Late on the evening of 13 July 1958, the 20th Infantry Brigade of the Royal Iraqi Army broke camp at Jalawla and headed south, supposedly bound for Iraq’s border with Jordan.
For hours the convoy of 3,000 men rumbled through the sleeping towns of Diyala province. But at 2.30am they halted at Bani Said, just six miles from Baghdad. Instead of swinging west towards Jordan, the brigade headed for the heart of the Iraqi capital.
A few hours later, millions of Iraqis awoke to hear over the radio the voice of Abdul Salam Aref, a young officer, announcing the overthrow of Iraq’s Hashemite dynasty and the birth of a new “people’s republic”.
The two leading figures in the coup were Aref and Abdul Karim Qassem, activists in an underground network of “Free Officers”.
They knew they were taking a desperate gamble. Iraq’s rulers had honed their skills in repressing popular protest over many decades. Their well-trained police force had crushed waves of demonstrations in 1956, 1952 and a near-uprising in 1948.
Opposition parties – even those led by liberal social democrats and moderate nationalists – had been forced underground, while the Communist Party’s key activists filled the jails.
Even the army was kept deliberately short of ammunition to paralyse would-be mutineers. On the morning of 14 July, the men under Aref’s command set off to seize the royal palace with only two or three rounds each.
And although formal British control of Iraq had ended with independence in 1932, the interests of the ruling Hashemites were tightly meshed with those of Britain.
British managers ran Iraq’s oilfields. British bombers were stationed at Iraq’s main military airbases. The young King Faisal was a product of the British public school system.
Iraq was also the centrepiece of the Baghdad Pact, an anti-Russian alliance of Middle Eastern states that was also designed to curb the rising influence of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s radical nationalist leader.
Yet the Iraqi monarchy proved to be rotten to the core. Only a tiny handful of Iraqis lifted a hand in its defence. Following the assault on the palace, the king, his regent and other members of the royal family were shot. Nuri al-Said, the pro-British prime minister and architect of the Baghdad Pact, was killed the following day.
The overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy created panic in Britain and the US. On hearing news of the revolution, US president Dwight Eisenhower ordered thousands of US troops to invade Lebanon to snuff out a growing rebellion against the Western-backed regime of Camille Chamoun.
At the same time thousands of British troops landed in Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan – the cousin of the Iraqi king – feared that he too would be swept away in the wave of revolt.
Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Iraqis streamed onto the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the overthrow of the regime. They shouted defiance against Britain and the US and called for an end to colonialism. Within hours Qassem became president with Aref as vice-president.
Far from ending the revolutionary process, the Free Officers’ coup marked the beginning of a deeper crisis. The huge demonstrations which greeted the news of the July coup set the pattern for the next year.
Throughout this period the Communists and their allies dominated the streets of the major cities. As the political crisis gathered pace, signs of social revolution followed in its wake.
New laws cut rents by 20 percent. The price of bread dropped by a third. An eight-hour day was established. Labourers’ wages rose by as much as 50 percent in the first year of the new Iraqi republic.
These changes were a direct response to the growing confidence of organised workers. Although trade unions were not formally legalised until 1959, activists started reconstituting union committees and reorganising underground networks immediately after the coup.
The dominant force in the trade unions was once again the Communist Party, which won leadership of most of the legal trade unions by early 1959.
Land reform limited the power of the big landowners and organised the redistribution of thousands of acres of land to the peasants. In some regions, such as Kut and Amarah, peasants began to seize the land for themselves.
Events outside Iraq contributed to the growing sense of crisis. Nasser was locked in a bitter struggle with the Communist Party in Syria, following the establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a short-lived union of Syria and Egypt, in February 1958.
Nasser was revered as a hero across the Arab world. He was someone who had defied the old colonial powers over the Suez Canal in 1956. In that period he also moved closer to Russia’s government, despite his persecution of Communists in Egypt.
As soon as the Free Officers seized power, radical nationalists including the Baath Party launched a campaign for Iraq to join Nasser’s UAR.
Qassem, however, had no desire to hand the presidency of Iraq to Nasser. The Communists also opposed the demand for total unity, arguing that joining the UAR would mean the end of Iraq’s hard-won democratic freedoms.
The Iraqi Communists organised huge demonstrations proclaiming Qassem as the “sole leader” of the Iraqi Revolution, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Nasser.
When Qassem clashed with Aref, who supported closer relations with the UAR, the Communists threw their weight squarely behind Qassem – despite the fact that Aref called for the nationalisation of the Iraqi oil industry.
In September 1958 Qassem removed Aref from power. By November the former vice-president was on trial for his life. These tensions flared up in March 1959, when officers stationed in Mosul attempted a coup against Qassem with the support of the UAR.
The Communists played a leading role in crushing that revolt. They mobilised their biggest show of strength a few months later, when the party brought hundreds of thousands to a march to mark May Day in Baghdad.
Yet when Qassem rejected Communist demands for seats in the government, the party retreated from confrontation with the “sole leader”. Qassem seized his chance to launch a comprehensive attempt to break the party. He legalised a tiny rival faction in place of the real Communist party and mounted an attack on its leadership of trade unions.
Party publications were banned and Communist activists targeted by nationalist hit squads. Communist sympathisers in government were dropped from the cabinet one by one.
Despite a brief respite in the autumn of 1959, the party’s influence continued to ebb away. Meanwhile the Baath Party grew more confident. A young Baath activist, Saddam Hussein, took part in an attempt on Qassem’s life in 1959. Although it failed, within four years the Baathists were able to overthrow Qassem and massacre thousands of Communist activists.
Why did the Iraqi Communists come so close to power, yet still fail? A crucial role was played by Russia’s leadership. In 1959 an emissary arrived from Moscow to tell the party leadership that they could expect no help from Russia if they seized power.
Despite this pressure, a minority of the party’s political leadership still favoured breaking a policy of “‘daring for victory” – breaking with Qassem and taking power.
The problem they faced was that the Communists had made no political preparations for such a struggle throughout 1958. It had mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants under the slogans of support for Qassem, rather than behind their own class demands.
Viewed from the perspective of Iraq alone, the Communists appeared to have little choice but to maintain their alliance with Qassem and the nationalist officers. Iraq’s small working class, on its own, could not set about building a socialist society.
But the crucial factor was not the absolute size of the working class. Events in Iraq were part of a much wider pattern of anti-colonial revolt and working class struggle across the Middle East.
This wider struggle did have the potential to develop into a systematic challenge to the capitalist system. And that potential existed despite the original aims of the anti-colonial movement, which focused on issues of national liberation and democracy.
Broadening the struggle in Iraq beyond the limits set by nationalism would have deepened and strengthened the mass movement.
The Communists in Iraq found out to their cost that while the revolution remained within those limits, it could neither preserve its democratic character, nor put up any effective resistance to imperialism.
Once the mass movement ebbed away, Qassem’s isolation was exposed and he was soon deposed. Now in power, the Baath Party proved far more attentive to the interests of imperialism than its predecessors, despite its rhetoric about “socialism” and “Arab unity”.
Examining the events of 1958 is not an exercise in nostalgia. All of the questions thrown up by Iraq’s revolutionary crisis are still being asked in the Middle East today.
What is the key force in the struggle against imperialism? How is the fight for national liberation related to the struggle against capitalism? How can the ordinary people of the region defeat both their own repressive rulers and the imperialist powers?
The lesson of 1958 is that both workers’ organisation and revolutionary leadership play a crucial role in turning nationalist and democratic demands into a movement that can challenge the imperialist order as a whole.