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RED STAR OVER IRAQ

IRAQI COMMUNISM BEFORE SADDAM

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By Johan Franzén

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The Montréal Review, November 2011

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 "Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam" by Johan Franzén (Columbia University Press, 2011)

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"Johan Franzén has written a richly researched and perceptive analysis of the definitive role the Iraqi Communist Party played in the country's politics before 1979. He explains the revolutionary rise and violent decline of the party, placing them at the centre of Iraq's socioeconomic transformation during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Anyone seeking a thorough understanding of the evolution of Iraqi politics, from the declaration of the state in 1920 to the seizure of power by Saddam Hussein in 1979, should read this book."

-Toby Dodge, London School of Economics and Political Science

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To many people hearing the phrase Middle East politics, and in particular Iraqi politics, conjures up images of sectarian strife, tribal and clan loyalties, and persecution of ethnic minorities. Certainly, the media coverage of Iraq since the Anglo-American invasion in 2003 has beamed these images into the living rooms of captivated Western audiences. Coupled with this media representation of life and society in the Middle East there has been an academic fascination, or even obsession, with authoritarian regimes and the ways in which these regimes developed methods to stay in power by manipulating and sometimes even re-casting sectarian, tribal, clan and ethnic identities and loyalties. For decades, we could read about the resilience of autocratic rule in the region and the relative stability of these regimes brought about by a combination of fear and acquiescence. But as recent events have shown, none of the regimes in the Middle East were impenetrable or immune from popular criticism and resistance. As the regimes fall one after the other, Western onlookers struggle to make sense of the new Middle East emerging out of the ashes.

But the image of the Middle East as invariably ruled by unscrupulous autocrats who manipulate ethno-sectarian sentiments for their own ends is not necessarily the full truth. While focus used to be on the stability of Middle Eastern regimes, recent revolutionary outbursts in the region have put the attention back on the ruled masses, on the role played by civil society, on the fact that authoritarian regimes hardly ever achieve omnipotence but instead are almost always challenged from below. It is this crucial point that most Middle Eastern observers missed, or perhaps deliberately overlooked, over the past three or four decades - the constant resistance to authoritarian and undemocratic rule. Resistance is always present, although not always visible for the casual observer. This relates to another common assumption among Western observers of Middle Eastern affairs, namely that democracy is incompatible with politics in the region because, it is argued, people in the Middle East are not easily mobilised by political ideologies and/or 'modern' liberal ideals but can only be mobilised into political action by manipulation of sectarian, ethnic or tribal loyalties - a notion that is increasingly disproved by recent pro-democracy protests and rebellions in the region.

In the Iraqi case these assumptions are especially poignant. Reading history backwards, many Western observers took the sectarian strife that briefly afflicted Iraq following the 2003 invasion as evidence of some sort of innate Iraqi political nature in which 'Sunnis' were seen as eternally fighting 'Shi'is' for domination of the 'Arab' parts of Iraq, and the 'Sunnis', who were the 'bad guys' due to the fact that most members of the ruling Ba'th Party were of this extraction, were seen as oppressing the Kurds in the north. This, in turn, was seen as a direct result of the 'artificial' creation of the Iraqi state by the British in the wake of World War I. Thus, a clear historical correlation was 'discovered' which neatly fitted the Western narrative of a failed state at the time. But this simplistic view of Iraqi politics has very little to do with reality. Even at the height of sectarian strife it was never the case of Sunni fighting Shi'i or Kurds fighting Arabs or Muslims fighting Christians. There were political groups and parties mainly made up of Shi'is who sometimes fought other groups consisting of Shi'is, just as there were political parties made up mostly of Sunnis who fought each other, and in the Kurdish areas the longstanding political feud between the two dominant Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, continued in the same manner as it had before the invasion.

The main reason why Iraqis resorted, to some extent, to sectarian and ethnic identities after the invasion was because all other forms of open political activity had been suppressed by Saddam Hussein during his and the Ba'th Party's 35 years in power. All political parties were banned and any oppositional activity was clamped down upon with ferocity, leaving only traditional religious and familial networks in place to be utilised for political mobilisation and resistance. Yet, it is important to understand that this was the outcome of a political process and a deliberate manipulation of a political system by an authoritarian regime - not the result of innate contradictions existing through time between static sectarian, tribal or ethnic identities. To fully understand Iraqi politics, and indeed other Middle Eastern countries with similar post-colonial experiences (e.g. Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and others), we need to look at the period that came before the usurpation of power by authoritarian cliques and study the way in which political mobilisation was carried out back then. Only by understanding how men like Saddam Hussein came to power and the political processes that preceded such concentration of power into the hands of a few people can we begin to understand politics in places like Iraq and elsewhere in the region - states in which the natural conduct of politics was resistance to unrepresentative rulers, be they the British, the French, the Italians or local Arab autocrats.

The case of Iraq is especially interesting in this regard. Constituted by the British as a sovereign polity out of the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1920, the new state experienced a short, but highly charged period of British overlordship until 1958 when the pro-British regime was overthrown in a popularly-backed military coup. That coup, or revolution depending on the point of view, ushered in a new era in which political parties, military officers and nationalists of various factions fought with increasing bitterness over the direction of the new republic (which had been proclaimed after the fall of the monarchy) should take. It was a vibrant period in which political debates, ideological visions, and international politics all had a bearing on domestic politics, before the Ba'th Party managed to get their hands on power through a bloodless coup in 1968. But even then the struggle over Iraq's political destiny continued for another decade until Saddam Hussein eventually managed to concentrate all powers in his own hands and emerge as an autocrat. But the multidimensional era that characterised Iraqi politics prior to Saddam's ascent to power in 1979 is a fascinating period where ideologies, visions and oppositional activities dominate. Yet, it is a period that is fundamentally under-researched by academics.

Red Star Over Iraq: Iraqi Communism Before Saddam aims to fill some of this void. The book, as the title suggests, tells the story of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and the key role it played in Iraqi politics in this pre-Saddam era. At times during this period the ICP enjoyed considerable success in its opposition to the various regimes that ruled Iraq. While never able to seize power for itself - mostly because of lack of trying - it exercised an enormous influence on politics in the country by virtue of its mass support, its superior organisational skills, and, importantly, its championing of a non-sectarian vision of Iraq. Although set up in the early 1930s as an internationalist revolutionary political party, following a Marxist-Leninist political ideal in which social revolution was the central aspect, the party gradually developed into a genuine Iraqi party over the decades. The initial radicalism was toned down in favour of an ideology of social justness and inclusivist Iraqi nationalism which was much more in tune with the political orientation of the population. Over the course of the decades, this particular ideology had immense impact, not only on ordinary Iraqis, but also on political rivals, such as the Ba'th Party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which borrowed heavily from the ICP's repertoire. Thus, despite never seizing power for itself, the ICP was one of the most important political organisations, not only in Iraq, but arguably in the wider Middle East as well.

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Johan Franzén is lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Middle East Politics at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. He holds a Ph.D. in Middle East history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has published extensively on the politics and history of the Arab world.

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