A timeline of key events in Iraqi history and class struggle in the 20th century.
Since the state of Iraq was created early this century, the working class
in the area have suffered brutal exploitation and repression at the hands
of the rival ruling class groups competing for power. As if dealing with these
home grown gangsters wasn't enough, they have also faced the bullets and bombs
of the global capitalist powers (especially Britain and America) seeking to
control the oil wealth of this part of the world.
Meanwhile opposition political organisations such as the Iraqi Communist Party
and the Kurdish Democratic Party have consistently made deals with both Iraqi
regimes and the global powers at the expense of those who they claimed to
be leading in resistance to the state. Despite all this, the working class
has shown itself a force to be reckoned with, toppling governments and sabotaging
war efforts. This brief chronology charts some of the key moments in a century
of war and rebellion.
Iraq doesn't exist. Since the sixteenth century the area that will later become
Iraq has formed part of the Turkish-based Ottoman Empire. The Empire's rule
is based in the cities; the countryside remains dominated by rural tribal
groups, some of them nomadic.
Turkish Petroleum Company formed by British, Dutch and German interests acquires
concessions to prospect for oil in the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Mosul
(both later part of Iraq).
Turkey sides with Germany in the First World War. To protect its strategic
interests and potential oil fields, Britain occupies Basra in November 1914,
eventually capturing Baghdad in 1917. By the end of the war, most of the provinces
of Iraq are occupied by British forces although some areas remain "unpacified".
Colonial direct rule is established in "British Mesopotamia", with
the top levels of the administration in British hands.
Throughout 1919 and 1920 there are constant risings in northern Iraq, with
British military officers and officials being killed. The different tribes
in this area share a common Kurdish language and culture, but at this stage
there is little demand for a separate Kurdish nation state. The issue is rather
resistance to any external state authority.
The RAF bomb Kurdish areas. Wing-Commander Arthur Harris (later known as "Bomber
Harris" for his role in the destruction of Dresden in World War Two)
boasts: "The Arab and the Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties
and damage. Within 45 minutes a full-size village can be practically wiped
out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured".
Colonel Gerald Leachman, a leading British officer declares that the only
way to deal with the tribes is "wholesale slaughter". The RAF Middle
Eastern Command request chemical weapons to use "against recalcitrant
Arabs as (an) experiment". Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for
War comments "I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against
uncivilised tribes.. It is not necessary only to use the most deadly gases:
gases can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively
terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects of most of those affected".
Others argue that the suggested gas would in fact "kill children and
sickly persons" and permanently damage eyesight. At this stage, technical
problems prevent the use of gas, but later it is deployed.
In the post-war carve up of the spoils of conquest between the victorious
imperialist powers, Britain gets Iraq (as well as Palestine), France gets
Syria and Lebanon. The borders of the new state of Iraq are set by the great
powers, setting the scene for a century of border conflicts (e.g the Iran/Iraq
The British authorities impose tight controls, collecting taxes more rigorously
than their predecessors and operating forced labour schemes. In June 1920
an armed revolt against British rule ("the Revolution of 1920")
spreads across southern and central Iraq. For three months Britain loses control
of large areas of the countryside. British military posts are overrun, and
450 British troops are killed (1500 are injured).
By February the rebellion has been crushed, with 9000 rebels killed or wounded
by British forces. Whole villages are destroyed by British artillery, and
suspected rebels shot without trial. The air power of the RAF plays a major
role; what this involves is shown by one report of "an air raid in which
men, women and children had been machine gunned as they fled from a village".
Britain decides to replace direct colonial rule with an Arab administration
which it hopes will serve British interests. At the head of the new state
structure, Britain creates a monarchy with Faysal as Iraq's first King. Although
senior positions are now filled by Iraqis, ultimate control remains with their
Britain's Labour Government sanctions the use of the RAF against the Kurds,
dropping bombs and gas, including on Sulliemania in December. The effects
are described by Lord Thompson as "appalling" with panic stricken
tribespeoplefleeing "into the desert where hundreds more must have perished
The British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company (successor to the TPC) opens
its first substantial oil well at Baba Gurgur, north of Kirkuk. Tons of oil
decimate the local countryside before the well is capped.
