The tragedy of Iraq’s Communists

Issue: 120

Anne Alexander

Tareq Ismael, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Iraq (Cambridge University Press, 2007), £50

Early on the mornings of 14 and 15 February 1949 a macabre sight met the eyes of passers-by in Baghdad. Bodies dangled on public display from gibbets erected in three of the city’s main squares. Notices posted nearby informed the general public that the three dead men were Yusuf Salman Yusuf, otherwise known as Comrade Fahd, secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP); Zaki Basim and Husain al-Shabibi, two leading Communist activists.

Just over a year earlier Iraq had been shaken by a popular uprising against the imposition of a new treaty with Britain. School and university students, railway workers and the vast mass of the urban poor—migrants from the impoverished south who filled the mud shacks around Baghdad—combined in gigantic protests, forcing the regent to disown the treaty.

The ICP played a crucial role in the uprising and the wave of strikes which followed, although tragically the protests lost momentum in late spring 1948, allowing the pro-British politicians who ruled Iraq to weather the storm. The hangings in February 1949 were their revenge on the Communists, who had dared to challenge both the Iraqi monarchy and its imperial backers in Whitehall.

In the uprising of 1948 Iraqi Communists risked death to lead protests against a treaty that perpetuated the British military occupation of Iraq. How then could the leaders of the same Communist Party, who continued to lay claim to the legacy of Fahd and his murdered comrades, join the governing council set up by the US occupying forces in 2003?

Tareq Ismael’s account of the rise and fall of the ICP attempts to answer this question. Using internal party documents, memoirs and interviews with leading Communist activists, Ismael traces the tragic history of Communism in Iraq from its earliest beginnings in the 1920s to the events of 2003.

Unlike in Hanna Batatu’s influential study, The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq, which relied heavily on Iraqi police records, the voices heard here are largely those of Iraqi Communists themselves. Although some of these sources are well known to Arabic readers, Ismael’s history is the first to give English speaking audiences the opportunity to follow the ICP’s internal debates through the words of the party’s leading activists. As a result it is an immensely valuable and rich history of one of Iraq’s most important political parties.

Ismael argues that the ICP’s subservience to Iraq’s new occupiers is rooted in the crisis which engulfed the party after the revolution of 1958. The 1960s, in particular, marked the transformation of the ICP from a party of “vanguard activists”, whose challenge to the existing political order was “mapped out onto a grassroots base” of Iraq’s expanding urban poor (p318), into an organisation dominated by “rearguard opportunism”, prepared to sacrifice any principle in order to forge a relationship with those in power.

The party’s relationship with the USSR was a crucial factor in this process. Soviet support allowed the party to function in the face of terrible repression: party leaders could find sanctuary in the USSR; Soviet funds kept ICP publications going and helped the party’s underground networks of activists to survive. However, in return the ICP was expected to display unquestioning loyalty towards its patrons in Moscow, even though the “Soviet leaders frequently neglected the real interests of their Iraqi comrades, sacrificing them on the altar of their own global political agendas” (p316). Following a classic Stalinist pattern, the ICP’s leadership encouraged a “cult of personality” around the secretary general. As Ismael explains, the “dependent political culture” (p316) inside the party played a destructive role in encouraging and deepening splits within the organisation “which appeared to be the only avenue available for any questioning of ideology and praxis in this inflexible environment” (p316).

The most important of these was the rift between the ICP central committee (ICP-CC) and the ICP central leadership (ICP-CL), which solidified into a permanent split in 1968. The issues at stake in the split were profound: the relationship between the fight for national liberation and socialist revolution, the party’s dependence on the USSR, the question of internal democracy and the role of armed struggle in the Iraqi Revolution. The first key problem concerned the party leadership’s actions in the aftermath of the revolution.

