Review of the Book, The Power Struggle in Iraq — The North Star Reports – by Antonio Hall. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
The Power Struggle in Iraq. Benjamin Shwadran. New York: Council for Middle Eastern Affairs Press, 1960.
Abstract: The Power Struggle in Iraq serves as a roadmap to those in the West who were aware of the new government which took power in Iraq following the Coup of 1958, but were unsure how it would affect the West, especially in terms of economics and politics. Author Bejamin Shwadran begins with a retelling of conditions that led to the coup which transpired in 1958. Iraq’s monarchy allowed Western imperialists to hoard Iraqi oil and the farming industry while leaving the Iraqi people in a disenfranchised condition. Arab countries, Iraq, Egypt, and the United Arab Republic (or former Syria) in particular, were pitted against each other, thwarting the aim of Arab nationalism. Shwadran details formal and informal alliances between Arab nations and their supporters among major powers around the world, and the ways they led to conflict.
The Power Struggle in Iraq by Benjamin Shwadran highlights the key moments, contributors, and ramifications of the Qasim regime. The book was intended to illuminate the status of Iraqi politics, economy, and its national and international identity post-revolution in relation to Western societies. Shwadran, a retired professor of Middle-Eastern affairs, is Jewish and was born in Old Jerusalem in 1907. In 1960, The Council for Middle Eastern Affairs Press in New York published this book as means to educate the recently removed imperialists of the West about the status of Iraq at that time. Shwadran emphasizes early and often throughout the book that Westerners must take into account that Iraqis live in a culture and society very unfamiliar to them. As the book was written in 1960, it focuses on only the first 21 months after the regime of General Abd al-Karim Qasim took control of Iraq during the coup in July of 1958 and formed a republic.
Gen. Qasim was in favor of a united Arabic movement but was indifferent to the goal of establishing a solidified and independent Iraq. President Nasser of Egypt, on the other hand, wanted to unite, and even control, the entire Middle East. Nasser utilized his political and economic ties with the communist Soviet Union and the countries of Western capitalists to remain atop the Middle East hierarchy. Nasser wanted Qasim and the newly liberated Iraq to be encompassed in the Arab nationalist movement. By doing this, Nasser hoped to gain influence over Iraq’s oil and agricultural industries. The Soviet communists and Western capitalists both initially backed Nasser in his push to unify Arabic nations because they were uncertain of the new Iraq leadership and how it would recognize the provisions of the 1955 Baghdad Pact. Qasim knew this, so he remained impartial toward Iraqi allies such as the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as Nasser and the Arabic unification movement. In this eight-chapter book, Shwadran addresses the issues that Gen. Qasim and his followers faced during the first 21 months of power. These included the franchising of the Iraqi people, incorporating a new ideology of political and economic reform, ridding the country of anarchists who did not share his ideals, and remaining devoted to Iraq while supporting the trans-Arabic movement for all of the Middle East.
Shwadran emphasizes how the medium of radio in Iraq and Egypt played an important part in the propaganda both for and against Arab nationalism. Most of the primary sources used in the book are speeches made by Gen. Qasim of Iraq and the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Whether the leaders were calling for Arab nationalism, combating each other’s ideals on independence, or arguing the question of alignment with communist or capitalists, it was communicated primarily by radio. The Mahdawi court system was another key component of the Qasim’s regime that utilized television and radio broadcasts to spread ideology and propaganda to the people under the new Iraqi government. These public hearings became a dramatized condemnation of members and supporters of the old Iraqi government and those who were believed to be against Gen. Qasim and his regime.
More broadly, it was imperative that Iraq remained, or appeared to remain, neutral in the eyes of the Soviet communists and the Western capitalists. Although Iraq was doing away with the imperialists and feudalists that marred their country for generations, it still needed these entities for its own economic and political prosperity. Shwadran concludes by explaining the ramifications of failing to maintain this image and gives an excellent explanation of the delicate social interests the Iraqi government was balancing and which it was imperative to consider before condemning and convicting them according to Western ideologies, especially since the two societies were so estranged.
Chapter One explains the book’s purpose. Shwadran did not intend for this book to be a history of the coup but instead an outline of the dynamics at play in Iraq that shaped the revolution, and the process and order in which these dynamics were addressed. British imperialistic ideologies, unification of Iraqi people, and building a solidified central government were the ongoing battles being fought daily in Iraq during the time of the book’s writing. The parties involved, how these fights were fought, as well as the obstacles impeding Iraqi progress as a republic are all addressed.
