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Iraq’s military regimes, 1958-68: the bumptious barracks of Baghdad

Bism Allah

Iraq’s military regimes, 1958-68: the bumptious barracks of Baghdad

31 July 2018
Ibrahim Moiz

Fifty years ago this month, a new and particularly bloody period of Iraqi history began with an ironically bloodless coup by the Baath party that put to an end an exact ten years of military rule. The life and crimes of the Baath regime are infamous, but less well-known today is the decade of none-too-smooth military republicanism that preceded it. This article surveys the tumultuous history of military-ruled Iraq, dating from the bloody revolution of July 1958 that put an end to the Hashimi monarchy, through to the successful Baath takeover a decade later.


The history of the modern Iraqi state dates from the aftermath of the First World War, when a revolt forced British Empire that had conquered this region from the Ottoman sultanate to cede some level of independence to their cheated client from the Arab Revolt, the Hashimi emir Faisal I bin Hussein. Having originally revolted against the Ottomans in the hopes of carving out an independent Hashimi principality based on the Levant, Faisal had been ousted from Damascus by Britain’s French allies in 1920, the same year that saw a major revolt – the first, and certainly most widespread, of many – erupt againt the British occupation in Iraq. The solution lay in Britain’s yielding to Faisal an Iraqi realm with limited independence. But in the pattern common to Arabian sheikhs in the colonial period, Faisal – however much he chafed under foreign domination – was forced to depend heavily on Britain, particularly when various smaller revolts erupted in Iraq’s peripheries among the northern Kurdish highlanders and the southern, mostly Shia Arab, lowlanders.

Iraq has often been described as an “artificial” polity, including as it did a diverse population whose communal interests overlapped its borders: the northern Kurds gravitated towards ethnic kinship in Iran and Turkey; the southern Arabs towards their neighbours in southwest Iran and the British-occupied Persian Gulf; and the largely Sunni Arab middle, the strongest holdover from the Ottoman period, linked to some extent with the Levant and the central Arabian peninsula. But this need not be oversimplified; rare is the polity that is not communally diverse, and rarer still the polity unaffected by its neighbours. Iraq was no less natural than most modern states, and its instability stemmed more from other factors.

Most relevant to this paper was the role of the army, a part holdover from the Ottoman period but with significant differences. As highlanders had largely enjoyed autonomy and lowland Shias had tended to shun conscription in a Sunni sultanate, the Ottoman army in Iraq overwhelmingly comprised Sunni lowlanders – mostly Arabs, but with a significant minority of Kurds, Turkmen, and Circassians. Only a minority had defected to the Arab Revolt, including a particularly shrewd, unscrupulous officer of Turkmen stock called Nuri Saeed, but it was left to them to build the Iraqi army. Moreover, many such defectors – though not Nuri, a firm friend of Britain – chafed against British domination. Whether from nationalism or religiosity – and contrary to popular revisionism, the two were difficult to separate at a time of domination by a European power – many officers, particularly the second-generation, resented the scheming, unstable, and easily exploited parliamentary politics in Iraq and saw a modernized, militarized state as the key to real independence.

Two particular dissident brands, which sometimes overlapped, were common in the army. These were what shall be called rightist transnationalism (often referred to by the Arabic word qawmia) here; popular among Sunni Arab officers in particular, these were partly influenced by pan-Islamist or pan-Arab currents, and tended to see union or federation among Arab states as the key to Iraqi independence; figures such as Amin Hussaini, the famous Palestinian mufti, were particularly influential in harnessing rightist energy. Another, initially only tacitly different, ideology was that of Iraqi statism (or watania), which stressed Iraq’s amity but clear independence from not only Britain but also her neighbours. What they both had in common was the idea of a postcolonial Iraq where the army played a strong role in a centralized state. Both brands, who had sympathizers and influencers in civilian political circles, competed for power with the dominant establishment during the coup-filled 1936-41 period. Two coups were particularly relevant to this article: the first coup in Iraq’s history, harnessed by Iraqi statists, was carried out by the iron-fisted Kurdish army commander Bakr Sidqi in October 1936, and was ended when Sidqi and air marshal Muhammad Jawad were murdered by rightist transnationalists within a year. Most of these transnationalists also played a leading role in the other relevant coup, which took place at the height of the Second World War during spring 1941, bringing to power veteran politician Rashid Kailani as a figurehead, and which advocated an alliance with Germany against the British Empire. Its Nazi influence visible in a bloody, and unprecedented, purge against Baghdad’s ancient Jewish populace, it nonetheless commanded considerable support because it ousted Nuri Saeed and the regent. However, a short sharp British campaign – commanded by John Glubb, the archetypal British Arabist officer – put it to flight, restored the ancien regime, and temporarily knocked the wind out of the mutinous army.

The road to 1958

Over the next fifteen or so years the army was the least of the government’s concerns. A budding communist movement – swiftly banned but for that very reason able to organize underground at a scale unparalleled in the Arab world – and another Kurdish secessionist revolt, led by the Barzan clan’s ambitious commander Mala Mustafa, occupied Baghdad over the next few years. Both movements were backed, the latter rather more reservedly, from the Soviet Union, prompting the government to continue to rely on Britain as a counterweight; in reaction, it lost more and more legitimacy. Britain’s controversial role in Palestine over 1947-48, its attempt to hold onto economic resources in Egypt and Iran, the conduct of its French allies against the Algerian insurgency, and perhaps most importantly the role of both colonial powers, alongside Israel, in the 1956 Sinai war against Egypt helped revitalize discontent both among the public and the officer corps. It was during this period that several groups of Free Officers, naming themselves after their Egyptian forebears, began to organize amid the same officer corps, more or less, that had played a role in the upheaval of fifteen years earlier.

The 1950s were also a period when military coups were an accepted and usually initially popular factor in many newly independent states, whose ancien regimes were seen as too elitist or dependent on foreign tutelage. But military intrusion was not limited to revolutionary regimes – indeed the Hashimi monarchy itself encouraged military dissidence among its rivals, particularly Syria, and the regent Abdulelah approved a brief period of military rule in emergency circumstances during 1952-53, when army commander Nuraddin Mahmoud imposed order in a chaotic situation and immediately stepped down once elections were held. In such episodes pro-government officers were usually the principal protagonists and indeed the retired officer Nuri Saeed, the eminence grise of the Iraqi establishment, tried to cultivate clientele among the officer corps. So it cannot have been difficult for dissident officers to increasingly see a revolutionary coup as the only way to change the Iraqi government. The fact of dissidence was not lost on the government, but they seem to have underestimated it: army commander Rafiq Arif brushed off warnings from Jordanian officials (1), and Nuri contented himself with casually interrogating two leading plotters, his own protégé Abdul-Karim Qasim and army spymaster Rifaat Sirri, who both denied that a plot was in the works. Nuri, a shrewd veteran of many intrigues, could hardly have been convinced, but he only issued a prescient warning: “Listen, if your plot ever succeeds, you and the other officers will be engaged in a struggle between yourselves which will not end till each of you hangs the other from the gates of Baghdad.”

Dissidence grew in the middle 1950s, when the Iraqi government entered the Baghdad Pact – a purportedly anticommunist coalition of Muslim countries including Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Iraq that was widely suspected as a vehicle to increase the influence of its organizer, Britain – and when two Arab “unions” were formed in 1958. The first and by far more popular was between Egypt – whose dictator, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was then at the peak of his popularity at home and abroad after having faced down European threats – and Syria. The second, made again at British pressure, was a federation between Jordan and Iraq, two pro-British regimes who again saw alliance with Britain as the best way to expand Hashimi influence. Needless to say, this caused consternation among the Iraqi dissidents – both statists and transnationalists – and within months they sprang.

The leaders of the July 1958 coup were Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif; while ideological motives for their actions should not be exaggerated, they vaguely represented the statist and transnationalist trend respectively. Qasim, who came from an ethnically and sectarianly mixed family of poor background, had been close to Bakr Sidqi, leader of Iraq’s first coup, and was a cousin to his lieutenant air marshal Muhammad Jawad, who had been killed with Sidqi in 1937. A secretive and reserved veteran from the Palestine war, he was not an obvious ideologue in any direction but does appear to have privately believed in Iraq’s “uniqueness” vis-à-vis its Arab neighbours. His lieutenant Arif, gregarious and outspoken, came from typical Sunni Arab officer stock and an ideological camp to which army spymaster Rifaat Sirri also belonged: a modestly middle-class, conservative and pietistic family of preachers and minor clan sheikhs, and very much impressed by transnational Arab-Islamic schemes and in particular the exploits of Nasser against the colonial powers. This bloc was by far the strongest trend in the diverse Free Officer movement, yet Arif urged his colleagues to unite behind Qasim, whom he called the sole “Zaeem” – a title that Qasim would officially use after seizing power.

After perhaps a dozen plans had been drawn and scrapped, Qasim and Arif finally sprang in July 1958. While the senior officer Qasim commandeered a force at Baqubah, from where he could monitor events, Arif led a brigade from there into Baghdad. The coup was well-planned, and a senior Free Officer Naji Talib diverted supplies into the mutineers’ camp on its eve. Arif’s elder brother Abdul-Rahman captained a camp in southern Baghdad, which swiftly fell to the mutineers; another battalion captained by Adil Jalal occupied the army ministry, and a third captained by Abdul-Sattar Sab attacked the palace. They were assisted by a major upheaval within the city, organized by many dissident civilians – but especially the communists, an irony given most Free Officers’ antipathy towards communism – but in any case the government was too surprised to put up any meaningful resistance.

The ensuing mayhem bloodily tore down the status quo in a scene straight out of the ancien regime’s nightmares. As Arif broadcast calls to hunt down “God’s enemy” or Aduwwulelah, a play on the name of the regent Abdulelah, riotous crowds swarmed the streets. A senior Jordanian delegation that included prime minister Ibrahim Hashim, foreign minister Sulaiman Tuqan, and attache Sadiq Sharaa came under attack; only Sharaa survived to tell the tale. One mutineer, Abdul-Sattar Sab, mowed down the Hashimi family; while the regent Abdulelah had few mourners, the murder of the only recently matured ruler Faisal II bin Ghazi and his remaining family was sufficiently controversial for the Free Officers to ostracize the culprit (2). Nuri Saeed, attempting to escape in disguise, was discovered and lynched (3); mangled beyond recognition, the corpses of Nuri and Abdulelah, the prototypical lackies of Britain in the popular imagination, were dragged through the streets by the mob.

The Zaeem’s rope-dance

It was perhaps ironic that Britain, who had some foreknowledge of a planned coup, chose not to intervene. Nonetheless the regime that ensued – a popular revolutionary regime in rhetoric, but more or less a military junta in practice and composition – alarmed the Western bloc, shredding as it did both the Baghdad Pact and the shaky Hashimi federation. The fact that it coincided with both an apparently formidable Arab union between Egypt and Syria, an alleged pro-unionist plot by a Jordanian officer, Mahmoud Rousan, against the Amman monarchy, as well as a low-level revolt against Lebanon’s pro-Western regime briefly threatened the spectre of an actual revolutionary Arab union to Western eyes; to forestall this, the United States dispatched a Marine expedition to protect the Lebanese regime.

But they needn’t have worried, for in contrast to the vociferous Arif and most Free Officers, the new ruler Abdul-Karim Qasim had no intention of subordinating his diverse, naturally wealthy country to the Arab union. As an Iraqi statist, he wanted to have as broad a constituency– including Kurdish nationalists such as the returning Mala Mustafa, who welcomed the coup and was given Nuri Saeed’s old residence as a token of favour – as possible, as long as they accepted his rule. Qasim’s intentions for the country can be seen in the largely ceremonial three-man council set up as Iraq’s formal representatives. They included the retired Sunni Arab officer Najib Rubai, who like Abdul-Karim Qasim had been a field commander in Palestine whose vocal criticism of the government had earned him many admirers in the Free Officers; the Kurdish officer Khalid Naqshbandi; and the left-leaning Shia Arab lawyer Mahdi Kubba. Transnationalist Free Officers, including Arif, were quickly cut adrift and purged.