The Anglo-Iraq Treaty paves the way for independence. However the Treaty provides
for Britain to maintain two air bases, and for British influence on Iraq's
foreign policy until 1957. In negotiations the British government contends
that Kuwait "is a small expendable state which could be sacrificed without
too much concern if the power struggles of the period demanded it".
Kurdish uprisings, prompted by fears of their place in the new state, are
put down with the help of the RAF.
General strike against the Municipal Fees Law which imposes draconian new
taxes (three times heavier than before) and for unemployment compensation.
Thousands of workers and artisans, including 3,000 petroleum workers, take
part and there are clashes with the police. The RAF flies over urban centres
to intimidate strikers and their supporters.
Iraq is admitted to the League of Nations, becoming formally independent -
although Britain remains in a powerful influence.
The Artisans Association' (a union) organise a month long boycott of the British-owned
Baghdad Electric Light and Power Company. After this, unions and workers'
organisations are banned and forced underground for the next ten years with
their leaders imprisoned.
King Faysal dies and is succeeded by his son Ghazi.
Iraq Petroleum Company begins commercial export of oil from the Kirkuk fields.
Sporadic tribal rebellions, mainly in the south of the country. Causes include
the government's attempt to introduce conscription (the focus of a revolt
by the minority Yazidi community), the dispossession of peasants as tribally-owned
lands are placed in private hands, and the decreasing power of tribal leaders.
The revolts are crushed by air force bombing and summary executions.
General Bakr Sidqi, an admirer of Mussolini installs a military government
and launches repression against the left. There are protest strikes throughout
the country including at the Iraq Petroleum Company in Kirkuk and at the National
Cigarette Factory in Baghdad.
King Ghazi is killed in a car crash. Many Iraqis believe that there has been
a conspiracy, as the King had become outspokenly anti-British. During an angry
demonstration in Mosul, the British Consul is killed.
Rashid Ali becomes Prime Minister after a coup, at the expense of pro-British
politicians. The new government takes a position of neutrality in the Second
World War, refusing to support Britain unless it grants independence to British-controlled
Syria and Palestine. Links are established with the German government.
British troops land at Basra. The Iraqi government demands that they leave
the country. Instead Britain re-invades Iraq and after the thirty days war'
restores its supporters to power. During the British occupation, martial law
is declared. Arab nationalist leaders are hanged or imprisoned, with up to
1,000 being interned without trial. Despite this, British forces do not intervene
when Rashid supporters stage a pogrom in the Jewish area of Baghdad, killing
Bread strikes prompted by food shortages and prices rises are put down by
Strike by oil workers at the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company in
Kirkuk demanding higher wages and other benefits. Workers clash with police,
and ten are killed when police open fire on a mass meeting on 12 July. The
following month there is a strike by oil workers in the Iranian port of Abadan
and Britain moves more troops to Basra (near to the Iranian border). The Iraqi
government suppresses opposition papers criticising this move, prompting strikes
by the printers and railway workers. The cabinet is forced to resign.
Strikes and demonstrations against the proposed establishment of the Zionist
state of Israel at the expense of the dispossessed Palestinians.
The Iraqi government negotiates a new treaty with Britain which would have
extended Britain's say in military policy until 1973. British troops would
be withdrawn from Iraqi soil, but would have the right to return in event
of war. On January 16, the day after the Treaty is agreed at Portsmouth, police
shoot dead four students on a demonstrations against the treaty. This prompts
an uprising that becomes known as al-Wathba (the leap). Militant demonstrations
and riots spread across the country, directed not just against the proposed
Treaty but against bread shortages and rising prices. Several more people
are killed a few days later when police open fire on a mass march of railway
workers and slum dwellers. On 27 January 300 to 400 people are killed by the
police and military as demonstrators erect barricades of burning cars in the
street. The cabinet resigns and the Treaty is repudiated.
In May 3,000 workers at IPC's K3 pumping station near Haditha strike for higher
wages bringing the station to a halt. After two and a half weeks, the government
and IPC cut off supplies of food and water to the strikers, who then decide
to march on Baghdad, 250 km away. On what becomes known as the great march'
(al-Masira al-Kubra), strikers are fed and sheltered by people in the small
towns and villages en route before being arrested at Fallujah, 70 km from
The British military mission is withdrawn from Iraq. Martial law is declared,
ostensibly because of the war in Palestine, and demonstrations are banned.
