Examining Saddam’s Iraq

AMATZIA BARAM – Saddam learned his own lessons from Iraq’s political history, and his conclusions were not that illogical. 

Learning all the wrong lessons from history.

In Foreign Affairs you note how even Saddam had begun to believe his own propaganda on the eve of the 2003 invasion, even though his entire cabinet knew that an invasion was imminent. How was this propaganda received by the Iraqi population?

The situation was not that simplistic. He did not say that the Americans would not attack; he said rather that an attack was not certain. In one conversation with an outside visitor he spoke more openly than he had with other members of his government, noting that he “[did] not see how the Americans were going to attack.” But in his propaganda and in the public arena, he did not speak so confidently. He said that the Americans may attack Iraq, that Americans are very bad people, and that Iraq was preparing to repel any invasion.

At the same time he was declaring Iraq’s ability to fend off an American attack, he compared the Americans to Hulagu Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan: a Mongol. When Hulagu conquered Baghdad in 1258, he destroyed the city, and executed everyone who could read or write, because he wanted to eradicate Islam. So what Saddam told his people was, even if the Americans do attack, they should be viewed the same way as the Mongols. Saddam wanted to frighten his people, so that they would prepare to fight tooth-and-nail against an invasion. However, that was Saddam’s mistake. This comparison frightened the people, and their morale actually dropped. The military was not all that inspired by Saddam’s comparison either. Hulagu was so bad for Baghdad that Iraqis in 2003 retreated rather than fought.

In the interview with Ned Parker, he noted that “Hussein exacerbated every poisonous trait in Iraq that had been beneath the surface for his own purposes,” making it so that Iraq today has no historical precedent for constructing a new government. In what ways does Saddam’s legacy continue to haunt Iraqi society? 

From the moment that the monarchy was toppled by General Qasim in 1958, a fledgling and uncertain democratic culture was eliminated. General Qasim was, more or less, a benevolent dictator. He was replaced by General Arif, who was in turn replaced by his brother. And then came the Ba’ath Party. When the Ba’ath party came to power, Iraq already had no democratic tradition. Even the partial democracy the country had under the monarchy was less than fifty-percent democratic. Elections were twisted and forged all the time — except for one case in 1954 — but it was hardly representative or egalitarian. The British left a system which looked like a constitutional monarchy, but it was only a very marginal democracy.

When the Ba’ath Party came to power after the military coup 1968 — a coup in which Saddam played a prominent role — there was not a single shred of democracy left in Iraq. During the previous decade, between 1958 and 1968, some newspapers that did not exactly represent the government’s position were allowed to publish, but even these were only mildly critical of the regime, on occasion. There was a very limited freedom of speech during that decade; one could criticize the government to his friends; he could even sit in a coffee shop or a bar — and there were bars then — and laugh at the government if it was not done too offensively. The atmosphere was “half-relaxed,” but real criticism was muted and muffled.

Perhaps the government under the Generals Qasim, Arif I, and Arif II can be labelled an “authoritarian regime” and not exactly a full dictatorship. The Ba’ath Party, however, introduced such a dictatorship. They went one step further; the little freedom of speech that had existed was largely eliminated by 1970, along with relative freedom of assembly. Student gatherings and religious ceremonies — both Sunni and, even, Shia — were allowed between 1968 and 1970, for example; students, gathering in University lecture halls, would not necessarily criticize the government, but they would give vent for their Shia identity. These rallies were organized by a clandestine Shia party called “Dawa” — Nouri al-Maliki, the current Iraqi Prime Minister, was a member of this party. And for the first two years of the Ba’ath regime, these type of events were allowed.

But in 1970, when Saddam was in charge of internal security, the leadership decided the situation was too risky, and started spying on people very much in the East-German or Soviet style. They had tens of thousands of agents around the country reporting on their neighbors for some sort of small compensation or to protect themselves; Iraq turned into a real police state. Newspapers were closed, Independent schools were turned into government-run institutions. The government started controlling the Mosques as well, sending spies to report on what each cleric was preaching.

Relatedly, the Shia were already the “inferior majority” in Iraq; the regime did not trust them. Since the monarchical government in the 1950s, the Sunni had been in power in Iraq.The Shia communities were regarded as a security risk, and even as collaborators with Shiite Iran. However, all the other regimes except for the Ba’ath tolerated a great deal of Shia autonomy. For example, in Najaf and Karbala, the religious Shia university was independent; it did not receive any financial support from the government, but it was also allowed to gather donations from across the Muslim world. The curriculum was prepared by the university alone, and nobody in the regime seriously examined what the university was doing with the donations they did gather.

