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Revealed: how the West set Saddam on the bloody road to power

The botched CIA attempt to oust the Iraqi despot last June, in which hundreds died, was not the first intervention by the US agency to have disastrous consequences. Patrick Cockburn tells of the coup it backed in 1963 that paved the way for the rise of Saddam

Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 28 June 1997 23:02 BST

It was the CIA's favourite coup. "We really had the T's crossed on what was happening," says James Critchfield, the head of the agency in the Middle East which organised it. "We regarded it as a great victory."

Iraqis have less happy memories of the day in 1963 when the Iraqi army rose in revolt. It was a coup which shaped the history of Iraq and much of the Middle East for the rest of the century. It started Saddam Hussein on his climb to power. Never again did his family and his political party wholly lose their grip on Iraq, despite wars and massacres in which more than one million Iraqis, Kurds and Iranians were killed.

Iraqis have always suspected that the coup was engineered by the CIA in much the same way that the agency had restored to power the Shah of Iran in 1953. The difference in Iraq was that the overthrow of the existing government was far bloodier. After General Abdel Karim Kassem, the country's populist leader for five years, surrendered he was summarily tried in a studio in Baghdad radio station, tied to a chair and shot dead.

Now fresh evidence has emerged that popular Iraqi suspicions were correct. In a new book* Said Aburish, a writer on Arab political affairs, has gathered details of how the coup against Gen Kassem was organised and fine-tuned by the CIA. "We came to power on a CIA train," said Ali Saleh Sa'adi, the Minister of the Interior of the regime which replaced Gen Kassem.

The CIA also played a central role in preparing the death lists of those who were to be eliminated after the coup by squads from the Ba'ath party. Mr Aburish says that he believes 5,000 were killed of whom he has collected the names of 600, including many doctors, lawyers, teachers and professors who formed the educated elite of Iraq.

The death lists were drawn up in CIA stations across the Middle East with the help of Iraqi exiles. In Egypt the agency was helped by an Egyptian intelligence officer who got much of his information from Saddam Hussein living in exile in Cairo. But Mr Aburish says: "The American agent who produced the longest list was William McHale, who operated under the cover of a news correspondent for the Beirut bureau of Time [magazine]."

As the CIA lists reached Baghdad the result was a massacre of extraordinary ferocity. Pregnant women and old men were killed, some tortured to death in front of their children. Mr Aburish says: "Saddam Hussein, who had rushed back to Iraq from exile in Cairo to join the victors, was personally involved in the torture of leftists in the separate detention centres for the fellaheen [peasants] and the muthaqafeen, or educated class."

It was the height of the Cold War. The CIA had just tried and failed to orchestrate the overthrow of Fidel Castro in Cuba by a rebel invasion force. America was increasing its involvement in Vietnam, where it similarly backed the elimination of 20,000 communists and anti-government sympathisers by assassination squads under the CIA's Phoenix programme. A similar CIA- backed purge was about to be carried out in Indonesia.

The foreign base for the Iraqi coup was Kuwait, something Saddam Hussein may have remembered when he invaded the emirate in 1990. King Hussein of Jordan, who had close relations with the CIA, says that during the planning phase of the coup "many meetings were held between the Ba'ath party and American intelligence - the most critical ones in Kuwait."

King Hussein told the Egyptian writer Mohammed Heikal that on the day of the coup, 8 February, a secret radio broadcast was made from Kuwait "that relayed to those carrying out the coup the names and addresses of communists there, so they could be seized and executed." Not surprisingly Iraq's claim to Kuwait was dropped after the coup and only resurrected in 1990.

In the middle of the Cold War the CIA took Iraq very seriously. In 1959 Allen Dulles, the Director of the CIA, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "Iraq today is the most dangerous spot on earth." More specifically the danger to western interests came from an intense, unmarried army officer with a thin voice called General Abdel Karim Kassem, who had just overthrown the Hashemite monarchy installed by Britain to rule Iraq at the end of the First World War.

As soon as he took power in 1958 Gen Kassem began to offend Britain and the US. They suspected his alliance in the streets with the powerful Iraqi Communist Party. He withdrew Iraq from the Baghdad Pact, the US-backed anti-Soviet alliance in the Middle East. He appointed British-trained leftist bureaucrats to run government ministries. Most important, in 1961 he nationalised part of the concession of the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company and resurrected a long-standing Iraqi claim to Kuwait.

Britain had lost its primacy in the Middle East with its failure to overthrow Nasser in Egypt during the Suez crisis in 1956. The US was taking over its role as the predominant foreign power in the region. The CIA decided to use the Ba'ath party, a nationalist grouping with just 850 members but with strong links to the army. In 1959 a party member named Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, aged 22, had tried to assassinate Gen Kassem in Baghdad, but had been wounded in the leg.

In return for CIA help Mr Aburish says the Ba'ath party leaders also expressed willingness "to undertake a 'cleansing' programme to get rid of the communists and their leftist allies." Hani Fkaiki, one of the Ba'ath party leaders, says that the party's contact man who orchestrated the coup was William Lakeland, the US assistant military attache in Baghdad.

Accused by the Syrian Ba'ath party of co-operating with the CIA, the Iraqi plotters admitted their alliance but compared it to "Lenin arriving in a German train to carry out his revolution." Warned of plots against him, an over-confident Gen Kassem said: "I myself am the father of conspiracies."

Gen Kassem was largely right about the lack of support for the coup. The conspirators had to move early because of the arrest of one of their leaders, Col Saleh Mahdi Ammash, former Iraqi assistant military attache in Washington, who was in touch with Lakeland at the US embassy in Baghdad. When the putsch began on 8 February the conspirators had just nine tanks under their control. As thousands of supporters of Gen Kassem rallied around him in the defence ministry, the tanks were able to reach the building only by at first pretending that they had come to support him.

On the morning of 9 February Gen Kassem surrendered as the defence ministry came under air attack. After a swift trial he was executed shouting "Long live the people." Even then his supporters refused to believe he was dead until coup leaders showed pictures of his body on TV and in the newspapers.

*A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite by Said K Aburish is published by Victor Gollancz, price pounds 20

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