JOSEPH SASSOON — Endless violence has fundamentally cleaved Iraqi society. Yet there are no incentives to change this system.
On the surface, Saddam’s regime appeared sectarian in its political composition, comprising unequal numbers of high-level Sunni posts. Yet a closer examination of the President’s actions indicates he favored not Sunni, but particularly Tikriti Sunni individuals when determining government portfolios — a result of his search for security in trusted communities. To what extent were sectarianism and tribalism employed to ensure the survival of Saddam’s state?
Saddam’s utmost concern was not sectarianism, but rather loyalty. The President showed throughout the 1990s a willingness to post Shi’is, Kurds, and Christians throughout the different organizations and organs of the state. And on the other hand, it is important to recall that Saddam executed his two sons-in-law, who were both from Tikrit and were Sunni, because they were disloyal. Of course, not every Iraqi enjoyed the same opportunities or choices just because he was loyal. However, this distinction between sect and loyalty is important. Many scholars misjudged the 1990s, writing that there were no Shi’is in the Ba’ath Party — this claim is simply untrue.
The issue of Shi’ism is important to understand. The emphasis placed on Shi’i identity, especially after the Shi’i uprisings in southern Iraq during the 1990s, was tied closely to the President’s fear of anything to do with Khomeini or Iran. One example, a transcript of a meeting amongst the Revolutionary Council in Baghdad, is particularly illuminative. The cabinet had convened to discuss Sudanese president Gaafar Nimeiry. Saddam, however, mistakenly asked those present about the “situation with Khomeini.” He readily admitted that the Iran issue was overwhelming his political judgement.
Throughout the early 1970s Saddam often claimed that the Ba’ath Party was losing its battle against the Iraqi communists because it could not attract enough youth. From an intellectual point of view, young people were migrating to communist ideologies — it had a stronger, more coherent philosophy. In the 1990s, he said the same sort of things, but this time that the State was losing its youth to Khomeinism and religion. Both statements were, in fact, factually correct. Yet the regime’s fear should not be understood as strictly sectarian: despite the President’s phobias, in the final class of the Iraqi Military College — which matriculated in 2002 just before the US-led invasion — around 42 percent of the cadets were Shi’is.
In 1982 the Central Report of the Ninth Regional Congress in Baghdad concluded that across Iraq “secessionism, sectarianism, and tribalism are tearing…the unity of society to pieces.” Yet a decade later, the Saddam admitted that tribal shaykhs retained significant enough clout in rural areas to competing against party members. How could these tribal leaders maintain such influence within the authoritarian state structure?
With regards to three key topics, the speeches of the early 1970s were dramatically different from those of the 1990s: tribalism, the role of women, and the role of religion. In the 1990s, the regime emphasized tribalism and deconstructed the role women played outside the home as producers of children. Saddam also launched a faith campaign to establish the Iraqi state as a religious entity. He built mosques; he forced the radio to broadcast more religious programs.
Tribalism, however, could not simply disappear. There was no doubt that the tribal groups lost a great deal of power in the 1970s. There was not much these groups could have done to counter this loss. The central regime had huge financial assets after the quadrupling of oil prices. The tribal groups wanted to participate in these gains, and realized they could not fight against the system of which they hoped to be a part. By cooperating with the central government, they were able to receive some money from Baghdad. Yet the basic tribal structures across the country never fundamentally changed during this short period.
During the 1980s, Saddam realized that he increasingly needed these tribal groups’ loyalty and cooperation — first as sources whence soldiers could be drawn for the war against Iran between 1980-1988; in the 1990s, as soon as the intifadas across southern and northern Iraq took place, the President knew he needed a strong tribal alliance to retain power. He started dressing as a shaykh. For Saddam, ultimately, there was very little ideology. For him, changing ideological positions to accommodate the exigencies of political survival was a simple matter. After comparing the President’s speeches from 1971-1972 and 1991-1992, one could be forgiven for thinking the speakers were two extreme opponents, not one man changing his views in 20 years.
Throughout his rule, Saddam attempted to construct the narrative of a united Iraqi nation. Yet the privilege-based system in Baghdad proved equally divisive. Who were the Iraqis, according to the President — which groups were included or excluded from the envisaged state?
