The Emergence of Saddam Husayn, 1968-79

The Emergence of Saddam Husayn, 1968-79

The Baath of 1968 was more tightly organized and more determined to stay in power than the Baath of 1963. The demise of Nasserism following the June 1967 War and the emergence of a more parochially oriented Baath in Syria freed the Iraqi Baath from the debilitating aspects of pan-Arabism. In 1963 Nasser had been able to manipulate domestic Iraqi politics; by 1968 his ideological pull had waned, enabling the Iraqi Baath to focus on pressing domestic issues. The party also was aided by a 1967 reorganization that created a militia and an intelligence apparatus and set up local branches that gave the Baath broader support. In addition, by 1968 close family and tribal ties bound the Baath's ruling clique. Most notable in this regard was the emergence of Tikritis--Sunni Arabs from the northwest town of Tikrit--related to Ahmad Hasan al Bakr. Three of the five members of the Baath's Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) were Tikritis; two, Bakr and Hammad Shihab, were related to each other. The cabinet posts of president, prime minister, and defense minister went to Tikritis. Saddam Husayn, a key leader behind the scenes, also was a Tikriti and a relative of Bakr. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baath in 1968 was that the top leadership consisted almost entirely of military men. Finally, Bakr was a much more seasoned politician in 1968 than he had been in 1963.

Less than two months after the formation of the Bakr government, a coalition of pro-Nasser elements, Arif supporters, and conservatives from the military attempted another coup. This event provided the rationale for numerous purges directed by Bakr and Saddam Husayn. Between 1968 and 1973, through a series of sham trials, executions, assassinations, and intimidations, the party ruthlessly eliminated any group or person suspected of challenging Baath rule. The Baath also institutionalized its rule by formally issuing a Provisional Constitution in July 1970. This document was a modification of an earlier constitution that had been issued in September 1968. The Provisional Constitution, which with some modifications is still in effect, granted the party-dominated RCC extensive powers and declared that new RCC members must belong to the party's Regional Command--the top policy-making and executive body of the Baathist organization.

Two men, Saddam Husayn and Bakr, increasingly dominated the party. Bakr, who had been associated with Arab nationalist causes for more than a decade, brought the party popular legitimacy. Even more important, he brought support from the army both among Baathist and non-Baathist officers, with whom he had cultivated ties for years. Saddam Husayn, on the other hand, was a consummate party politician whose formative experiences were in organizing clandestine opposition activity. He was adept at outmaneuvering--and at times ruthlessly eliminating--political opponents. Although Bakr was the older and more prestigious of the two, by 1969 Saddam Husayn clearly had become the moving force behind the party. He personally directed Baathist attempts to settle the Kurdish question and he organized the party's institutional structure.

In July 1973, after an unsuccessful coup attempt by a civilian faction within the Baath led by Nazim Kazzar, the party set out to reconsolidate its hold on power. First, the RCC amended the Provisional Constitution to give the president greater power. Second, in early 1974 the Regional Command was officially designated as the body responsible for making policy. By September 1977, all Regional Command leaders had been appointed to the RCC. Third, the party created a more pervasive presence in Iraqi society by establishing a complex network of grass-roots and intelligence-gathering organizations. Finally, the party established its own militia, which in 1978 was reported to number close to 50,000 men.

Despite Baath attempts to institutionalize its rule, real power remained in the hands of a narrowly based elite, united by close family and tribal ties. By 1977 the most powerful men in the Baath thus were all somehow related to the triumvirate of Saddam Husayn, Bakr, and General Adnan Khayr Allah Talfah, Saddam Husayn's brother-in-law who became minister of defense in 1978. All were members of the party, the RCC, and the cabinet, and all were members of the Talfah family of Tikrit, headed by Khayr Allah Talfah. Khayr Allah Talfah was Saddam Husayn's uncle and guardian, Adnan Khayr Allah's father, and Bakr's cousin. Saddam Husayn was married to Adnan Khayr Allah's sister and Adnan Khayr Allah was married to Bakr's daughter. Increasingly, the most sensitive military posts were going to the Tikritis.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Bakr was beset by illness and by a series of family tragedies. He increasingly turned over power to Saddam Husayn. By 1977 the party bureaus, the intelligence mechanisms, and even ministers who, according to the Provisional Constitution, should have reported to Bakr, reported to Saddam Husayn. Saddam Husayn, meanwhile, was less inclined to share power, and he viewed the cabinet and the RCC as rubber stamps. On July 16, 1979, President Bakr resigned, and Saddam Husayn officially replaced him as president of the republic, secretary general of the Baath Party Regional Command, chairman of the RCC, and commander in chief of the armed forces.

In foreign affairs, the Baath's pan-Arab and socialist leanings alienated both the pro-Western Arab Gulf states and the shah of Iran. The enmity between Iraq and Iran sharpened with the 1969 British announcement of a planned withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. In February 1969, Iran announced that Iraq had not fulfilled its obligations under the 1937 treaty and demanded that the border in the Shatt al Arab waterway be set at the thalweg. Iraq's refusal to honor the Iranian demand led the shah to abrogate the 1937 treaty and to send Iranian ships through the Shatt al Arab without paying dues to Iraq. In response, Iraq aided anti-shah dissidents, while the shah renewed support for Kurdish rebels. Relations between the two countries soon deteriorated further. In November 1971, the shah occupied the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, which previously had been under the sovereignty of Ras al Khaymah and Sharjah, both member states of the United Arab Emirates.

The Iraqi Baath also was involved in a confrontation with the conservative shaykhdoms of the Gulf over Iraq's support for the leftist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf. The major contention between Iraq and the conservative Gulf states, however, concerned the Kuwaiti islands of Bubiyan and Warbah that dominate the estuary leading to the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. Beginning in the early 1970s, Iraq's desire to develop a deep-water port on the Gulf led to demands that the two islands be transferred or leased to Iraq. Kuwait refused, and in March 1973 Iraqi troops occupied As Samitah, a border post in the northeast corner of Kuwait. Saudi Arabia immediately came to Kuwait's aid and, together with the Arab League, obtained Iraq's withdrawal.

The most serious threat facing the Baath was a resurgence of Kurdish unrest in the north. ln March 1970, the RCC and Mustafa Barzani announced agreement to a fifteen-article peace plan. This plan was almost identical to the previous Bazzaz-Kurdish settlement that had never been implemented. The Kurds were immediately pacified by the settlement, particularly because Barzani was permitted to retain his 15,000 Kurdish troops. Barzani's troops then became an official Iraqi frontier force called the Pesh Merga, meaning "Those Who Face Death." The plan, however, was not completely satisfactory because the legal status of the Kurdish territory remained unresolved. At the time of the signing of the peace plan, Barzani's forces controlled territory from Zakhu in the north to Halabjah in the southeast and already had established de facto Kurdish administration in most of the towns of the area. Barzani's group, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), was granted official recognition as the legitimate representative of the Kurdish people.

The 1970 agreement unraveled throughout the early 1970s. After the March 1974 Baath attempt to assassinate Barzani and his son Idris, full-scale fighting broke out. In early 1974, it appeared that the Baath had finally succeeded in isolating Barzani and the KDP by coopting the ICP and by signing a treaty with the Soviet Union, both traditionally strong supporters of the KDP. Barzani, however, compensated for the loss of Soviet and ICP support by obtaining military aid from the shah of Iran and from the United States, both of which were alarmed by increasing Soviet influence in Iraq. When Iraqi forces reached Rawanduz, threatening to block the major Kurdish artery to Iran, the shah increased the flow of military supplies to the Kurdish rebels. Using antitank missiles and artillery obtained from Iran as well as military aid from Syria and Israel, the KDP inflicted heavy losses on the Iraqi forces. To avoid a costly stalemate like that which had weakened his predecessors, Saddam Husayn sought an agreement with the shah.