As had been the case with Bakr Sidqi, Abdul-Karim Qasim initially tried to forge an alliance with left-leaning or socialist civilian politicians and activists such as Mahdi Kubba and Muhammad Hadid. One such leftist activist, Kamel Chadirchi, however refused to have anything to do with the military regime; twenty years earlier he had been wooed by Sidqi, who had quickly jettisoned him in order to placate the rightist transnationalists predominant in the army. Chadirchi would compare Qasim’s ruling method to a ropedancer who swayed from side to side in order to maintain his balance (4). Trusting only a small circle of friends and family, the Iraqi dictator initially swung left in order to remove his more pressing opponents, the rightists; once the right had been checked and the left appeared a greater threat, he would swing right again. The key was to ensure that neither bloc, within whom Qasim tried to wedge splits, was powerful enough to challenge him. The tactic of balancing acts is not in itself an objectionable one and has history both inside and outside Iraq; in a hyperradicalized, highly volatile political sphere drinking in the language of revolution, where large communities and especially entire barracks clung to one ideological tinge or another, however, the failure to follow any specific ideology or live up to its promises would yield deadly results.

Initially it was the transnationalist right, which favoured union with the Egyptian-Syrian United Arab Republic, who presented the greater threat. The rightists had good reason to resent Qasim: in addition to shunning union and therefore cheating them of their prize, he had excluded most from any real power. The interior minister’s role went to Ahmed Yahya, who had not been a Free Officer; the command of a newly established militia, which was heavily leftist in orientation and included predominantly poorer Shias and some Kurds, went to Taha Bamarni, a Kurdish officer who had actually commanded the royal guard before 1958 and was therefore anathema to the Free Officers. Moreover many Free Officers were arrested and tried, along with members of the ancien regime, in a newly created Popular Court that, chaired by Qasim’s cousin Fadil Mahdawi, attracted international notoriety.

Widely broadcast and conducted in public, the court initially attracted large audiences, as both Mahdawi and the prosecutor, Majid Amin, literally played to the gallery and indulged in theatrical denunciations of the defendants, often mocking them and even reciting satirical poetry. Though the court was raucous, however, it was not especially ruthless; only a handful of defendants were ever sentenced to death, and even less approved by Qasim – who critics claimed kept the threat of execution looming overhead to intimidate their relatives. Among the few victims of execution was the former interior minister, a Kurd called Saeed Qazzaz who gave as good as he got; when given his sentence, he retorted that he looked forward to being hanged, since suspended in air his feet would be rightfully hovering over and therefore humiliating the court (5).

Faced with a rightist threat, Abdul-Karim Qasim must have felt some unease when Rashid Kailani, the veteran politician who had collaborated in the rightist officers’ pro-German coup of 1941, returned from exile to considerable acclaim. Qasim greeted him courteously but soon had him arrested and publicly tried on what appear to be grounded charges of conspiracy during December 1958 (6). This only infuriated the rightists and their allies in the United Republic further. During spring 1959, a conspiracy emerged between three leading Free Officers – Rifaat Sirri, the pioneering former army spymaster whose rightism had a distinctly Islamist flavour and was of course inimically hostile to communism; Nazim Tabaqchali, who captained the northern forces from Kirkuk; and Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf, garrison commandant at Mosul, the stronghold of rightist transnationalism. They would simultaneously mutiny at Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, thereby forcing the government to submit to a union. The United Republic also helped contact the large Shammar clan, which spanned the Syro-Iraqi border, and whose chieftain Ujail Yawer brought his clansmen towards Mosul to assist the mutiny there.(7)

The plot was quickly discovered, and the speedy arrests of Tabaqchali and Sirri – who, in contrast to most opponents of the regime, were eventually executed – left the government free to concentrate on Mosul. Qasim’s lieutenant Saleh Taufiq transported a large body of so-called Peace Partisans led by a communist lawyer, Kamal Qazinchi, to Mosul to rally on the day of the planned mutiny, thereby disrupting military movements. Both urban and tribal Kurds were largely hostile to the city’s rightist factions, and the tribesmen were as well-armed as their Arab opponents. Finally the newly assembled, largely communist militia at Mosul, captained by Mahdi Hamid, also opposed the rightists.
Shawwaf’s mutiny quickly spiralled into a bloody disaster; both Qazinchi and Shawwaf were killed, the latter buried in Damascus amid considerable uproar from the United Republic. With Shawwaf dead, communist officer Hasan Abboud took over the garrison, and apparently decided to punish the dissidents for good. The bloody battle having been won, loyalist troops did nothing to prevent several days of bloody reprisal by the militia as upscale neighbourhoods were sacked and pillaged. Though the Mosul crisis had not been initiated by Qasim, it set in motion a trend of brutal violence by militias that has continued at crisis moments in Iraq up to the present day.

Through the spring and early summer violence – primarily between leftist-or-loyalists and rightists-or-dissidents – continued, the former camp receiving air cover ordered by communist air marshal Jalal Awqati. The Kurdish adventurer Mala Mustafa, himself no leftist by ideology, nonetheless had an alliance with urban leftists and a rivalry with several more “reactionary” Kurdish chieftains. Aided by aerial bombardment, Mustafa first crushed a challenge by his nephew Muhamed Khalid over control of the Barzanis, and then a rival clan leader, Peshdari chieftain Abbas Muhamed, who had objected to the government’s proposed land reforms and was therefore fair game.

The violence peaked at Kirkuk in July 1959; here Tabaqchali’s replacement communist officer Daud Salman attacked his intended replacement, independent officer Mahmoud Abdul-Razzaq (8). Again Mahdi Hamid swooped in with the militia as well as primarily urban Kurdish militants. In contrast to Mosul, what followed at Kirkuk was a one-sided massacre that soon took on ethnic and socioeconomic dimensions as the Kurdish militiamen attacked the mostly uppercrust Turkmen in this mixed city, killing dozens and pillaging their homes. Though in future years Kirkuk would become notorious for Arab purges against Kurds, the first such purge in modern Iraqi history was ironically perpetrated by Kurds. Conducted independently of the government, the Kirkuk riot prompted Qasim to denounce the perpetrators and distance himself slowly but steadily from his erstwhile allies.

The last major manifestation of dissidence against Qasim in the decade came from a relative newcomer to Iraqi politics, the Baath party. Founded in the Levant, the Baath soon gained a foothold in Iraq partly because it did not adhere to one fixed position. Like most influential groups at this time, the Baathists advocated socialism and antiimperialism; in contrast to the atheistic communists, they paid lip service to religion, but their secularism contrasted with the predominantly Sunni rightist-transnationalists and attracted Shias, who comprised a large proportion of their early membership. They advocated Arab union but, increasingly embittered with their exclusion under the military-ruled United Republic, were independent and critical of Egypt. They recruited heavily in the same manner as the communists among civilians, but they also infiltrated the army, whose Baathist members appreciated their relatively rigid structure – though the same rigidity meant that the Baathists would splinter several times in their history over relatively trivial issues. At the international level, the United States in particular would come to appreciate the Baathists as an alternative to both communism and the Egyptian brand of Arab socialism.

In October 1959, an early Iraqi Baathist leader called Fuad Rikabi (9) planned an audacious attempt to murder Qasim. It was carried out by a squad of militiamen led by Iyad Thabit, and including a young street thug called Saddam Hussein (10). The attack on Qasim’s car injured the Iraqi dictator, who had to retire for several weeks while his loyal deputy Ahmed Abedi took over. Rikabi escaped into the United Republic, but Thabit, Saddam, and several others were publicly tried in the Popular Court by Fadil Mahdawi and Majid Amin. They defended themselves with some courage – leaving even the vociferous Mahdawi lost for words – and though they were found guilty most were spared.

A shaken Qasim continued to struggle over the next few years. By all accounts hardworking and personally honest, he does appear to have devoted considerable resources to Iraq’s economic underclasses, particularly in his commission of a new district for Baghdad’s poorer Shia workers, which was then called the Revolution Quarter and is today called Sadr City. To this day, many Iraqi Shias revere Qasim. At the international level, he could hardly rejoice in the United Republic’s eventual breakup because by that time he had himself experienced a foreign-affairs disaster when he laid claim, anticipating Saddam by some thirty years and citing the precolonial boundaries of the Persian Gulf as proof, to the newly independent Kuwaiti emirate. Qasim’s dispatch of an army force captained by Khalil Saeed to the border with Kuwait caused brief trepidation in the West and Britain in particular, but Iraq was so isolated in the Arab League that they were swiftly rebuffed without a shot.

More serious and longer-lasting was the violence that eventually led to a Kurdish revolt in the north. Again, this was in large measure an unintended consequence of Qasim’s rope dance, having alienated his erstwhile vassal Mala Mustafa as well as Mustafa’s rivals in the north. He had permitted Irbil governor Badruddin Ali and Mosul sheriff Ismail Abbawi extraordinary powers; according to Mustafa’s son Masoud, both men were “totally biased” against the Barzani clan and armed their opponents. By 1961 it had become clear that the government had switched sides and was now backing various tribes hostile to Mustafa – including the Zibaris, who were incidentally led by Mustafa’s hostile father-in-law Mahmoud Agha, the Surchis, the Shaklawis, the Baradostis, the Harkis, and the Loulanis. A low-scale but fairly serious conflict had erupted between these competitors, who were also backed by the small Assyrian community, and Mustafa. The principal urban Kurdish party, a leftist group led by Ibrahim Ahmad and his son-in-law Jalal Talabani, had also thrown in their lot with Mustafa, whom they viewed more favourably than other “feudal” clan leaders because of his experience as a commander in the Iran-based Kurdish Mahabad Republic. When it became clear that Mustafa had fallen out with the regime, some former opponents such as Abbas Muhamed, the Peshdari clan chieftain, also joined him. This uneasy coalition often squabbled and to a large extent it seems that the reignition of Kurdish nationalism was an attempt to unite them against a common enemy, as the idea had only mixed popularity among Iraqi Kurds at the time.

Indeed, Iraqi Kurds had generally welcomed the 1958 coup – when a major Kurdish commander, Omar Mustafa, earned the nickname “Dabbaba” or Tank for climbing onto such a vehicle in Baghdad – and they had largely been redoubtable auxiliaries for Qasim in his conflict with the right over 1958-59. This held especially true for urban, usually leftist Kurds such as Ahmad and Talabani, who had founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party – which would ironically later be coopted against them by Mala Mustafa – and supported Qasim’s leftist alliances. But in spring 1961 they had fallen out with the regime, after Ahmad was accused as having murdered the pro-regime Shaklawi clan leader Sadiq Othman, and instead escaped north, where he and other leftist Kurds would accuse Qasim as having reneged on his promises for autonomy. The fact that such an issue had not come up until 1961 indicates that Kurdish nationalism was perhaps at this point a useful vehicle for the ambitions of Mustafa, Ahmad, and others. In future years, when Iraqi regimes would commit major abuses, Mustafa’s denunciation of his opponents as “jash”, or donkeys, would earn currency and become a blanket term among Kurdish nationalists for the hirelings of hostile governments; at the time, however, this was simply a multifaceted conflict between rivals that had little to do with nationalism. Large sections of the Zibari clan, to which the Barzanis belonged, fought on the government side, including Arshad Mahmoud, a Mosul-based Kurdish leader whose family was hostile to Mustafa and who has consistently opposed secession (11).

Nonetheless, the fighting in summer 1961 was a strictly inter-Kurd affair, the government largely viewing from afar. This changed in September 1961 when Peshdari chieftain Abbas ambushed a military patrol. The regime immediately responded by airbombing the Barzanis, leading to an open break as Mustafa and the Kurdistan Party commander Ali Askari overran most of the mountainous ground between, and including, the northwestern city Zakhou, and the highlands outside Sulaimania. It was suspected that Qasim wanted to keep potential mutineers at the frontlines, thereby using war in much the same way as his Kurdish opponent Mala Mustafa. If so – though in Qasim’s period the actual ground force in the north remained modest – it was one of a series of eminently avoidable escalations in the government-peshmerga conflict, apparently intended to quell interal dissent among the protagonists as much as fight their external foes.

The largely Kurdish northern Iraqi army forces, still captained by Mahmoud Abdul-Razzaq, succeeded in recapturing Zakhou, but probably only because the rebels – or “peshmerga”, death-welcomers, a name borrowed from the Kurdistan Party militia and since used for Kurdish nationalists at large – focused more on guerrilla tactics from the mountains and avoided open confrontations. The Iraqi troops were thinly spread at this point: a more pressing worry for the peshmerga was the airforce commanded by Mustafa’s erstwhile ally, Jalal Awqati, which liberally and lethally bombarded the countryside. Such bombardment, indeed, seems to have been the major complaint in the 1960s war, which helped drive many formerly indifferent Kurds into peshmerga ranks. There was still considerable difficulty in unifying them, however; Mustafa and his counterparts among the Kurdish chieftains remained suspicious of the leftists, and so maintained a division that has by and large lasted to the twenty-first century, where the tribal commanders dominated the central-western Kurdish region while leftist commanders such as Ibrahim Ahmad, Jalal Talabani, and Omar Dabbaba organized in the eastern region around Sulaimania. While the clan background of Talabani, in particular, helped their prestige, the leftists began to try and undermine traditional power structures and replace them with socialistic councils that advocated land reform and reported to the politburo.