The monarchy was overthrown in July 1958 by dissident officers led by Abd-al-Karim Qasim and Abd-al-Salam Arif, who invited the opposition parties (with the pointed exception of the Communists) into government. The birth of the Iraqi Republic struck a devastating blow to British influence in the Middle East and was seen by millions across the region as another sign that the era of colonial domination had passed. However, within a few weeks disagreements about the relationship between Iraq and the newly founded United Arab Republic (a union between Egypt and Syria) caused a bitter conflict between Qasim and Arif. The ICP stood firmly with Qasim, opposing a headlong rush into unity with the United Arab Republic, while Arif was backed by various Arab nationalist groups, including the fledgling Baath Party. Against a backdrop of worsening conflict between Qasim and Arif, the ICP’s influence grew massively as the trade union movement revived and the new regime began to enact important social reforms.

The peak of the ICP’s power came in May 1959. The party had just played a pivotal role in derailing an attempted coup by Arab nationalist officers in Mosul. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Baghdad, calling on Qasim to invite the ICP into government. Yet Qasim outmanoeuvred the party leadership, making symbolic concessions but then purging Communist activists from the armed forces and government ministries.

The ICP’s central committee quickly backed down from confrontation with Qasim and launched into a period of self-criticism (which some activists described as “self-flagellation”). As Ismael explains, the ICP-CL argued that the party missed a historic opportunity as a result of the leadership’s failure to understand the nature of the Qasim regime: “Instead of taking the initiative to rally the masses against the ruling class’s retreat from the revolution and reaction against the democratic gains it had brought, the ICP asked the masses to surrender submissively and stand behind the regime” (p216).

The ICP-CL was also bitterly critical of the ICP’s dependence on the Soviet Union, and of the inability of the party’s rank and file to hold the leadership to account for its disastrous strategy. Tragically, as Ismael points out, the ICP-CL was not able to build a viable alternative to the increasingly hollow structures of the ICP-CC. The ICP-CL argued that Iraqi Communists should mobilise for “popular armed struggle”, but attempts to organise guerrilla warfare against the second Baathist regime (which took power in 1968) were catastrophic failures. The ICP-CL ended up based in Kurdistan, isolated from Iraq’s growing working class and dependent on the goodwill of the Kurdish nationalist leaders (p205).

Unlike the ICP-CL, the ICP-CC initially concluded an alliance with the Baath Party, joining the regime’s National Patriotic Front in 1973. Despite the bitter experience of the 1950s and 1960s, the ICP-CC’s leaders sacrificed what remained of the party’s credibility as an independent political force with their enthusiastic endorsement of the Baath’s “progressive” programme. But in the early 1980s the ICP-CC also fled to Kurdistan to launch an armed struggle against the Baathist regime, following another round of vicious purges and repression in the late 1970s.

Subsequent decades saw the ICP-CC, the ICP-CL and small groups that continually splintered from both becoming increasingly isolated from the party’s former base inside Iraq. The only area where Communist activists could operate openly was in Iraqi Kurdistan, and this entailed negotiating a tricky path between the competing Kurdish nationalist parties. When the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 brought the Baathist regime crashing down, the ICP-CC’s leaders threw their lot in with the occupying powers, following the path chosen by numerous other exiled opposition groups. The ICP, Ismael notes, “diluted its anti-capitalist rhetoric almost overnight. The outcome of this transformation was obvious: a seat on the governing council of Iraq and official political recognition for the party’s leadership by the occupation authorities. However, the cost for the party was astronomical and involved its being cut off from the movement against the occupation forces, as many of the individuals engaging in active resistance came to see the members of the governing council, including the ICP, as ‘collaborators’” (pp296-297).

Despite the weight of the ICP’s tragic history, Ismael ends his account on a note of hope, arguing that the party’s lasting legacy lies in its enrichment of Iraqi political thought through the politicisation of issues such as poverty and social injustice. The ICP’s anti-imperialism has not been completely erased either, as this tradition still inspires networks of Iraqi activists such as Iraqi Democrats Against the Occupation.