161. Special National Intelligence Estimate0

SNIE 36.2–59


The Problem

To estimate prospective developments in Iraq over the next few months and their implications for Western interests in the Middle East.


Iraq is the scene of a determined and so far effective Communist drive toward power. Prime Minister Kassim may be a Communist, though we think it more likely that he is an Iraqi nationalist who believes he needs Communist support to protect himself against the designs of the UAR and the Western Powers. Whatever his desires, we doubt his ability to stem the movement toward a Communist takeover of his regime, and we believe that his area for maneuver is shrinking rapidly. (Paras. 6–11)
Many politically conscious Iraqis are beginning to see that Kassim’s policy of co-operation with the Communists involves threats to Iraqi independence and to their own interests. Only the army has the capability for effective action against the Kassim regime. However, potential opposition—both civilian and military—to the present trend is unorganized, leaderless, and unlikely to take action unless given stimulus by Nasser, who wields considerable influence as the symbol of Arab nationalism. (Paras. 11–13, 16)
We believe that Nasser will seek by all means at his disposal to bring about a counterrevolutionary move in Iraq, even if it involves serious risk of damaging his relations with the Soviets, and that he will be prepared to accept at least provisionally an independent Iraqi nationalist regime. (Paras. 17–18)
We do not believe that the Soviets, at present, consider their interests or prestige so heavily involved in the Iraqi situation that they would accept the risks and disadvantages involved in any overt intervention to block a nationalist counterrevolution against Kassim. If they saw such a move coming, however, they would be likely to step up their efforts and their timetable. If as time goes on, growing Communist power in Iraq should involve heavier Soviet commitments to the Iraqi regime, the Bloc would become increasingly disposed to accept the risks of responding to requests for assistance in maintaining a pro-Communist regime in power. (Para. 27)
Communist initiatives in Iraq, whether or not they succeed in consolidating control there, are likely to increase Arab suspicions of the Soviets and might bring about a more genuine neutrality. A successful counterrevolutionary move, however, would probably not change basic Pan-Arab nationalist policies toward the West. (Paras. 21, 28)