During spring 1962 Mustafa mounted several raids on government garrisons at Douhak and Zakhou, and he followed this up with a manifesto that claimed only autonomy within Iraq, not independence, thereby winning considerable support among non-Kurdish Iraqis. At the same time, however, conflict continued apace: Khalil Saeed arrived in the north to assail the tribal frontlines in the centre-west, while Mahmoud Abdul-Razzaq attacked the leftist Kurds in the east. Another veteran officer, Khalil Jasim, who had fought with the mujahidin in Palestine, organized a set of largely autonomous Kurdish militias, often named after such famous historical figures as the Ayyubid sultan Salahuddin Yusuf b. Ayyub. These fought more or less independently, however, and as Iraqi airpower continued to devastate the north many members would defect. Iraqi ground troops could make little headway nonetheless, for the peshmerga were superb fighters on mountain terrain.

Abdul-Karim Qasim’s refusal to consider the fairly reasonable manifesto laid out by Mala Mustafa probably stemmed from his not unreasonable suspicions that the Kurdish leader, backed by Iran and perhaps the West, did not intend to stop at autonomy (12). It is unclear if he was aware of the meetings between the peshmerga and the Baathists over the next year. Mala Mustafa and a recently sacked Baathist Free Officer, Tahir Yahya, secretly negotiated during the peak of the northern campaign in spring 1962, as did civilian Baathist leader Ali Saadi with a peshmerga diplomat Salim Yusufi the following year. Underestimating the Baathist threat was clearly Qasim’s last error, for it was they who played the major role in ending his regime, and life, in February 1963.

The first Baath regime: short, nasty, and brutish

As noted above, and as we shall see, the regimental structure of the Baath Party meant that it was divided into largely distinct patrimonial or ideological groups. The original Syrian Baath command was already hardly in control of its official subordinates at both regional and local levels; the same was true in the Iraqi Baath. While many Iraqi Baathists were civilians – usually lower-middle-class Shia Arab unionists who, as we have seen, preferred Baathist secularism to both Sunni-dominated transnational rightism and communist atheism – this wing was itself divided, and somewhat distinct from another heterogenous, often Sunni Arab and usually more right-leaning wing in the army that rubbed shoulders and tactically collaborated with the army rightists. Prominent among the army Baathists were Hasan Bakr, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, and Saleh Mahdi – each a Sunni Arab scion of the central Iraqi city Tikrit. It was Bakr who, collaborating with a rightist faction led by the now-cashiered but still ambitious Abdul-Salam Arif, played the major role in the coup against Abdul-Karim Qasim, and emerged as prime minister and strongman in its aftermath.

The February 1963 coup was even bloodier than its predecessor from 1958. Early on a quiet morning, the communist air marshal Jalal Awqati was murdered at home and his command taken over by Arif Abdul-Razzaq and the Baathist officer, Mundhir Wandawi, who commandeered the airfield at Habbania and personally flew in air assaults against the regime. Abdul-Salam Arif and Hasan Bakr, meanwhile, had commandeered a cavalry force from the nearby town Abu Ghuraib, which entered Baghdad. Abdul-Karim Qasim and a small coterie of loyalists – including his deputy Ahmed Abedi, Fadil Mahdawi, interior minister Taha Shaikh, Majid Amin, and his communist advisor Wasfi Tahir – quickly slipped into the fortified army ministry, from where Shaikh issued an urgent dispatch to the communist party. Though Qasim had always kept a wary distance from the communists, the party were well-aware that they stood little chance in a rightist or Baathist regime, and so dispatched their militia to defend the regime. The next few hours saw running battles in Baghdad between communist militias and army tanks, while planes bombarded the army ministry. As Arif had once branded Abdulelah Aduwwulelah, God’s enemy, he would now call Abdul-Karim Qasim the same thing, Aduwwul-Karim.

Inexorably, it was the coupists who steadily tightened their grip. Sensing the inevitable defeat, Qasim telephoned Arif from within the army ministry, offering to resign and go into exile in return for an amnesty. Qasim’s first phone call was intercepted by Talib Shabib, a civilian Baathist leader who feared that the party would get cut out, but he needn’t have worried, for Arif had no confidence in his former Zaeem and refused Qasim’s terms outright. The checkmate came when a commando force, captained by the Baathist officer Abdul-Karim Nusrat, was airlifted onto the army ministry and broke inside, cornering Qasim. Arif arrived to interrogate the trapped dictator, accusing him as having betrayed both Islam and the Arab world. Qasim protested that he had helped uplift Iraq’s poor – an undeniable fact – and defended himself with some courage (13). He had earlier intervened to save Arif from execution, but his erstwhile lieutenant was in no mood to repay the favour and the bloodied corpses of Qasim, Mahdawi, Tahir, and Shaikh among others were soon broadcast across the city and broke whatever loyalism remained. The Zaeem’s rope-dance had ended in morbid fashion.

The new regime was officially led by Abdul-Salam Arif, though for several months he was merely a willing puppet while the Baathists held sway. Hasan Bakr had the luxury of both forming the cabinet and leading a separate Baathist command council, which dominated policy. Saleh Ammash became army minister; Tahir Yahya, who had negotiated on behalf of the Baathists with the peshmerga the previous spring, became army commander; Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar air marshal; and Ali Saadi – a thuggish young Shia Arab vagabond with his own powerbase among the civilian Baathists – interior minister. Saadi set up a Baathist paramilitary force, led by the veterans of the coup, first Abdul-Karim Nusrat and then Mundhir Wandawi. In the subsequent months the Baathist militias and paramilitary forces would more than repay the communist atrocities of 1959, with a savage reign of terror across Iraq in which uncounted numbers, both communists and other perceived enemies, were butchered.

A partial, though by no means causal, explanation of this brutality came in the Baathists’ none-too-discreet links with United States intelligence, who had prepared a communist hitlist for the party in order to flush Soviet influence from Iraq for good (14): the purge’s most infamous victim was communist leader Salam Radhi, who was tortured to death over a fortnight. Baathist anticommunism also seemed to be a move to gain sympathy of independent rightists: when in July 1963 communist officers Hasan Sari and Muhammad Habib, in league with civilian communist cells, attempted to commandeer the southern camp near Baghdad, it was at Arif’s insistence that Bakr had the plotters marched to perish in a desert camp. This also prompted the Soviet Union to officially endorse the Kurdish insurgency, which was thereafter assisted by a local communist militia founded by the Chaldean Kurdish communist Toumas Toumas. This Toumas had, it appeared, attempted to mount a communist “countercoup” against the February 1963 coup in Mosul, but this was a bad choice: Mosul was a stronghold of rightist sentiment, and the mutiny was swiftly crushed, with Toumas escaping into the mountains.

The July 1963 mutiny was more serious; it allegedly involved some two thousand troops led by Habib and Sari, who were in direct contact with Ibrahim Ali, a communist labour leader. They overwhelmed the barracks at the camp, capturing along with the Baathist paramilitary commander Abdul-Karim Nusrat both interior minister Ali Saadi and foreign minister Talib Shabib. However, they lost contact with their collaborators in the communist centre – then led underground by Jamal Haidari – and were soon cornered by loyalist troops and cut down. Haidari and the other remaining communist leaders, Saleh Abli and Abdul-Jabbar Wahbi, were soon captured by the Baathist militia leader Ammar Alwash as well and executed: their tormentors included Baath party potentates Abdul-Karim Shaikhli, a future foreign minister in the Baath regime who would one day be himself executed, and Khalid Tabrah.

There was a moment when 1963 seemed poised to be a Baathist summer. A month after the Iraqi coup, another loose officer coalition seized power in Syria, where the Syrian Baathists dominated – first only unofficially, and then officially; the Syrian Baathists soon built up apparatuses akin to their Iraqi namesakes, with military cells, paramilitaries, militias, and separate command councils. With talk of a Syria-Iraq union in the air, the Iraqi Baathists handily scrapped their rapport with the peshmerga and a new campaign was mounted under the overall direction of the Baathist army minister Saleh Ammash. Emergency rule was imposed in such northern cities as Mosul, Sulaimania, Irbil, and Kirkuk under a Turkmen officer, Saeed Saqalli, as three prongs advanced into the north.

The easternmost prong, advancing from Kirkuk, focused on and around Sulaimania, where the leftist peshmerga commander Jalal Talabani had ensconced himself, and where it was credibly suspected that the Iranian regime was delivering supplies. In an attempt to smoke out peshmerga sympathizers, the garrison and militia resorted to merciless measures: the garrison commandant, Siddiq Mustafa – himself a Kurd – had at least a hundred prisoners slaughtered (15). Meanwhile another force captained by Mahmoud Abdul-Razzaq approached the city from Kirkuk. However, they could only make limited headway as the peshmerga fighters held out in the mountains around the road for weeks. The central prong met a similar fate; its vanguard regiment, captained by Saeed Hammou, advanced towards Rawanduz but was trapped in the valley outside the town by a much smaller peshmerga force under Omar Dabbaba’s command. It took several weeks, major aerial bombardment, and a rescue mission captained by Khalil Jasim and jash militias to rescue the force. The westernmost force, captained by Abdul-Karim Farhan in concert with Shaar, had the most success, ploughing into the Zakhou-Douhak region and occupying these cities with little resistance from Mustafa, who prudently withdrew into the mountains. The peshmerga chieftain’s prestige was hurt when Barzan and Zibari, the strongholds of the eponymous tribes, were briefly occupied by the government.

By autumn 1963 the campaign in the north had petered out. A more pressing crisis unfolded in the south, as the Baathists became victims of their own success. The prospect of an imminent Baathist union could hardly thrill Abdul-Salam Arif or his Free Officer counterparts, most of whom followed the rightist bloc or the pro-Egypt bloc. They managed to capitalize on a break in the Baath between several factions – an extreme faction led by Ali Saadi the brutish interior minister, the Syria-based Baath command led by Michel Aflaq – who himself competed with the Syrian military regime – and finally a predominantly military “rightist” faction that included Baathist officers as well as several prominent civilian Baathists, such as Hazim Jawad and Talib Shabib. Attempts by Saleh Ammash to mediate between them failed, and the party imploded in November 1963. Aflaq, Jawad, and Shabib united against Saadi, who was arrested with his men and exiled to Spain. Thereupon Mundhir Wandawi, the paramilitary commandant and one of Saadi’s few followers in the army, attempted to mutiny and thereby played into the hands of Arif, who saw an opportunity to dispense with the Baathists at last. Aided by defections from the senior Baathists in the armed forces, army commander Tahir Yahya and air marshal Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, who were both indifferent to Baathist ideology, the government quickly purged the remaining Baathists – Shabib, Jawad, and prime minister Hasan Bakr (16). Two army forces, captained by Arif’s brother Abdul-Rahman and Abdul-Karim Farhan, quickly surrounded the Baathists at Baghdad, and forced them into exile. The short, brutal first Baath regime was over; sadly for Iraq, it would not be the last.

The Arifs: Officer blocs, peshmerga, and contested unionism

If Abdul-Salam Arif moved less unilaterally than Abdul-Karim Qasim – always representing a certain bloc in the Free Officer cliques – he proved no less flexible a ropedancer. Having washed his hands of his erstwhile allies, Arif quickly banned the Baath party – which was now branded a heretical group and whose abuses were now conveniently recalled and broadcast – and proceeded to flex real power for the first time. Tahir Yahya’s defection from the Baathists was rewarded with the prime minister’s portfolio, though the promotion of this rather opportunist intriguer dismayed some other Free Officers. The other senior Baathist who had turned coat, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, soon fell out with Arif; during September 1964, he schemed with Hasan Bakr, Ali Saadi, and Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Latif to abduct and overthrow Arif, but the plot was soon discovered and Hardan purged as well, replaced at the airforce by the pro-Egypt Free Officer Arif Abdul-Razzaq. In order to bolster the regime against further coup attempts, Egypt sent a large tank force, captained by Ibrahim Uraby, to Baghdad. Meanwhile Arif founded his own praetorian force, largely comprising Free Officer friends and especially his kinsfolk from the Jumaili clan, led by his cousin Saeed Sulaibi. The Iraqi praetorian guard that would grow and assume such a major role in the later Baathist regime was, ironically, founded as an anti-Baathist measure.

