The Politics of Alliance: The Progressive National Front

Iraq Table of Contents

In 1988 Iraq was no nearer to the goal of democracy than it had been when the Baath came to power in 1968. The establishment of "popular democracy" as a national objective remained essentially unfulfilled. Political activities were restricted to those defined by the Baath regime. The party, however, recognized that not all citizens would become party members, and it sought to provide a controlled forum for non-Baathist political participation. It created the Progressive National Front (PNF) in 1974 to ally the Baath with other political parties that were considered to be progressive. As a basis for this cooperation President Bakr had proclaimed the National Action Charter in 1971. In presenting the charter for public discussion, the Baath had invited "all national and progressive forces and elements" to work for the objective of a "democratic, revolutionary, and unitary" Iraq by participating in the "broadest coalition among all the national, patriotic, and progressive forces."

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was one of the important political groups that the Baathists wanted involved in the PNF. Discussions between the Baath and the ICP took place periodically over three years before the latter was induced to join the PNF in 1974. For Baath leaders, the PNF was a means of containing potential opposition to their policies on the part of the ICP. Although the ICP was too small to pose a serious armed challenge to the Baath, it was regarded as a major ideological rival. The ICP's roots were as deep as those of the Baath, because the former party had been formed by Iraqi Marxists in the 1930s. Like the Baath, the ICP was an elitist party that advocated socialist programs to benefit the masses and that appealed primarily to intellectuals. Despite these similarities, there had been a long history of antagonism between the two parties. Baathists tended to suspect the communists of ultimate loyalty to a foreign power, the Soviet Union, rather than to the Arab nation, even though the Baathists themselves regarded the Soviet Union as a friendly and progressive state after 1968.

In return for participation in the PNF, the ICP was permitted to nominate its own members for some minor cabinet posts and to carry on political and propaganda activities openly. The ICP had to agree, however, not to recruit among the armed forces and to accept Baath domination of the RCC. The ICP also recognized the Baath Party's "privileged" or leading role in the PNF: of the sixteen-member High Council that was formed to direct the PNF, eight positions were reserved for the Baath, five for other progressive parties, and only three for the communists. The ICP also agreed not to undertake any activities that would contravene the letter or spirit of the National Action Charter.

The ICP may have hoped that the PNF would gradually evolve into a genuine power-sharing arrangement. If so, these expectations were not realized. The Baath members of the High Council dominated the PNF, while the party retained a firm grip over government decision making. By 1975, friction had developed between the ICP and the Baath. During the next two years, at least twenty individual ICP members were arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison for allegedly attempting to organize communist cells within the army in contravention of the specific ban on such activities. The April 1978 Marxist coup d'etat in Afghanistan seemed to serve as a catalyst for a wholesale assault on the ICP. Convicted communists were retried, and twenty-one of them were executed; there were virulent attacks on the ICP in the Baathist press; and scores of party members and sympathizers were arrested. The ICP complained, to no apparent avail, that communists were being purged from government jobs, arrested, and tortured in prisons. By April 1979, those principal ICP leaders who had not been arrested had either fled the country or had gone underground. In 1980 the ICP formally withdrew from the PNF and announced the formation of a new political front to oppose the Baath government. Since then, however, ICP activities against the Baathists have been largely limited to a propaganda campaign.

The various Kurdish political parties were the other main focus of Baath attention for PNF membership. Three seats on the PNF were reserved for the Kurds, and initially the Baath intended that these be filled by nominees from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the oldest and largest Kurdish party. By the time the PNF was established in 1974, however, the KDP was already involved in hostilities against the government. The KDP, which originally had been formed in 1946 in Iran where Mullah Mustafa Barzani and other party cofounders had fled following the collapse of a 1945 revolt, was suspicious of the Baath's ultimate intentions with respect to self-rule for the Kurdish region. Even though Barzani himself had negotiated the March 1970 Autonomy Agreement with Saddam Husayn, he rejected Baghdad's March 1974 terms for implementing autonomy. Subsequently, full-scale warfare erupted between central government forces and KDP-organized fighters, the latter receiving military supplies covertly from Iran and from the United States. The Kurdish rebellion collapsed in March 1975, after Iran reached a rapprochement with the Baath regime and withdrew all support from the Kurds. The KDP leaders and several thousand fighters sought and obtained refuge in Iran. Barzani eventually resettled in the United States, where he died in 1979. Following Barzani's death, his son Masud became leader of the KDP; from his base in Iran he directed a campaign of guerrilla activities against Iraqi civilian and military personnel in the Kurdish region. After Iraq became involved in war with Iran, Masud Barzani generally cooperated with the Iranians in military offensives in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Barzani's decision to fight Baghdad was not supported by all Kurdish leaders, and it led to a split within the KDP. Some of these Kurds, including Barzani's eldest son, Ubaydallah, believed that the Autonomy Agreement did provide a framework for achieving practical results, and he preferred to cooperate with the Baath. Other leaders were disturbed by Barzani's acceptance of aid from Iran, Israel, and the United States, and they refused to be associated with this policy. Consequently, during 1974, rival KDP factions, and even new parties such as the Kurdish Revolutionary Party and the Kurdish Progressive Group, emerged. Although none of these parties seemed to have as extensive a base of popular support as did the KDP, their participation in the PNF permitted the Baath to claim that its policies in the Autonomous Region had the backing of progressive Kurdish forces.

The unanticipated and swift termination of KDP-central government hostilities in March 1975 resulted in more factional splits from the party. One breakaway group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under the leadership of Jalal Talabani, was committed to continuing the armed struggle for Kurdish autonomy. Until 1985, however, most of the PUK's skirmishes were with fellow Kurdish fighters of the KDP, and Talabani himself held intermittent negotiations with Baathist representatives about joining the PNF. Other KDP splinter groups agreed to cooperate with the central government. In order to accommodate them, and in recognition of the fact that no single political party represented the Kurds, two additional seats, bringing the total to eighteen, were created in the PNF. Thus, the number of Kurdish representatives increased from three to five. The composition of the PNF changed again in 1980, following the withdrawal of the three ICP members; the number of Kurds remained constant.

In 1975 the Baath invited two independent progressive groups to nominate one representative each for the unreserved seats on the PNF. These seats went to the leaders of the Independent Democrats and the Progressive Nationalists. Neither of these groups was a formally organized political party, but rather each was an informal association of non-Baathist politicians who had been active before 1968. These groups had demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Baath Party that their members had renounced the former "reactionary" ideas of the various pre-revolutionary parties to which they had belonged.

In 1988 the Baath Party continued to hold the position that the PNF was indispensable as long as the Arab revolutionary movement faced dangers in Iraq and in other parts of the Arab homeland. The Baath insisted that its policy of combining its "leading role" within the front and a cooperative relationship based on "mutual respect and confidence" among itself and the front's members was correct and that, in fact, this was a major accomplishment of its rule. Nevertheless, the PNF was not an independent political institution. Although it served as a forum in which policy could be discussed, the Baath actually controlled the PNF by monopolizing executive positions, by holding half of the total seats, and by requiring that all PNF decisions must be by unanimous vote.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress