Century of U.S. Meddling in the Middle East

Post 10. Iraq: 1963 CIA Coup and the Genesis of Saddam Hussein

July 22, 2020

[Featured Image: Karim Sahib / Getty]

Iraq, from the Arabic “araqa,” meaning “deeply rooted, well-watered,” did not come into being until the end of World War I, courtesy of Sykes – Picot, which created the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. But truth be told, Iraq should not even be a country, and making it one would, along with CIA meddling and two U.S. wars, eventually cause misery for millions.

Mesopotamia, Greek for “the land between the rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates, is often called the “cradle of civilization,” the birthplace of Bronze Age settlements dating back to 10,000 BC, of one of the first written languages, Sumerian, and of a succession of great empires, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Seleucid, ending with the Ottomans who ruled from 1229 to 1920, almost 700 years. 

The British Mandate covered almost 170,000 square miles – about the size of California – from the Kurdish Highlands north of Mosul south to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, and then down the Shatt al-Arab waterway, “stream of the Arabs,” 120 miles past the port city of Basra to the Persian Gulf, where Iraq’s short 36-mile coastline is sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran. 

Sykes – Picot divided long-established communities, ignored religious, ethnic and tribal divisions, and in creating Iraq mixed Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds into what inevitably became a toxic brew.

Abd al-Karim Qasim

The British installed the strongly pro-Western Hashemite, King Faisal I, who boasted a bloodline back to Muhammad, as their “client ruler,” and in 1932 granted Iraq independence as a constitutional monarchy. But in 1958, Abd al-Karim Qasim (or Kassem), a brigadier general inspired by the 1952 Nasser-led coup in Egypt, deposed Faisal’s grandson, Faisal II, and killed him and most of his family. End of the monarchy. Qasim became Prime Minister. 

The Kennedy administration viewed the populist Qasim as dangerous after he lifted the ban on the Iraqi Communist party, and because Israel was wary of Iraq’s growing military. But Qasim’s fatal step was demanding that the Anglo-American owned Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), e.g., Standard Oil of New Jersey, Socony, et al., share 20% ownership of the company and 55% of its profits with Iraq. IPC said no dice, and so in December 1961, Qasim enacted Public Law 80 nationalizing 95% of Iraq’s oil resources. 

The CIA’s “Health Alteration Committee” sent Qasim a poisoned handkerchief, monogrammed, of course, but like the exploding cigar delivered to Castro in the late 60’s, it didn’t work.

So in February 1963, the U.S. backed a coup, the so-called Ramadan Revolution, by the predominately Sunni Ba’ath Party, including the then 25-year old Saddam Hussein, who three years earlier tried to assassinate Qasim. King Hussein of Jordan later revealed details of the coup planning meetings between CIA agents and Ba’ath party officials in Kuwait. Ali Saleh Sa’adi, who became Minister of the Interior, admitted, “We came to power on a CIA train.” 

The CIA then provided the Ba’athists with “death lists” of “communists,” close to 5,000 of Iraq’s most educated elite, who were hunted down, tortured and killed what was described as a “massacre of extraordinary ferocity.” Qasim himself was summarily tried in a Bagdad radio station, tied to a chair and shot dead. 

Saddam Hussein with Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr [Keystone / Zuma Press]

Another coup in 1968 brought Hamed Hassan al-Bakr to power as President of Iraq and Saddam Hussein as his deputy. Saddam became the prime mover and shaker in the ruling Ba’ath Party and, as al-Bakr aged, Iraq’s de facto president. 

Saddam’s main focus, apart from his personal ambition, was domestic stability. He brooded about simmering Sunni – Shi’a and Arab – Kurd tribal tensions, and, quite understandably given Iraq’s history, about a coup or uprising against the Ba’ath Party, especially if the economy did not improve. So with al-Bakr’s full support, he went ahead on two tracks, carrot and stick, carrot first, improving living standards, then the stick. 

The carrot hinged on oil, and so in 1972, Saddam nationalized the Iraqi oil industry, this time for good. In October 1973, after Israel defeated Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War, the Arab members of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), an oil cartel including Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, embargoed all oil sales to the U.S. and raised oil prices 400%, causing long lines at the pumps and a world-wide economic crisis.

Gas Lines NYC [Marty Lederhandler / AP]

Iraq’s oil revenues skyrocketed 40-fold in the next 10 years. Saddam directed this flood of oil revenues into education and social services unprecedented in the Middle East. Education was compulsory for both boys and girls from age 6 to 17 and free through graduate school. Iraq built at least one university in every one of its 18 provinces – there were only 4 in the entire country prior to 1968 – and Iraq became a magnet for students from other Arab countries. 

Women fared far better under Saddam than in any other Middle Eastern country before or since. In 1970, equal rights for women, including the right to vote, run for political office and own property, were enshrined in Iraq’s constitution. Literacy rates for women soared, reaching 87% by 1985. Women held high positions in both the private and public sectors, and they were guaranteed equal pay for equal work and six months of paid maternity leave, setting an example the U.S. has yet to follow.

Baghdad University Medical School 1970’s

Health care, including birth control, was free. Nearly every Iraqi village had electricity, a medical clinic and at least one school. Money flowed into modern roads, dams, the rapid expansion of light and heavy industry, subsidized housing, and land and loans for farmers. 

Free health care and social security benefits were extended even to guest workers – 1.5 million from Egypt alone – which is one of the big reasons why so much of the Arab world was enraged when the U.S. ousted Saddam from power in 2003. From their perspective, he was a really good guy. Indeed, up to that point, what’s not to like? If only Saddam had quit while he was ahead. 

But now the stick. On July 16, 1979, Saddam forced the ailing al-Bakr to resign and formally assumed the presidency. Six days later, he convened an assembly of Ba’ath party leaders and looked on as the 68 “conspirators” were taken from the room one by one, jailed and, except for a lucky few, tortured and then executed. Before he was done, Saddam and his feared security service, the Mukhabarat, would kill an estimated 250,000 real and imagined opponents of his regime. Morbid details omitted. 

Then, on September 22, 1980, Saddam ordered the invasion of Iran, starting an 8-year war, in which more than 200,000 Iraqis died. From 1979 to 1988, when the war ended, Iraq’s per capita GDP plummeted from almost $4,000 to $1,765, and its foreign currency reserves from $35 billion to a negative $40 billion. 

To recoup his losses and get out of the hole, Saddam doubled down, invading Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and annexing it six days later, “taking back” what Iraqis believed was a province and its oil stolen from them by the British. 

But rather than providing a huge source of new oil revenue, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait only hammered more nails into Iraq’s economic coffin. U.S. President George H.W. Bush put together a 34-nation coalition that in the 1991 Persian Gulf War liberated Kuwait, decimated Iraq’s military and destroyed $230 billion of infrastructure, and the U.N. piled on with draconian economic sanctions that plunged Iraqi’s per capita GDP below $1,000. Bottom line, wars and sanctions during Saddam Hussein’s rule between 1980 and 1991 cost Iraq the equivalent of two decades of GDP. More in future posts.



Scott Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2014). 


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We live in perilous times, democracy is under attack, rationality and compassion are in short supply, and our planet, our home for 200,000 years, is burning up. We must resist, we must work for a better world. MacLeod Post is my voice in that struggle.

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