However, Saddam changed this situation in the 1970s. He introduced a few state laws that allowed him to watch exactly how much money the university administration got, what they did with it, and he intervened very heavily with the curriculum and faculty. That created a great deal of antagonism. Tragically, Saddam did truly want to integrate the Shia into the state machine, and many of them became party members. But he could not break down the Shia religious community to make them docile followers of the Ba’ath regime. The Iraqi Shia, although not enamored with the Iranians, who are Persian rather than Arab, always looked to Iran for a sense of security.

Considering his incredible power over Iraqi society during his rule, it is important to understand whence Saddam may have drawn his authority. Was he an anomaly, or a product of his time and culture? 

That is a very interesting question that I cannot answer one way or another; I would say he was both. The last years of the monarchy from 1945 to 1958 in Iraq were marked by improvement in many key areas: it integrated Shia; it became more democratic; it became less corrupt. It was, by 1958, perhaps twenty-five-percent democratic.

Then there was an officer’s coup d’etat; the king and his ministers were butchered by the poor of Baghdad. There was a great deal of pent-up frustration, very much like what happened in Egypt’s Tahrir Square this past year, except it was more violent and it was military-led. Even General Qasim, the Revolutionary leader, lost his life because he was a benevolent dictator: he simply did not kill enough people. Had he killed all the people he should have killed, he would have remained in power until his own natural death. His regime was not stable, and he killed only those who revolted against him with weapons, and not those who conspired against him secretly.

Finally, after two more generals, the Ba’ath took over, but even they were not dictatorial enough to prevent another coup. So by the time Saddam came to power in 1979, he had reached the very logical but extremely inhumane conclusion that he could never allow any form of dissent or disagreement within the Ba’ath Party. When the slightest controversy arose, he chopped off the heads of everybody who was against him, and not wait for them to chop his head off. Moreover, he could not allow any opposition against him within the entire country. He started killing communists, Shia, and Sunni fundamentalists. He thought that to rule Iraq he needed to kill all dissent and keep the broader population under threat of death and surveillance. Just after Saddam became president in 1979, for example, he executed five high-ranking members of the Revolutionary Command Council, about thirty more of the second-highest institution (the Party Leadership), and a few hundred other lower down the political hierarchy whom he did not trust; he nipped a revolt in the bud. At the time, Saddam took the conclusion that he cannot allow any dissent to the most extreme end. His top advisors thus became very afraid to speak out; those who did — who felt extremely secure in their position — spoke very reverently, very politely, and very meekly.

Nouri al-Maliki has, since his victory in the 2010 elections, attempted to consolidate the central government’s power at the expense of parliament, provincial governments, and other independent checks and balances of post-Saddam governance. Do his actions today remind Iraqis of the way in which Saddam gained political power? 

Many say so, but I say not yet. As I mentioned before, Saddam drew the most extreme conclusions to past developments when he came to power. Could someone else have reached different conclusions and still survived? This question cannot be answered, but there were many in the ruling party who were critical of Saddam, who felt he was using far too much violence. Their approach would have been to go back to the system that existed under Arif or Qasim: a very authoritarian, semi-dictatorial rule. They criticized Saddam, but eventually they were also very dead. It is impossible to know what would have happened had they managed to rule Iraq.

However, Saddam’s dictatorial rule did create, after thirty years, a great deal of antagonism in Iraq, even amongst the Sunni communities, and certainly amongst the Shia and the Kurds. In Iraq, under the Americans, there was a definite readiness to go for a far more democratic system. Even though many in Iraq today say that Maliki is becoming a new Saddam, he is certainly not; had he resorted to Saddam’s techniques, Iraqis would not have tolerated it. Maliki cannot afford to be a true dictator like Saddam. He is, though, slowly eliminating his political opponents on the fringe mostly through legal but semi-legitimate procedures. The best example is Tariq al-Hashimi — Vice President — who was chased out of Baghdad to Kurdistan, and later even further. He would have been arrested had he stayed, and found guilty of using terrorist groups in 2006 to orchestrate illegal bombing attacks.

Will Maliki ever become like Saddam Hussein? No; Iraq cannot ever regress to the situation that existed under Saddam. First, Maliki cannot do anything to the Kurds; they have their own system and can protect themselves with Turkish and American support. He cannot really eliminate the Sunnis, who would immediately turn to Saudi Arabia; he can intimidate and isolate them, which he does. He also has a problem within the Shia camp; Moqtada al-Sadr is very critical of his rule. Moqtada al-Sadr is a black sheep in Iraq, but being the “bad boy” he is now doing a good job threatening to support Maliki’s rivals if the government in Baghdad does not change its methods.

Ultimately, there is a limit to what Maliki can do about these various groups, but within these limitations he is doing what he can to consolidate his power. There is not really democracy in Iraq; the situation today is very close to what it was under the monarchy.


AMATZIA BARAM is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa. Between 1984 and 1988 he was a member of a small team advising former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Arab and Gulf affairs. Since then he has advised various branches of the Israeli and United States governments under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush about Iraq and the Gulf region.

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