Yet the Baathists were not the only threat to Abdul-Salam Arif; he had, it will be recalled, made his name as an admirer of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1958, and the pro-Nasser faction in the Free Officers expected that he would put Iraq at Masr’s disposal. Yet in spite of cosmetic changes – paying lip service to socialism and following Nasser’s lead on foreign policy – Arif dragged his heels and frustrated the pro-Masr camp. Eventually a real split emerged in the remaining Free Officers between Arif and his more cautious supporters – generally conservative rightists – and unionists who wanted a merger with Masr. There are several plausible reasons: Arif may have simply used the pro-Masr Free Officers in the same opportunistic way that Abdul-Karim Qasim had used him. But it should be remembered that the Nasser of the 1960s was far different from the Nasser of the 1950s, to whom many rightist Free Officers – largely scions of conservative, tribal, or clerical Sunni families – had been attracted. Nasser’s secularism seems to have especially discomfited the ostentatiously pietistic Arif, who indeed at one point during 1964 appealed to the Masri dictator to free the radical preacher Sayyid Qutb – who himself had been a supporter of the Islamist Iraqi officer Mahmoud Sheeth, whom Arif had promoted to army commander (17). Arif and his circle always distanced themselves hurriedly from secularism, and in spite of minor socialist changes – largely at the encouragement of the bank governor, Khairuddin Hasib, who was eventually sacked (18) – the Iraqi dictator remained essentially independent from Nasser in internal matters.

This extended to the Kurdish insurgency as well. In February 1964, the stalemate in the north had prompted a ceasefire and reopened negotiations with Mala Mustafa. Little would come of these negotiations except that a final break occurred between Mustafa and the leftist faction led by Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad, which opposed any talks whatsoever. Mustafa’s son Luqman Barzani attacked and routed the leftists, whose much depleted remnants were expelled into Iran during July 1964; not till the autumn would they return. Mustafa’s situation mirrored that of Abdul-Salam Arif: having ridden the nationalist tiger, both found themselves dragged towards confrontation or risk losing their own power.

By spring 1965, negotiations broke down and another major campaign ensued with much fanfare. This time it was commanded personally by the dictator’s elder brother, Abdul-Rahman Arif, though he was somewhat scorned by frontline officers in the northlands and the operation seems to have been actually planned by his aide, the veteran officer Abdul-Jabbar Shanshal (19). It first comprised two prongs, advancing from Irbil to Rawanduz and Kirkuk to Sulaimaniah, under the respective leadership of Abdul-Aziz Uqaili and Ibrahim Faisal, the army’s most seasoned officers in the north; eventually a third prong, captained by Yunis Attarbashi (20), advanced from Mosul towards the countryside northeast of Douhak, and a fourth captained by Nadhir Talib tried to assail the Panjwin border via Halabja in the east. The army had expanded greatly in the previous years – the vast majority of its units in the northlands – but once again the campaign’s results were inconclusive at best.

Mala Mustafa, now commanding the Sulaimania region, continued to hold back the Iraqi army in that region. Though Ibrahim Faisal briefly entered Qaladiza, peshmerga forces soon ousted the army forces and Faisal’s tensions with Abdul-Rahman Arif only discouraged further activity. Northern peshmerga swiftly isolated and besieged the northern forces around Douhak, though by September 1965 a force captained by the veteran mountain fighter Khalil Jasim had managed to break the siege of the small town Imadia. The easternmost force, captained by Nadhir Talib, was however annihilated by peshmerga forces and its commander resigned.

Gamal Abdel-Nasser, already preoccupied with the Yemeni conflict, found himself drawn into the Iraqi arena. Not only the regime but even the Kurdish leaders, Mala Mustafa and Jalal Talabani, separately appealed to him to persuade the other side. Nasser evinced some sympathy for the Kurdish position and urged both sides to avoid a confrontation, but his influence on the Iraqi regime was far less than supposed. Moreover pro-Masr Iraqi officers such as army operations director Muhammad Majid and army spymaster Hadi Khammas, who had been disappointed that the Masri expedition captained by Ibrahim Uraby refused to assist the northern campaign, decided that Nasser’s hesitancy could only be explained by uncertainty, and that a fait accompli would persuade the Masri dictator into a decisive intervention that would end the war and unite Iraq with Masr.

On the advice of his praetorian commandant Saeed Sulaibi, Abdul-Salam Arif tried to placate the dissidents by appointing the pro-Masr air marshal Arif Abdul-Razzaq to replace the unpopular prime minister Tahir Yahya. This backfired, for when the Iraqi dictator left for a trip abroad in September 1965 it was Abdul-Razzaq who spearled the coup attempt. While Majid and Irfan Wajdi commandeered a tank force from Abu Ghuraib, Abdul-Razzaq tried to lure army commander Abdul-Rahman Arif, Sulaibi, and interior minister Abdul-Latif Darraji – the seniormost loyalists – into a trap by summong them to his office. Instead Sulaibi and Baghdad sheriff Abdul-Hameed Abdul-Qadir surrounded the mutineers with their forces, forcing them to surrender. Perhaps unwilling to escalate tensions with Masr, they permitted Abdul-Razzaq’s escape into Cairo.

In this clearest break between Gamal Abdel-Nasser – who had not sanctioned the coup but was unwilling to extradite Arif Abdul-Razzaq – and his professed admirer Abdul-Salam Arif, the road was clear for the Iraqi dictator to free himself from officer blocs. He therefore promoted the first civilian prime minister since the 1958 coup, Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz. A fervently pietistic Sunni Arab professor, Bazzaz would nowadays be called a “moderate Islamist” ideologist and appears to have reflected the conservative worldview in which rightist Free Officers such as the Arifs had been raised. Certainly his caution with regards to socialism, his guarded neutralism on foreign policy between Masr and Saudi Arabia, and his insistence that there was no contradiction between Islam and Arab independence was probably approved by Abdul-Salam Arif; what galled other Free Officers was the fact that he attempted to civilianize the regime and, in a reflection of longtime civilian opinion, reopen talks with the peshmerga rebels.

This last proposal was seen as dangerous naivete by the new army minister, Abdul-Aziz Uqaili. An energetic disciplinarian from the Mosul bloc of militarist officers, Uqaili was no Arab supremacist, instead having always favoured Iraqi statism, but he was an inveterate opponent of Mala Mustafa who he believed represented only a small fraction of Kurds to whom most other Kurds, such as the Zibaris, were opposed. This opinion may have been true in 1961, but the polarizing years of conflict since rendered it less convincing to both Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz and many officers. Uqaili also believed that a military campaign over the winter – a period when Iraqi forces tended to retreat into their garrisons – would better prepare them for a decisive push in spring 1966, and that this was the only way to achieve peace. The target was Panjwin, the small but strategic town overlooking the eastern road into Iran. During the dead of winter, a sudden Iraqi raid on Panjwin briefly scattered the peshmerga forces there.

The tension between Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz and Abdul-Aziz Uqaili aside, Abdul-Salam Arif’s position seemed stronger in early 1966 than ever. He had maneouvred skilfully to eliminate both the Baathists and pro-Masri unionists, and the officer corps appeared to have some momentum for an advantageous deal with the peshmerga rebels following the spring campaign. But Arif did not live to see that spring campaign; in April 1966, he lost his life in a plane crash – along with three ministers from the officer camp: his trusted aide Abdul-Latif Darraji, Mustafa Abdullah, and Abdul-Hadi Hafiz (21). Yet another Iraqi regime had ended suddenly and sharply, and there was some consternation over who would succeed Arif: his older brother Abdul-Rahman, a rather retiring character whose length in service was not matched with prestige among the officer corps, or the forceful Uqaili. Uqaili’s aggressiveness on the Kurdish issue, which was more popular in the Mosul barracks than the Baghdad corridors of power, and Abdul-Rahman’s apparent malleability seem to have decided the issue in the latter’s favour.

Moreover, the spring campaign in the north did turn out to be decisive – but in the peshmergas’ favour. In perhaps the finest moment of hiss military career, Mala Mustafa ambushed the Iraqi vanguard, captained by Saeed Qattan, in the Rawanduz valley and utterly obliterated it: at least a thousand soldiers were slain, Uqaili sacked, and the campaign broken. The Iraqis had often complained that Israel was supplying the peshmerga, a wild exaggeration based largely on individual contacts between diaspora Kurds and the Israelis, but on this occasion it appears that an Israeli officer, Zuri Sagi, allegedly helped the peshmerga against the same Iraqi unit that had rescued his birthplace, Jinin, from Israel conquest during 1948. (22)

That summer Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz reopened negotiations with both Mustafa and Jalal Talabani. Reflecting the utter fatuousness of the conflict, the compromise they agreed upon restored a status quo not too different to that that had existed before 1961, with lip service to Kurdish rights and defacto autonomy in the northlands. Over the next year or so, Mustafa effectively cannibalized the once-leftist Kurdistan Party, which has remained in his family since; Jalal, who would later found a rival organization, would meanwhile hobnob with the Iraqi Baathists, tellingly insisting that the Kurds enjoyed better treatment by Iraqi Arabs than by Turks or Persians – not that this would prevent another outbreak of war not long into the second Baath regime. The Kurdish war plays no further role in our story, but underscores that in both Baghdad and the northern highlands appeals to nationalism were frequently tactical cards in personal adventurism.

The last days of the Iraqi junta

Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz may have well hoped that his role in ending the wearying conflict would entitle him to some longevity in office. Instead, the very next day after the deal was made another military coup attempt occurred that compelled his ouster. It was carried out again by the restless adventurer Arif Abdul-Razzaq, this time possibly with Masri foreknowledge, with the aim of capitalizing on Abdul-Rahman Arif’s exposed position. Ever the dashing pilot, Abdul-Razzaq secretly flew into Mosul with the connivance of its commandant Yunis Attarbashi; they dispatched planes to attack various strongpoints in and around Baghdad. Army spymaster Hadi Khammas, whose role in the previous mutiny had gone unnoticed, commandeered yet another tank unit from Abu Ghuraib while also taking charge of the camp where the Masri expedition had been based in 1964. This time the resourceful new praetorian commandant Bashir Talib led the fightback, while the Iraqi dictator kept his wits about him and ordered loyalists in Mosul to arrest the mutineers, a task that fell to Mosul’s professional officer par excellence, Khalil Jasim. The fact that the mutineers were arrested with George Habash, the Palestinian Marxist ideologue then in firm cahoots with Gamal Abdel-Nasser indicates that unlike the previous attempt Cairo was aware of and possibly involved in this coup.

Abdul-Rahman Arif’s cool performance under pressure helped rally the army around him, but the coup attempt also underscored the importance of keeping the officer corps happy. The attempts of Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz to civilianize the regime had been a major complaint, and so Naji Talib – a veteran Free Officer acceptable across factions – took his place (23). Two major issues dominated the elder Arif’s period: Iraq’s oil policy and the treatment of former mutineers in the army. It was these issues that would bring about Arif’s downfall. The traditional Iraqi oil policy had been mildly permissive to the major Iraqi oil company – a policy implemented by Abdul-Salam Arif’s oil minister Abdul-Aziz Wattari during 1964 – and this prompted a furious reaction from the leftist faction of the Syrian Baath that had seized power in Damascus during February 1966. This eventually prompted Talib’s resignation, and the eventual return of Tahir Yahya to power.

By this time Israel had crushed Masr, Syria, and Jordan in the 1967 war; Iraq’s only contribution, swift as the war was and distant from the Iraqi frontier, was Tahir Yahya’s incidental presence at Masr when the Israeli airforce attacked. This opened the government as well as the oil ministry, linked to the West as it was, to furious criticism. Arab union was the order of the day, and in particular advocated by such socialists as Khairuddin Hasib and Adib Jadir who had the ear of the pro-Masr officers. While Hasib was sacked, Jadir was promoted to oil minister in spring 1968 and embarked on steps to nationalize Iraq’s oil. Meanwhile Abdul-Rahman Arif’s lenience towards the pro-Masr faction – who were generally pardoned, even Arif Abdul-Razzaq – alienated his supporters, who felt vulnerable and exposed to a pro-Masr backlash. These included both the wily Tahir, who resigned rather than face the inevitable backlash, the acting foreign minister Ismail Khairullah, as well as two rightist officers whom Arif had trusted with key military positions: his Jumaili cousin Abdul-Razzaq Nayef, the army spymaster, and praetorian commandant Ibrahim Daud. This unquiet in the regime played into the hands of the returning Baathists, led by Hasan Bakr and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar. They struck a deal with Nayef, Daud, Khairullah, and the praetorian cavalry commandant Saadoun Ghaidan; apparently, United States intelligence was also involved.

