Kennedy’s journey to his death has been well documented, most recently by Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Kennedy. On the other side of the world another politician –Iraqi dictator Abdul Qasim (aka “Abdul Kassem”) was also headed for disaster. The lives of the two heads of state were to intertwine.
Kennedy was elected in 1960. In Iraq, Qasim had seized power in 1958 as part of a military coup; but after he was installed as the Prime Minister he worked to improve the lot if the Iraqi people. He seized foreign land holdings and distributed farms to more of the population. He also oversaw the building of 35,000 residential units, most of which are in today’s “Sadr City”, to house the poor and lower middle classes. He rewrote the constitution to encourage women’s participation in the society.
Like his counterpart Qasim struggled with divisions in his country and with the need to keep his generals happy. Having installed him as their head of state they expected him to procure money and weapons for the Iraqi army.
Iraq’s economy, then as now, depended heavily on its oil industry. The industry was dominated by the Iraq Petroleum Company (“IPC”), which was jointly owned by Iraq and some of the world’s largest oil companies including Exxon and Gulf. It had a virtual monopoly on all oil exploration and production in Iraq from 1925 to 1961.
Prior to 1960, American oil interests were not especially concerned about Iraqi oil. The United States, and especially Texas, dominated world oil markets, leveraging off their influence with President Eisenhower.
In 1960 the picture changed. Moved by a spreading anti-west sentiment, Venezuela and Iran had been courting Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia since 1949, suggesting that they exchange views and explore avenues for regular and closer communication among petroleum-producing nations.
In September 1960, the overtures came to fruition. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait met in Baghdad to discuss ways to increase the price of the crude oil produced by their respective countries. The result was OPEC, an organization founded to coordinate its members’ petroleum policies.
Texas oil interests faced a major threat: losing control over the world’s oil markets. They needed information, a source inside OPEC to tell them what was going on.
OPEC provided Qasim with several opportunities. First, Iraq had the support of its fellow members in establishing and enforcing its oil policies. But more important to Qasim personally, OPEC provided the dictator with a valuable source of knowledge, knowledge that could be shared with IPC’s Western partners for a price.
Nothing is known about Qasim’s relationship with the Texans who controlled IPC’s prominent members. What appears from public documents is a struggle between Qasim and IPC, highlighted by threats to nationalize the company. However, nationalization made little sense for Qasim or his country. Iraq did not have the technical or managerial skill to run IPC on its own. It depended on the foreigners who worked there.
And Qasim needed foreign currency. Like most leaders in the Arab world, Qasim had significant trouble keeping his hands on the reins of power. He had been installed by the military on the promise that he would support the Pan-Arab movement started by Egyptian President Nasser. Once in power, however, he began to fear Nasser’s influence on his country and his generals. The only available countervailing sources of influence were the Soviets and the West.
In public it appeared that Qasim was leaning towards the Soviets. He legitimized the Iraqi communist party. Beneath the surface, however, something else might have been occurring. The best source of weapons for his generals would be the United States. President Kennedy had rebuffed Israel’s request for nuclear arms. Perhaps his actions reflected an American desire to win Arab approval?
It is likely that, like many Arabs at the time (and even now) Qasim saw the United States as a monolith. The United States President and the United States oil interests were one and the same. Qasim may have had no idea of Kennedy’s dislike of Big Oil and his pledge to end the depletion allowance, or of the ultra-conservative Texans’ hatred of the liberal Catholic President. Ending the depletion allowance would mean hundreds of millions of lost revenue to the oil companies.
Qasim may have extracted large monetary bribes from the US Oil companies. But he needed more. He needed American-made weapons If Qasim’s attempts to extort military favors through his IPC/Texas contacts failed he may have tried other channels – channels that led to Kennedy. And if Kennedy had discovered that Texans were using their contacts in IPC to bribe Qasim, with the knowledge of Lyndon Johnson, to obtain sensitive information about Middle East oil policies, his reaction could have been to threaten the Texans with public humiliation and possibly even prosecution-potent weapons in his fight to remove the depletion allowance.
His second reaction might have been to seek Qasim’s removal, thus cutting the lines of communication between Texas and OPEC.
Qasim’s tactics were typical of other dictators who don’t get their way. First, threaten IPC with nationalization. Then threaten to charge outrageous transportation rates for oil in IPC terminals. Then order the return of real estate holding held by IPC. They reflect the thrashings of a man who is desperate for something he has demanded and is not getting.
Qasim was overthrown by the party of Saddam Hussein, the Ba’athists, on February 8, 1963 and was subsequently killed. Rumors abound of American involvement in the plot. A memo to President Kennedy on February 8, 1963, the night of the coup refers to the CIA reports on the results.
The alleged motivation for CIA involvement was fear of growing communist influence in Iraq. It does not seem likely that such fears would motivate a request for the CIA to interfere in a distant part of the world less than two years after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. A much more persuasive reason would be to stop Big Oil’s perceived interference in foreign policy. Admittedly there is no documentary evidence for this theory. On the other hand the facts seem to fit. And if Kennedy had discovered such activities and was preparing to take action against Texas oil interests, what better reason to kill the President?
Powerful men do not act out of hatred; hatred is a motive for madmen. They act to protect themselves.