History of Iraqi flags: Pan Arabism and the Baath party (1963-2003)

History Oct 30, 2020 6 min read

The flag of the Abdel Karim Qasim  government (1958-1963) symbolized the unity of Iraq's diverse ethnic groups under a folkloric and socialist understanding of Iraqi identity. Qasim was overthrown because in the context of the cold war his alliance with the Iraqi Communist party and socialist policies  were seen as a threat to Western and capitalist interests. After President Abdel Karim Qasim was violently deposed in 1963, Iraq made a swift political turn from Iraqi left wing nationalism to pan-Arab Nationalism. This rupture in politics also implied the creation of a new flag that represented a new political order.

Iraq's flag 1963-1991

In 1963, Iraq’s new elite emphasized Iraq’s Arab identity much stronger than before.  At the time, the 1963 coup was for a large part motivated by the ambition to unify Iraq with Syria and Egypt in an Arab union. New Iraqi president Abdel Salam Arif who had already thickened his ties with the pan Arab Egyptian president Abdel Gamal Nasser signed a joint presidency with Egypt in 1964.

The new 1963 flag was meant to symbolize the unification of Iraq with its Arab neighbors like Syria and Egypt but also drive to integrate Iraq's diverse ethnic and religious groups into a larger Arab nationalist framework. The 1963 flag was red, white and black, with three stars. This flag was designed by the Iraqi artist Jawad Salim. The three stars meant to represent the unification of Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Both Syria and Egypt also share a similar coloring scheme. Scholars have argued that Arab flags are considered a family of flags because of the shared similarity in design.

Iraqi president Abdel Salam Arif (left) and Egyptian president Abdel Gamal Nasser (right) 

However by 1980, relations with Syria and Egypt had worsened because of Egypt’s  peace deal with Israel, which Iraq opposed and Syria’s refusal to support Iraq in the war with Iran. The ambition of unification of these three countries had largely disappeared. In 1986 president Saddam Hussein therefore decided to give an new meaning to the three stars in the flag. It was decided that the three stars from now on would represent the three part Baath party slogan: Unity, Freedom and Socialism.

Interestingly the idea to add three green stars to the Iraq flag  was already once discussed in the 1920s. The idea of adding three green stars was then rejected. The three green stars would represent Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. This suggests that the idea of adding three stars to the flag is culturally and intellectually much older than its novel introduction in 1963.

Iraqi Artist Jawad Salim 

The roots and impact of red,white, black and green in  Iraqi flags.

The colors, red, white and black have expressed a variety of religious, secular, historical and contemporary meanings. One famous interpretation by the poet Safi al-din Hilli suggests that red symbolizes the readiness for bloodshed (for one's ideals), white purity of motivations, green the fields, and black the battlefield. Adding the color black to one’s flag remains a remarkable choice and is rarely used in flags elsewhere. As one Iraqi parliamentarian once explained:  Black tends to symbolize grief rather than optimism and joy and it is  best to keep black out of national flags. A famous response to this objection was that ''the black color was the one which took over the world and under its shadow a greater nation than England of today was resting" referring to the perceived  glory of the Islamic civilization.

Historically speaking this modern combination of red, black, white and green has deeper roots. These four colors have always, individually, functioned as flags for Islamic figures like the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs or other Islamic dynasties (Abbasids, Fatamids, Ottomans). These four colors therefore always have had a certain religious charisma and divinity to them that even persisted as secular expression of national identity such as Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s.

To a large extent the choice for these specific colors demonstrates the symbolic impact of the colors red, white, black and green because they were also employed in Abdel Karim Qasim's flag (1958-1963). However contrary to Qasim's flag all references to Iraq's pre Islamic history (like the Sun that represented the Babylonian Goddess Ishtar) were taken out in the 1963 flag.

Iraqi national thought: Arab centric versus Iraq centric nationalism.

The emergence of the 1963 flag was the result of a continuous struggle in Iraqi national thought. Should Iraq be an Iraq centric country emphasizing its diversity or a Arab centric country with a stronger integration with neighboring Arab countries ? This political question is quite unique to Iraq. Arab centric Iraqi nationalism was by a large segment of Iraq's populations seen unappealing.  Iraq's diverse non-Arab communities believed Arab nationalism would bring disadvantages to populations who are suspected for their Arab ''loyalty'' and “purity”. This specific dichotomy of Arab Iraqi nationalism versus Iraqi nationalism played much lesser a role in countries like Egypt for example, where Egyptian nationalism and Pan Arabism was easier to combine.

Ex-President Saddam Hussein with the 1963-1991 flag 

Even during the long era Baath party rule (1968 -2003)  the government and the party switched constantly in its emphasis on Arab- or Iraq-  centric thought within its nationalist ideology especially as Iraqi-Egyptian and Syrian relations fractured from the 1970s and beyond. However it has been suggested that the specific color combinations of the 1963 flag in this specific order have cultural and symbolic meaning that to a certain extent all Iraqis could get behind. Evidence of this matter is that the suggestion to get rid of this flag after the fall of the Baath dictatorship encountered extensive resistance. Instead in 2004 the flag was only slightly tweaked to eliminate small references to the former Baath government.

The 1991 flag and the increasing role of public religion in Iraq

After 1991 the 1963 flag changed slightly. For instance ''God is the Greatest''  was added by ex-president Saddam Hussein in Arabic between the three green stars of the Iraqi flag. The reason for this addition was the increasing role of religion in Iraqi society during the 1990s and an attempt by the government to appeal to this development in case it would threaten its rule. Another alleged reason that ‘God is the Greatest’ was added to the flag was to stop the disrespect of Iraqi flags in countries such as Kuwait. If God's name is on the flag people will less likely trample on it for example out of respect for the holiness of God. The 1990s was also defined by increasing investments in mosques, religious education and the increasing reliance on the tribes of Iraq.

1991-2003 flag 


The Iraqi flag remains a symbolic object subjected to constant change and flux. It reflects both the turbulence of Iraqi politics defined by war, foreign intervention and violence but also the ambition and aspiration to search for a flag that expresses the independence and unity of the Iraqi people. Like any national identity, the Iraqi identity is one that is constantly in the making, in search to reinvent itself to adapt to new antagonists and new ideals of unity.

1990s propaganda and the stronger shift towards religion in politics in Iraq
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