In contrast to the previous coup in which the Baathists were involved, the July 1968 coup – taking place a decade after the original Free Officer coup – was a bloodless affair. The independent officers seized important positions, and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar courteously escorted Abdul-Rahman Arif to an airport and exile; before he left, the outgoing Iraqi ruler – that rarest of phenomena, a reluctant dictator – wished the coupmakers success in their rule, though he reserved some bitterness for Abdul-Razzaq Nayef, his kinsman whom he felt had been blinded by greed. Bakr now served as dictator, Nayef as prime minister, and Ibrahim Daud as army minister. For the Baathists, the situation was a reverse of 1963, when they had held the prime ministry and army ministry – but Bakr was determined to preempt any challenges to his power. The Baathists secretly wooed Saadoun Ghaidan, now the praetorian commandant, and Baghdad commandant Hammad Shihab, who was Bakr’s Tikriti kinsman. A fortnight after the coup, Daud visited Iraqi forces on the Israel frontline at Jordan, leaving Nayef dangerously exposed in the capital. Sure enough, the Iraqi prime minister was rapidly surrounded by Baathist forces – including, according to a possible rumour, Bakr’s young kinsman Saddam Hussein (24) – and forced at gunpoint to exile along with Daud.

Though Hasan Bakr, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, Saleh Ammash, and the original Baathist leaders were soldiers, the second Baath regime would differ fundamentally from the regimes of the past decade. Its power lay not in the officer corps but in independent networks of apparatchiks and street militias, among whom Saddam Hussein would soon become paramount. The Iraqi army did not yield its political primacy without a fight – several military coup attempts would take place in the 1970s and 1990s – and yet it was the Baathists, with an unprecedented network of spies, informers, militiamen, and militias who would win out, transforming Iraq along the way from a contested garrison state into a totalitarian police state. The Baathists were not without their achievements, for military withdrawal from politics was not an unpopular notion, Iraq’s army was certainly much more efficient without its political role, and the Baath regime eventually, though temporarily, came to a peace accord with the peshmerga that was more durable than the stopgaps of the 1960s and broken not by the regime, who nonetheless responded brutally, but the peshmerga leaders.

Yet it came at a terrible cost, the first signs of which were already apparent in the late 1960s when Baathist militias rounded up, imprisoned, tortured, and not infrequently executed opponents both real and imagined, whipping up bloodlust and jingoism amid overblown accusations of treason and disloyalty. Among the victims were many individuals referred to in this paper, even some Baathists (25). Sadly, if the Baathists took cruelty and opportunism to new extents, they were not alone. The military juntas had failed in their purported aims: Abdul-Karim Qasim’s ropedances had introduced militia politics and provoked Kurdish secessionism, while the Arif brothers thrived in and were eventually done in by the politics of a militarist military elite. With the Baathist triumph a ghastly new period in Iraqi history had begun, but it cannot be understood without understanding the tumultuous decade that preceded it.

Recommended sources:

Beitullah Destani; Minorities in the Middle East: Kurdish communities, 1918-1974.

Majid Khadduri; Republican Iraq: A study in politics, 1969.

Ibrahim Marashi; Iraq’s Armed Forces: An analytical history, 2010.

Malik Mufti; Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and political order in Syria and Iraq, 1996.

Edgar O’Ballance; The Kurdish Revolt in Iraq, 1961-1970, 1971.


  1. Rafiq Arif, himself a field commander from the 1948 Palestine expedition, may have hoped to persuade the Free Officers or contain the problem with tact. If so, this failed, for he was imprisoned after the coup – as was his second-in-command, another veteran of 1948 but a staunch government loyalist, the Turco-Circassian officer Ghazi Daghistani. See Majid Khadduri’s Republican Iraq: A study in politics (1969), a painstaking account of military-ruled Iraq.
  2. It is unclear that Abdul-Sattar Sab did in fact commit the murders on his own initiative. One rumour had it that when the possibility of execution was raised among the Free Officers, one mutineer cynically compared the Sharifi family to the livestock who were sacrificed to feed the people everyday;a few more, he seemed to say, would make no difference. Khadduri (1969).
  3. The communist Free Officer Wasfi Tahir, whose family was on good terms with Nuri Saeed, had been dispatched to capture him. Nuri quickly absconded in an abaya but was discovered and, according to different accounts, he either committed suicide or was lynched. Khadduri (1969)
  4. Khadduri (1969)
  5. As well as Qazzaz – whom Khadduri describes rosily as an honest and conscientious minister – the other members of the ancien regime executed were either intelligence or administration officials, including Baghdad governor Abdul-Jabbar Fahmi, security commander Bahjat Attiya, and political warden Abdul-Jabbar Ayoub.
  6. Rashid Kailani blamed the case on his co-defendants, who quickly turned on him in turn. He would not be released until after Abdul-Karim Qasim’s period was over.
  7. Ujail’s son Ghazi Yawer briefly became Iraq’s interim premier in 2004.
  8. The role of certain Kurds in the violence against Turkmens inevitably attracted controversy; in his book Mustafa Barzani and the Kurdish Liberation Movement (2004), Kurdish leader Mala Mustafa’s son Masoud Barzani pointedly blames only the communist militia and claims that Turkmen agitators were being armed by anti-Kurdish Kemalists in Turkey. Notwithstanding Ankara’s own repression of its Kurds, however, the Turkish regime played a very mixed role in Iraq and indeed during the 1960s was involved in several border incidents against Iraq, though during 1963 they did participate in an alleged plan to surround the peshmerga that was quickly jettisoned.
  9. A Shia Arab leader, Fuad Rikabi was nonetheless reportedly a cousin of the arch-Sunni officer Abdul-Salam Arif. He was constantly sympathetic to the Masri regime, and later when the Baathists fell out with Cairo Rikabi became an “independent” Baathist who constantly backed Cairo. Rikabi’s plan to murder was carried out, apparently, on his own initiative without consulting Baathist colleagues, who initially denounced the attempt.
  10. Saddam and another militiaman, Samir Najam – who would later be his lieutenant in the Baath regime right up to 2003 – were injured, while another attacker, Abdul-Wahhab Ghurairi, lost his life in the confusion.
  11. Arshad cooperated with the army and successive Iraqi governments, often as a minister. After 2003, he founded a political faction in the Mosul region that continues to stress Iraqi territorial integrity.
  12. The accusations about Iran were correct, but not so the accusatons about the West where Kurdish nationalism had yet to become a cause celebre.
  13. See Eliezer Beeri’s Army Officers and Politics in Arab Society (1969), a studious and surprisingly sympathetic – though not always entirely accurate – account of Arab military politics in the postcolonial period.
  14. This widespread accusation was levelled by no less a pro-Western ruler than the Jordanian ruler Hussein bin Talal, who protested that he was hypocritically attacked as a Western agent when the Iraqi Baathists were in direct cahoots with US intelligence. The Syrian Baathists, hitherto unaware of the link, confronted the Iraqi Baathists, whose leader Ali Saadi protested that they had exploited US links in the same way as the Bolshevik revolution had exploited German links. See Malik Mufti’s excellent Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and political order in Syria and Iraq (1996)
  15. Peshmerga sources alleged that the garrison had rounded up a hundred “promising” Kurds – intellectuals, doctors, engineers, and so forth – and eliminated them in a precursor to genocide. This claim is otherwise unsubstantiated, but was faithfuly reproduced in Gareth Stansfield and Liam Anderson’s 2004 book The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, democracy, or division? It seems likelier that the victims were suspected peshmerga collaborators – who in the case of the leftist factions tended to belong to intelligentsia. Ethnic cleansing and genocide do not appear to have been government aims until the 1970s and 1980s respectively, though this could hardly comfort earlier victims
  16. Mufti (1996) records Ali Saadi’s lieutenant, Dia Faliki, as claiming that the repentant faction led by Shabib and Jawad told them, “We betrayed you and were betrayed in turn.
  17. Gamal Abdel-Nasser acquiesced, but two years later Qutb was executed. I appreciate Nazim Beg for bringing the connection with Mahmoud Sheeth to my notice.
  18. In an interview with Khadduri (1969), Khairuddin Hasib explained that he played on Abdul-Salam Arif’s ambitions, telling him that there was no way to achieve either union or personal fame other than socialist reforms
  19. A stiff-backed officer who avoided politics, Abdul-Jabbar Shansal served in the army right down to the 1990s, eventually ending up as army minister. He was the only non-Baathist officer to survive so long in the Baath regime, at a time when Baathist purges were cutting down his colleagues left, right, and centre. This situation goes some way in explaining this otherwise very competent officer’s timidity: Israeli intelligence sources in the 1990s would remark on Shanshal’s almost pitiful meekness before Saddam Hussein, while his own subordinate officer Raad Hamdani criticized him for his unwillingness to take responsibility. Obviously, responsibility was a dangerous thing for an army officer in the Baath regime
  20. Abdul-Aziz Uqaili had fought Mala Mustafa in the 1940s and, though a Free Officer in the 1950s, was otherwise uninterested in politics a. Ibrahim Faisal played an important role on the ground throughout the 1960s conflict; as late as 2004, an anonymous Kurdish official claimed that he had “fought on every mountain in Kurdistan against us.” See Luke Harding, “US fails to talk round defiant council,” The Guardian, 1 June 2004. Both officers played a major role in expanding the army in the northlands. Khadduri (1969). Yunis Attarbashi came from a prominent transnationalist family in Mosul; he had been imprisoned, though eventually released, for having allegedly plotted with Rashid Kailani against Abdul-Karim Qasim in 1958, and his cousin Qasim Attarbashi was promoted to command the Mosul force in 1960-61 as a sop to the right.
  21. Abdul-Latif Darraji had been perhaps Abdul-Salam Arif’s closest aide since the 1958 coup in Baghdad, where he accompanied the Arif brothers in securing southern Baghdad. Mustafa Abdullah was a more minor Free Officer, while Abdul-Hadi Hafiz had been principally known as an officer in the Mosul bloc.
  22. Naji Talib, a rare Shia Arab Free Officer, had been an important mediator between Free Officer blocs from the start. Together with Rajab Abdul-Majid, another early Free Officer and onetime rival of Abdul-Karim Qasim, and army minister Shaker Shukri, Talib represented the Free Officers’ interests in the regime
  23. See Pesach Malovany’s Wars of Modern Babylon: The Iraqi Army 1921-2003 (2017). Sagi’s presence need not be over-analyzed; though it is clear that at some point Israel tried to win over the peshmerga, nor were the peshmerga always open to their flirtation and, for instance in 1973, Mala Mustafa withheld from attacking the Iraqi army when it sent a force to fight the Israelis in Syria.
  24. Because Saddam became such a central figure in subsequent years, it is not always clear that every feat attributed to him in the 1960s is true. Another reported participant in the purge was army officer Salah Qadi, who would later command Iraqi forces against Iran and was the first victim of Saddam’s executions after the Iranian city Khurramshaher-Muhammirah was reconquered by Tehran in 1982.
  25. It is indeed somewhat difficult to know how many coups against the Baathists were real and how many were propaganda; so too the incessant reports of their purges, because on several occasions a reportedly executed officer would turn up years later in a position of command. Nonetheless, the examples of the Baath’s victims simply in the elite are many. They include Tahir Yahya, who was imprisoned and perished in squalor, with Saddam Hussein reportedly taking a personal delight in pegging down this flamboyant officer. Abdul-Razzaq Nayef was murdered at Britain in 1979, where he had allegedly been plotting to topple the Baathists. Both erstwhile rivals Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz and Abdul-Aziz Uqaili were imprisoned: the harmless Bazzaz was released because of a terminal sickness, but Uqaili starved in prison. Ibrahim Faisal had barely taken over as army commander when Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, the most “rightist” from the Baath command, entrapped him in what appeared to be a scheme for a coup against the regime. Faisal languished in prison for decades; his nephew Nizar Khazraji later became army commander, but defected and escaped to the West following the 1990 Kuwait invasion. After 2003, Nizar organized Faisal’s release and he was briefly considered to command a reconstructed Iraqi army, but Kurdish opposition told against him and instead he was simply given a pension. Saeed Hammou was initially reported slain, but was instead simply briefly imprisoned and later left the public sphere. As mentioned above, Abdul-Jabbar Shanshal only survived by keeping painstakingly clear from politics or responsibility. Abdul-Salam Arif was posthumously attacked as a Western agent, as was his oil minister Abdul-Aziz Wattari. The communist officer Daud Salman had already been murdered in the 1963 regime on account of his role in the Kirkuk slaughter. But Baathists were not exempt; Hardan, a particularly dangerous competitor for power, was purged as a scapegoat for having failed to defend the Palestinian fidayin against Jordan in 1970, and he was murdered in exile the next year. Former paramilitary commandant Abdul-Karim Nusrat, who allegedly sympathized with the Syrian Baath, had been murdered in mysterious circumstances during 1969. Hammad Shihab was murdered by Saddam’s sadistic rival for power, Nazim Kazzar, during an abortive coup attempt in 1973, where his fellow defector from 1968 Saadoun Ghaidan was also injured.