In Algiers on March 6, 1975, Saddam Husayn signed an agreement with the shah that recognized the thalweg as the boundary in the Shatt al Arab, legalized the shah's abrogation of the 1937 treaty in 1969, and dropped all Iraqi claims to Iranian Khuzestan and to the islands at the foot of the Gulf. In return, the shah agreed to prevent subversive elements from crossing the border. This agreement meant an end to Iranian assistance to the Kurds. Almost immediately after the signing of the Algiers Agreement, Iraqi forces went on the offensive and defeated the Pesh Merga, which was unable to hold out without Iranian support. Under an amnesty plan, about 70 percent of the Pesh Merga surrendered to the Iraqis. Some remained in the hills of Kurdistan to continue the fight, and about 30,000 crossed the border to Iran to join the civilian refugees, then estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000.

Even before the fighting broke out in March 1974, Saddam Husayn had offered the Kurds the most comprehensive autonomy plan ever proposed. The major provisions of the plan stated that Kurdistan would be an autonomous area governed by an elected legislative and an executive council, the president of which would be appointed by the Iraqi head of state. The Kurdish council would have control over local affairs except in the areas of defense and foreign relations, which would be controlled by the central government. The autonomous region did not include the oil-rich district of Kirkuk. To facilitate the autonomy plan, Saddam Husayn's administration helped form three progovernment Kurdish parties, allocated a special budget for development in Kurdish areas, and repatriated many Kurdish refugees then living in Iran.

In addition to the conciliatory measures offered to the Kurds, Saddam Husayn attempted to weaken Kurdish resistance by forcibly relocating many Kurds from the Kurdish heartland in the north, by introducing increasing numbers of Arabs into mixed Kurdish provinces, and by razing all Kurdish villages along a 1,300 kilometer stretch of the border with Iran. Saddam Husayn's combination of conciliation and severity failed to appease the Kurds, and renewed guerrilla attacks occurred as early as March 1976. At the same time, the failure of the KDP to obtain significant concessions from the Iraqi government caused a serious split within the Kurdish resistance. In June 1975, Jalal Talabani formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK was urban-based and more leftist than the tribally based KDP. Following Barzani's death in 1975, Barzani's sons, Idris and Masud, took control of the KDP. In October 1979, Masud officially was elected KDP chairman. He issued a new platform calling for continued armed struggle against the Baath through guerrilla warfare. The effectiveness of the KDP, however, was blunted by its violent intra-Kurdish struggle with the PUK throughout 1978 and 1979.

Beginning in 1976, with the Baath firmly in power and after the Kurdish rebellion had been successfully quelled, Saddam Husayn set out to consolidate his position at home by strengthening the economy. He pursued a state-sponsored industrial modernization program that tied an increasing number of Iraqis to the Baath-controlled government. Saddam Husayn's economic policies were largely successful; they led to a wider distribution of wealth, to greater social mobility, to increased access to education and health care, and to the redistribution of land. The quadrupling of oil prices in 1973 and the subsequent oil price rises brought on by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran greatly enhanced the success of Saddam Husayn's program. The more equitable distribution of income tied to the ruling party many Iraqis who had previously opposed the central government. For the first time in modern Iraqi history, a government--albeit at times a ruthless one, had thus achieved some success in forging a national community out of the country's disparate social elements.

Success on the economic front spurred Saddam Husayn to pursue an ambitious foreign policy aimed at pushing Iraq to the forefront of the Arab world. Between 1975 and 1979, a major plank of Saddam Husayn's bid for power in the region rested on improved relations with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, and with the smaller Gulf shaykhdoms. In 1975 Iraq established diplomatic relations with Sultan Qabus of Oman and extended several loans to him. In 1978 Iraq sharply reversed its support for the Marxist regime in South Yemen. The biggest boost to Saddam Husayn's quest for regional power, however, resulted from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's signing the Camp David Accords in November 1978.

Saddam Husayn viewed Egypt's isolation within the Arab world as an opportunity for Iraq to play a leading role in Arab affairs. He was instrumental in convening an Arab summit in Baghdad that denounced Sadat's reconciliation with Israel and imposed sanctions on Egypt. He also attempted to end his long- standing feud with Syrian President Hafiz al Assad, and, in June 1979, Saddam Husayn became the first Iraqi head of state in twenty years to visit Jordan. In Amman, Saddam Husayn concluded a number of agreements with King Hussein, including one for the expansion of the port of Aqabah, regarded by Iraq as a potential replacement for ports in Lebanon and Syria.

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