Today in Middle Eastern history: Iraq's Ramadan Revolution (1963)

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The Ramadan Revolution—don’t let the name fool you, it’s really a coup that got good branding—is the middle chapter in a trilogy of coups, from 1958 to 1968, that collectively transitioned Iraq from a Hashemite-run monarchy to a Baathist-run republic. Obviously the third one is beyond the scope of this essay since it hadn’t happened yet, but we should briefly review the first.

On July 14, 1958—hence it's called the “14 July Revolution” in another bit of overhyped marketing—an Iraqi “Free Officers Movement” (explicitly modeled after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s “Free Officers Movement” in Egypt) overthrew the Hashemites and executed young King Faisal II along with his prime minister and his regent/uncle. The Free Officers were motivated by a blend of intellectual currents that were coursing throughout the region at the time—Nasserism, pan-Arab nationalism, Iraqi nationalism, anti-imperialism, socialism, republicanism, anti-monarchism, name it, there was probably somebody involved in that 1958 coup who was on about it.

The ideological diversity of the coup plotters in 1958 played a significant role in what happened next, which was the complete breakdown of their coalition. The leader of the coup, General Abd al-Karim Qasim (d. 1963 and that is a spoiler), fell out pretty quickly with his number two guy, Abdul Salam Arif (d. 1966), over regional policy. Arif was an ardent pan-Arabist. He was probably a Nasserist, but at the very least he was deeply sympathetic to Nasser's vision of a single republic (which would, in Nasser’s vision, naturally be run by Nasser himself) spanning most or ideally all of the Arab world. To that end, Arif wanted to bring Iraq into the United Arab Republic, Nasser’s short-lived (1958-1961) union between Egypt and Syria.

In this he was supported by the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party, which by now was more or less led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (d. 1982). The Iraqi Baathists were still in their formative years in 1958, but they did participate in the coup that ousted the Hashemites. And while Baathism and Nasserism are not the same thing, they’re simpatico in several areas, so Baathist leadership was keen to join Nasser’s UAR as well (as Syria’s Baath Party branch had been, until Nasser more or less purged them from the UAR’s leadership).

Bakr had risen through the ranks of both the Iraqi military and the Baath Party to a position of prominence in 1958, and by 1963 he’d been named the head of the party’s military office. In that position he was supposed to cultivate a network of sympathetic officers within the Iraqi military for the Baathists and against Qasim, but along with doing that Bakr also pretty much controlled the party. He and the rest of the Baathists made a couple of attempts to assassinate Qasim, including a 1959 CIA-aided operation that starred a young Saddam Hussein (you can read about that here if you subscribe, just saying).

Why did they try to kill Qasim, you ask? Well, mostly because Qasim wasn’t very interested in all this Nasserist/pan-Arabist business. To the extent that he exhibited any nationalist impulses they were toward Iraqi nationalism, not Arab nationalism. He opposed Iraq joining the UAR and was supported in his decision by the Iraqi Communist Party, which very much did not get along with the socialist Baathists. At least in part, Qasim’s reluctance to join the Nasserist movement seems to have been a personal issue, in that Qasim saw Nasser didn’t like sharing power. Qasim, and I can kind of understand where he was coming from, didn’t want to give up being the leader of Iraq in order to be, at best, Nasser’s Iraqi sidekick.

Qasim’s reluctance to get tangled up in Nasser's project may also have been to some extent a sectarian issue. Shiʿa Iraqis were wary of “pan-Arab” anything, because “pan-Arab” also means “mostly Sunni.” So the Iraqi Communist Party, which was not pan-Arab in orientation, became kind of a haven for left-minded Shiʿa who weren't interested in Baathism’s pan-Arabism. As far as I know Qasim was Sunni, but his mother was Shiʿa and so he may have been sympathetic to Shiʿa concerns about being subsumed by a Sunni Arab majority. Whatever his own faith actually was, Qasim’s opponents made a lot of hay by suggesting that he was Shiʿa. They called him a “shuʿubi,” referring to the ~9th century Shuʿubiyah movement that tried to put non-Arab Muslims on an equal footing with Arab Muslims within the Abbasid caliphate. Since the Shuʿubiyah was to a significant extent driven by Persian speakers, the implication was that Qasim was against pan-Arabism because he favored (predominantly Shiʿa) Iran over the (predominantly Sunni) Arabs.