The Samarran Crisis and Abbasid Fragmentation


Note: I wrote this article for a recently concluded course. I’ve made slight modifications before publishing it here, mainly grammatical or spelling changes. I reserve full rights, of course.

Ibrahim Moiz, copyright and full rights reserved

The decade following the dramatic murder of Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil Jafar I in 861 has been recognized as one of the most volatile periods in Islamic history. It featured the murder of at least four – if not five consecutive – caliphs, of whom two had been engaged in a brief but bitter contest for power over Iraq; a fragmentation in the corporate elite; as well as the breakdown of Abbasid authority both near and far in a series of revolts. Though by the mid-870s the Abbasids had, largely through the energetic efforts of Mutawakkil’s son Muwaffaq Talha, managed to salvage the situation, an inexorable process had begun whereby the caliphate’s extremities became effectively independent. Though the logical link between central collapse and peripheral secession has been recognized, less clear is the exact nature of that link. This paper argues that such effectively autonomous rulers as Ahmad b. Tuloun and Ismail b. Ahmad at Egypt and Khurasan respectively based and legitimized their effective autonomy not only on the fact of central erosion but along the same patterns and trajectories as the conflict in Samarra and Baghdad.

This paper proceeds in the following sequence. First, it provides a background to the Abbasid elite structure in the Samarran heyday; next, it chronicles the tumultous events of the 860s, and the trajectory of the various elite networks that dominated the Abbasid centre and competed for its control. It then examines the move towards autonomy in first Egypt-Levant and then Khurasan-Transoxania in the context of the Samarran tumult, drawing a link between the elite networks competing in the centre and their offshoots in the periphery.

Abbasid power in the Samarran heyday

The garrison city Samarra, built by Mutasim Muhammad III in 836, came to epitomize the special core of Turkish crack troops that this caliph had introduced into the caliphal forces on an unprecedented scale . This corresponded with a period of centralization arguably initated by Mutasim’s predecessor, Mamoun Abdullah III, but which really came into its own during Mutasim’s reign. It featured the centralization of Abbasid power on a perhaps unparalleled level in the dynasty’s history; the caliph paid close and personal attention to affairs as far-flung as Egypt, Anatolia, Sind, and Khurasan . To be sure, dynasts already ruled in the caliphs’ name – the Aghlabids, Samanids, and Tahirids (or more accurately Ruzaiqids ) – but the Ruzaiqids were close members of the caliphal cohort, rendering their autonomy in Khurasan at this time largely an extension of caliphal control, while the long-influential Samanids nonetheless only received formal gubernatorial appointments during the ninth century, under the jurisdiction of the Ruzaiqid governor-generals . Aghlabid autonomy can be partly explained by circumstances specific to North Africa, which the Abbasids never managed to decisively overcome ; the appointment of a loyal abna lieutenant was the closest they would ever get to controlling the region. In short, the Abbasid caliphate in the mid-ninth century was more centralized across a larger expanse of territory than had been the case either before or after.

The Turkish slave corps’ role in the subsequent anarchy has led to them assuming an outsize role in much historiography of the period. In fact, though Turkish slave officers came to constitute a defining and dominant part of Mutasim’s regime – especially after he purged the Khurasani factions hitherto influential in the army following an alleged “coup” by his nephew Abbas b. Abdullah III shortly after his accession – even at Samarra, they constituted only one conspicuous bloc in the army, and were by no means themselves homogenous, as subsequent events would show. The Ruzaiqid potentate Ishaq b. Ibrahim b. Hasan, an Abbasid regnal pillar for several generations, is recorded to have gently chided a regretful Mutasim over his promotion of such Turkish potentates as Ashinas Abu Jafar, Wasif Abu Salih, and Aytakh Abu Mansur, likening them to branches without roots – in contrast to the Ruzaiqids and other preceding elites who had strong roots with the Abbasid family . Ashinas passed away during Mutasim’s regime and Mutawakkil eventually managed to corner and execute Aytakh . By 861, the remaining senior Turkish officers from this generation included Wasif, the cupbearer Bugha Abu Faris, and the elderly generallisimo Bugha Abu Musa, whose families would play major roles in the events that followed.

Elite fragmentation and competition in Samarra’s turbulent decade

Mutawakkil’s murder was preceded by his very public humiliation of his son Muntasir Muhammad IV, whom he superseded with a younger brother, Mutaz Zubair. This decision was taken reportedly on the advice of another court faction with Turkish heritage, albeit freeborn and heavily “Arabicized”: Mutawakkil’s vizier Ubaidullah b. Yahya b. Khaqan and his uncle Fath b. Khaqan, Mutawakkil’s closest friend. Also reportedly in the gunsights for an Aytakh-style demotion was Wasif, who therefore lent his tacit support, and five of his sons, to a conspiracy, in whose formation the cupbearer Bugha Abu Faris played a major role, to murder Mutawakkil and install Muntasir on the throne. The assassination team was led by the cupbearer’s protégé, Baghir Abu Muhammad, and while accounts on its composition vary, the most liberal account includes Muntasir’s Turkish friend and future vizier Utamish b. Khatrakin, the cupbearer Bugha, as well as Wasif’s sons – among whom Salih would emerge as the most prominent character – and Musa, the deputizing son of the elderly Bugha Abu Musa, who was himself away on campaign and apparently innocent of the conspiracy. The implication, however, is that the remaining Turkish proteges of Mutasim and their families stood to lose from Mutawakkil’s decisions, and that they preempted it. Incidentally one of Mutawakkil’s younger sons, Muwaffaq Talha, was also present at the scene; he is reported to have initially attempted to fight off the attackers and then withdrawn to his chambers. Muwaffaq’s subsequent influence among the second and third generation of Turkish officers, particularly Musa b. Bugha, makes his role in these events quite murky.

Mutawakkil and Fath having been murdered while Ubaidullah found out too late to influence events, Muntasir assumed the caliphate and, allegedly under pressure from the Turkish magnates, excluded and imprisoned the next brothers in line, Mutaz Zubair and Muayyad Ibrahim. Muntasir’s own rather murky demise just six months later in the prime of his life is perhaps indirectly explained by a reference from Masoudi, who claims that Bugha Abu Faris – the most unscrupulous villain in the sources – and Baghir had originally intended to murder Muntasir, and then decided first to do away with the father first and split the son against his brethren so as to avoid punishment . This dastardly plot is otherwise uncorroborated, but may be taken as an explanation of Muntasir’s sudden death in the context of the Turkish potentates’, and in particular the cupbearer’s, schemes. Such an impression could have only been reinforced when Bugha and Wasif, blithely ignoring the succession plan, instead installed an obscure cousin, Mustaeen Ahmad I b. Muhammad, to replace Muntasir. Mustaeen’s apparent weakness against the coupmakers was mocked in a poem, recorded by Masoudi, that compares him to a parrot in the cage of Bugha and Wasif, echoing their orders.

The next chapter in the drama, paving the way to civil war, is explained in the sources as the result of an intrigue between the older Turkish potentates, Bugha and Wasif (the elder Bugha, Abu Musa, had passed away by this point), and their younger co-conspirators in Mutawakkil’s murder. Musa b. Bugha had by this time departed on campaign, but the vizier Utamish b. Khatrakin – accused of mass corruption during a period of financial hardship among the rank-and-file – and Baghir Abu Muhammad still remained; it appears, though the sources take care to clarify his role as more passive, that Mustaeen had also tried to cultivate these younger Turks to their elder colleagues’ detriment. Excepting the role of Bugha and Wasif, however, Utamish and Baghir’s downfalls were quite different; a mutiny by rank-and-file troops prompted the vizier’s execution , while Baghir, a popular commander with the Turkish rank-and-file, was murdered by Wasif’s kinsfolk and his execution provoked the troops into riot . Bugha and Wasif had successfully wedged a gap between the caliph and Baghir, who then allegedly plotted to kill Mustaeen. In both episodes, interestingly, the Christian secretary Dulail b. Yaqub, who served first Utamish and then Bugha and was targeted by Baghir, played an important role; he appears to have epitomized the regime’s corruption for the frustrated Turkish troops.

Wasif and Bugha spirited Mustaeen away to Baghdad, where the Turkish contingent was far more diluted by other troops, especially the abna and Khurasani troops who had been sidelined in the Samarran period. The return to influence that Mustaeen’s escape portended for this group was epitomized in the leading role that Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, the able Ruzaiqid governor, assumed in the ensuing war, where it was he – not Mustaeen, Wasif, or Bugha – who assumed overall command. That the Baghdadis viewed the Samarran forces – mixed though they were, even if the Turks were the largest faction – as representing the unwelcome Turkish hordes is evidenced even in contemporary chronicler Tabari’s description of the subsequent civil war, where he refers to the Samarran forces en masse simply as the “Turks”, and where he clearly favours the Baghdadi side.

We need not delve into the fascinatingly extensive material that Tabari provides on the subsequent 865-66 war other than to note the maneouvres by the various elite factions involved. Wasif and Bugha – who, as Gordon notes, were now perilously cut off from their power base – assumed the role of bystanders in Baghdad. Led primarily by the Ruzaiqids, the Baghdad forces included the Khurasanis and remnants of the old abna families, such as the Banu Abi Khalid; Arab bedouins, primarily employed in securing supply routes, particularly in the tribal Anbar region; urban ayyaroun militias, who shared their name and urchin background with their more famous namesakes in Khurasan; heretical mubayyids, apparently diluted remnants of the ghulat cults first encountered a century earlier in the wake of the Abbasid revolt; Arab tribal notables; and freeborn officers of diverse backgrounds. In short, it comprised those who felt threatened by the Samarran legions.

It should be noted that before hostilities commenced, “second-rank” Turkish officers linked to Bugha and Wasif, including Bugha’s former bodyguard Bayakbak, followed the escaped caliph Mustaeen to Baghdad, where they humbled themselves and assured him that he could safely return to Samarra. Mustaeen refused, and the officers’ indignation was compounded by the patronizing attitude displayed by the Ruzaiqi governor Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir. Returning to Samarra, they and the troops freed Muntasir’s imprisoned brothers and declared Mutaz Zubair their caliph. Mutaz’s brother Muwaffaq Talha, the closest Abbasid prince to the Turks, commanded the army that marched on Baghdad. While both sides were clearly multiethnic in composition, it is clear that a configuration of Samarran “up-and-comers” versus older, primarily freeborn Abbasid officers was taking place. Thus Attab b. Attab, a Khurasani veteran, quietly escaped to Baghdad, while Bugha’s own son Abdullah, having originally returned to Baghdad, quickly collected what information he could and then defected to the attackers.

The war lasted about a year. If Tabari’s richly detailed account is to be believed, the Samarran force, despite their military specialization, initially floundered in their assaults against a large, well-defended city. It was rather an eventual shrink in supplies, as well as clever diplomacy by the Samarrans, that turned the tide against Mustaeen. Mutaz and Muwaffaq’s priorities can be seen in the fact that they never made a serious attempt to encircle Baghdad, which was able to dispatch expeditions against proto-Shia rebels in Kufa at the same time as the campaign was ongoing. Once it was clear that the city would not be stormed after several attempts, Muwaffaq resorted to diplomacy. He managed to win over a steady trickle of increasingly important defectors: these included Abbasid amirs, the staff who had accompanied Mustaeen, and the Banu Khaqan, led by Ubaidullah b. Yahya and his uncle Muzahim b. Khaqan – after all, it had been this family that originally persuaded Mutawakkil to choose Mutaz as his successor, and it can have been no great task for Mutaz to win them back to their stomping grounds in Samarra.

