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IRAQ: In One Swift Hour

6 minute read

Only a handful of officers hatched the plot, only an hour was necessary to carry it out, and only three key assassinations made it complete. So swiftly last week fell Iraq, long celebrated as the West’s strongest Arab bastion in the Middle East. The details of this remarkable coup, whose success surprised even the plotters, became clear only little by little last week, as the facts were slowly disentangled from impassioned propaganda and confused accounts.

The revolt burst on Iraq at 5 o’clock Monday morning. Major General Abdul Kareem el-Kassim, 42, who had been ordered to lead his men into Jordan to bolster King Hussein against a coup, led them instead into sleeping Baghdad. Silently, and without firing a shot, his soldiers took over the key points of the city. One by one the railroad station, the main intersections, the post and telegraph offices and the radio station were surrounded. By the time the troops began heading for the palace of 23-year-old King Feisal, an excited mob was at their heels.

The unsuspecting young King and his uncle, Crown Prince Abdul Illah, 46, were getting ready to fly to Istanbul for an emergency meeting of the Moslem members of the Baghdad Pact. Seeing the gathering crowd, they went outside the palace. According to the rebels, the palace guard fired into the crowd, killed 14. The soldiers returned the fire. Feisal was killed, along with Crown Prince Abdul Illah, the Crown Prince’s mother, two nurses and two palace guardsmen.

The Republic Is Here! The rebels later said they had not wanted to kill the young Hashemite King, descendant of the Prophet. Fearing public revulsion against his murder, the killers kept his death a secret, wrapped him in a carpet and smuggled his body away to be buried. But the Crown Prince, who had ruled the country for 14 years as Regent, and was widely disliked, was another matter. His assassins threw his body out a window, let the mobs drag him through the streets and string his body up in public. Then the plotters began systematically rounding up government ministers.

They proclaimed a three-man Council of State and a 13-man Cabinet (nine of them civilians), with the whole show headed by El-Kassim, a tough and idealistic soldier who became Premier as well as Minister of Defense and the Interior. The man who became President of the Council of State, General Najeeb el-Rubaiya, was out of the country at the time; he was Iraq’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. By 6 a.m. the radio was trumpeting: “Citizens of Baghdad, the Monarchy is dead! The Republic is here!” Only one thing remained to be done: find Iraq’s old strongman, pro-Western Nuri asSaid, 70, who had lived up to his nickname of “The Fox” by managing to escape.

“The Man Has Yet to Be Born.” Next day, in the suburbs of Baghdad, the rebels caught Premier Nuri asSaid, accompanied by two women, and himself veiled and disguised as a woman. The old man, veteran of dozens of battles and revolutionary skirmishes, fired on an Iraqi air force sergeant who seemed to recognize him. Then, according to the former chef of the royal household, who escaped to Ankara with the story, Nuri was stripped of his disguise, impaled alive, and left on public view in the rotting sunlight.

Throughout his long life, in which he had served 14 times as Premier and for 27 years as Iraq’s strongman, Nuri had lived both dangerously and adroitly. “The man,” he insisted, “has not been born who can assassinate me.” He knew he was hated by many, regarded as a “British stooge” in the kingdom set up by the British in 1920.

Nuri boasted that he was no idealist but a practical patriot who aligned his country with the West as the only way of keeping the country’s oil flowing and Communism out. “History would curse me,” he once said, “if I appealed to the emotions of the masses at the expense of the national security.” Nuri let the powerful sheiks get richer and richer, but in recent years had seen to it that 70% of the vast oil royalties (some $300 million a year) went to the well-conceived dams and construction programs of the national Development Board. In time, Iraq’s common man stood to gain more than the impoverished fellahin of Nasser’s Egypt. But the cry of independence and Arab unity was irresistible.

Within hours after proclaiming martial law, buses were running as usual in Baghdad, and shops were open. So far as any outsider could tell, many Iraqis welcomed the coup and almost all accepted it. Yet it was only a handful of plotters who changed the history of Iraq. Later intelligence suggests that they acted earlier than they had intended, worried by Nuri’s dispatch of one of the crucial colonels to Jordan.

The Old Pros. As the week passed, more light was shed on the men behind General El-Kassim. While their followers cried, “We are your soldiers, Gamal Abdel Nasser,” the rebels seemed to be only in part a clique of Nasserian army officers. About half of the new ministers were civilians, and of these, five belonged to the banned ultranationalist, right-wing Istiqlal Party, whose members were old pros at nationalist plotting long before Nasser was ever heard of. After General El-Kassim, the most powerful man on the Council of State is Mohammed Mahdi Kubah, 52, the brains behind the pro-Nazi coup of 1941 that drove Nuri out of the country until British troops smashed the revolt. He is considered fanatically antiWestern.

Most of the civilians are strong nationalists, anti-British. The Sorbonne-educated Minister of Guidance (Propaganda), a longtime Kubah colleague, worked with the Nazis during World War II. The Finance Minister, a graduate of the London School of Economics during Harold Laski’s heyday, wants to nationalize the oil wells. The Minister of Public Works and Communications (Baba Ali), considered friendly to Americans, went to Columbia University.

All in all, the government’s composition suggested that it might cooperate with Nasser but would not be his stooge. After rushing out declarations of friendship to Nasser, and more slowly responding to Russia and Red China’s offers of recognition, the new rulers began to make cooing noises toward the West—perhaps out of conviction, perhaps out of expediency. Apparently no more anxious than Nuri asSaid to lose oil royalties, they announced that Western interests were in no danger, and throughout all the week, the vast Kirkuk and Mosul oilfields kept pumping and the pipelines kept flowing.

The government announced that it honored its contract with the Iraq Petroleum Co. (predominantly British, French and American), though it was also interested in “modifying” the fifty-fifty contract by negotiation—as Nuri had been too. The new government proclaimed its withdrawal from the Arab Union with Jordan and signed a treaty of mutual defense with Nasser, but then astonished everyone by asserting, in the words of Hashim Jawad, its new delegate to the U.N., that “Iraq has never renounced the Baghdad Pact. It has never been considered.” And he added: “Our friendship to the United States is still the same.”

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