Iraqis have always suspected that the 1963 military coup that set Saddam Husain on the road to absolute power had been masterminded by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). New evidence just published reveals that the agency not only engineered the putsch but also supplied the list of people to be eliminated once power was secured - a monstrous stratagem that led to the decimation of Iraq’s professional class.
The overthrow of president Abdul Karim Kassim on February 8, 1963 was not, of course, the first intervention in the region by the agency, but it was the bloodiest - far bloodier than the coup it orchestrated in 1953 to restore the shah of Iran to power. Just how gory, and how deep the CIA’s involvement in it, is demonstrated in a new book by Said Aburish, a writer on Arab political affairs.
The book, A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite (1997), sets out the details not only of how the CIA closely controlled the planning stages but also how it played a central role in the subsequent purge of suspected leftists after the coup.
The author reckons that 5,000 were killed, giving the names of 600 of them - including many doctors, lawyers, teachers and professors who formed Iraq’s educated elite. The massacre was carried out on the basis of death lists provided by the CIA.
The lists were compiled in CIA stations throughout the Middle East with the assistance of Iraqi exiles like Saddam, who was based in Egypt. An Egyptian intelligence officer, who obtained a good deal of his information from Saddam, helped the Cairo CIA station draw up its list. According to Aburish, however, the American agent who produced the longest list was William McHale, who operated under the cover of a news correspondent for the Beirut bureau of Time magazine.
The butchery began as soon as the lists reached Baghdad. No-one was spared. Even pregnant women and elderly men were killed. Some were tortured in front of their children. According to the author, Saddam who ‘had rushed back to Iraq from exile in Cairo to join the victors, was personally involved in the torture of leftists in the separate detention centres for fellaheen [peasants] and the Muthaqafeen or educated classes.’
King Hussain of Jordan, who maintained close links with the CIA, says the death lists were relayed by radio to Baghdad from Kuwait, the foreign base for the Iraqi coup. According to him, a secret radio broadcast was made from Kuwait on the day of the coup, February 8, ‘that relayed to those carrying out the coup the names and addresses of communists there, so they could be seized and executed.’
The CIA’s royal collaborator also gives an insight into how closely the Ba’athist party and American intelligence operators worked together during the planning stages. ‘Many meetings were held between the Ba’ath party and American intelligence - the most critical ones in Kuwait,’ he says.
At the time the Ba’ath party was a small nationalist movement with only 850 members. But the CIA decided to use it because of its close relations with the army. One of its members tried to assassinate Kassim as early as 1959. Saddam, then 22, was wounded in the leg, later fleeing the country.
According to Aburish, the Ba’ath party leaders - in return for CIA support - agreed to ‘undertake a cleansing programme to get rid of the communists and their leftist allies.’ Hani Fkaiki, a Ba’ath party leader, says that the party’s contact man who orchestrated the coup was William Lakeland, the US assistant military attache in Baghdad.
One of the coup leaders, colonel Saleh Mahdi Ammash, former Iraqi assistant military attache in Washington, was in fact arrested for being in touch with Lakeland in Baghdad. His arrest caused the conspirators to move earlier than they had planned.
Aburish’s book shows that the Ba’ath leaders did not deny plotting with the CIA ro overthrow Kassim. When Syrian Ba’ath party officials demanded to know why they were in cahoots with the US agency, the Iraqis tried to justify it in terms of ideology comparing their collusion to ‘Lenin arriving in a German train to carry out his revolution.’ Ali Saleh, the minister of interior of the regime which had replaced Kassim, said: ‘We came to power on a CIA train.’
It should not come as a surprise that the Americans were so eager to overthrow Kassim or so willing to cause such a blood bath to achieve their objective. At the height of the cold war, they were causing similar mayhem in Latin America and Indo-China overthrowing any leaders that dared show the slighest degree of independence.
Kassim was a prime target for US aggression and arrogance. After taking power in 1958, he took Iraq out of the Baghdad Pact, the US-backed anti-Soviet alliance in the Middle East, and in 1961 he dared nationalise part of the concession of the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum company and resurrected a long-standing Iraqi claim to Kuwait ( the regime which succeeded him immediately dropped the claim to Kuwait).
But the cold war does not by itself explain Uncle Sam’s propensity to violence. When president George Bush bombed Iraq to smithereens, killing thousands of civilians, the cold war was over. Clinton cannot cite the cold war for insisting that the brutal regime of sanctions imposed on the country should stay.
In fact the brutal, blood-stained nature of Uncle Sam goes back all the way to the so-called ‘Founding Fathers,’ who made no attempt to conceal it. As long ago as 1818, John Quincy Adams hailed the ‘salutary efficacy’ of terror in dealing with ‘mingled hordes of lawless Indians and negroes.’ He was defending Andrew Jackson’s frenzied operations in Florida which virtually wiped out the indigenous population and left the Spanish province under US control. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues were not above professing to be impressed by the wisdom of his words.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1997