Iraq’s Baath Party began as one of many Arab nationalist groups vying for power in Iraq. After its first attempt at power failed in 1963 it was finally able to assume control over the state in 1968. It went from a small minority to including a rather large share of the population. This expansion was fueled by the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s when the Baath transformed itself from a political group into one that ran social organizations, assisted the public to access services, while running the government as well. This moved into all sectors of society was facilitated by a massive recruiting program especially into areas of the country where the Baath were not represented such as amongst secondary students and women. Kanan Makiya in his famous book Republic of Fear wrote about all of the punishments and coercive techniques Saddam Hussein used to rule. New analysis based upon captured Baath documents such as that of Professor Joseph Sassoon and Professor Dina Rizk Khoury showed all of the rewards and incentives that the party also used to stay in control. That didn’t mean that repression was not used, but that there was much more to running Iraq for 35 years then just fear.
The Baath Party went from obscurity to a corporatist, semi-fascist organization that attempted to dominate every aspect of life in Iraq. In 1963 there were only around 3,000 party members out of an estimated population of 7.8 million people. That compared to 2002 when the Baath had 69 branches across the country, 612 sections, 3,787 divisions, 32,852 cells, 76 secretary generals, 1,027 branch members, 6,128 section members, 45,537 division members, 223,662 active members, 254,081 apprenticed members, 27,242 candidates, 1,113,211 supporters, and 2,328,080 sympathizers for a grand total of 3,999,044 Baathists. Out of a population of 25 million, the party encompassed 15.6% of the people, a much higher percentage than communist parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc during their heyday. The elite of the party who made decisions were around 2.4% of the total Iraqi populace, while active members were 4%. Many of these members joined during the 1980s when membership grew 140% from 1986-2002. This was due to a huge recruiting drive by the Baath to be represented in each sector of society so that they might be monitored and controlled.
The impetus for this expansion was the Iran-Iraq War. On September 22, 1980 Iraq invaded Iraq in what Saddam believed would be a short war. On September 28, Tehran refused a cease-fire offer from Baghdad destroying the initial plan to seize territory and then end the war. The long and bloody conflict that developed afterward shifted the entire focus of the Baath Party. Before it was based upon an Arab nationalist and modernizing ideology. The war made it concentrate upon managing the security of the country through both military and civilian means. That included maintaining support for the war, monitoring dissent and public opinion in general, watching over the military, hunting down deserters and draft dodgers, as well as delivering goods and services. The population came to rely upon the Baath to gain access to the state making it far more then just a political party.
From 1985-1989 Baath offices multiplied across Iraq as a result of its new responsibilities. The party tried to recruit new members and build new officers in areas where it was weak before. The Baath bureau in Baghdad for example grew to 19,274 members by 1988 or 5% of the population. It also moved into schools to gain young supporters. From 1987-88 of 95,477 male secondary students in Iraq 60.8% were brought in as supporters, 20.5% as advocates, and 4% as advanced advocates. This was the basis for the party’s high representation amongst the public that it achieved by 2002.
During the Iran-Iraq War the Baath launched policies to interact with the public called “cohabitating” and “perpetuating ties” which were aimed at both monitoring the public for potential dissent as well as addressing their needs to maintain their support. One of the main ways the Baath was able to achieve this was via the various social committees it created such as the Committee to Oversee the Affairs of the Martyrs and the Missing and the General Federation of Iraqi Women. The former highlighted the new roles the Baath was expected to perform during the war as one of its main jobs became helping the families of dead and captured soldiers work their way through the government bureaucracy so that they could receive benefits. The committee also responded to public complaints about red tape to get several laws passed to help out with issues such as inheritance, which was a major problem for families of deceased soldiers. The General Federation of Iraqi Women played a similar role as well as helping to improve the lot of females during the war, which was promoted by the Baath as part of its modernization program. The Federation pushed for more opportunities for women in jobs, government positions, and within the military. By 1987 850,000 women were in the federation with branches in 62% of the country’s neighborhoods. These groups and others made visits to families across the country several times a month. They also conducted surveys to hear people’s concerns, meet their needs, and maintain surveillance of them. This all facilitated the Baath’s expansion into Iraqi society that it felt was a necessity to win the war and maintain control over the country.
During the 1980s the Baath Party was both a tool of repression and part of the social welfare state. For example, it ran counterinsurgency campaigns in southern Iraq to hunt down the huge number of deserters that grew as the war dragged on. At the same time, it became the way for the people to receive services and benefits, which were all crucial to keeping up the social order and morale during the war. Saddam wanted to control all aspects of the country and that’s what he used the Baath Party for. It became a quasi-fascist and corporatist instrument for ruling Iraq. As Professor Khoury wrote in the 1980s everyone and no one was a Baathist as it became the main means to interact with the state whether people believed in the party or not.
Khoury, Dina Rizk, Iraq in Wartime, Soldiering, Martyrdom and Remembrance, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013
Sassoon, Joseph, Saddam Hussein Ba’th Party, Inside an Authoritarian Regime, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2012