How Britain helped Saddam into Power

Formerly secret British files tell the story of British backing for the Ba’ath party’s seizure of power in Iraq in 1963. This is the root of London and Washington’s previous backing of Saddam and repressive regimes in Baghdad, continuing today.

The February 1963 coup was masterminded by the CIA, which provided the coup leaders with a list of 5,000 people who were hunted down and murdered. Ostensibly directed at eliminating the Iraqi Communist Party, they included senior army officers as well as lawyers, professors, teachers and doctors, who were killed mostly in house-to-house visits by hit squads.

Saddam Hussein, then a junior Ba’ath party member, was closely involved in the coup. As an Iraqi exile in Cairo he had since 1961 benefited from contacts with the CIA arranged by the Iraqi section of Egyptian intelligence. During the coup Saddam returned from Cairo and was involved in the torture of leftists.

Britain had also long wanted to see the fall of the Abdul Karim Qasim regime, which had overthrown the pro-British monarchy in 1958, and was pursuing an Arab nationalist foreign policy and nationalising British oil interests. Five months before the 1963 coup, a Foreign Office official referred to the British ambassador?s view “that the sooner Qasim falls the better and that we should not be too choosy about doing things to help towards this end”.

British officials were well aware of the massacres following the coup. Ambassador Roger Allen was monitoring Iraqi radio reports on the first two days of the coup calling on people to “help wipe out all those who belong to the Communists and finish them off?kill them all, kill all the criminals”. He sent a transcript of these messages to the Foreign Office on 15 February. Other files referred to the “rounding up of communists”, “considerable small arms firing” and “stories of heavy casualties, presumably among civilians”.

By 26 February, the British embassy reported that the new regime was trying “to crush organised communism in Iraq” and that there were rumours that “all the top communists have been seized and that fifty have been quietly executed”. Six weeks later, a Foreign Office official referred to a “bloodbath” and that “we should not wish to be seen publicly to advocate such methods of suppressing communism”. “Such harshness”, the official noted, “may well have been necessary as a short term expedient”.

By June, Foreign Office official Percy Cradock ? who later became chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee ? noted that “the Iraqi regime is continuing its severe repression of communists”.

This was recognised as an entirely offensive operation. Killings were occurring at “a time when there is no indication of a Communist threat or of any effective opposition to the new government”.

British officials in effect supported these massacres and welcomed the regime carrying them out. Roger Allen told the Foreign Office a week after the coup that “the present government is doing what it can, and therefore it is my belief that we should support it and help it in the long term to establish itself so that this communist threat may gradually diminish”. The new government “probably suits our interests pretty well” and “it is therefore essential for it to get consolidated quickly”. It will “need all the support and money it can get”.

A Foreign Office brief stated that the new rulers “have shown courage and steadfastness in hatching and executing their plot” and that they should be “somewhat friendlier to the West”. The Foreign Office sent round a memo to various embassies essentially welcoming the coup and concluding: “We wish the new regime well.”

Allen met the Foreign Minister of the new military regime two days after the coup. There is no mention in his record of having raised the killings; rather, the meeting is described as “extremely friendly”. Indeed, there is no mention in any of the files that I have seen of any concern whatever about the killings.

Rather, officials noted that they should “examine all possible means of profiting from the present anti-communist climate in Iraq”, “be helpful over the supply of arms” and “provide military training courses if the Iraqis want them”. This memo was written on the same day that Allen sent the Foreign Office the radio transcripts urging Iraqis to “kill the criminals”.

British policy was to provide diplomatic recognition to the new regime and to “make friendly contact as soon as possible with the Baathist and nationalist leaders”, and to invite members of the National Guard (the organisation which had helped to conduct the massacres) to London. This needed to be done “under some other heading” to keep it secret.

This episode perhaps showed Saddam that he could later rely on the West to support Baghdad’s repression – the roots of even worse atrocities in the 1980s. It also shows us today how instinctive is British and US backing for those who can keep order in Iraq, whatever the human consequences.

Mark Curtis’ new book is Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses.

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