Communist Party leaders are publicly hanged in Baghdad, their bodies left
hanging for several hours as a warning to opponents of the regime.
Port workers strike for increased wages, more housing and better working conditions.
Strikers take over the Basra generator, cutting off water and electricity
in the city. Strikers are killed when police move in.
In October students go on strike over changes in examination rules. The movement
spreads to mass riots in most urban centres, known as al-Intifada (the tremor).
In Baghdad a police station and the American Information Office are burned
to the ground. A military government takes over, declaring martial law. There
is a curfew, mass arrests and the banning of some newspapers. 18 demonstrators
are killed in military action.
Government decrees permit the Council of Ministers to deport persons convicted
of communism, anarchism and working for a foreign government. The police are
given new powers to stop meetings.
Egypt nationalises the Suez Canal. Britain, Israel and France launch a military
attack on Egypt. The government closes all colleges and secondary schools
in Baghdad as huge demonstrations, strikes and riots spread. Two rioters are
sentenced to death following clashes with the police in the southern town
of al-Havy. Martial law is imposed.
Popular unrest throughout the country, including in Diwaniyah where in June
43 police and an unknown number of demonstrators are killed in a three hour
A month later the "14 July Revolution" brings to an end the old
regime. A coup led by members of the Free Officers seizes power, denounces
imperialism and proclaims a republic. The royal family are shot. Crowds take
to the streets and a number of US businessmen and Jordanian ministers staying
at the Baghdad Hotel are killed. People take food from the shops without paying,
thinking that money is now obsolete. To prevent the revolution spreading out
of their control, the new government imposes a curfew. After a brief power
struggle within the new regime, Abd al-Karim Quasim becomes prime minister
(as well as commander in chief of the armed forces) and continues to rule
with the support of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and other leftists.
Although Islamic influence remains strong, there are public expressions of
anti-clericalism including the public burning of the Koran.
Without waiting for Quasim to deliver on his promises of land reform, peasants
in the south take matters into their own hands. In al-Kut and al-'Amarah they
loot landlords' property, burn down their houses, and destroy accounts and
Fearing the spread of rebellion throughout the Middle East, the United States
sends 14,000 marines to Lebanon. Plans for a joint US/British invasion of
Iraq come to nothing because "nobody could be found in Iraq to collaborate
Baathists and nationalists form underground anti-communist hit squads, assassinating
not just ICP members but other radical workers. By 1961 up to 300 people have
been murdered in this way in Baghdad and around 400 in Mosul.
In Mosul, Arab nationalist officers stage an unsuccessful coup against the
government, prompted largely by anti-communism. Popular resistance goes beyond
suppressing the coup: the rich are attacked and their houses looted. There
are similar scenes in Kirkuk where 90 generals, capitalists are landlords
are killed in violent clashes ( excesses' later denounced by the ICP).
Quasim cracks down on radical opposition. 6000 militant workers are sacked.
Several Communist Party members are sentenced to death after for their role
in the Kirkuk clashes. Despite this the ICP leadership continues to support
the government, urged on by Moscow.
War breaks out between the government and Kurds lasting intermittently until
1975. In the first year, 500 places are bombed by the Iraqi Air Force and
80,000 people displaced.
Kuwait, under British control since 1899, becomes independent. Iraq stakes
a claim that Kuwait should be part of Iraq. Britain responds by sending troops
Quasim's government is overthrown in a January coup which brings to power
the Baathists for the first time. The Arab nationalist Baath party favours
the joining together of Iraq, Egypt and Syria in one Arab nation. In the same
year, the Baath also come to power in Syria, although the Syrian and Iraqi
parties subsequently split.
The Baath strengthen links with the United States, suspected by many of encouraging
the coup. During the coup, demonstrators are mown down by tanks, initiating
a period of ruthless persecution during which up to 10,000 people are imprisoned,
many of them tortured. The CIA help to supply intelligence on communists and
radicals to be rounded up. In addition to the 149 officially executed, up
to 5000 are killed in the terror, many buried alive in mass graves. The new
government continues the war on the Kurds, bombarding them with tanks, artillery
and from the air, and bulldozing villages.