I. The Present Situation

Iraq is the scene of a determined and so far effective Communist drive toward power. This drive threatens important US interests: the maintenance of assured Western access to Middle East oil, the denial of the area to Soviet control, and the security and stability of non-Communist governments in the area as a whole. The Iraqi situation has already reshaped many of the issues which dominate the Middle East scene, for it poses new and critical problems not only for the West, but for Iran and other states in the area.
After seven months in power, Prime Minister Kassim remains something of an enigma even to a number of Iraqis who have been associated with him in the revolutionary government. There is no conclusive evidence that Kassim is himself a Communist or disposed to turn Iraq [Page 383] over to Soviet domination, and he continues to profess a philosophy of ardent Arab nationalism, opposition to foreign influence, and dedication to the ideas of Iraqi independence and of “positive neutralism.” He has made a few anti-Communist gestures, and has left certain key internal security posts, e.g., the Ministry of the Interior, in the hands of anti-Communists.
At the same time, Kassim has shown himself unwilling or unable to take effective action against the steady drive of the Iraqi Communists and their Soviet backers to consolidate a growing position of power within the country and the government. He has resisted repeated demands by senior army officers for a crackdown on local Communists. He continues to countenance the presence in a number of key positions of men who are probably Communists, for example his own chief aide and the Director of Broadcasting. Some important ministries have been infiltrated by known Communists. Iraqi representatives at inter-Arab and Afro-Asian conferences have consistently advocated actions beneficial to the USSR and opposed to the interests of both Pan-Arabism and the West. Kassim has done little about the manifest ability of the Communists to use “the street” in organized mob demonstrations and mass pressure tactics. And when confronted in early February with the group resignation of six anti-Communist civilian cabinet ministers—some of them recognized opposition figures of long standing—he replaced them with men less friendly toward Nasser and no more likely than their predecessors to pose effective resistance to the Communists.
Although Kassim may be a Communist moving deliberately to advance Soviet control of Iraq without risking the adverse repercussions of a sudden takeover, we think it more likely that his course of action has been dictated by other motives and circumstances. There is evidence that he is a neurotic and unstable individual; that he is lacking in qualities of decisiveness and leadership; and that he is prey to fears for his regime and his own position in it. In particular, Kassim has probably been genuinely concerned about the dangers of UAR and US interference in Iraq. Iraqi Communists, working through such channels as the Communist-infiltrated National Democratic Party, have assiduously exploited Kassim’s fears and his need for support and assurance.
Whatever Kassim’s private attitude toward the Communists and their sympathizers, the net effect of his conduct has been to increase their power and opportunities until they are now the most effective and unified political organization in the country. We believe it likely that Kassim still feels that he is in control and is using the Communists for his own purposes, but we have little confidence in his ability to free himself from dependence upon them even if he should elect to try.
Non-Communist nationalist elements are still far more numerous in Iraq than the Communists and their sympathizers, but they are on [Page 384] the defensive and their prevailing mood appears to be one of uncertainty and growing frustration. Many prominent civilian and military figures have been jailed. The recent mass resignation of anti-Communist cabinet ministers may have been undertaken in the hope of forcing Kassim to take action to reverse present trends, but it is equally possible that the move was made out of sheer despair. An increasing number of groups in Iraq are beginning to perceive the threat that the Communists pose to their particular interests. This includes both secular nationalist and religious groups. There is a beginning awareness of Kassim’s growing dependence upon the Communists and the threat this poses to Iraqi independence. Even the hitherto Communist-collaborating National Democratic Party—the last civilian backers of Kassim—shows signs of fearing the Communist thrust for power and may part company with the Iraqi Communist Party. We believe, however, that the civilian opposition lacks the organization and leadership necessary to take any effective initiative against Kassim and his Communist allies.
The Iraqi public—generally favorable to the revolution and still strongly influenced by Nasser—is divided and uncertain, reflecting the conflicting forces at play in the country. The Pan-Arab Baath Party retains some ability to call out demonstrators, but the Communists are showing increasing superiority in influencing “the street.” Much will depend upon whether Iraqi nationalists can muster public support before the Communists succeed in discrediting them, by accusing them of playing into the hands of Nasser and the “imperialists.”
Although we have only limited information about the political orientation of the army, we believe that it constitutes the chief potential source of resistance to the trends prevailing under Kassim’s government. Most of the officer corps is almost certainly nationalist in sympathy, and while some Communist penetration of the armed forces has probably taken place—attracting at least a certain number of opportunists—the great majority of officers remain non-Communist or anti-Communist. However, Kassim’s regime has bid for the sympathy of the officer corps by supplying the armed forces with impressive amounts of Soviet equipment and by liberal pay and promotion policies. Like the civilian nationalists, however, the army leaders will probably move, if at all, only if given some stimulus to action, some guidance and some assurance of outside support. In the meantime, the army’s capability for action against the Kassim government and the Communists is being steadily undermined by Kassim’s systematic reshuffling of assignments and by his creation of a new division of selected units presumably designed for the protection of the government.
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II. Prospective Developments

