Iraq Table of Contents

In February 1979, Saddam Husayn's ambitious plans and the course of Iraqi history were drastically altered by the overthrow of the shah of Iran. Husayn viewed the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as both a threat and an opportunity. The downfall of the shah and the confusion prevailing in postrevolutionary Iran suited Saddam Husayn's regional ambitions. A weakened Iran seemed to offer an opportunity to project Iraqi power over the Gulf, to regain control over the Shatt al Arab waterway, and to augment Iraqi claims to leadership of the Arab world. More ominously, the activist Shia Islam preached by the leader of the revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, threatened to upset the delicate Sunni-Shia balance in Iraq, and a hostile Iran would threaten Iraqi security in the Gulf. Furthermore, deepseated personal animosities separated the two leaders. The two men held widely divergent ideologies, and in 1978 Husayn had expelled Khomeini from Iraq--reportedly at the request of the shah--after he had lived thirteen years in exile in An Najaf.

For much of Iraqi history, the Shias have been both politically impotent and economically depressed. Beginning in the sixteenth century, when the Ottoman Sunnis favored their Iraqi coreligionists in the matter of educational and employment opportunities, the Shias consistently have been denied political power. Thus, although the Shias constitute more then 50 percent of the population, they occupy a relatively insignificant number of government posts. On the economic level, aside from a small number of wealthy landowners and merchants, the Shias historically were exploited as sharecropping peasants or menially employed slum dwellers. Even the prosperity brought by the oil boom of the 1970s only trickled down slowly to the Shias; however, beginning in the latter half of the 1970s, Saddam's populist economic policies had a favorable impact on them, enabling many to join the ranks of a new Shia middle class.

Widespread Shia demonstrations took place in Iraq in February 1977, when the government, suspecting a bomb, closed Karbala to pilgrimage at the height of a religious ceremony. Violent clashes between police and Shia pilgrims spread from Karbala to An Najaf and lasted for several days before army troops were called in to quell the unrest. It was the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, however, that transformed Shia dissatisfaction with the Baath into an organized religiously based opposition. The Baath leadership feared that the success of Iran's Islamic Revolution would serve as an inspiration to Iraqi Shias. These fears escalated in July 1979, when riots broke out in An Najaf and in Karbala after the government had refused Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir as Sadr's request to lead a procession to Iran to congratulate Khomeini. Even more worrisome to the Baath was the discovery of a clandestine Shia group headed by religious leaders having ties to Iran. Baqir as Sadr was the inspirational leader of the group, named Ad Dawah al Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), commonly referred to as Ad Dawah. He espoused a program similar to Khomeini's, which called for a return to Islamic precepts of government and for social justice.

Despite the Iraqi government's concern, the eruption of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran did not immediately destroy the Iraqi-Iranian rapprochement that had prevailed since the 1975 Algiers Agreement. As a sign of Iraq's desire to maintain good relations with the new government in Tehran, President Bakr sent a personal message to Khomeini offering "his best wishes for the friendly Iranian people on the occasion of the establishment of the Islamic Republic." In addition, as late as the end of August 1979, Iraqi authorities extended an invitation to Mehdi Bazargan, the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to visit Iraq with the aim of improving bilateral relations. The fall of the moderate Bazargan government in late 1979, however, and the rise of Islamic militants preaching an expansionist foreign policy soured Iraqi-Iranian relations.

The principal events that touched off the rapid deterioration in relations occurred during the spring of 1980. In April the Iranian-supported Ad Dawah attempted to assassinate Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz. Shortly after the failed grenade attack on Tariq Aziz, Ad Dawah was suspected of attempting to assassinate another Iraqi leader, Minister of Culture and Information Latif Nayyif Jasim. In response, the Iraqis immediately rounded up members and supporters of Ad Dawah and deported to Iran thousands of Shias of Iranian origin. In the summer of 1980, Saddam Husayn ordered the executions of presumed Ad Dawah leader Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqr as Sadr and his sister.

In September 1980, border skirmishes erupted in the central sector near Qasr-e Shirin, with an exchange of artillery fire by both sides. A few weeks later, Saddam Husayn officially abrogated the 1975 treaty between Iraq and Iran and announced that the Shatt al Arab was returning to Iraqi sovereignty. Iran rejected this action and hostilities escalated as the two sides exchanged bombing raids deep into each other's territory. Finally, on September 23, Iraqi troops marched into Iranian territory, beginning what was to be a protracted and extremely costly war.

The Iran-Iraq War permanently altered the course of Iraqi history. It strained Iraqi political and social life, and led to severe economic dislocations. Viewed from a historical perspective, the outbreak of hostilities in 1980 was, in part, just another phase of the ancient Persian-Arab conflict that had been fueled by twentieth-century border disputes. Many observers, however, believe that Saddam Husayn's decision to invade Iran was a personal miscalculation based on ambition and a sense of vulnerability. Saddam Husayn, despite having made significant strides in forging an Iraqi nation-state, feared that Iran's new revolutionary leadership would threaten Iraq's delicate SunniShia balance and would exploit Iraq's geostrategic vulnerabilities--Iraq's minimal access to the Persian Gulf, for example. In this respect, Saddam Husayn's decision to invade Iran has historical precedent; the ancient rulers of Mesopotamia, fearing internal strife and foreign conquest, also engaged in frequent battles with the peoples of the highlands.


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The most reliable work on the ancient history of Iraq is George Roux's Ancient Iraq, which covers the period from prehistory through the Hellenistic period. Another good source, which places Sumer in the context of world history, is J.M. Roberts's The Pelican History of the World. A concise and authoritative work on Shia Islam is Moojan Momen's An Introduction to Shii Islam. The article by D. Sourdel, "The Abbasid Caliphate," in The Cambridge History of Islam, provides an excellent overview of the medieval period. Stephen Longrigg's and Frank Stoakes's Iraq contains a historical summary of events before independence as well as a detailed account of the period from independence to 1958. Majid Khadduri's Republican Iraq is one of the best studies of Iraqi politics from the 1958 revolution to the Baath coup of 1968. His Socialist Iraq: A Study in Iraqi Politics since 1968 details events up to 1977. A seminal work on Iraqi socioeconomic movements and trends between the Ottoman period and the late 1970s is Hanna Batatu's The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. The most comprehensive study of Iraq in the modern period is Phebe Marr's The Modern History of Iraq. Another good study, which focuses on the political and the economic development of Iraq from its foundation as a state until 1977, is Edith and E.F. Penrose's Iraq: International Relations and National Development. An excellent recent account of the Iraqi Baath is provided by Christine Helms's Iraq, Eastern Flank of the Arab World.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress