The Hashemite dynasty in Iraq was overthrown in a bloody revolution in 1958. A group of disgruntled nationalistic army officers headed by General Abdul Karim Qassem and Colonel Abd al-Salam Arif copied the takeover of the Egyptian government by the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, in 1952. On July 14, 1958, the Iraqi forces took over the radio station, post office, royal palace, and government centers in Baghdad.
The royal family was killed. Nuri al-Said, the grand old man of Iraqi politics who had served as prime minister on numerous occasions, was captured trying to escape disguised as a woman and was torn apart by an angry mob.
As violence mounted in the capital, the officers declared martial law and established a three-person sovereignty council of one Kurd, one Sunni, and one Shi’i, in an attempt to include the main sectarian groups in Iraq.
Qassem became prime minister and minister of defense. Show trials were held of members of the ancien régime, and the new government announced its intention to purge the system of corruption and imperial control.
Qassem was a notable champion for the poor and strongly supported eradicating the slum areas around Baghdad and providing low-cost housing. Under a new land reform program, property confiscated from the old ruling class was distributed to the peasants but without the formation of cooperatives or government planning as in Egypt. As a result, there was a decline in agricultural productivity.
The new regime also focused on improving and widening access to education. In a highly popular move most of the oil industry, Iraq’s major source of income, was taken over. Politically Qassem played the Iraqi communists against the Arab nationalist forces, especially the Ba’ath Party.
The new Iraqi regime supported both the Palestinian and Algerian nationalist movements and withdrew from the hated Western-dominated CENTO, or Baghdad Pact. Internationally it drew closer to the Soviet Union. In the era of cold war politics the West, especially the United States, viewed the Iraqi revolution as a victory for the Soviets and blamed Nasser for the overthrow of the old monarchy.
Although Nasser initially supported the new regime and was pleased at the collapse of the Hashemite monarchy, he had not actually been behind the takeover. Hoping to enlarge the pan-Arab movement and convince Iraq to join the United Arab Republic, Nasser invited Qassem to Egypt on several occasions, but Qassem found excuses to refuse, and the relationship between the two nations grew increasingly hostile.
Suspected of plotting a coup, Arif was arrested in late 1958, but Qassem pardoned his old ally and permitted him to leave for Europe. Several attempted coups and an attempted assassination of Qassem by Ba’athists failed in 1959.
Saddam Hussein was one of the plotters behind the failed assassination, and he subsequently fled to Egypt. Relationships between the government and the Kurds, led by Mustafa Barzani, also soured, and by 1961 a full-scale war was being waged between the Iraqi army and Kurdish nationalist forces.
In the face of mounting political instability, Qassem’s personal behavior became more erratic. After Britain declared Kuwait an independent country, Qassem claimed it as an integral part of Iraq in 1961. British and Saudi troops moved into Kuwait to protect it, and Iraq was forced to withdraw its claim and recognize Kuwait as an independent nation.
In 1963 a coup by army officers, including Arif, overthrew Qassem, who was taken prisoner. Although he pleaded for his life, Qassem was executed on orders given by Arif. Abd al-Salam Arif died in 1966, and his brother Abd al-Rahman Arif succeeded him, but the regime was plagued by political instability and the ongoing conflict with the Kurds.
In the summer of 1968 Ba’athists led by Ahmed Hasan al-Bakr took over. To protect the new Ba’ath regime from domestic opposition, Bakr had his protégé Hussein control the internal security forces. Hussein gradually consolidated his power within the party and ruthlessly eliminated potential enemies.
The new regime instituted a more far-reaching land reform program and nationalized the oil industry in 1972. Escalating oil revenues in the 1970s were used to build infrastructure, including road and communication lines, and to modernize the education and health care systems.
The regime also negotiated a settlement with the Kurds, who obtained an autonomous region in the north. Relations with the Soviet Union were also strengthened. In 1979 Bakr, who had been in poor health for some time, stepped down in favor of Hussein, who ruled Iraq until his regime was overthrown in a U.S.-led military invasion in 2003.