We do not believe that the Communists plan a sudden coup or a forceful seizure of power. In our opinion they would prefer to move gradually toward actual control of Iraq, seeking to take over strategic positions and groups one by one, but leaving an ostensibly independent regime. In particular, we believe that they would not attempt a final consolidation of power until they have successfully penetrated or neutralized the army. We believe that it will be some months before they can accomplish this.
As Communist power grows, it is possible that Kassim will become concerned over the threat from this quarter, and he might attempt to remove the Communists from positions of influence and to limit the activities of Soviet representatives in Iraq. To date, however, we have seen no evidence that Kassim is thinking in these terms. Particularly while suspicions of the West and of the UAR remain uppermost in his mind, we believe that any significant change of course on his part is unlikely.
We have already mentioned the apparent lack of will and leadership among potential anti-Communist and anti-Kassim forces—both military and in the public at large. If these forces are to be moved to action, some assurance of support will probably have to come from Nasser, since any counterrevolutionary movement in Iraq which appeared to be Western-inspired would have little chance of success. Nasser has made one serious attempt to overthrow the Kassim government and is seeking to build assets for another.1 He will almost certainly continue to work assiduously to develop and exploit every possible lead to a counterrevolution in Iraq. He has important resources at his disposal. In addition to his own network of agents and friends, he has the authority and influence that stem from his widespread acceptance as a successful leader of Arab nationalism. As Communist power increases in Iraq, non-Communist Iraqi groups—military and civilian—are likely to become increasingly conscious of this threat and ready to compromise with Nasser as the only effective source of help. In the right [Page 386] situation Nasser’s propaganda machine could be used to exert a formidable influence upon the Iraqi people and army to turn them against the Kassim regime and their Communist allies.
Nasser is almost certainly aware of the risks to himself attendant on a fight with the Communists in Iraq. He would become subject to charges by the Communists and some Iraqi nationalists that he is doing the dirty work for Western imperialists. More importantly, he would be inviting a direct clash with the USSR, at the risk of losing the extensive military and economic support he has been receiving from that source. Finally, he almost certainly retains grave suspicions that the West—and his enemies in the area—might seize the opportunity to undermine him while he was embroiled with the Communists in Iraq and clashing with the Soviets. Nevertheless, we believe that Nasser views the Communist threat in Iraq as a critical challenge to his whole position and aspirations in the area, and is almost certainly determined to muster his resources to combat it. He appears to believe that his efforts will not cost him Soviet assistance, but he might be willing to accept serious risks of such a loss in a final showdown on Iraq.
Nasser’s hostility to the trend in Iraq will probably serve to make Kassim even more suspicious of nationalist elements in his own country and more prone to depend on the local Communists and the USSR for support and assistance. Kassim’s suspicions would be compounded should he believe that a Nasser–Western rapprochement were in the making. Kassim will be alert to UAR-inspired plots and will attempt to neutralize or destroy Nasser’s assets in Iraq. Even so, Kassim’s policies might stimulate a counterrevolutionary effort in Iraq while there is still a chance of success. Even though such a counterrevolutionary effort might be in part the creation of Nasser, and its leaders might accept some loose affiliation with the UAR, they would almost certainly insist on a considerable degree of independence for Iraq. We believe that Nasser would regard this as preferable to an Iraq under Communist domination.
In the event of an outright clash between the Kassim regime and a counterrevolutionary effort, there is some chance that neither side would win a clear victory. The resulting period of disorder might lead to the factioning of the army, and a period of chaos with any or all of the contending factions calling for outside intervention.

