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Abd al-Karim Qasim

Abdul Salam Aref with Abdul Karim Qasim.

1st Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq
In office
July 1958 – February 1963
Succeeded by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr

Born 1914
Baghdad, Iraq
Died February 9, 1963
Baghdad, Iraq
Nationality Iraqi

Abd al-Karim Qasim (Arabic: عبد الكريم قاسم`Abd al-Karīm Qāsim) (1914 – February 9, 1963), was a nationalist Iraqi Army officer who seized power in a 1958 coup d'état, wherein the Iraqi monarchy was eliminated. He ruled the country as Prime Minister of Iraq until his downfall and death in 1963.

His name can be transliterated from the Arabic in a number of ways, eg. Abdel Karim Kassem, Abdul Karim Kassem, Abdulkarim Kasem, Abdel-Karim Qaasim, `Abdul Karim Qasem, Qassem. During his rule, he was popularly known as al-za‘īm (الزعيم) or, "The Leader".


Early life and career

Abd al-Karim Qasim's father was a Sunni Muslim[1] of Arab descent who died shortly after his son's birth during World War I as a soldier for the Ottoman Empire. Qasim's mother was a Shiite and the daughter of a Feyli Kurd farmer from Baghdad.

When Qasim was six years of age his family moved to Suwayra, a small town near the Tigris, then to Baghdad in 1926. Qasim was an excellent student; he entered secondary school on a government scholarship. After graduation in 1931, he taught at Shamiyya Elementary School from Oct 22 of that year until Sept 3 1932, when he was accepted into Military College. In 1934, he graduated as a second lieutenant. Qasim then attended al-Arkan (Iraqi Staff) College and graduated with honor (grade A) in December 1941. In 1951, he completed a senior officers’ course in Britain.

Militarily, he participated in the suppression of the tribal disturbances in the Middle Euphrates region in 1935, during the Anglo-Iraqi War in May 1941 and in the Kurdistan War in 1945. Qassim also served during the Iraqi military involvement in the Arab-Israeli War from May 1948 to June 1949. Toward the latter part of the mission, he commanded a battalion of the First Brigade, which was situated in the Kafr Qasem area south of Qilqilya. In 1956-57, he served with his brigade at Mafraq in Jordan in the wake of the Suez Crisis. By 1957 Qassim had assumed leadership of several opposition groups that had formed in the army.

On 14 July 1958, Qasim and his followers used troop movements planned by the government as an opportunity to seize military control of Baghdad and overthrow the monarchy. This resulted in the killing of several members of the royal family and their close associates, including Nuri as-Said.

14 July Revolution

The coup was discussed and planned by the Free Officers, but was mainly executed by Qasim and Col. Abdasalaam Arif. It was triggered when King Hussein, fearing that an anti-Western revolt in Lebanon might spread to Jordan, requested Iraqi assistance. Instead of moving towards Jordan, however, Colonel Arif led a battalion into Baghdad and immediately proclaimed a new republic and the end of the old regime. Put in its historical context, the 14 July Revolution was the culmination of a series of uprisings and coup attempts that began with the 1936 Bakr Sidqi coup and included the 1941 Rashid Ali military movement, the 1948 Wathbah Uprising, and the 1952 and 1956 protests. The July 14 Revolution met virtually no opposition.

Prince Abdul Ilah did not want any resistance to the forces that besieged the Royal Rihab Palace, hoping to gain permission to leave the country. The commander of the Royal Guards battalion on duty, Col. Taha Bamirni, ordered the palace guards to cease fire.

On July 14, 1958, the royal family including King Faisal II; the Prince 'Abdallah; Princess Hiyam, Abdullah's wife; Princess Nafisah, Abdullah’s mother, Princess Abadiyah, the king’s aunt, and several servants were attacked as they were leaving the palace. When all of them arrived in the courtyard they were told to turn towards the palace wall, and were all shot down by Captain Abdus Sattar As Sab’ a member of the coup led by Colonel Abd al-Karim Qasim.[2]

King Faisal II and Princess Hiyam were injured. The King died later before reaching the hospital. Princess Hiyam was not recognized at the hospital and managed to receive treatment. Later she left for Saudi Arabia where her family lived and then moved to Egypt until her death.

Prime minister

The flag of Iraq from 1959-1963, whose symbolism was associated with Qasim's government

Qasim was Prime Minister from July 1958 - February 1963.

After seizing power, Qasim assumed the post of Prime Minister and Defense Minister, while Colonel Abdul Salam Arif was selected Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. They became the highest authority in Iraq with both executive and legislative powers. Muhammad Najib ar-Ruba'i became chairman of the Sovereignty Council (head of state), but his power was very limited.

Despite a shared military background, the group of Free Officers that carried out the July 14 Revolution was plagued by internal dissension. Its members lacked both a coherent ideology and an effective organizational structure. Many of the more senior officers resented having to take orders from Arif, their junior in rank. A power struggle developed between Qasim and Arif over joining the Egyptian-Syrian union. Arif's pro-Nasserite sympathies were supported by the Baath Party, while Qasim found support for his anti-union position in the ranks of the communists. Qasim, the more experienced and higher ranking of the two, eventually emerged victorious. Arif was first dismissed, then brought to trial for treason and condemned to death in January 1959; he was subsequently pardoned in December 1962.