For Saddam, any good Iraqi was unshakably loyal to his Ba’ath Party. Throughout his rule, however, he was consistent in his identification of the youth as the foundation of the State. His constant badgering of party bureaucrats and chiefs centered on a desire for younger recruits to replace Baghdad’s old apparatchiks. He famously declared in one of his speeches that the teacher of a kindergarten was more important than the teacher of a primary school, who was in turn more important than the high school instructor or university professor. He believed that by the age of 18 or 19, it was too late to mold a loyal party member. In the new Iraq Saddam envisaged — especially during the 1970s — the vast majority of the country enjoyed the benefits of this philosophy: in fields of education, health, women’s rights, and infrastructure.
During the 1980s, however, this focus began to shift under pressure from the ongoing fighting against Iran. To be a good Iraqi in that period, one had to be a good soldier. By the 1990s, those who could continue to produce in spite of the sanctions assumed utmost importance. At this time it is also important to recall that a great deal of disfunctionality had handicapped the regime’s ability to govern effectively. The sanctions had introduced a great deal of corruption. Theft had decimated the middle class. Inflation reached 300 percent.
It seems that sectarian identities and divisions have played a significant role in establishing political legitimacy for Iraqi regimes since 2003. Have post-2003 governments used similar rhetoric as the Ba’ath regime when establishing their legitimacy?
The short answer is no — there is no real connection between Ba’ath rhetoric and contemporary Iraqi political discourse. The creation of Iraq’s parliament represents a major difference between the two periods in question. It is structured around sectarianism, and thus encourages that kind of language. After 2003, power was structured in Iraq according to a sectarian model. The lack of other proper governmental institutions in Iraq compounded the effects of this policy. Iraqis turned to the confessional groups that supposedly best represented their interests. Sectarianism became inseparable from the post-2003 environment because it was the defining factor of an individual’s identity. It is important to note that the Sunni-Shia divide always existed. But these groups coexisted. Yet today these labels carry a political and social weight that is unique: they are labels by which individuals are represented in government, and are thus more powerfully divisive than before.
Since independence, Iraqis have lived under a king, dictator, and theoretically since 2003, democratically elected prime ministers. How has the character of authoritarianism practiced by successive regimes changed between individual leaders and governments?
In Iraq — unlike countries like Libya, Syria, or Egypt after the Arab Spring movements — all the institutions of the previous regime were destroyed. In theory, it should have therefore been easier to rebuild the Iraqi state along democratic lines than in other Arab countries. Unfortunately, Iraq was cursed by the figure of Nouri al-Maliki, who was as authoritarian as previous regimes. The methods of exerting power had changed; the levels of violence against the population differed. But it is crucial to consider systems, not statistics — and the system did not change in a meaningful way after 2003. Iraqi people were given the chance to vote in elections every four years — more or less a free election. The next day, these people returned to lives of corruption, violence, embezzlement, and authoritarianism. This pattern follows a broader trend across the Arab World. There have simply not been enough incentives to change these systems.
Historical fiction is an interesting exercise in this case: what if Saddam had not gone to war with Iran or Kuwait, and continued along the trajectories set in the 1970s? Important advancements in education, health, or civil infrastructure projects may have progressed. In the late 1970s, economists projected that Iraq, in 2000, could be amongst the top 15 world economies. The country not only had large amounts of money, like the Gulf states, but also a shared sense of national identity amongst the population, which thought of itself as Iraqi first and foremost. Endless violence and military conflict, however, led Baghdad to practice more authoritarian rule, destroying this national strength — this is a very broad answer, but highlights a fundamental feature in the development of governmental structures in Iraq.
This summer’s catastrophe at ISIS’ hands posed serious questions regarding the Baghdad government’s ability to represent the Iraqi nation, and not just certain communities with it. In a military conflict that seems only to deepen inter-communal division, how can Baghdad transform its rhetoric to provide for more inclusive governance post-ISIS?
The one positive result of this summer’s disaster is that Maliki has gone. Had the disaster in Mosul not occurred, it is inconceivable that any group could have pushed Maliki from power. Introducing political changes to the system that has been left will require a very strong will and a great deal of support from the international community. The recent falling price of oil has handicapped these efforts. Having a budget deficit will force Iraq to reduce its expenditure and allocations, which means less enthusiasm for the central government in Baghdad. It is simply too early to judge whether the current leadership can confront these evolving challenges.
JOSEPH SASSOON is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he studies authoritarian regime structures in the Arab World. He is the author of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime.