The Iraqi Communists and Baathist Iraq

The Iraqi Communists and Baathist Iraq

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) has seen its fortunes rise and fall repeatedly since its founding by Yusuf Salman Yusuf (known as Comrade Fahd, or the Leopard) in 1934. During the next fifty years, the party's fortunes fluctuated with the successes of particular regimes in Baghdad. Although the ICP was legalized in 1937, and again in 1973, the Baath Party regularly suppressed it after 1963 and outlawed it altogether in 1985.

In general, Iraqis rejected communism as contrary to both Islam and Arab nationalism. Yet, the clandestine ICP survived under the repressive policies of the monarchy, which had determined that because of its widespread appeal, the dissemination of communist theory among the armed forces or the police could be punished with death or with penal servitude for life. This persecution under the Hashimite monarchy raised communists to a status near that of martyrs in the eyes of the antimonarchical postrevolutionary leaders plotting the 1958 uprising. Ironically, the ICP was able to use the army to promote its goals and to organize opposition to the monarchy. In August 1949, for example, one of the army units returning from Palestine smuggled in a stencil printing machine for the ICP.

Between 1958 and 1963, the ICP became closely aligned with the Qasim regime, which used the communist militia organization to suppress its traditional opponents brutally. By 1963 Qasim's former allies, except the ICP, had all deserted him. When he was overthrown in February 1963, the new Baathist leaders carried out a massive purge in which thousands of communists were executed for supporting the hated Qasim. Survivors fled to the relatively isolated mountainous regions of Kurdistan. This first Baathist rise to power was short-lived, however, and under Abd as Salam Arif (1963-66) and his brother, Abd ar Rahman Arif (1966-68), both ICP and Baath cadre members were suppressed, largely because of their close connections with the Communist Party of Egypt and, in turn, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Although the Baath hierarchy had earlier perceived the ICP as a Soviet arm ready to interfere in internal affairs, after the successful 1968 coup d'etat, Baath leaders joined ICP officials in calling for a reconciliation of their decade-long rivalry.

This reconciliation was short-lived, however, and in May 1978 Baghdad announced the execution of twenty-one ICP members, allegedly for organizing party cells within the armed forces. Foreign observers contended that the executions, which took place long after the alleged crimes were committed, were calculated to show that the Baath would not tolerate communist penetration of the armed forces with the ultimate aim of seizing control, probably with Soviet assistance. Attempts to organize new communist cells within the armed forces were crushed, as the government argued that according to the 1973 agreement creating the Progressive National Front (PNF), only the Baath Party could organize political activities within the military. Unverified reports suggested that several hundred members of the armed forces were questioned at that time concerning their possible complicity in what was described as a plot to replace Baath leaders with military officers more sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

Despite several decades of arrests, imprisonments, repression, assassinations, and exile, in the late 1980s the ICP remained a credible force and a constant threat to the Baath leadership. After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, the ICP came to depend heavily on outside support for its survival. Syria, for example, provided material support to the ICP's struggle against the Saddam Husayn regime, and the Syrian Communist Party cooperated with the ICP in strongly condemning the war with Iran.

In addition to relying more heavily on outside financial and moral support, the ICP initiated significant structural and ideological changes in the 1980s. Four Arab leaders (two Shias, two Sunnis) were dropped from the Politburo, and four Central Committee members were reportedly expelled from the party in 1984. Although the reasons for these changes were not clear, observers speculated at the time that party boss Aziz Muhammad and his Kurdish compatriots had gained control of the ICP and that Kurdish interests therefore outweighed national interests. Muhammad's tenacity in supporting the armed struggle of Iraqi Kurds and in totally opposing the Iran-Iraq War helped to bring about a split in the ICP leadership. His keynote address to the 1985 Fourth Party Congress analyzed in detail the course of the Iran-Iraq War; he assigned partial responsibility for the war to Iran, but he blamed the Baath government in Baghdad for prolonging the conflict. In September 1986, the ICP declared the communists' fight against the Baath regime to be inextricably linked to the achievement of peace between Iraq and Iran. A 1986 joint statement of the Tudeh (the Tudeh Party being the leading Marxist party of Iran) and the ICP called for an end to the war and for establishment of "a just democratic peace with no annexations whatsoever, on the basis of respect for the two countries' state borders at the start of the war, each people's national sovereignty over its territory, and endorsing each people's right to determine the sociopolitical system they desire."

Reliable data on ICP membership were unavailable in early 1988. One 1984 estimate was 2,000 members, but other foreign sources indicated a considerably larger ICP membership. Because it was a clandestine party fighting for the overthrow of the Baathist regime, the ICP's true membership strength may never be known, especially because it directed its organizational efforts through the Kurdish Democratic National Front (DNF). The ICP headquarters was partially destroyed in May 1984 following limited Turkish incursions to help Iraq protect its oil pipeline to and through Turkey and was apparently relocated in territories controlled by the DNF in 1988. Ideologically split and physically mauled, the ICP may have lost much of its strength, and it had no influence in the People's Army, which remained in the hands of the Baath Party.

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