The second chapter is dedicated to those figures whom Shwadran deemed the four major personalities of the Qasim regime and briefly synopsizes why they were important. They include Gen. Qasim, Colonel al-Mahadawi, Staff Major General al-Abdi, and Dr. Ibrahim Kubbah. Regarding Qasim, Shwadran gives a brief summary of his extensive military career and education with emphasis on his unquenchable fixation to rid Iraq of the British imperialists and his undeniable leadership abilities. Qasim had little interest in anything other than his military career and the liberation of his country; Shwadran notes that despite being an exceptional athlete he turned down many athletic clubs’ invitations to join their teams. Qasim also would refrain from drinking and going off with women like the other military officers did frequently. Qasim spent all of his time while in service contemplating the condition of his country and its people. His determination and demeanor naturally catapulted him to the position of leader in the 1958 coup.
Col. al-Mahdawi was Qasim’s cousin and appointed by Qasim to be president of the Special Supreme Military Court. The court was intended for the public display of trials and hearings for those who were in favor of the old Iraq government or who opposed Qasim and his following. The court, over time, became a source of entertainment due to its over-the-top and non-traditional practices that are discussed in further detail in the fifth chapter. Shwadran implies that al-Mahdawi used his position to gain favor and popularity among the Iraqi people.
Staff Maj. Gen. al-Abdi was a powerful man because he controlled the army as the Chief of Staff and Governor General. Whoever was in power had as much autonomy as the army would grant them. Many believed that al-Abdi would be next in line to run the country should something happen to Qasim. Like Qasim, al-Abdi was a devout Iraq nationalist. He opposed the communists of his country and was against Nasser’s United Arab Republic.
Dr. Ibrahim Kubbah was probably one of the brightest and most forward-thinking people in the Iraqi government. He was a leading economist, serving as the Minister of Economy, Minister of Agrarian Reform, and Minister of Oil Affairs at different points during his career. Much of his personal ideology stemmed from communist influence which would author the end of his career. He was stripped of his political office in 1960 after the Communist Political Party was denied its license to operate in Iraq in hopes of deterring communist uprisings against the government. Kubbah was the face of the Communist Political Party in Iraq, therefore he could no longer work in the government. Political allegiance was a primary concern both domestically and abroad in Iraq at the time.
Chapter Three briefly goes into detail about the incidents just prior to the July 14 coup and residual effects that lingered for the next twenty-one months. Imperialism and corruption were driving forces behind the revolution, but there were other issues that had to be addressed by the Iraqi government. How to make the government a popular republic? How to foster Iraqi unity “from the ground up” in society? How to deal with people and groups who oppose the Qasim regime? How to remain independent yet aligned with the West and Communists? How to fend off an overbearing Nasser and United Arab Republic and still be dedicated to Arabian unity? All of these questions were concerns addressed in this chapter. The events made reference to include The Arif—al-Gailani Affair, The Mosul Revolt, The Kirkuk Incident, and the attempt on Qasim’s life. Political allegiance held higher import than nationalism at the time of the coup. These incidents reinforced that fact of Iraqi politics and the uphill battle that the Qasim Regime had to mount for a united Iraq.
The next chapter is dedicated to confrontations such as the face-off between Nasser and Qasim, the United Arabic Republic versus Iraq, and communist versus capitalist allegiance. When Iraq overthrew its monarchy, it also severed its allegiance to Great Britain and its imperial stronghold. It was not alone. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt all found themselves in the midst of trying to do away with Western influences on their countries while establishing independence, as well as establishing unity among Arab nations. Nasser, was president of Egypt and head of the United Arab Republic. The Republic was supposed to promote unification among all Arab countries, however, Nasser and his backers from abroad had other agendas.
Since Egypt had the Suez Canal, the Western Imperialists and the Soviet Communists wanted to aid the Republic. They, along with Nasser, became enthralled with inducting Iraq into the Republic after its revolution because this would ensure that all involved could benefit from Iraq’s oil and agricultural resources. Qasim, being the enlightened leader that he was, understood this. While Qasim promoted Arab unification, his main focus was the unification and solidarity of the Iraqi people. Qasim would not commit to the Republic because that would have diluted his power with Nasser perceived as the ranking leader due to his role overseeing the Republic. Initially Qasim pacified Nasser by entertaining the idea of joining the Republic. As time went on and it became evident that Qasim would not join, altercations ensued between Nasser and Qasim. Radio and television broadcasts added fuel to the fire. Many propaganda messages were delivered in order to “dethrone” one another in the eyes of all Arabs. Whenever a situation occurred such as the Arif Affair, Mossul Revolt, or an attempted assassination, one side was emphatically blamed by the other.