Even Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, suffering a slow-burning ulcer that would claim his life a few years later and engaged in disputes with other Ruzaiqid notables, finally deserted Mustaeen. Interestingly, Baghdad’s populace seems to have maintained the strongest sympathy for their beleaguered caliph; when they suspected the governor as preparing to defect, they nearly mobbed him and had to be calmed by Mustaeen himself. With the various elites won over by Mutaz’s generous terms, Mustaeen abdicated and withdrew to exile; far less generous to his cousin, Mutaz had him murdered by chamberlain Saeed b. Salih just months later.

Mustaeen’s murder came in the context of a new factional struggle, between Mutaz and the senior Turkish commanders. Bugha Abu Faris and Wasif Abu Salih had been restored to some dignity after having lost the war, but the suspicious young caliph could hardly ignore his experience. He originally tried to have them murdered by the Ruzaiqids, but the pair quickly found out and obtained protection from Mutaz’s half-brothers Muayyad and Muwaffaq, who had close links to the Turkish corps at large. Silently fuming, Mutaz soon had the brothers imprisoned on sedition charges that are hard to verify; after a Turkish contingent led by Musa b. Bugha attempted to break them out and was only stopped by a Maghribi contingent, Mutaz had Muayyad executed, though the particularly strong ties between Musa and Muwaffaq appear to have prevented the latter’s murder . Seeing potential in the hostility between the Maghribis and Turks, Mutaz appeared to have tried to weaponize the former against the latter.

A more successful stratagem occurred in Mutaz’s attempts to play the Turkish potentates off one another. During 867, he first isolated Wasif by showering favours on Bugha Abu Faris while giving Musa b. Bugha control over Jibal, the Iranian highlands currently held by Wasif; Musa’s field commander, Muflih Abu Abdurrahman, routed Wasif’s vassal, the Arab Dulafi chieftain Abdul-Aziz b. Qasim b. Isa in a major military campaign whose roots lay definitively in Samarra’s politics; Musa spent the majority of the next few years on campaign. Meanwhile, Wasif was soon lynched in a mass mutiny over pay that was probably manipulated by Mutaz or Bugha, the latter conveniently slipping away shortly before events escalated and leaving Wasif to his fate.

Nonetheless it was not long before Bugha’s turn came. Too shrewd to miss the signs, he tried to precede events by arranging a marriage between his daughter Juma and Wasif’s senior son Salih. Mutaz, however, availed of a dispute between Bugha and Bayakbak in order to levy the latter against Bugha. Panicking at a sudden attack by Bayakbak during winter 868, Bugha fled but was soon abandoned by his troops; trying to escape to Salih’s residence, he was caught en route and beheaded at Mutaz’s orders. Thus in the space of a few months the young caliph had outmaneouvred Samarra’s most seasoned intriguers.

This cannot have escaped the emergent Turkish elites, and rather than wait for Mutaz to pick them off they pounced first. Barracks unrest over salaries was the catalyst, and Salih flexed his military resources to arrest Mutaz’s vizier Ahmad b. Israil as well as two other influential secretaries to the Turkish elite, Isa b. Ibrahim b. Nuh and Hasan b. Makhlad b. Jarrah. After a public humiliation they yielded some money, but this only delayed the inevitable. There was, in fact, a potential lifeline when lower-ranked Turkish officers – who could scarcely have been unaware of the potentates’ vast wealth – offered Mutaz that they would murder Salih if he only paid them; the caliph pled his fabulously wealthy mother Qabiha to lend some money, but to no avail. The lifeline missed, Salih, Bayakbak, and Musa b. Bugha’s brother Muhammad flung Mutaz in prison, where he starved to death.

Before Mutaz passed away, he was prevailed upon to sign a letter that confirmed his abdication in favour of his cousin, Muhtadi Muhammad V, son of former caliph Wathiq. The new caliph had a reputation for frugality, pietism, and gravity that must have helped his case; he used this reputation, however, to shore up his position, often making moralistic public recantments against the overbearing potentates. The targets included not only civilians but also the lower-ranked soldiers, to whom Muhtadi personally appealed and also sent his kinsmen, notably his brother Abdullah b. Haroun II, to negotiate and address grievances. The caliph appears to have realized that there was potential in allying with junior officers against senior officers.

In the meantime, however, Muhtadi had little choice but to cooperate with the commander who had installed him, Salih b. Wasif. For a brief period in 869, Salih ruthlessly dominated Samarran affairs and attempted to obtain money by hook or crook; he seized Qabiha’s hidden wealth and, against the caliph’s wishes but apparently in league with the new vizier, Abdullah b. Muhammad b. Yazdaid, again brutally extracted funds from the disgraced bureaucrats– arranging the public torture of the hapless Ahmad b. Israil, Isa b. Ibrahim, and Hasan b. Makhlad, of whom only Hasan survived the ordeal. The brutality drove Muhtadi into near-hysterics, but in the meantime a more imposing threat approached, for the bereaved Qabiha had escaped and reached out to Musa b. Bugha, whom her son had promoted to command the front, calling him to return. Refusing polite requests by Muhtadi to remain at the front, Musa moved inexorably on Baghdad with a large, proven force. The returning commander’s reputation was such that Salih lost the vast majority of his guard to desertion; he fled underground, but not before fatefully having stoked mistrust between the caliph and Musa . Drawing on the bitter experience of the past decade, Musa suspected the caliph of secret collusion with Salih, and was in any case reluctant to let his guard down until Salih’s discovery and elimination; Muhtadi, rather oddly – since most chroniclers paint a picture of Musa as refreshingly honest and dutiful, in spite of his regicide – suspected him of corruption. At one point the commanders discussed murdering the caliph; however, Bayakbak’s brother Tughtaya reportedly dissuaded them, citing Muhtadi’s upright character and the repercussions associated with such an act.

Nor were the commanders, again, the only Samarran Turk protagonists; junior officers and troops, still awaiting pay, conducted negotiations with the caliph; one condition they raised was to replace their variegated commanders with a trustworthy Abbasid scion, a role that would later fall to Muwaffaq . The Samarran slave troops in particular had been indoctrinated into reverence for the caliphal family. When Salih was discovered and executed, Musa, Bayakbak, and Muflih departed on an overdue campaign against one of the many revolts that had broken out. A short-term compromise was agreed between the various factions; such potentates as Musa and Bayakbak retained their rank and pay, while Musa’s brother Muhammad b. Bugha was promoted to command the Samarran army; in view of the following events, this appears to have been a ploy by Muhtadi to put the onus of payment onto Musa’s network. When in summer 870 another mutiny over pay arose Muhtadi had Musa’s brothers thrown in prison, where Muhammad was murdered, and recalled the commander from the front.

The succession of ensuing events was swift but complex . Muhtadi simultaneously mobilized a large army; along with the embittered families of Bugha Abu Faris and Salih b. Wasif as well as younger Turks, this included Khurasani officers such as Attab b. Attab and Masrur Abu Hashim. It was a coalition of variant interests, united only in their alarm at Musa’s influence. The caliph meanwhile tried to play off Bayakbak, who had longtime links with the Banu Khaqan and Banu Wasif, against Musa. But Bayakbak, apparently playing a double role, both informed Musa – who swiftly dispatched Muflih with a force outside Samarra – and presented himself to the caliph, who suspecting treachery had his disembodied head flung into the attackers’ ranks. Rather than demoralize them, this only whipped Bayakbak’s contingent into a rage and prompted several Turkish units to mutiny while others deserted. The deserters included Yarjukh, a Turkish commander whose daughter had married Bayakbak’s stepson Ahmad b. Tuloun, and who had hitherto backed Muhtadi. The battle was fierce, showing how close Muhtadi had come to overcoming the Samarran command; eventually, however, he was forced into flight, pursued by a Turkish contingent – led, ironically, by Bayakbak’s brother Tughtaya, who had so staunchly defended the caliph the previous year – and cruelly done to death.

It was Yarjukh who produced Muhtadi’s cousin, another of Mutawakkil’s sons called Mutamid Ahmad II b. Jafar I; he was duly proclaimed the caliph with the further cooperation of the Banu Khaqan: Ubaidullah b. Yahya and his brother Abdullah both served as vizier in the next few years. The unexpected stability that ensued in the caliphal centre was in large part attributable to the amicable relations between the Turks, particularly Musa b. Bugha, and Mutamid’s brother Muwaffaq Talha. Now, at last, the caliphate proceeded to set its provinces in order; a myriad conflicts had festered both near and far, and now Muwaffaq set about addressing them one by one. It is notable that contrary to the pattern of the past decade and even his own conduct with Muhtadi, Musa and his lieutenants –notably Muflih and his son Abdurrahman, Ibrahim b. Sima, and Ishaq b. Kundachik – showed complete deference to Muwaffaq, showing a discipline and willingness to fight that had been rare over the past decade . With the exception of Ishaq, who we shall encounter below, these lieutenants and others were killed in the battlefield against various rebels such as the Gulf plantations’ Zanj slaves, the Farsi adventurer Muhammad b. Wasil b. Ibrahim, and the Sistani commander Yaqub Saffar b. Laith b. Muaddal; Musa himself eventually stepped down in favour of Muwaffaq’s Khurasani preference, Masrur Abu Hashim, and passed away quietly a few years later, earning a public eulogy at court by the caliph Mutamid.

It was no mean feat for Muwaffaq to have restored some semblance of order to the caliphate’s centre within a few years. This would appear to lend itself to a resurgence of central control. Yet by the 880s, a steady decentralization of caliphal authority had ensued: Ahmad b. Tuloun became effectively autonomous in the west, and Samanid prince Ismail b. Ahmad b. Asad in the east. To understand how this happened, we must look at the direct links between these far-flung regions and the networks that fought out the 860s conflict.

Centre and periphery in the Samarran period

Despite the Abbasid breakdown, the caliphate was still a somewhat compact neighbourhood during this period – insofar as events in one part, particularly the centre, were directly linked to events in another. To take one example, we may note that shortly after Mutawakkil’s murder, the legendary frontier commanders Ali b. Yahya and Aqta Umar b. Ubaidullah, were slain in their campaigns against the Byzantines. This news quickly reached Iraq, further stoking unrest at the role of the Turkish praetorians, who were perceived as collectively abandoning their roles and, in contrast to the veteran freeborn commanders at the front, concentrating their energies on intrigue and murder . The effect worked the opposite way, too, with central politics affecting the periphery. Another frontier commander, Tarsous’ Turkish governor Balkajur, competed with its notables for influence in the city. When Mutaz took power at Samarra after Mustaeen’s flight, these notables arrived at Baghdad and tried to persuade Mustaeen that Balkajur had treacherously thrown in his lot with Mutaz. The governor may well have been sacked had Wasif Abu Salih not been at hand to retort that he had probably been unaware of Mustaeen’s survival; sure enough, Balkajur soon pledged loyalty to Mustaeen and so retained his position.

The most powerful example of the interplay between the centre and periphery comes from the Ruzaiqid family, that veteran interface between caliphal Iraq and Khurasan. Disputes within the Ruzaiqid family, which especially sharpened after their senior statesman Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir passed away in 867, directly impacted and were impacted by events in Khurasan, where competition among the family flourished in an atmosphere of increased corruption. Sulaiman b. Abdullah b. Tahir’s troops in Khurasan provoked a revolt in Daylam that soon rallied behind an Alid contender for the caliphate, Hasan b. Zaid b. Muhammad, and expelled the Ruzaiqid governor. Escaping to Iraq with a large, ravenous army, Sulaiman assumed the Iraqi governorate from his brother Ubaidullah, but soon found its revenue insufficient to pay his troops and descended into a tortuous feud with his cousins. Meanwhile the troops proceeded to plunder the countryside; among their acts was the release of a Mosul notable called Musawir b. Abdul-Hameed from prison, where he had been sent for Kharijite activities . Once released, Musawir resumed his revolt; it would be left to Musa b. Bugha to mop up both revolts years later. In these episodes, we can see a clear link between separate events in far-flung parts of the realm.

