On January 27, 1969, the Iraqi authorities hanged 14 alleged spies in a public execution in Baghdad: nine Jews, three Muslims and two Christians.
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The country’s Jewish community had shrunk to less than 3,000, from more than 130,000 as recently as 1948. The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 on one hand and the Farhud, pogroms against Jews in June 1941, on the other, led to the mass emigration of the vast majority of the community, mainly between 1949 and 1951.
The terrible defeat suffered by the Arab allies, including Iraq, in the Six-Day War, in June 1967, only increased suspicion and discrimination against the country’s few remaining Jews. They were dismissed from government jobs, their bank accounts were frozen and they were confined to house arrest, among other restrictions.
Additionally, the Iraqi regime was under significant public pressure in early 1969. The preceding July, the Ba’ath party had mounted a bloodless coup against the government of President Abdul Rahman Arif. The new government was weak and was in constant fear that it would itself be the target of a coup. It also faced an ongoing rebellion from the country’s Kurds.
After an Israeli air attack on an Iraqi position in northern Jordan on December 4, 1968, retaliation for the shelling of communities in the Galilee, the Baghdad regime began noisily hunting down an American-Israeli spy ring it said was trying to destabilize Iraq.
The arrests of alleged conspirators began in late 1968. Twelve Jewish men from Baghdad and Basra was taken into custody and charged with espionage. Nine were hanged on January 27, 1969. The remaining three were transferred to Basra to be tried, and were executed in that city on August 26, 1969.
Baghdad Radio invited citizens to come to Liberation Square on January 27 to “enjoy the feast.” A reported 500,000 people showed up, and danced and celebrated before the corpses of the convicted spies.
Despite significant international criticism of the executions, the pressure on Iraq’s Jews did not let up after the spy trials. Jews continued to be arrested, sometimes to be subjected to show trials, other times disappearing into prisons and never heard from again. By the time of the August executions, 51 Jews had been killed by the regime in 1969 alone; 100 more were imprisoned or tortured.
It was only in the early 1970s that most of Iraq’s Jews were permitted to leave. They left behind a small number who were too old to travel.