Qasim soon withdrew Iraq from the pro-Western Baghdad Pact and established friendly relations with the Soviet Union. Iraq also abolished its Treaty of mutual security and bilateral relations with the UK. Also, Iraq withdrew from the agreement with the United States that was signed by the monarchy from 1954 to 1955 regarding military, arms, and equipment. On May 30, 1959, the last of the British soldiers and military officers departed the al-Habbāniyya base in Iraq.

On July 26, 1958, the Interim Constitution was adopted, proclaiming the equality of all Iraqi citizens under the law and granting them freedom without regard to race, nationality, language or religion. The government freed political prisoners and granted amnesty to the Kurds who participated in the 1943 to 1945 Kurdish uprisings. The exiled Kurds returned home and were welcomed by the republican regime.

The Iraqi state emblem under Qasim carefully avoided pan-Arab symbolism.

Unlike the bulk of military officers, Qasim did not come from the Arab Sunni northwestern towns nor did he share their enthusiasm for pan- Arabism: he was of mixed Sunni-Shia parentage from southeastern Iraq. Qasim's ability to remain in power depended, therefore, on a skillful balancing of the communists and the pan-Arabists. For most of his tenure, Qasim sought to counterbalance the growing pan-Arab trend in the army by supporting the communists who controlled the streets. He authorized the formation of a communist-controlled militia, the People's Resistance Force, and he freed all communist prisoners.

Qasim lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, and demanded the annexation of Kuwait. He was also involved in the 1958 Agrarian Reform, modeled after the Egyptian experiment of 1952.

Qasim is said by his admirers to have worked to improve the position of ordinary people in Iraq, after the long period of self-interested rule by a small elite under the monarchy which had resulted in widespread social unrest. Qasim passed law No. 80 which seized 98% of Iraqi land from the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company, and distributed farms to more of the population. This increased the size of the middle class. Qasim also oversaw the building of 35,000 residential units to house the poor and lower middle classes. The most notable example, and indeed symbol, of this was the new suburb of Baghdad named Madinat al-Thawra (revolution city), renamed Saddam City under the Baath regime and now widely referred to as Sadr City. Qasim rewrote the constitution to encourage women’s participation in the society.

Qasim supported the Algerian and Palestinian struggles against France and Israel.

Qasim tried to maintain the political balance by using the traditional opponents of pan-Arabs, the right wing and nationalists. Up until the war with the Kurdish factions in the north he was able to maintain the loyalty of the army.

Iran and the Kurdish revolts

During his term in office, he is also blamed for paving the way for the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). On December 18, 1959, Abd al-Karim Qasim declared:

"We do not wish to refer to the history of Arab tribes residing in Al-Ahwaz and Mohammareh [Khurramshahr]. The Ottomans handed over Muhammareh, which was part of Iraqi territory, to Iran." [3]

After this, Iraq started supporting secessionist movements in Khuzestan, and even raised the issue of its territorial claims in the next meeting of the Arab League, without any success.

It was also during his rule as Prime Minister that confrontation with the Kurdish minority started. The new Government declared Kurdistan “one of the two nations of Iraq.” During his rule, the Kurdish groups selected Mustafa Barzani to negotiate with the government, seeking an opportunity to declare independence.

After a period of relative calm, the issue of Kurdish autonomy (self-rule or independence) went unfulfilled, sparking discontent and eventual rebellion among the Kurds in 1961.

Pan-Arab revolts and overthrow

During Qasim's term, there was a lot of debate over whether Iraq should join the United Arab Republic, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Having dissolved the Arab Union with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Qasim refused entry into the federation, although his government recognized the republic and considered joining it later.

A major pan-Arabist concern was the repression of the Iraqi branch of the Baath Party.

An assassination attempt in 1959 by dedicated pan-Arabists including Saddam Hussein and reportedly supported by the United States[4], led to a harsh crackdown on domestic opposition and the development of a personality cult. Qasim was a strong opponent of British military intervention in the Middle East, and repeatedly called for the removal of foreign troops.

Rebellions in Mosul and Iraqi Kurdistan, allegedly assisted by Nasser and the UAR, also complicated political matters.

Qasim was overthrown by the Ba'athist coup of February 8, 1963, motivated by fear of communist influence and state control over the petroleum sector. This coup has been reported to have been carried out with the backing of the British government and the American CIA[4].


Qasim was given a short trial and he was quickly shot. Later, footage of his execution was broadcast to prove he was dead.

At least 5,000 Iraqis were killed in the fighting from February 8 - 10, 1963, and in the house-to-house hunt for "communists" that immediately followed. Ba'athists put the losses of their own party at around 80.

In July 2004, Qasim's body was discovered by a news team associated with Radio Dijlah in Baghdad[5].


PD-icon.svg This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.

  1. ^ [ Iraq - a country study Federal Research Division, Library of Congress]
  2. ^ A short history of Iraq: 636 to the present, T. Abdullah, Pearson Education, Harlow, UK,(2003)
  3. ^ Farhang Rajaee, The Iran-Iraq War (University Press of Florida, 1993), p111-112
  4. ^ a b Morris, Roger (March 14 2003). "Remember: Saddam was our man A Tyrant 40 Years in the Making". New York Times.  
  5. ^ "Iraqis Recall Golden Age". Institute for War and Peace. Retrieved 2006-09-05.   Reporting article on discovery of Qasim's body

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
Ahmad Mukhtar Baban
Prime Minister of Iraq
July 1958 – February 1963
Succeeded by
Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr


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