Because of their basic incompatibility in terms of worldview, Qasim and Arif weren’t going to be able to coexist over the long haul. But their falling out actually happened surprisingly quickly. By September 1958, just a few months after the 14 July coup, Qasim had stripped Arif of all his post-coup positions, including deputy prime minister and deputy commander of the armed forces, and tried to send him away as ambassador to West Germany. Arif essentially told Qasim to get bent and Qasim then had him arrested in 1959. After a brief stint on death row (!), though, Arif was released from prison into house arrest in 1961 and was free to begin planning his uprising, with heavy Baathist involvement. Qasim, meanwhile, spent the early 1960s trying and mostly failing to control the Communist Party as its affiliated militias committed acts of violence against political opponents and generally set about alienating a lot of Iraqis, especially in the middle class, who would eventually support the Baathist coup.

As was the case with the 1958 coup, the least interesting part of this story is the actual coup itself. On February 8, 1963 (which in that year was the fourteenth day of—wait for it—Ramadan), the by-now substantial pro-Baathist faction in the Iraqi military made its move. They knocked off the commander of the Iraqi air force and put tanks into the streets. Thousands of Communist Party members and sympathizers came out to oppose the coup and were slaughtered for their trouble. Qasim took refuge in his defense ministry headquarters and, the following day, offered to surrender and leave the country. The Baathists had him completely surrounded so this was a laughable offer, and Arif knew it. He demanded that Qasim publicly acknowledge that he, Arif, had been the real leader of the 1958 coup, and when Qasim refused Arif had him executed.

Very few major political events in the Middle East in the 1960s happened outside of the arena of Cold War politics, and in this case the United States seems to have been quite pleased with how things shook out. There’s never been any conclusive evidence to support the assertion that the CIA was directly involved in the coup, but they assuredly knew that it was going to happen and had known that the Baathists were looking to get rid of Qasim for some time—as I noted above, they’d actually tried to help them off the guy at least once.

It’s been alleged that the CIA provided the Baathists with lists of Iraqi Communist Party members, many of whom coincidentally were rounded up and executed after the coup. There certainly could be something to this charge. But to be fair, I have a hard time believing that the CIA in 1963 had a better idea who was a communist in Iraq than the Iraqi Baath Party did, so while it wouldn’t surprise me if the Agency helped round up and murder Iraqi communists I’m unconvinced that it played much of a direct role in that effort. Washington did sign a spiffy new arms deal with the new Iraqi government right after the coup, helping to legitimize it in the West, so that was nice of them. The Soviets, meanwhile, opposed the coup and helped the Iraqi Communist Party undertake its own uprising in July, at the al-Rashid military base in Baghdad. That revolt was very quickly suppressed, which is why it doesn't get a cool brand name like “The Ramadan Revolution.”

Arif was now president of Iraq, but he’d gotten there with a lot of Baathist help and they—in particular Bakr (who now became vice-president and prime minister) and Iraqi Baathist Party chair Ali Salih al-Saʿidi—felt entitled to a great deal of influence in the new government. Arif didn't necessarily agree. This tense situation caused the post-coup government to implode in November, when Arif suppressed Saʿidi's powerful Baathist militia and purged his government of all of its Baathist elements, including Bakr. Don't worry, though—Bakr got his revenge. Arif died in an extremely sketchy 1966 helicopter crash that may very well have been (though it's never been proven) engineered by the Baathists. And in the third part of our trilogy, a 1968 coup finally put Bakr and his Baathists in power, at the expense of Arif’s brother and successor, Abdul Rahman.

There are a couple of knock-on effects to this coup that we should mention. For one thing, it directly inspired Syria's Baathists to undertake the March 8, 1963 coup that put them in power in Damascus. For another, it helped breathe a bit of life (by which I mean Soviet aid) into the Kurdish nationalist movement. You may recall that Mustafa Barzani had sojourned into Iran in the 1940s, and from there spent several years as a Soviet guest. He returned to Iraq after the 1958 coup, amid promises from Qasim that the Kurds would be treated well under the new republican government.

It quickly became clear that Qasim had been lying, and so Barzani began a revolt in 1960 that was pretty successful, all things considered. Part of the reason for that success was that, after the Iraqi Communist Party's attempted uprising in July 1963 was put down, the Soviets turned to Barzani as their Man In Iraq and began aiding his cause. Barzani almost won major concessions from Baghdad only to see them quashed following the 1968 coup, but then got Bakr’s new Baathist government to agree to talks on Kurdish autonomy in 1970. His uprising resumed after those talks broke down in 1974 (this time with US aid—Washington took Barzani in after the 1972 friendship treaty between Baghdad and Moscow ended Soviet support for the Kurdish cause), but things didn't go so well for the Kurds the second time around.