Ahmad b. Tuloun and Samarran network competition

I propose here that the progressive decentralization of the caliphate can be viewed not only as a natural corollary to mayhem in its centre, but similarly linked directly to the competition of elite networks in Samarra. The case of Ahmad b. Tuloun is especially so, because he had actually been involved, tangentially but not insignificantly, with the 860s contest in Iraq. While Ahmad, like Bugha Abu Musa and Musa b. Bugha, is often viewed as an exception to the carnivorously corrupt Turkish potentate, and indeed according to a possibly fictitious account had little respect for his peers, he was nonetheless closely tied to the Samarran Turks and their affairs. His father, Tuloun, had been a slave praetorian commander imported by the Samanids to Samarra; Ahmad himself was familially related to two notable actors in Muhtadi’s downfall, his stepfather Bayakbak and his father-in-law Yarjukh; Yarjukh and Ahmad were especially close. His exploits had also won the personal attention of the caliph Mustaeen, after whose abdication he served as an agreeable escort to exile. When Bayakbak subsequently shot to real prominence during Mutaz’s period, he dispatched Ahmad to deputize for him at his newly acquired province in Egypt. Finally, Ahmad was the link between Bayakbak and Yarjukh, which prompted Yarjukh to desert Muhtadi after Bayakbak’s execution.

If, following the patterns of familial and patrimonial networks among Samarran Turkish commanders, Ahmad was part of the Bayakbak-Yarjukh network, it follows that he would align with Yarjukh’s backing for caliph Mutamid Ahmad II. And though Ahmad mounted his revolt, making Egypt effectively autonomous, during the reign of Mutamid, he consistently pled his case as the caliph’s protector and warden. In this competition Ahmad’s major rival was Muwaffaq Talha, Mutamid’s overbearing if doubtless competent brother, whose own son Mutadid Ahmad III was in line to succeed. Consider the rapid succession and interrelation of events in Egypt and Iraq.

In 868, Bayakbak dispatched Ahmad to Egypt as his deputy. By all accounts Ahmad helped reorder the country’s economy, so that agriculture soared at the same time as Iraq’s economy was caving under conflict . In 870, Bayakbak was slain in the conflict with Muhtadi, and the brothers Mutamid and Muwaffaq came to power with the assistance of Yarjukh and Musa b. Bugha; Yarjukh, linked to Bayakbak via Ahmad, inherited the Egyptian province and maintained Ahmad as deputy there. 873, Yarjukh’s expiry and his replacement with Mutamid’s son and original heir, Mufawwad Jafar b. Ahmad II, gave Ahmad an opportunity to forge links with the caliph . Mutamid appears to have increasingly chafed under Muwaffaq’s dominance, and it is entirely likely that Ahmad was aware of the tension between them owing to the potential conflict between Mufawwad and Muwaffaq’s powerful son, Mutadid, for succession. In the middle 870s, at the height of Muwaffaq’s conflict with the various revolts, Ahmad refused to acknowledge the Abbasid regent, only recognizing Mutamid as caliph.

Having narrowly defeated Saffarid commander Yaqub b. Laith’s invasion of Iraq in 876, Muwaffaq was momentarily free to address this upstart, and tried to send his reliable lieutenant Musa to take over; however, Musa’s shortage of funds prematurely ended his expedition. It was only sustained Byzantine pressure on Egypt that forced Muwaffaq to recognize Ahmad’s position – that too after an appeal from Mutamid, suggesting some success on Ahmad’s part in winning the caliph’s confidence against his regent. Regionally, he faced a challenge from the Aghlabid ruler to his west, Ibrahim b. Ahmad b. Muhammad, which was apparently approved from Samarra but could only make limited headway. Ahmad’s star continued to rise during the late 870s: he removed his main competitor, the bureaucrat Ahmad ibn Mudabbir, who hailed from an important but rapidly declining bureaucratic family whose Iraqi wing had meanwhile been scuttled by the Zanj revolt . This gave Ahmad full control over Egypt, and he advanced into the Levant, coopting or defeating the mostly Turkish area governors up to the Byzantine frontier. His purported aim always having been to consolidate the front for jihad against Byzantium, Ahmad’s efforts did repel Byzantine pressure in the eastern Mediterranean, even if some of his numerous competitors – such as Tarsus’ Turkish commandant, Yazaman Khadim – could claim similar exploits. More to the point, Ahmad so impressed the caliph that during 882 he secretly slipped out of Samarra and entered Syria, hoping to enter Ahmad’s protection.

The implications of Mutamid’s escape, had it succeeded, were profound. It would have reduced the significance of Iraq in the Abbasid order and returned it to Syria; decades earlier, Mutawakkil himself had contemplated such a step. It would also have anticipated the Mamluk sultanate’s protectionism over the caliphate by some four hundred years in the same region. It was, of course, clearly a threat to the long-embattled Samarran elite who had fought so hard to save Iraq in the past and who had rallied behind Muwaffaq. It is therefore no coincibtldence that, as he had once dispatched the Samarran veteran Musa b. Bugha againt Ahmad, Muwaffaq now dispatched the deceased commander’s lieutenant, Ishaq b. Kundachik, to take over Ahmad’s domains. Ishaq could not budge the firmly consolidated Tulunid realm, but he did achieve the significant service of intercepting Mutamid and returning him to Samarra’s “safety”. In Mutamid’s adventure, we can see the final competition between two Samarran networks that had briefly coalesced a decade earlier to remove Muhtadi: the networks of Bayakbak and Musa b. Bugha. In the west, it was the former that won out, for Ahmad’s failure to protect Mutamid did not preclude the effective, and sustained, economy of the Egyptian-Levant realm he carved out.

Autonomy in the Islamic east

The linkage between the Islamic east – Khurasan and Transoxania – and the Samarran conflict is subtler but nonetheless clear. The Ruzaiqids who governed Khurasan were always closely tied into the caliphal elite, as noted above. This network was an active participant in the Iraqi conflict of the 860s, and on balance lost its former glory. With the exception of Baghdad’s very capable governor Muhammad b. Abdullah b. Tahir, the family fell into a complex series of squabbles. It is not necessary to detail them comprehensively here, except to note that this saw the steady displacement of caliphal control in the east. We have already encountered the misadventures of Sulaiman b. Abdullah b. Tahir above. His nephew, Muhammad b. Tahir b. Abdullah, proved a particularly ineffectual governor-general whose failures provoked differing responses from the Saffarids and Samanids.

The more spectacular response was the military campaign of the coppersmith Yaqub b. Laith b. Muaddal, who exploded from the Sistan backwater to conquer Khurasan and as far as Baghdad’s outskirts before Muwaffaq Talha finally checked his charge. Traditionally historians have tended to classify Yaqub, with his famous disdain for the moribund Abbasids and his militant lower-class origins, as a militaristic and unprincipled adventurer . Tor, more recently, has shown that in fact the Saffarids fit, and certainly tried to fit, the ideal of a frontier ghazi, regularly raiding into the pagan frontiers in the Sind region and espousing an uncompromisingly militant Islam that helped win over some defections from the Kharijite defections . If Yaqub showed ruthless militarism, it only reflected the environment where he operated.

At the outset of his adventures Yaqub captured Herat from its longtime Kharijite pretender, Mutawakkil Abdurrahman, whose head he sent to Iraq with a request for governorship, as well as routed the Alid rebel leader Hasan b. Zaid in northern Iran. This occurred in conjunction with, and may have been intended to legitimate, Yaqub’s entry into Nishapur during 873. Only when Muwaffaq and vizier Ubaidullah b. Yahya, recognizing the upset in the Ruzaiqid-dominated hierarchy of Abbasid vassals in the province that this represented, excluded Yaqub from this hierarchy did the Saffarid commander sweep decisively westwards towards Iraq. Indeed his centrally approved opponent in western Iran, sometime rebel Ali b. Husain b. Quraish, in fact echoed Yaqub’s hostility towards the Ruzaiqids with a complaint to Samarra . The point is not that Yaqub was keen to maintain the Abbasid structure in Khurasan – his personal disdain and mistrust towards the dynasty was well-known – but rather than that he was not opposed to entrenching himself within this structure if he could. It was only when this failed that Yaqub swept across Khurasan and made his famous attack on Iraq. Moreover, this was a common tactic in a period where the Ruzaiqids had been thrown into dysfunction; Yaqub was merely its most successful exponent.

Western Iran was the site of several longtime adventurers whose relations with the caliphate had varied between submission and revolt; during the early 870s, Muwaffaq had dispatched Samarran Turks such as Harith b. Sima, Abdurrahman b. Muflih, and Kayghalagh Abu Ahmad to confront them with only mixed success. These included the tribal Banu Dulaf, sometime lieutenants to the Ruzaiqids, and the notoriously temperamental Muhammad b. Wasil b. Ibrahim . Ibn Wasil’s longevity over a thirty-year period owed much to his purely transactional alliances that alternated between groups as varied as the caliphate and the local Kharijites. Having just broken off his latest alliance with Samarra by killing Harith, Ibn Wasil failed to make a deal with Yaqub and thereby tried to attack him on the caliphate’s behalf; he was duly captured and his long career brought to an abrupt end. Yaqub’s refusal to ally with Ibn Wasil and, even after his defeat against Muwaffaq, the nascent Zanj forces in southern Iraq, do not fit the actions of a purely opportunistic adventurer, no matter his disdain for the Abbasids. It appears that the difference between him and his brother Amr, whom the Abbasids successfully coopted and then played off against other regional forces, is not as stark as is often portrayed; both were willing to work with the Abbasids if the Abbasids would have them at little cost to their autonomy.

Rather the politics of Khurasan in this period should be viewed along the same continuum as the elite struggles in Iraq, predominant among them the Ruzaiqids. Such adventurers as the Banu Dulaf, Saffarids, and others operated in an unstable environment exacerbated by the breakdown of this hierarchy and the dysfunction of the once-solid Ruzaiqid control in the province. Occupying an eminent role in the eroding hierarchy were the Samanids. While the family’s influence in the region predated the Abbasids, we have noted that it was after helping suppress Khurasani revolts that they received official governorates in 820; that is, their official governorate remained subject to the Ruzaiqids, and thus indirectly the caliphate. Fifty years later, even an ineffectual Ruzaiqid scion such as Muhammad b. Tahir was able to overrule a senior Samanid scion such as Herat governor Ibrahim b. Ilyas, whose cautions he ignored and whom he dispatched on a vain mission to check Yaqub’s progress.

The northern, and eventually dominant, section of the Samanid family eventually availed of the Ruzaiqid decline to assert itself with proper autonomy: it was the remarkable Ismail b. Ahmad b. Asad who eventually asserted Samanid dominance. Though the Samanids had traditionally been loyal lieutenants, the Abbasid caliph Mutadid Ahmad III – having learnt, as we saw repeatedly at Samarra, to play off powerful commanders against each other – decided to neutralize the ambitious Saffarid commander Amr b. Laith b. Muaddal by giving him their domain . The Samanids, however, bested their rivals and assumed dominance over the region. Much as with Ahmad b. Tuloun in Egypt, however, Ismail continued to defer to legitimist authority: as Ahmad had guarded the Byzantine frontier, so did the Samanids guard the frontier against the pagan Turks in central Asia, as well as finally wiping out the Alid revolt in northern Iran that had been brought on by Ruzaiqid misrule. The Samanids were not as directly connected with Iraq’s factional intrigues as the Tulunids, yet indirectly the breakdown of Ruzaiqid authority fuelled by those intrigues set in motion a cycle that resulted in their, and Transoxania’s, autonomy.


The decentralization of the Abbasid caliphate in the third quarter of the ninth century was not simply the logical result of central collapse, but tied in closely with the dynamics of the conflict that caused the centre to collapse. The rise of the Tulunids in the west and the Saffarids and Samanids in the east proceeded along patterns and trajectories of elite competition in the centre; both the Tulunids and Samanids, and to an extent even the Saffarids, tried to make themselves autonomous agents of the caliphate in a way that was strikingly similar to various factions – such as the Samarran Turk potentates and the Ruzaiqids – in the Iraqi centre. The outcome of the Samarran conflict was therefore the permanent decentralization of the caliphate into several geographic blocs – the Aghlabid and Tulunid west, the Abbasid centre, and the Saffarid and Samarran east – that theoretically adhered to central rule but in fact constituted the autonomous proto-sultanates that continued right up to the modern period.

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