Iraq Table of Contents

The Baath Party

In early 1988, the Baath Party continued to stress parallelism focused on "regional" (qutri) and "national" (qawmi) goals, following the Baath doctrine that the territorially and politically divided Arab countries were merely "regions" of a collective entity called "The Arab Nation." Hence the Baath movement in one country was considered merely an aspect of, or a phase leading to, "a unified democratic socialist Arab nation." That nation, when it materialized, would be under a single, unified Arab national leadership. Theoretically, therefore, success or failure at the regional level would have a corresponding effect on the movement toward that Arab nation. Moreover, the critical test of legitimacy for any Baath regime would necessarily be whether or not the regime's policies and actions were compatible with the basic aims of the revolution-- aims epitomized in the principles of "unity, freedom, and socialism."

The Baath Party in Iraq, like its counterparts in other Arab regions (states), derived from the official founding congress in Damascus in 1947. This conclave of pan-Arab intellectuals was inspired by the ideas of two Syrians, Michel Aflaq and Salah ad Din al Bitar, who are generally regarded as the fathers of the Baath movement. Several Iraqis, including Abd ar Rahman ad Damin and Abd al Khaliq al Khudayri, attended this congress and became members of the party. Upon their return to Baghdad, they formed the Iraqi branch of the Baath. Damin became the first secretary general of the Iraqi Baath.

From its early years, the Iraqi Baath recruited converts from a small number of college and high school students, intellectuals, and professionals--virtually all of whom were urban Sunni Arabs. A number of Baath high school members entered the Military College, where they influenced several classmates to join the party. Important military officers who became Baath members in the early 1950s included Ahmad Hasan al Bakr, Salih Mahdi Ammash, and Abd Allah Sultan, all of whom figured prominently in Iraqi political affairs in later years.

During the 1950s, the Baath was a clandestine party, and its members were subject to arrest if their identities were discovered. The Baath Party joined with other opposition parties to form the underground United National Front and participated in the activities that led to the 1958 revolution. The Baathists hoped that the new, republican government would favor pan-Arab causes, especially a union with Egypt, but instead the regime was dominated by non-Baathist military officers who did not support Arab unity or other Baath principles. Some younger members of the party, including Saddam Husayn, became convinced that Iraqi leader Abd al Karim Qasim had to be removed, and they plotted his assassination. The October 1959 attempt on Qasim's life, however, was bungled; Saddam Husayn fled Iraq, while other party members were arrested and tried for treason. The Baath was forced underground again, and it experienced a period of internal dissension as members debated over which tactics were appropriate to achieve their political objectives. The party's second attempt to overthrow Qasim, in February 1963, was successful, and it resulted in the formation of the country's first Baath government. The party, however, was more divided than ever between ideologues and more pragmatic members. Because of this lack of unity, the Baath's coup partners were able to outmaneuver it and, within nine months, to expel all Baathists from the government. It was not until 1965 that the Baath overcame the debilitating effects of ideological and of personal rivalries. The party then reorganized under the direction of General Bakr as secretary general with Saddam Husayn as his deputy. Both men were determined to return the Baath to power. In July 1968, the Baath finally staged a successful coup.

After the Baath takeover, Bakr became president of the regime, and he initiated programs aimed at the establishment of a "socialist, unionist, and democratic" Iraq. This was done, according to the National Action Charter, with scrupulous care for balancing the revolutionary requirements of Iraq on the one hand and the needs of the "Arab nation" on the other. According to a Baath Party pronouncement in January 1974, "Putting the regional above the national may lead to statism, and placing the national over the regional may lead to rash and childish action." This protestation notwithstanding, the government's primary concerns since 1968 have been domestic issues rather than pan- Arab ones.

In 1968 the Baath regime confronted a wide range of problems, such as ethnic and sectarian tensions, the stagnant condition of agriculture, commerce, and industry, the inefficiency and the corruption of government, and the lack of political consensus among the three main sociopolitical groups--the Shia Arabs, the Sunni Arabs, and the Kurds. The difficulties of consensus building were compounded by the pervasive apathy and mistrust at the grass-roots levels of all sects, by the shortage of qualified party cadres to serve as the standard-bearers of the Baath regime, and by the Kurdish armed insurgency. Rivalry with Syria and with Egypt for influence within the Arab world and the frontier dispute with Iran also complicated the regime's efforts to build the nation.

Since 1968 the Baath has attempted to create a strong and unified Iraq, through formal government channels and through political campaigns designed to eradicate what it called "harmful prerevolutionary values and practices," such as exploitation, social inequities, sectarian loyalties, apathy, and lack of civil spirit. Official statements called for abandonment of traditional ways in favor of a new life-style fashioned on the principles of patriotism, national loyalty, collectivism, participation, selflessness, love of labor, and civic responsibility. These "socialist principles and practices" would be instilled by the party's own example, through the state educational system, and through youth and other popular organizations. The Baath particularly emphasized "military training" for youth; such training was considered essential for creating "new men in the new society" and for defending the republic from the hostile forces of Zionism, imperialism, anti-Arab chauvinism (e.g., from Iran), rightists, opportunists, and reactionaries.

