iraq.

The years 1920-1932 was the period of direct British rule of Iraq under the 
mandate provided by the League of Nations. It is in this period that 
industry and railways developed throwing up a modern working class. The 
first organised strike was by the railway workers in 1927 and the first 
union was set up by the railway workers in 1929.

The ICP was founded in 1934. It was preceded by the work of communist 
groups in places like Basra in southern Iraq which threw up the first 
organiser and outstanding leader of the Communist Party. His name was Yusuf 
Salman Yusuf who came to be known as Fahd (the Leopard). Fahd was selected 
by the Comintern to study at the Communist University of the Toilers of the 
East.

Fahd was arrested in 1933 and he became the first Iraqi to defend himself 
in court as a Communist.

Repression

The Communist Party became the leading Left force in the country fighting 
against imperialism and the oppression of the feudal landlords.

Right from the beginning, the fledgling Party had to face severe repression 
at the hands of the successive Iraqi governments which were under the 
tutelage of the British.

In 1935, the Secretary of the Party, Asin Flayyeh, was arrested and the 
Party's printing press confiscated. In August 1937, the parliament declared 
communism in Iraq illegal. The penal code provided for punishment by death 
or penal servitude for life for dissemination of communism among the armed 
forces or the police.

Fahd took over as General Secretary of the Party in 1941 and under his 
leadership the Party consolidated its organisation and his activities 
enhanced its prestige among the people.

The heroic struggle of the Soviet people against Nazi Germany attracted 
more people to communist ideology. In 1944 the first Party conference was 
held which drafted the Party's national charter. This charter was approved 
by the first national congress of the Party in April 1945. The Congress 
elected a Central Committee.

The Iraqi Communist Party was not based on any single community or ethnic 
group. Right from the outset it attracted the best men and women from all 
sections of the working people and the intelligentsia.

In the 1940s, the cadres and leaders were drawn from Arab Shias and Sunnis 
and the Kurds were always a significant proportion. Members from the 
minorities, Christians and Jews (till the '50s) were found in the 
leadership. In fact, Fahd, the most important leader was of Christian 
origin.

The Baath Party, which forcibly supplanted the ICP, borrowed many of the 
progressive features of the Communists, though it distorted them in 
practice. The only legacy of the days of the anti-imperialist struggle 
which the Baath could not abandon was the secular character of the State.

The period 1944-1946 saw the expansion of trade union activities and out of 
the 16 trade unions formed in this period 12 were led by the Communist 
Party. During this period, the Communist Party set up its units in Iraqi 
Kurdistan. The Party consistently supported the right of self-determination 
of the Kurdish people and later for their autonomy. The first peasant 
uprising against a landed sheikh in the Iraqi countryside took place in the 
village of Arbat in 1947.

The growing activities and mass influence of the ICP alarmed the puppet 
government and their British mentors. A serious blow was struck at the 
Party when Fahd and several leaders were arrested in January 1947. They 
were charged with conspiring to overthrow the government. Fahd and another 
member of the Polit Bureau, Zaki Basin, were sentenced to death. Because of 
an international campaign to save their lives, the sentence was commuted to 
life imprisonment.

It is during this period that the ICP emerged as the key political force in 
the country when the great national uprising known as Al-Wathbah (the Leap) 
took place in January 1948.

The uprising was sparked off by the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty 
between the British and Iraqi Governments. The treaty continued to 
subjugate Iraq with military bases and other curbs on its sovereignty.

Hundreds of thousands of people, led by the Communists, demonstrated in the 
streets of Baghdad. Four hundred people were shot dead in the streets of 
the city by police manning machine guns. The Prime Minister fled the 
country and the government was forced to repudiate the treaty.

Along with the mass upsurge came a wave of workers' strikes and in April 
1948 the historic march from Haditha oil pumping station by 3000 workers to 
Baghdad 250 kms away, electrified the country.

The reactionary government gradually regained control after declaring a 
state of emergency. The repression that followed saw hundreds of Communists 
being held and sentenced in summary trials.

General Secretary Fahd and two members of the Polit Bureau Zaki Basim and 
Al Shabibi who were in prison were retried and sentenced to death. Their 
sentences were carried out in the middle of the night.

As he was led to the gallows Fahd declared defiantly that "we have bodies 
and thoughts; you may destroy our bodies but not our thoughts".

The bodies of the three leaders were hung for display in three different 
parts of the city to terrorise the people. The repression against the 
Communists made the ICP known as the "Party of martyrs" and the respect and 
admiration of the people for the Party grew immensely.

Mass struggles

In the early '50s, the Communist Party rebuilt itself and a new youthful 
leadership took up the challenge. Another wave of mass struggles developed 
culminating in the Intifada (uprising) in November 1952.

A feature of this was the struggle of peasants against the landlords under 
the leadership of the peasant societies organised by the Party. The army 
was called in to suppress the revolts. At the end of 1954, the Party 
decided to organise a national committee for the union of soldiers and 
officers as more and more soldiers became politically active in the mass 
struggles and movements. The period up to 1958 saw the steady ascent of the 
Party and the growth of its mass organisations.

Thus the Party was positioned to be the main force in the revolutionary 
uprising which took place in July 1958 that overthrew the hated puppet 
regime and saw the nationalist army led by General Qasim take power.

By 1959, 250,000 workers had joined trade unions; there were 3000 peasant 
associations in the villages representing 200,000 peasants; the Iraqi 
Women' s League had 20,000 members and the Democratic Youth Federation 
84,000 members. Significantly, a number of army officers and soldiers also 
joined the Communist Party.

The Communists played a significant role in the revolutionary upheaval of 
1958. The Party's growing power frightened the new ruling circles and the 
national bourgeoisie. The influence of the Communist Party was at its 
height and land reform measures and labour laws had to be brought in to 
meet the popular demands.

Big demonstrations took place demanding that the Communists be included in 
the new government but the nationalist army officers and the bourgeoisie 
refused to consider such a demand.

On the 1st of May 1959, 300,000 people marched through Baghdad raising the 
demand for the participation of the Communist Party in the government. The 
Party withdrew the demand to be a part of the government in July 1959. The 
Central Committee took this decision stating that there were serious 
misgivings among various sections of the bourgeoisie and moderate forces.

The reformist section in the Party leadership prevailed. The giving up of 
this demand led to repression being stepped up against the Communists. By 
1960 a new round of attacks began.

The Qasim regime refused to legalise the Communist Party when it applied 
for a licence at a time when all other parties were granted recognition.

Later the Party recognised its mistake in retreating from the slogan of 
setting up of a revolutionary democratic government with communist 
participation.

The line of capitulating to Qasim and the national bourgeoisie was also 
adopted because of the influence of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union 
(CPSU). It may be recalled that it was in the late '50s (after the 20th 
Congress of the CPSU) that the Soviet Party began advocating the line of 
uniting with the national bourgeoisie and undermining the independent role 
of the Communist Party. The Iraqi Party, like many other parties in the 
third world, did not escape the consequences of the Soviet dictated 
approach.

The new republic set up in 1958 marked the emergence of the truly 
independent state of Iraq.

Qasim, under the influence of progressive forces, introduced a whole range 
of measures that broke with the old pro-imperialist regime. Iraq withdrew 
from the Baghdad Pact and the British military bases were vacated, a 
program of land reforms and legal rights for trade unions and other 
democratic organisations was announced.

An important step taken by the Qasim Government was to clip the wings of 
the Iraq Petroleum Company which was owned by the Anglo-American oil 
companies. The government decided to severely restrict the company's right 
to exploitation of the concessions granted to it.

But a radical regime relying on communist support was something that the 
national bourgeoisie could not countenance for long. The Qasim regime 
weakened itself by striking at the main pillar of its support  the 
Communists.

Qasim became increasingly isolated from other political parties due to his 
autocratic ways and the stage was set for the reactionary coup in February 
1963.

A section of the nationalist armed forces officers joined hands with the 
Baath Party to overthrow Qasim who was executed. It was only the Communists 
who brought out the people from the slums of Baghdad armed with sticks to 
face the tanks and machine guns. The resistance to the coup was crushed by 
superior military force.

Darkest period

The ousting of Qasim led to a ferocious bloodbath of the Communists. It was 
the darkest period for the ICP. At least 3000 Communists were executed and 
thousands more were jailed.

It is reported that the CIA handed over lists of Communists to the Baath 
leaders and the coup plotters before the coup began. The first Secretary of 
the Party, Husain ar-Radi, was arrested from his hideout. He was brutally 
tortured for four days and died without divulging anything to the 
torturers.

The terror against the Communists and progressives in the days after the 
coup d'itat was worse than what the Pinochet regime inflicted upon the Left 
in Chile a decade later.

