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
(see Paramilitary Forces; Internal Security , ch. 5).
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 (see The Role of Government , ch.
3), 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
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
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
(see The Emergence of Saddam Husayn, 1968-79 , ch. 1); 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.
Data as of May 1988