In November the Baath are removed from power in another coup by supporters
of the Egyptian Arab nationalist, Nasser.
After a split in the Communist Party, a group lead by Aziz al-Hajj launches
guerrilla warfare against the state, influenced by Che Guevara and Maoism.
There are assassinations of individual capitalists and wide-scale armed confrontations.
The Baath Party power returns to power after a coup in July. It creates a
state apparatus systematically dominated by the Baath party that enables it
to remain in power for at least the next thirty years.
The Baath militia, the National Guard, crack down on demonstrations and strikes.
In November, two strikers are shot dead at a vegetable oil factory near Baghdad,
and three are killed on a demonstration to commemorate the Russian Revolution.
The regime begins rounding up suspected communists. The guerrilla movement
is defeated, with many of its members tortured to death. Aziz al-Hajj betrays
them by recanting on television, subsequently becoming Iraqi ambassador to
The air force bombs Kurdish areas, but the military stalemate remains until
the following year when Saddam Hussein negotiates an agreement with the Kurdish
Democratic Party. In exchange for limited autonomy, the KDP leadership agrees
to integrate its peshmerga fighters into the Iraqi army.
The Iraqi oil industry is nationalised.
After pressure from the Soviet Union, the Iraqi Communist Party joins the
pro-government National Progressive Front along with the Baath, but the Baath
remain in sole control of the state.
War breaks out again in Kurdistan as the agreement with the KDP breaks down.
The KDP is deprived of its traditional allies in the CP and the Soviet Union,
now supporting the Baath. Instead it seeks and receives aid from the USA and
the Shah of Iran. The Baathists launch napalm attacks on the Kurdish towns
of Halabja and Kalalze.
The Iraqi military continues bombing civilian areas in Kurdistan, killing
130 at Qala'Duza, 43 in Halabja and 29 in Galala in April.
Iraq negotiates an agreement with Iran, withdrawing help from Iranian Kurds
and other anti-Shah forces in return for Iran stopping support to the Iraqi
KDP. Iran takes back the military equipment it had given to the KDP, leaving
the field open for the Iraqi army to conquer Kurdistan
Wholesale arrests of ICP members it criticises the regime. Twelve are executed
for political activity in the army. All non-Baathist political activity in
the army (such as reading a political newspaper), or by former members of
the armed forces is banned under sentence of death. With universal conscription,
this means that all adult males are threatened with death for political activity.
Saddam Hussein becomes president of the republic, having increasingly concentrated
power in his hands during the preceding eleven years.
War breaks out between Iraq and the new Iranian regime lead by Ayatollah Khomeni.
The conflict centres on border disputes and the prospect of the Islamic revolution
spreading to Iraq. Iran shells the Iraqi cities of Khanaqin and Mandali; Iraq
launches a bombing mission over Tehran.
Popular anti-government uprising in Kurdish areas. The government decrees
that deserters from the army (anyone who has gone absent without leave for
more than five days) will be executed.
In the southern marsh regions, the Iraqi army launches a massive military
operation with the help of heavy artillery, missiles and aircraft to flush
out the thousands of deserters and their supporters in the area. Rebels do
not only run away from the war, but organise sabotage actions such as blowing
up an arsenal near the town of Amara. In the village of Douru armed inhabitants
resist the police to prevent house-to-house searches for deserters. At Kasem
in the same area armed rebels clash with the military. Villages supporting
the rebels are destroyed and their inhabitants massacred.
American support for Iraq in the war is reflected in the restoration of diplomatic
relations between the two countries. Iraq has received military planes from
France, and missiles from the Soviet Union. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait fund the
Iraqi war effort. Western and Eastern blocs are united in a wish to see Iraq
curtail the influence of Iran and Islamic fundamentalism.
Jalal al-Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan calls a truce with its troops
fighting alongside the Baath.
Start of the "War of the Cities" with Iran and Iraq firing missiles
at each other's capitals.