The National Guard of the Baathist Party dragged out Communists held in 
detention under the Qasim regime and shot them. The Iraqi Communist Party 
sources put the number of their members and supporters killed during the 
first three days of the coup at 5000.

Sports grounds, military camps and schools were turned into concentration 
camps and interrogation centres for tens of thousands of people from all 
walks of life. The Party had to retreat and set up its partisan forces in 
the Kurdish areas.

The Baath regime did not last long and fell in November 1963. Those who 
took over the reins of power consisted of a coalition of army officers who 
were pan-Arab nationalists and Nasserites* who looked to Egypt for 
inspiration. The military regime lasted until 1968 when the Baath Party 
staged a comeback through a military coup carried out with the help of a 
section of the army officers.

From then onwards the Baath Party manoeuvred to consolidate its position 
while eliminating all opposition. In its drive for total hegemony, the 
Baath Party continued its repression of the Communist Party.

The brutal suppression of the Communists continued until 1971 even though 
the ICP called for a constitutional framework embodying democratic 
principles with free elections, the solution of the Kurdish problem based 
on autonomy and the abolition of concessions to foreign companies.

The ICP called for the formation of a patriotic front of all progressive 
forces and a coalition government. The Baath Party was faced with an 
international situation where it could take steps to break the stranglehold 
of the Iraq Petroleum Company.

The necessity to modernise capitalism required that the oil resources be 
used to accumulate capital. Relations with the Soviet Union took a new turn 
when the Iraqi government sought its help in oil production and the first 
agreement was signed in 1969.

After prolonged negotiations in 1971-72 the Baath Party came to an 
agreement with the ICP to form a progressive and patriotic national front 
on the basis of a national action charter. Two communist ministers joined 
the government.

By 1978 the Baath Party turned against the Communists once again. It 
removed all representatives of the ICP in the patriotic front and they were 
arrested. In May 1978, 31 members and supporters of the ICP were executed 
on the pretext that they had set up Communist Party cells in the armed 
forces.

Underlying this new attack on the Communists was the burgeoning oil income 
after the sharp rise in oil prices in 1974. An understanding was arrived at 
with the Shah of Iran that helped the regime to stabilise. The Iraqis 
conceded the vital Shatt-al-Arab waterway to Iran in return for an 
undertaking to close the Iranian border to the Kurdish fighters from Iraq 
and suspension of military aid to them.

In April 1979, the ICP declared that the patriotic front had ceased to be 
an alliance and had been converted into an instrument of the Baath Party. 
The ICP announced its open opposition to the Baath regime in 1979, the year 
Saddam Hussein took full powers as President. Later that year the communist 
partisan units were set up in the Kurdish areas.

Ever since the Baathists came to power they sought to suppress the Kurds by 
military means. Between March 1974 and early 1975 a large number of 
civilians were killed in the Kurdish areas due to the Iraqi army 
operations.

The Iraqi Communist Party forged an alliance with the Kurdish Democratic 
Party and the Kurdish Socialist Party in 1980 and vowed to continue the 
armed struggle against the regime. Since then, the Party has been an 
underground opposition force having suffered terrible losses following the 
policy of Baathisation of Iraqi society and the establishment of a one-
Party authoritarian regime.

Many years later, when the US was set to attack Iraq, the ICP opposed any 
military intervention by America. Faced with the prospects of an American 
invasion of Iraq, the ICP refused to join the meeting of the opposition 
groups sponsored by the Americans in London in November 2002 which was 
meant to prepare the ground for setting up a pliant regime after the 
occupation of Iraq. The ICP opposed the Saddam regime and the American 
occupation.

As the Iraqi people brace themselves for a prolonged resistance to the 
American occupation and the imposition of a puppet regime, the ICP is once 
again poised at the crossroads.

It has to face the challenge of developing a powerful democratic resistance 
to the imperialist occupation while building the mass base of the Party. In 
doing so, it will have to contend with the Islamist forces who wish to 
convert Iraq into a theocratic state.

The rich and heroic legacy of the ICP in its first six decades should stand 
it in good stead in the difficult but challenging days ahead.

* * *
* Nasser was the President of Egypt, carried out land reform against the monopoly owners, nationalised the Suez Canal and was one of the founders of the Afro-Asian movement which preceded the Movement of the Non-Aligned countries. People's Democracy newspaper of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

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