Introducing the new Iraqi flag
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
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.
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.