July 14th, 1958: Iraq’s Day of Infamy
Dennis P. Chapman
An old rifle reposes in a safe at my home – an SMLE No. 1 Mark III*[i], made in Britain by Birmingham Small Arms in 1935. It is very well-worn; the stock is patched and cracked; it has at least one mismatched serial number. It is not a particularly good or noteworthy example of the type, except in one respect: This rifle bears the Arabic letter jiim – the property mark of the Iraqi Army. It is an artifact of another age: a time before the nightmare of terrorism and war, chemical weapons and genocide, before Saddam Hussein and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It is itself a relic of a troubled and tumultuous time to be sure, but a time that by today’s awful standards would almost seem idyllic by comparison, a time when Iraq had some dignity and some hope for the future under the King. But this rifle also represents something else, something dark and tragic and foreboding: this rifle was in the hands of the men that, in a fundamental sense, set in train the tragic chain of events that brought Iraq to where it is today.
Many events and influences brought Iraq to its current tragic state: George W. Bush’s decision to invade the country in 2003; Barack Obama’s decision to prematurely pull out of the country; Saddam Hussein’s rash decision to invade Kuwait in 1990; his arrogant game of cat-and-mouse with the international community over weapons of mass destruction afterward; and a hundred other causes. But in my opinion, the real proximate cause of Iraq’s troubles - the single, indispensable event without which Iraq’s hideous mutilation of today would never have occurred – was the coup d’état masterminded by Iraqi Army Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Qasim on July 14th, 1958: the so-called “Revolution” where the Iraqi Army murdered its King and his family and, in effect, placed a General on the throne.
The Iraqi Army had been active in politics before the 1958 coup. In October 1936, Iraqi Army General Bakr Sidiqi, having been entrusted to act as Chief of Staff during the absence of his superior, led a putsch against the government of Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi. Sidiqi himself was assassinated and overthrown in the 1937 coup of the Seven, led by Colonel Salah al-din al Sabbagh. This was followed by coup of the Four Colonels, better known as the Golden Square, in February 1940. These same officers instigated yet another coup – the “Rashid Ali coup” – in April 1941.
These coups, however, were fundamentally different from the ersatz “revolution” that brought Qasim to power. For in these earlier military interventions, the Army left in tact the framework of the 1925 Constitution of the Iraqi Kingdom. When the Army moved during this period, it moved to change policy; to push aside disfavored leaders; and even went so far as to force a change of Regents. But the Army never moved against the King, and never sought to tear down the entire edifice of the state.
All that changed on July 14th, 1958. Shortly before that time the Iraqi government had ordered troops to move west to bolster the position of King Hussein of Jordan. These troops would pass by Baghdad en route. Qasim saw his chance, executing a well-coordinated move to seize power. But unlike the masters of earlier coups, Qasim didn’t just strike to push out a Prime Minister or change government policy – he struck at the Monarchy itself, and in so doing he changed the course of Iraqi history for the worse.
In Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History, Ibrahim Al-Marshi and Sammy Salama describe the Iraqi Army as existed prior to the 1958 as a “moderator” Army that exercised a restraining power over Iraq’s civilian government. But if the Iraqi Army acted as a moderating force on Iraq’s civilian cabinets, the Monarchy moderated the Army, with the King serving as an organic curb on the Army’s worst impulses. Tragically giving free rein to those impulses was among the first acts of Qasim's “revolution". Shortly after 7:00 AM on the day of the coup, the rebel force sent to secure the King’s residence at the Rihab Palace entered the grounds after the palace guards had been ordered to cease fire. The insurgent forces sent an emissary into the palace to summon the royal party into the courtyard, where they were summarily shot down by one Captain Sab’: the King; the Crown Prince and his mother, the widow of King Ali of Hejaz; the King’s aunt; and a number of Pakistani servants. The King was only 23 years old at his death.
That Qasim and his cronies had some consciousness of guilt is betrayed by the fact that Qasim later denied having ordered the King’s death and tried to blame his lieutenant in the coup, Abdul Salam Arif, for the atrocity; by stories circulated that Captain Sab’ or another soldier had gone rogue and killed the royal party on his own initiative; and by claims that the wounded King was transported to a hospital and died there. But deeds speak louder than later words: the malice at the heart of the "revolution" was laid bare by the fates of both Crown Prince Abd al-Ilah and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said, both of whose corpses were savagely and publicly mutilated after their murders.
The murder of the King removed all restraint from those who would seek power in Iraq ever after. It planted in their hearts the seed of rapacity and of heartless cruelty. It legitimized, in their minds, the murder of those who stood in their way. But most devastatingly, it planted in their hearts the cold fear of being killed and overthrown themselves, just as they had killed and overthrown their own predecessors. Like the “Presidential grub” alluded to by Abraham Lincoln, this fear gnawed away inside the heart of the body politic, corrupting and it and rendering it savage. The process culminated in the brutal heart of Saddam Hussein, a genius in the art of oppression who held Iraq fast in his hands through brute terror, vulgar public display, and a cynical manipulation of the institutions of the state to penetrate into the deepest recesses of both private and public life.
Ironically, among the innumerable victims of the military and Ba’athist regimes that ruled Iraq from 1958 until 2003, none suffered worse than the Army itself. Saddam Hussein was determined never to fall victim to a coup himself as had his predecessors. To avoid this, he emasculated and thoroughly cowed the his country's Army. He wasted its strength on futile wars against the Kurds and the Iranians; he sacrificed the flower of the of its vigor to his hubris in the invasion of Kuwait; and he goaded and provoked the international community to the point that the United States vaporized the Iraqi Army in 2003.
With his coup in 1958, Qasim sowed the wind. He reaped the whirlwind when he himself was overthrown, executed, and buried in an unmarked grave on February 8th, 1963, with his remains to be rediscovered only in 2004. But he did not reap the whirlwind alone. Ironically, the Army – the instrument that brought him to and sustained him in power, and that ultimately destroyed him – itself suffered much at the hands of his successors.
Can we say that the Iraqi Army did not deserve its fate? It made itself the instrument of the brutal and crass. As such, it was an Army unworthy of its people. It was an Army that murdered its King.
[i] The asterisk does not refer to a footnote or marginal comment – it is actually part of the designation of the rifle: Short Magazine Lee Enfield, Mark III*.