In May there is an uprising in the Kurdish town of Halabja led by the many
deserters from the army living in the town. According to one eye witness "the
governmental forces were toppled. The people had taken over and the police
and army had to go into hiding, only being able to move around in tanks and
armoured divisions". Hundreds of people are killed when the rebellion
Armed deserters take over the town of Sirwan (near Halabja). The Iraqi air
force destroys the town with bombs and rockets. Halabja is bombed by Iran,
and then on 13 March the Iraqi government attacks the town with chemical weapons
killing at least 5,000 civilians. Poor people attempting to flee the town
for Iran before the massacre are stopped from doing so by Kurdish nationalist
peshmerga. Throughout this period of insurgency there is widespread suspicion
of the Kurdish nationalist parties because of their history of collaboration
with the state and their lack of support for working class revolts.
The Americans send a naval force to the Gulf after attacks on oil tankers.
It effectively takes the Iraqi side, shooting down an Iranian passenger jet
killing nearly 300 people, and attacking Iranian oil platforms, killing another
200. In August Iran and Iraq agree a ceasefire bringing to an end the first
Gulf War. The British government secretly agrees to relax controls on arms
exports to Iraq.
In July, the British government approves the company Matrix Churchill exporting
engineering equipment to Iraq, knowing that they are to be used to manufacture
shells and missiles. The following month, Iraq invades Kuwait.
In January the US military, with support from Britain and the other 'Coalition
Forces' launches Operation Desert Storm, a massive href="/history/articles/gulf-war-1991">attack on Iraq and its
forces in Kuwait. The conflict is less of a war than what John Pilger calls
"a one-sided bloodfest". The allied forces suffer only 131 deaths
(many of them killed by 'friendly fire'), compared with up to 250,000 Iraqi
href="/history/articles/gulf-war-1991">The history of the 1990-91 Gulf War
href="/history/articles/gulf-war-1991-resistance">The history of worldwide resistance to the Gulf
Despite General Norman Schwarzkopf's public statement that the allies will
not attack Iraqis in retreat, Iraqi conscripts are slaughtered even after
the unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait has begun. The day before the 'war'
comes to an end, troops (and civilians) retreating from Kuwait City on the
Basra highway are massacred in what US pilots gleefully call a 'duck shoot'.
For miles near the Mutla Ridge, the road is filled with charred bodies and
tangled wreckage. An eye witness writes that "In many instances the human
form has been reduced to nothing more than a shapeless black lump, the colour
of coal, the texture of ash" (Stephen Sackur).
Many civilians are also killed, most famously at the Amiriya bunker in Baghdad
where hundreds of people sheltering from allied bombs are killed when it receives
a direct hit from two missiles.
In February and March, popular
uprisings against the Iraqi government spread across the country. It starts at Basra in
southern Iraq, where the spark is
rebels using a tank to fire at the huge pictures of Saddam Hussein in the
city. Inspired by rebellion in the south, people in Kurdish areas join in.
Police stations, army bases and other government buildings are wrecked and
torched. Shops are looted. Food warehouses are occupied and the food distributed.
In Sulliemania in the north, rebels smash up the prison and set all the prisoners
free and then storm the secret police HQ where many have been tortured and
killed. Baathist officials and secret police are shot. In some areas, self-organised
workers' councils (shoras) are set up to run things. They set up their own
radio stations, medical posts (to collect blood donations for the hospital),
and militia to resist government forces.
href="/history/articles/iraq-south-kurdistan-uprisings-1991">The history of the South Iraq and
In Baghdad itself, there are mass
desertions from the main barracks during
the war, with officers who try to stop them being shot. Two areas of the city,
Al Sourah and Al Sho'ela fall into the effective control of deserters and
href="/history/articles/iraq-mass-mutiny-gulf-war-1990">The history of the mass mutiny of Iraqi
forces in the Gulf War
After a brutal repression of the rebellion in the South (made easier by the
earlier Allied massacre of mutinous conscripts on the Basra highway), Government
forces focus on Kurdistan. They reoccupy Sulliemania in April, but the city
is deserted with almost all the inhabitants having fled to the mountains.
