Government and Politics
THE POLITICAL SYSTEM in 1988 was in what was officially characterized as a "transitional" phase. This description meant that the current method of rule by decree, which had been in effect since 1968, would continue until the goal of a socialist, democratic republic with Islam as the state religion was attained. The end of the transition period was to be marked by the formal enactment of a permanent constitution. The timing and the specific circumstances that would terminate the transitional stage had not been specified as of early 1988.
The country remained under the regime of the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party, which had seized power through a coup d'etat in July 1968. The legality of government institutions and actions was based on the Provisional Constitution of July 16, 1970, which embodied the basic principles of the Baath Party-- Arab unity, freedom, and socialism. These principles were in turn rooted in the pan-Arab aspirations of the party, aspirations sanctified through identification with the historic right and destiny of all Arabs to unite under the single leadership of "the Arab Nation."
The most powerful decision-making body in Iraq, the tenmember Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which functioned as the top executive and legislative organ of the state, was for all practical purposes an arm of the Baath Party. All members of the RCC were also members of the party's Regional Command, or state apparatus. President Saddam Husayn was both the chairman of the RCC and the secretary general of the Baath's Regional Command. He was generally recognized as the most powerful political figure in the country.
From its earliest days, the Baath Party was beset by personality clashes and by factional infighting. These problems were a primary cause of the failure of the first Baath attempt to govern Iraq in 1963. After the Baath returned to power in 1968, intraparty fissures were generally held in check, albeit not eliminated, by President Ahmad Hasan al Bakr. When Saddam Husayn succeeded to the presidency in 1979, he also commanded the loyalty of the major elements of the Baath.
Saddam Husayn and other Baath leaders have always regarded the ability to balance endemic intraparty tensions--such as those between military and civilian elements and among personalities across boundaries of specialization--as the key to success in Baghdad. Above all, they perceived harmony in the militarycivilian coalition as pivotal. Although the Baath had begun recruiting within the Iraqi military as early as 1958, and within ten years military members constituted the backbone of the party's power, civilian Baath leaders maintained overall control of the party.
Iraqi politics under the Baath regime were generally geared toward mobilizing support for the regime. Loyal opposition had no place, and it was not recognized as legitimate. The party leaders believed competitive politics ill-suited to Iraq, at least during the indefinite transitional period. They condemned partisan political activity, which they insisted had had damaging consequences on national unity and integration. The Baath also invoked Iraq's unhappy legacy of ethnic and regional cleavages as justification for harsh curbs on political rights.
In 1988, twenty years after the Baath had come to power, it still was not possible to assess popular attitudes toward Saddam Husayn, toward the Baath Party, toward political institutions, or toward political issues because there had been insufficient field research in the country. Even though elections for a National Assembly had been held in 1980 and again in 1984, these had been carefully controlled by the government, and genuinely free elections had not been held for more than thirty years. Politicians or groups opposed to the principles of the 1968 Baath Revolution of July 17 to 30 were not permitted to operate openly. Those who aspired to be politically active had few choices: they could join the highly selective Baath Party, remain dormant, go underground or into exile, or join the Baath-sponsored Progressive National Front (PNF).
The PNF, which came into existence in 1974, was based on a national action charter that called for collaboration between the Baath and each of the other parties considered to be both progressive and nationalist. The PNF served as the only riskfree , non-Baath forum for political participation, although even this channel was denied to those whose loyalties to the regime were suspect. The Baath Party's objectives in establishing the front were to provide the semblance of broad popular support for the government as well as to provide the facade of alliance among the Baath and other parties. The Baath, however, held a dominant position within the front and therefore assumed sole responsibility for carrying out the decisions of the front's executive commission, which was composed of the Baath's most important members and sympathizers.
In early 1988, the war with Iran continued to preoccupy Saddam Husayn and his associates. Approximately 75,000 Iraqis had been killed in the war, and about 250,000 had been wounded; more than 50,000 Iraqis were being held as prisoners of war in Iran. Property damage was estimated in the tens of billions of dollars; destruction was especially severe in the southern part of the country.
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