Baghdad’s Ruling Cliques

Keith Kyle

  • The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited edited by Robert Fernea and William Roger Louis
    Tauris, 232 pp, £35.00, May 1991, ISBN 1 85043 318 6
  • Instant Empire: Saddam Hussein’s Ambition for Iraq by Simon Henderson
    Mercury House, 271 pp, £8.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 56279 007 2
  • Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography by Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi
    Brassey, 307 pp, £17.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 08 041326 9
  • The Gulf Between Us: The Gulf War and Beyond edited by Victoria Brittain
    Virago, 186 pp, £5.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 85381 386 9
  • Under Siege in Kuwait: A Survivor’s Story by Jadranka Porter
    Gollancz, 250 pp, £4.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 575 05185 X

‘Colonel van Ormer has a forceful personality,’ lamented Brigadier Lushington, head of the British Services Mission in Iraq, of his new American colleague in October 1954. ‘I suspect that he has been “hand-picked”. If he is to be believed, he is being given a very free hand indeed. He talks very big.’ The aggrieved brigadier, charged with managing the operational end of what had been, since the creation of the state of Iraq at the conclusion of the First World War, an exclusive relationship between Britain and the Iraqi Armed Forces, was not disposed to ‘belittle the seriousness of this American invasion’. This was a ‘potential threat to British military influence’.

The reverse side of the same coin is struck in The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 by two of its American contributors: Nicholas Thacher, a diplomatic veteran who was in the American Embassy in Baghdad from 1956 to 58, and Frederick Axelgard, a current State Department official, both of whom consider that in the Fifties the United States displayed altogether too much deference for her own good to British views and the protection of British influence. Axelgard, who has made a special study of this period, finds that ‘the United States consciously cultivated a secondary position politically and militarily behind British influence in pre-revolutionary Iraq.’

The Iraqi Revolution of 1958: The Old Social Classes Revisited takes its main title from a single event of central importance – the destruction of the Iraqi monarchy and, with it, the British interest – and examines how it affected historical judgment of what had gone before and what was to follow. The subtitle, on the other hand, refers to the vast but engagingly written work by Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian PhD candidate, called The Old Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. This was published in 1978, and rightly hailed as a milestone in the study of a Middle Eastern state. The present book was planned well before the invasion of Kuwait. As a result of that event, the 1958 Revolution has gained an exceptional salience in the chain of events that led to the Gulf War, and those readers not coming to the book by way of Batatu might have liked to start off with a clear factual account of what, in fact, happened in Baghdad on 14 July 1958.

Roger Owen says here that when Iraq was re-occupied by the British in 1941, after the Hashemite Regent had been deposed by four colonels and a pro-Axis politician, the structure of British influence was put on a new footing. From then on, the relationship between the regime and a small group of the largest landowners and tribal chiefs became much more mutually supportive. It was not that the British were unaware of the dangers of this. Sir John Troutbeck, one of the two Ambassadors of the Fifties examined in the chapter by William Roger Louis, was outspokenly crit ical of the immense social gaps, and in his view Western education had only made the younger generation of Iraqis more narrow-minded politically; his successor. Sir Martin Wright, that most proconsular of post-war British diplomats, known to his wife as ‘His Excellency’ or, in rare moments of informality, as ‘H.E.’, was much more complacent. That he had enough evidence to the contrary is shown by Louis’s telling quotations from the field reports of his talented subordinate, Sam Falle.

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