The Socialist Unity Network

Introducing the new Iraqi flag

Andy Newman

The replacement of Iraq's flag by a new one with some superficial resemblance to Israel's flag: two horizontal blue stripes, and a religious symbol, has clearly proved controversial, and already the new flag is being burned in the streets of Iraq, while the old flag is now the emblem of military resistance.

According to Dr Kemil Mahdi of Exeter University, based upon his long visit to Iraq last year there is a widespread worry amongst Iraqis that they are to be reduced to a colony. The abolition of the army was more than symbolically significant, because it means that even if Iraq gains nominal sovereignty, no Iraqi government would have an instrument to enforce its decisions. For example, once sovereignty is handed over (on June 30th ??), the new Iraqi government could have no control of their own economic policy to reverse the privatisations and awards of reconstruction contracts to American companies, as they would have to rely upon foreign (American) armed forces to carry out their decisions! Abolishing the Iraqi flag is a symbol of that loss of independence.

However this issue goes beyond whether Iraq's governing council has the legitimacy to change the flag - the old flag had specific political symbolism. It is no coincidence that Iraq's old flag looks almost exactly the same as Egypt's and Syria's flags. The resemblance between these flags is a conscious expression of the pan-Arabist ideal. Mahdi Abdul Hadi's book, "Evolution of the Arab Flag", describes how the flag was first used during the Arab Revolt on June 1916. The Palestinian people raised it as the flag of the Arab National movement in 1917. The colours were rearranged into the "Arab Liberation Flag" following the Egyptian revolution in 1953.

It is well known that the borders of the current Middle East states have no legitimacy in the eyes of their populations. The most famous advocate of pan-Arabism, the ideal of a united Arab nation state was the Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who understood that unity was a precondition for undermining the economic and political subordination of the Middle East to imperialism. As Nasser expressed it, viewing oil rich Saudi Arabia from the populous and oil-less Egypt, they wanted "Arab oil for the Arab people". Pan-Arabism has found expression in Islamist, Nasserite and Ba'athist political movements.

Indeed, briefly, between 1958 and 1961, Syria and Egypt became a united country - the United Arab Republic (UAR), and it became the policy of all the western powers to prevent Iraq joining that union. The UAR was founded on the basis of increasing military co-operation against Israel, promoting secular republicanism, and economic independence.

Pan-Arabism has not only been the ambition of the political leaders, it is also a deep desire of the Arab peoples. For example the consistent and apparently principled pan-Arabism of Assad's Ba'athist regime in Syria has strengthened the stability of that otherwise weak government. It is revealing that nearly all military coups in the Middle East, seek popular support by proclaiming the pan-Arabist credentials of the new government.

Pan-Arabism has been of particular importance in Iraq. For example, in the 1936 the coup by Bakr Sidqi against pro-British politicians led to a popular nationalist monarchy under King Ghazi. Ghazi was immensely popular,  because he advocated annexation of Kuwait, and increased military aid to the Palestinians during their uprising against the British. However Prime Minister Sidqi was a fool who squandered the popular support and by flirting with Germany and Italy he allowed Iraq little room for manoeuvre with the British. When he was assassinated in 1937 the pro-British government of Jamil Al Madfai' sought to contain the King.

Ghazi responded in a remarkable way, by setting up a radio station in the palace and broadcasting anti-British, pan-Arabist propaganda to the population. In 1939 Ghazi was murdered by the British.

Pan Arabism again became an important issue in Iraqi politics with the coup in 1958 by nationalist general Abdel Karim Kassem ( an arabised Kurd). Superficially Kassem was a pan-Arabist, but he was personally more interested in developing a strong independent Iraq than in joining the UAR, which would have meant subordination to Nasser in Egypt. Kassem threw out the British troops, co-operated with the Iraqi communist party, encouraged trade unions. Kassem's relations with the USSR were also important, because until then the Iraqi army had been dependant upon the British for all supplies, and the British had used this to control Iraqi foreign policy. Buying arms from Russia, meant independence, which is the same reason why Nasser's Egypt turned to Czechoslovakia for arms, even though the CIA had supported Nasser's coup in 1952.

However one important pan-Arabist policy was successfully pursued by Kassem: union with Kuwait. The small Kingdom agreed to federate with Iraq, with a single army, a single foreign policy and deferring to Iraq on economic policy.

Just as significantly, Kassem pressurised the oil companies into giving Iraq more money, and hosted the first OPEC meeting, where oil producing countries discussed how to increase their share of the oil revenue. The Americans feared oil nationalisation was coming and organised a coup in 1963 by the Iraqi Ba'athist party, in cooperation with Nasser's Egypt, who were pleased to dispose of a rival. An alternative anti-Kassem approach was tried by the British who sought to destabilise Iraq by arming the Kurds.

The coup had no popular support, and many army units stayed loyal to Kassem. Thousands of civilians flocked to the palace demanding arms to defend the government, but Kassem refused to distribute weapons and surrendered. He was shot by firing squad, shouting "Long Live the People". Immediately after the coup, Britain intervened to force Kuwait to buy their way out of union with Iraq for $50 million,

The American government completely fails to understand that Iraq has this long tradition of resistance to imperialism. In 1941 my own father participated in a British invasion of Iraq and thousands of slain British soldiers still lie in military cemeteries from that and earlier interventions. The Iraqi people know that invaders can be worn down and defeated.

The old flag represented Iraqi national independence, and the pan-Arabist national liberation movement. To replace it with a flag designed in London, with no roots in Iraqi history is arrogant, ignorant and symbolic of the inevitable defeat of the imperialist armies in Iraq.



April 2004


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