III. Implications of a Communist Takeover in Iraq

If and when it became apparent that a Communist-controlled regime had actually come to power in Iraq, this would almost certainly provoke an acute crisis in the Middle East. Friends of the West and neutralists in the area would both feel acutely this threat to their security. There would be insistent pressures on the US to “do something.” At the [Page 387] same time, the USSR would issue a series of ominous warnings and threats to stave off intervention.
Communist control of Iraq would establish the USSR in the heart of the Middle East—contiguous to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait, and outflanking two US allies, Turkey and Iran. Such an extension of Soviet power into the area would serve to strip the Soviets of their former immunity from charges of “imperialist” motives in the area. It might also lead to the moderation of Arab hostility toward the West and make Arab neutralism more genuine. Nevertheless, it would amount to an impressive Soviet victory which would influence the leanings of area opportunists.
A Communist-controlled Iraq would also threaten Western access to Middle East oil. Although we estimate that such a government might initially prove fairly reasonable with respect to permitting continued Western access to Iraqi oil—in the interests of receiving continued revenue and of avoiding drastic Western response—it would at a minimum insist on substantial modifications in the terms and conditions under which Iraqi oil flows to the West. In any case the future of the Iraq Petroleum Company would be unpromising indeed—with ultimate nationalization likely. And while such a move would not constitute an irreparable blow to the UK—so long as it had Kuwait oil available—it would be serious in itself and additionally so because it would weaken Britain’s hold in Kuwait and throughout the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf.
The UK is far from oblivious to this danger. At the same time, continuing British hostility to Nasser has prompted the UK to hope that Kassim might provide a feasible alternative between a Nasser-dominated and a Communist-dominated regime in Iraq and an effective rival to Nasser for influence in the Arab world at large. The UK has been the more inclined to indulge in these hopes because it has received somewhat better treatment from the Kassim regime than has the US. There are now indications that at some levels and in some parts of the British Government it has been concluded that these are futile hopes. Further rapid consolidation of leftist forces in Iraq would probably increase UK sentiment in favor of a Nasser effort to stop the Iraqi Communists.
The Turks, Iranians, Israelis, and French have hitherto shown more concern over the disadvantages to them of a pro-Nasser takeover in Iraq than over the Communist threat there. However, there is already evidence of some change in the attitude of the Turks and especially of the Iranians. Both will press insistently for increased US support and commitments to meet the danger. A Communist Iraq would increase the potential of the Tudeh Party in Iran considerably. Iran would be particularly sensitive about any Iraqi attempt to interfere with access to Iranian oil ports. Turkey and Iran would be tempted to take further steps to [Page 388] influence events in Iraq, but would take no significant action without requesting US support.
Of all area states, Israel is most concerned lest the Communist threat in Iraq bring Nasser and the West closer together, or lest a successful pro-Nasser countermove in Iraq should confirm Nasser as undisputed leader of a united Arab world. Growing tension between the USSR and Nasser may lead to an improvement in Soviet-Israeli relations. At the same time, Israel’s policy will be conditioned by its knowledge of the importance of its ties with the West.
Nasser’s past policies of doing business with the USSR would be discredited and his claims as leader of the Pan-Arab unity movement contested as a result of the establishment of a Communist government in Iraq. He would moreover be faced with greatly increased problems of subversion within his own UAR, particularly in Syria. However, if he continues to challenge the Soviet-Communist role in Iraq, his relations with and his influence in the other Arab states are likely to improve.

IV. Implications of an Arab Nationalist Counteraction in Iraq

We do not believe that the Soviets, at present, consider their interests or prestige so heavily involved in the Iraqi situation that they would accept the risks and disadvantages involved in any overt intervention to block a nationalist counterrevolution against Kassim. If they saw such a move coming, however, they would be likely to step up their efforts and their timetable. If as time goes on, growing Communist power in Iraq should involve heavier Soviet commitments to the Iraqi regime, the Bloc would become increasingly disposed to accept the risks of responding to requests for assistance in maintaining a pro-Communist regime in power.
If a non-Communist nationalist government is re-established in Iraq, the Pan-Arab nationalists in the several Arab states led by Nasser are likely to continue a policy and a posture like that of the past. Their position regarding Israel and Algeria will remain much the same. They will hope to upset the regime in Jordan, to eject the UK from its privileged position in the Arabian Peninsula, and to move toward the imposition of Arab controls over Arab oil.
  1. Source: Department of State, OCB Files: Lot 61 D 385, Iraq Documents. Secret. A note on the cover sheet indicates that this special estimate, submitted by the CIA, was prepared by the CIA, INR, the intelligence organizations of the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Joint Staff, and the Director of the National Security Agency. All members of the USIB concurred with this estimate on February 17 except the representatives of the AEC and FBI and the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside their jurisdiction.
  2. On February 28, John S.D. Eisenhower included the following information on Iraq in his “Synopsis of State and Intelligence Material reported to the President”:

    “An Iraqi official has reported an attempt to assassinate Qasim on February 22. Fifteen arrests reportedly ensued.

    “A late item on February 28 indicates that a coup by Iraqi army elements backed by Nasir is scheduled between 2–5 March. Plotters plan to assassinate Qasim. It is estimated that unless army units in Baghdad join the conspiracy, a successful coup would be dubious.

    “The President also read SNIE 36.2–59 which pertains to the situation in Iraq.” (Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, Eisenhower Diaries)