The Middle East: A History of Mass Struggle

How the People of Iraq Can Overthrow Saddam

Under the slogan of “democracy and freedom,” the Bush Administration is presenting itself as liberators of the Iraqi people. But the history of US foreign policy shows that the US government and its big business backers are Saddam’s former friends. As socialists who have always completely opposed Saddam’s dictatorship, we say his removal is the task of the Iraqi people, with the support of workers internationally.

Recent events have demonstrated the power of ordinary people to overthrow dictators. The massive 78-day US bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 failed to remove Serbian dictator Milosovic from power. Yet one year later, a mass movement, spearheaded by striking mineworkers, culminating in a massive demonstration of one million converged on the capital, forcing Milosovic from power in days.

The history of the Middle East is rich with traditions of workers and peasants fighting to shape their own future. During the first half of the 20th century, there were numerous revolts against the colonial powers demanding independence. In the post-war period, a new wave of revolutions erupted against local dictators and continued imperialist domination.

In Iran in 1953, the Shah’s brutal dictatorship was installed in a CIA-organized coup that overthrew Iran’s recently elected prime minister after he nationalized the country’s oil. In 1979, the Iranian revolution was spearheaded by a two-month-long oil workers’ strike, and escalated into massive street demonstrations, bringing down the Shah.

In Egypt, the overthrow of the king and the coming to power of the left-wing bourgeois nationalist, Nasser, had a huge radicalizing effect throughout the region. In Syria, capitalism was overthrown by a left-wing military coup, resting on a radical working class and poor peasants. Revolutions erupted in Jordan and Lebanon. In 1987, a mass Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, emerged.

1958 Iraqi Revolution

In Iraq, a revolutionary situation developed from 1952 to 1958. In July 1958, a junior military officers’ coup overthrew the King and the British puppet government. Although the catalyst of the revolution was radical officers, the underlying force was a revolutionary movement from below.

The new government promised to meet many of the demands of the masses. These included: evacuation of British military bases; release of all political prisoners; a housing program to replace shanty towns; lower rents; reduction of the price of food; land reform; legal recognition of trade unions, peasant organizations and other democratic organizations. In one year, more than 250,000 workers poured into the unions; more than 200,000 joined peasant organizations.

The Iraqi Communist party (ICP) was in the leadership of the workers’ and students’ organizations, and had strong support among peasants and the Kurdish minority. On May Day 1959, the ICP organized a demonstration of over 300,000.

Unfortunately, the ICP failed to complete the revolution due to their “popular front” policies of channeling the workers into an alliance with “progressive capitalists.” In 1963 a right-wing coup, supported by the US, seized power and promptly murdered all the communists on a CIA-provided list.

1991 Iraqi Rebellion Betrayed

During the 1991 Gulf War, Bush Sr. called on Shi’as in the south and Kurds in the north to rebel against Saddam. After the US victory, demobilized soldiers returned home furious and ordinary Iraqis stormed police headquarters and prisons to free prisoners. Government officials were lynched. Kurdish guerillas carried out an armed uprising. For several weeks, Saddam’s government was on the verge of collapse and ordinary Iraqis controlled entire sections of the country.

But the US abandoned the rebels, denying them access to captured Iraqi weapons, and allowed Iraqi helicopters use of the “No-Fly Zones” to crush the uprising. When Saddam’s forces dropped firebombs on fleeing rebels in southern Iraq, American planes surveilled the attack.

While the Bush administration may have wanted a coup from above, it completely opposed a revolution from below, which would set a “bad example” to the other peoples of the region. Further, Washington feared the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would encourage oppressed Kurds in Turkey and Iran to pursue their own national aspirations. The US was also concerned that Shi’as in southern Iraq would link up with Iran, a regime hostile to the US, altering the regional balance of power in Iran’s favor.

The true role of the US government is to hinder liberation, not to bring it. US foreign policy is aimed at protecting its economic interests (i.e. cheap oil), and to maintain dictators in power who defend imperialist interests against the masses. What they fear most of all is revolution from the exploited Arab workers.

The history of the Middle East in the 20th century is one of constant turmoil, wars, coups, revolutions and counter-revolutions. This is rooted in the dead end of capitalism in the neo-colonial world and its inability to take Middle Eastern society forward. Any real democratic rights quickly become outlets for the seething anger of the masses, who demand radical redistribution of wealth, public ownership of key resources, and an end to imperialist domination. That is why the US and other imperialist powers have supported military dictatorships and despotic kings over and over again.

The only force that can bring true democracy and liberate Iraq, or any other part of the Middle East, is the Iraqi and Arab workers and poor masses themselves.

Justice #32, November 2002