"...the wound to the Communist Party was severe and, insofar as the members were concerned, proved to be the prelude of a seemingly endless year of horror."
From Hanna Batatu's "The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq" Saqi Books, 2004 (copyright 1978) page 985.
The First Ba'thist Slaughter
When General Qasim's regime (as described in Part 2) was overturned by Ba'thists and Nationalists in the Coup of 1963, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) desperately attempt to save it and their hopes for the future. As a consequence of their defeat, they experienced widespread slaughter and the period of terror referred to by Hanna Batatu above.
The Ba'thists made use of lists to round up Communists and murder them. The finger of suspicion has always pointed to the CIA as supplying the names and addresses.
Division In The Ranks
It was only when Ba'thists were removed from power at the end of the year that the orgy of violence ended. This change wrong footed the Central Committee of the ICP who had moved in exile to Prague. They issued what is called the "August Line" saying that the Party could support the progressive elements in the Arif National Government who favoured the type of policies being pursued by Nasser in Egypt.
But ICP members operating in a clandestine way in Iraq were not willing to accept this and the Central Committee adjusted the line to one of struggling against the dictatorship and calling on the pro-Nasser element to resign.
The change of heart did not, however, prevent a split in the underground ranks and a group entitled the Central Command emerged inspired by Mao and Castro and they conducted an armed revolt. They were heavily defeated.
The Ba'thists Return
The Ba'thists regained power in 1968 in a further coup. They were, however, keen to protect their position this time and they even offered Cabinet places to the ICP because of its wide following. The ICP refused and the Ba'thists renewed their repression on the grounds that "if you won't join us just see what happens to you."
Yet despite an abysmal Ba'thist civil rights record, the ICP came to have a grudging admiration for some of their early achievements.
What Had Early Ba'thism To Offer?
The first Ba'thist regime of President al-Bakir pursued a number of policies which found favour with the ICP.
First in Agriculture, there was the end to the compensation scheme for the land sequestrated from large landowners, the instigation of further land reform, investment in food production, encouragement for irrigation and the establishment of Co-operatives.
Secondly, they provided subsidies for basic commodities and provided limited social and welfare services.
Thirdly, they extended links with the Communist USSR over oil production arrangements. This led on to an Iraqi-Soviet Friendship Pact on trade. Whilst in 1972 the Soviet Leader Kosygin came to Iraq on a State visit.
Finally, the Iraq Petroleum Company was nationalised, also in 1972. By then (and thanks to increased oil production) the Gross Domestic Product had grown in only 4 years of Ba'thist rule by almost 15%. Living standards had benefited.
As with Qasim's reforms, not all of these went well, but they were in a direction that Communists' were keen about. At the same time, the Ba'thist clampdown on Communist activity remained in place. An agreement with the Ba'thists would have the distinct advantage of providing the ICP with a public space. For instance, to openly publish and sell its newspaper - which it knew would be popular.
On top of these factors, the Soviet Union was pressing them to join with the Ba'thists. In 1973 they finally agreed and joined the Ba'thists in a National Patriotic Front. Although this body was secondary to the Government itself, it adopted a socialist rhetoric and two ICP members had moved into the Cabinet in preparation for the signing of the agreement.
Why Did The Ba'thists Court The Communists?
Just what was in all this for the Ba'thists?
To start with it went down well with the Russians, but more ominously it allowed the Ba'thist to record who exactly the Communists and their sympathisers were. The more open things were for the Communists, the easier to prepare the Ba'thist files on them.
Due to an escalating growth in oil production, Iraq's own control of its operations and the growing impact of OPEC in raising oil prices; the links with Russia became less urgent. And as the Ba'thists now knew where to find the Communists, the National Patriotic Front had served its purpose. The IPC formally withdrew from the Front in 1979, by which time the Front was almost dead on its feet.
The Communists were now rooted out and slaughtered. Sadam Hussein also took over as President in 1979 and started a purge of his own Party.
The ICP was pushed back into its past mixture of exile and clandestine activity. The Trade Union Movement it had once proudly led was subverted by the State, eventually Trade Unions were banned in the dominant public sector of the economy. The old Trade Union structure (long under State interference) was restricted to the private sector and Chemical Ali was put in charge of it.
If The Communist Had Known
The ICP had joined the National Patriotic Front in order to press the Ba'thists into social, economic and libertarian reforms. The latter never happened, but the other two seemed to. Joining also provided them with a open link to the Iraqi working class.
The tactic seemed to work for a while. Much about life was getting better, the GDP grew almost threefold under the Ba'thists from 1968 to Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980. On top of this, the ICP was expanding its network in society. It even had a bookshop in Baghdad where the Communist Manifesto was sold. That was better then when I was in Basra in 1956 and the local Chief of Police vetoed my ordering Marx's Das Capital from a local bookseller.
In retrospect, the ICP suffered deeply by joining the Front, for as a consequence it was dealt with in a terrible way. But we have to live life forwards and not backwards and (in difficult conditions) associating with the pre-Saddam Ba'thists looked like a reasonable decision in the prevailing circumstances.
The Saddam Years, 1979-2003
As Saddam Hussein took over the Presidency of Iraq the ICP was being pushed back into hiding. It is a marvel that it survived when we consider what it had to face.
1. Masses of its activists and supporters were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed.
2. Employing a mixture of use and abuse, Saddam nurtured the very forces in Iraqi society which the ICP had hoped to see transcended via its development of a homogeneous working class. Saddam divided and ruled by exploiting tribal and clan rivalries. Bribery, corruption and fear were used for such ends. People were driven to such competitive group loyalties for a mixture of protection and advancement.
3. The improvements in living standards were halted and went dramatically into reverse under Saddam. This was due to the impact of the Iraq-Iran War, the Gulf War, wasted expenditure and excessive military mobilisation (used partly as a means of social control) and then United Nations sanctions. When people are faced with repression and economic collapse they are driven to individual and family acts in seeking to survive. Class solidarity is at a low premium in such circumstances - especially given the impact of point 2 above.
4. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the events leading up to it, took place in circumstances in which the ICP had little opportunity to discuss whether it was time to adjust to changing world patterns of socialism such as Euro-Communism,
Left Democratic Socialism (which was close to its practices) or even New Labourism. It had other priorities, mainly of its own self-preservation. It did not, for instance change its name in order to court popularity.
5. It was also being challenged on its own territory by an underworld of political Islam; although the relative autonomy which the Kurds gained with the establishment of the No-Fly Zone gave a freer scope of development for a Kurdish Communist Party, which enjoys fraternal links with the ICP of which it had been a prominent section until it was faced with conditions in 1993 when it could operate as an open and not a clandestine organisation. Indeed Hanna Batatu (whom I always quote from at the start of each of these Parts) states that the Kurds were in the ascendancy in the ICP in the important years from 1949 to 1955.
Yet despite all the above hindrances, in part 4 I will show that the ICP had an immediate impact following the Coalition's Invasion of 2003 with some of its members being at the forefront of the establishment of a new and active Trade Union Movement whose great potential for an improved Iraq we need to be aware of. The cards might seem to many to be stacked against the ICP in today's Iraq, but then some would claim that has always been so. Others (whilst recognising the difficulties) would claim that are just what is needed to provide the hope of building a growing, equal and democratic society.