The Court of Al-Mahdawi is the focus of Chapter Five. As mentioned before, Mahdawi was Qasim’s cousin and appointed as president to the Special Supreme Military Court. The court was implemented to hold hearings for those who supported the old monarchy or opposed the Qasim regime, but evolved into the central source of amusement for the Iraqi people. Proceedings were broadcast on radio, allowing Mahdawi to turn the court into a propagandizing machine, especially against Nasser and the United Arab Republic. Madhawi was the judge of the court but soon became the prosecutor as well. He had no regard for court procedure and would often badger and insult those on trial, and glorify the leaders of the Iraqi government or even recite poetry during hearings. Mahdawi did this to increase the popularity of the ruling regime and himself amongst the Iraqi people. The court became a spectacle; many reveled in its elements of the Salem Witch Trials and contemporary American presidential campaigns combined to form an elaborate circus for the Iraqi people.
Chapter Six, entitled Economic Development, focuses on Iraq’s economy as of 1959 and how it was intended to grow and change under Qasim’s rule. Dr. Kubbah, who was highlighted in the second chapter, was the leading economist in Iraq until Qasim was forced to dissolve the communist party after an attempt on his life was perceived to be orchestrated by a communist political group. Prior to his exit, Kubbah initiated and analyzed many economic policies for Iraq. In his opinion the reform that most needed to be addressed was the Agrarian Reform Law, which was supposed to adjust the balance of power between landlords and peasants, ultimately franchising the peasants of Iraq. The law was unsuccessful due to political instability and reluctance from peasants to follow government-issued sanctions, causing a food shortage in 1959.
Iraq’s oil industry was affected by the Qasim revolt as well. The Qasim regime felt that Britain and the old regime had a development plan for long range projects. All existing Western contracts were cancelled by the regime. This, along with the new leadership’s many notions for reform, caused a drop in oil revenue and the economy became unstable, adversely affecting the government. Implementation for any grand reform takes time and practice to work out the kinks. It also takes the willingness of those who are part of the system to adhere to the policy. Iraq in 1959 had neither the patience nor compliance required, so the economy suffered a blow.
The seventh chapter, The Great Power Policies, focuses on how the U.S.S.R., United States, and Great Britain reacted to the 1958 revolt and also how they intended to deal with the U.A.R. and Iraq. At the time of the revolt the U.S.S.R. was backing the U.A.R. because of the advantage it provided them over its Western nemeses in access to Middle Eastern oil supplies. Once Iraq revolted and refrained from entering the U.A.R., the Soviets favored Iraq because of its oil supply and Qasim’s initial assent to the local communist party’s role in government. Nasser often played both sides against the middle —communists versus capitalists— to maintain power in the Middle East. For these reasons and others, the Soviets wanted to aid Iraq. Western capitalists were worried that they would be shut out of the oil market in the Middle East as a result of the coup. The West, the United States particularly, became frantic following the revolution. They felt it was a communist-supported coup that intended to cut America out of the oil flow and strengthen communist ties in the Middle East. Once the U.S. was assured that the Baghdad Pact would be honored and they would continue to get oil, they breathed a sigh of relief. For its part, after Great Britain was assured of its oil, it offered full economic and military aid to the Qasim regime.
In the conclusion Shwadran reemphasizes the copious amount of change and uncertainty in the Iraqi government and the U.A.R. at the time. He alludes to the misperceptions by other great powers such as the U.S. and Great Britain about the Middle East powers aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Iraq wanted independence, and the U.A.R. and Iraq both welcomed Arab nationalism. However, their approaches were very different. Qasim believed that change comes from the bottom up, from the common people. He felt that the common people needed to buy into the idea of a pan-Arab republic and then change would come from within. Nasser believed that nationalism stems from the top down; the bourgeois and elite must be on board and then the concept will trickle further down. One thing that was for certain, especially pertaining to Iraq, was that whoever controls the military controls the country. Shwadran asserts that the army is the lifeblood of Iraq— without the support of the military, the figure in charge is powerless.
As a novice to Middle Eastern history I found this book both engaging and enlightening. Shwadran deftly transitions from chapter to chapter, often making reference or alluding to something that will revisited or expounded upon later while still making a linear argument with great clarity. Although The Power Struggle in Iraq is a rather short book, it is extremely informative and efficient. The primary sources were utilized well, most being interviews, speeches, and broadcasts by Arab leaders and officials. It covers a broad spectrum of domestic and foreign issues surrounding the 1958 coup that had immediate and long-term ramifications for Iraq. The book paints a vivid picture for readers in the Western world of the social, political, and economical intricacies pertaining to the Iraq government immediately following the Coup.
Antonio Hall, student, Texas State University.
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