The Western media present the uprisings as the work of Kurdish nationalists
in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south, but they are in fact mass revolts
of the poor. In fact the main Kurdish nationalist parties (the KDP and the
PUK) oppose radical aspects of the uprisings and try to destroy the shora
movement. True to form they announce a new negotiated agreement with Saddam
Hussein soon after the uprisings are crushed.
Although military action ceases, the war on people in Iraq is continued through
other means - sanctions. The destruction of water pumping stations and sewage
filtration plants by allied bombing is compounded by sanctions which prevent
them being repaired. This amounts to germ warfare, as the inevitable consequences
are epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and cholera. In 1997, the UN estimates
that 1.2 million people, including 750,000 children below the age of five,
have died because of the scarcity of food and medicine.
The US launches 27 cruise missiles against Iraq.
In February there is a massive military build up by American and British forces
in the Gulf, threatening a new war on Iraq. On this occasion, armed conflict
is avoid ed after a last minute deal on UN Weapons Inspectors.
On October 1, Iraqi authorities under the command of Gen. Sabah Farhan al-Duri
execute 119 Iraqis and three Egyptians in Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Twenty-nine of those killed are members of the armed forces, and fifty had
been imprisoned for their participation in the March 1991 uprisings that followed
the Gulf War. This mass execution is apparently a continuation of the
campaign launched by the government a year earlier which saw an estimated
2500 prisoners executed.
In December, following the expulsion of Weapons Inspectors from Iraq (and
during the middle of President Clinton's impeachment crisis) the US launches
Operation Desert Fox. Over a four day period, 400 cruise missiles are launched
on Iraq, along with 600 air attack sorties. British aircraft also take part
in airstrikes. According to Iraq, thousands are killed and wounded in these
In March Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq-al Sadr, the most senior Shi'ite religious
leader in Iraq, is killed, with the suspicion falling on government agents.
A major uprising in Basra is suppressed with hundreds of deaths, many killed
in mass executions.
Western military attacks continue, ostensibly against Iraqi air defenses.
On April 11, two people are killed when Western warplanes bomb targets in
Quadissiya province. On 27 April, four people are killed by US planes near
Mosulin in the northern no-fly zone. On May 9, four people are killed in Basra
province, including three in a farmer's house in Qurna. On May 12, 12 people
are killed in the northern city of Mosul.
Robert Clough, Labour: a party fit for imperialism (Larkin, London, 1992)
Marion Farouk-Sluglett & Peter Sluglett, Iraq since 1958: from revolution
to dictatorship (Tauris, London, 1990).
Lawrence James, The rise and fall of the British Empire (Little, Brown &
Co., London, 1994).
Brian MacArthur (ed.), Despatches from the Gulf War (Bloomsbury, London, 1991).
Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Longman, Harlow, 1985).
Midnight Notes Collective, Midnight Oil: work, energy, war, 1973-1992
New York, 1992).
Peter Nore and Terisa Turner (eds.), Oil and class struggle (Zed, London,
Richard Norton-Taylor, Mark Lloyd and Stephen Cook, Knee deep in dishonour:
the Scott Report and its aftermath (Gollancz, London, 1996)
Stephen Sackur, The Charred Bodies at Mutla Ridge, London Review of Books,
4 April 1991.
Geoff Simons, Iraq: from Sumer to Saddam (Macmillan, London, 1996).
The Kurdish Uprising and Kurdistan's Nationalist Shop Front and its negotiations
with the Baathist/Fascist Regime (BM Blob/BM Combustion, London, 1991)
The class struggle in Iraq - an interview with a veteran, Workers Scud, June
1991 (available from Box 15, 138 Kingsland High St, London E8 2NS)
Eye witness in Halabja, Wildcat no.13, 1989 (available from BM Cat, WC1N 3XX)
Ten days that shook Iraq, Wildcat, 1991.
Iran-Iraq: Class war against imperialist war, Wildcat no.10, 1987.
Revolutionary defeatism in Iraq, Communism - Internationalist Communist Group,
Whiff of imperialism in the air over Iraq, An Phoblact/Republican News, 5
Marked cards in the Middle East, Fifth Estate, Spring 1991.
Published by Practical History, London, May 2000