The Baath's major goal since 1968 has been to socialize the economy. By the late 1980s, the party had succeeded in socializing a significant part of the national economy, including agriculture, commerce, industry, and oil. Programs to collectivize agriculture were reversed in 1981, but government investment in industrial production remained important in the late 1980s. Large-scale industries such as iron, steel, and petrochemicals were fully owned and managed by the government, as were many medium-sized factories that manufactured textiles, processed food, and turned out construction materials.

The Baath's efforts to create a unified Arab nation have been more problematic. The party has not abandoned its goal of Arab unity. This goal, however, has become a long-term ideal rather than a short-term objective. President Saddam Husayn proclaimed the new view in 1982 by stating that Baathists now "believe that Arab unity must not take place through the elimination of the local and national characteristics of any Arab country. . . . but must be achieved through common fraternal opinion." In practice this meant that the Iraqi Baath Party had accepted unity of purpose among Arab leaders, rather than unification of Arab countries, as more important for the present.

As of early 1988, the Baath Party claimed about 10 percent of the population, a total of 1.5 million supporters and sympathizers; of this total, full party members, or cadres, were estimated at only 30,000, or 0.2 percent. The cadres were the nucleus of party organization, and they functioned as leaders, motivators, teachers, administrators, and watchdogs. Generally, party recruitment procedures emphasized selectivity rather than quantity, and those who desired to join the party had to pass successfully through several apprentice-like stages before being accepted into full membership. The Baath's elitist approach derived from the principle that the party's effectiveness could only be measured by its demonstrable ability to mobilize and to lead the people, and not by "size, number, or form." Participation in the party was virtually a requisite for social mobility.

The basic organizational unit of the Baath was the party cell or circle (halaqah). Composed of between three and seven members, cells functioned at the neighborhood or the village level, where members met to discuss and to carry out party directives. A minimum of two and a maximum of seven cells formed a party division (firqah). Divisions operated in urban quarters, larger villages, offices, factories, schools, and other organizations. Division units were spread throughout the bureaucracy and the military, where they functioned as the ears and eyes of the party. Two to five divisions formed a section (shabah). A section operated at the level of a large city quarter, a town, or a rural district. Above the section was the branch (fira), which was composed of at least two sections and which operated at the provincial level. There were twenty-one Baath Party branches in Iraq, one in each of the eighteen provinces and three in Baghdad. The union of all the branches formed the party's congress, which elected the Regional Command.

The Regional Command was both the core of party leadership and the top decision-making body. It had nine members, who were elected for five-year terms at regional congresses of the party. Its secretary general (also called the regional secretary) was the party's leader, and its deputy secretary general was second in rank and in power within the party hierarchy. The members of the command theoretically were responsible to the Regional Congress that, as a rule, was to convene annually to debate and to approve the party's policies and programs; actually, the members were chosen by Saddam Husayn and other senior party leaders to be "elected" by the Regional Congress, a formality seen as essential to the legitimation of party leadership.

Above the Regional Command was the National Command of the Baath Party, the highest policy-making and coordinating council for the Baath movement throughout the Arab world. The National Command consisted of representatives from all regional commands and was responsible to the National Congress, which convened periodically. It was vested with broad powers to guide, to coordinate, and to supervise the general direction of the movement, especially with respect to relationships among the regional Baath parties and with the outside world. These powers were to be exercised through a national secretariat that would direct policy-formulating bureaus.

In reality, the National Command did not oversee the Baath movement as a whole in 1988 because there continued to be no single command. In 1966 a major schism within the Baath movement had resulted in the creation of two rival National Commands, one based in Damascus and the other in Baghdad. Both commands claim to be the legitimate authority for the Baath, but since 1966 they have been mutually antagonistic. Michel Aflaq, one of the original cofounders of the Baath Party, was the secretary general of the Baghdad-based National Command, and Saddam Husayn was the vice-chairman. In practice, the Syrian Regional Command, under Hafiz al Assad, controlled the Damascus-based National Command of the Baath Party, while the Iraqi Regional Command controlled the Baghdad-based National Command.

Theoretically, the Iraqi Regional Command made decisions about Baath Party policy based on consensus. In practice, all decisions were made by the party's secretary general, Saddam Husayn, who since 1979 had also been chairman of the RCC and president of the republic. He worked closely with a small group of supporters, especially members of the Talfah family from the town of Tikrit; he also dealt ruthlessly with suspected opposition to his rule from within the party. In 1979 several high-ranking Baathists were tried and were executed for allegedly planning a coup; other prominent party members were forcibly retired in 1982. Saddam Husayn's detractors accused him of monopolizing power and of promoting a cult of personality.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress