Then and Now: Iraq


Chairman of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union from 1982 to 1985. During that period, he had much to do with Iraq.

Compared with Iran and the Soviet Union, our stay in Iraq was but brief, being only four days and, while the Embassy did its best for us, there was little time for a detailed programme. That said, it was sufficient to pick up impressions of the country, which have indeed stuck with me throughout later political activities in the Middle East and periodically dramatic happenings within Iraq itself.

1961 was but the early days of Iraq’s independence and the establishment of its nationhood. With the British mandate long ended and its influence steadily declining, the country was run until 1958 by Nuri as Sayid, the Prime Minister, and others from the established families of the country. The young King Feisal II sat uneasily on his throne to which he ascended aged 17 in 1953. In 1958 came the brutal revolution, which most unpleasantly killed him and brought British influence to an abrupt end. In place of a traditional Government, with British advisers never far away, there came on the scene the power of the Iraqi Army in a coup led by General Abdul Karim Kassem. The Army was an important part of a deadly political game that followed, which was mixed and complicated and included the competing influence of the Baathists, or Arab nationalists Iraqi style, and the Communists.

By 1961, the “Sole Ruler”, as General Kassem liked to describe himself, remained in power until he duly and literally lost his head in another military coup a few years later. All the usual ingredients with which we are now all too familiar were present: dictatorship; Army power; political manoeuvres from the Baath who eventually took over, with Saddam Hussein increasingly prominent, and the Communists who eventually lost out; the ethnic tribes and deep divisions between the Sunni and Shi’a; Kuwait, then as now, was an opportunity for the Iraqi leadership to show its macho propensities. Indeed, 1961 contained many threats by Kassem against Kuwait, which led to the deployment of British troops. We still had the major responsibility for the Gulf, although this deployment was the last time military force had to be contemplated by us alone on a major scale. The next international military instalment occurred in 1990 as we will remember.

In 1961, the remnants of the quasi-colonial rule could easily be seen. In the Finance Ministry, underneath various information booklets of the present regime, could be found great bundles of the same thing bearing the murdered King’s photograph and saying lots of nice things about him. The discovery caused much embarrassment, when an alert member of the expedition looked at the shelves in detail. Many leading families still lived and worked in Iraq. As the Baath and Saddam Hussein steadily took over in the succeeding years, many went into exile for their own safety. Then one could still go out to dinner at the old “Jockey Club”, which was a splendid place symbolic of years gone by. When we were there, the servants still in attendance greatly outnumbered the few guests present!

The British Embassy in 1961 was under the capable leadership of Sir Humphrey Trevelyan, a great FCO figure and later to become its Permanent Under-Secretary. They did their best to arrange meetings for us, which included the Ministry of Education, Baghdad University and the British Council, which was still active in the country. However, it was difficult to come away with any other impression than that we were seeing a deeply troubled country in a state of transition, but with little control over the direction of that transition. The only quality it seemed to possess was to be comparatively subdued under firm dictatorship, so disparate was the country we had created with our lines on a map. Apart from bestowing kingdoms to the Hashemites and oil to the West, our efforts bore little relationship, in the case of Iraq, to a potentially cohesive estate.

Our visit to Iraq was the only time during our long trip that I felt very much ill at ease with the country that we were in. In the Soviet bloc and in the USSR, there was organisation and direction. You knew where you were and, within the necessary parameters of the system, you could both learn and enjoy. But Iraq was something else. Hot, sticky and unpleasant, there was a certain feeling of menace in the air. Kassem, the sole leader, was in constant danger of assassination and, indeed, shortly before our stay, his convoy had been attacked and a car within it blown up.

Kuwait caused tension and the resulting regular road blocks and inspections, as we drove from Hamadan, Iran to Baghdad, all added to the tension. However the people who we met were delightful, and largely western-educated, but they were not happy or relaxed. One was aware of the political differences, and later on we surveyed the scene with just a little knowledge, as the Iraqi coups, with all the extreme and unnecessary violence, unfolded on the people and those unfortunate enough to be perceived to be on the wrong side. I was personally pleased and relieved to leave the country, and I have never rushed back to it in spite of many opportunities to do.

One thought on “Then and Now: Iraq

  1. Anonymous

    Peter's masterly account of the bitter history of Iraq through the nineteen fifties to 1961 when we were in Bagdad explains the sense of unease we felt while there. It also throws light on the bitter divisions that have accounted for Iraq's subsequent terrible history.

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