Professor Joseph Sassoon was originally born in Baghdad, and later moved to England where he received his education. He is currently a Professor at the Center for Contemporary Arabic Studies at Georgetown University. In 2012, he published Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party, Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Using thousands of Iraqi documents seized by Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War, and the U.S. led Coalition following the 2003 invasion, along with interviews of former Iraqi officials Professor Sassoon was able to study the intricate party apparatus of the Baathist regime under Saddam Hussein. He noted how Saddam studied the previous Iraqi governments so as to not repeat their mistakes, and also used a carrot and stick approach of not only threats and repression, but incentives and rewards to maintain control of the country. Below is an interview with Professor Sassoon about his book, and his thoughts on Baathist Iraq.
1. It’s always been said that Saddam Hussein had a keen understanding of Iraqi politics and society, which allowed him to stay in power for so long. Part of that was due to Saddam’s studying of Iraqi history. You wrote that he looked at the previous Iraqi governments, and the failed 1963 Baathist Coup. What lessons did her learn from them?
Saddam Hussein was determined that no opposition would be able to reach power. After the rise of the Baath in 1963 and their ousting nine months later, the Party dedicated significant efforts to understand the reasons for failure. Controlling the security apparatus; infiltrating the army, and to a certain degree weakening it, and owning the resources to allocate rewards to supporters were all part of the lessons learnt.
2. Was the Iraqi public also shaped by this history of coups, and what role did that play in Saddam’s dictatorship?
In July 1968, when the Baath came for the second time to power, the Iraqi public was desperate for security and stability as the country witnessed multiple coups d’état and disturbances throughout the 1960s. Thus, the public was initially receptive to the notion that there would be continual stability and economic growth as promised by the Baath leadership.
3. Saddam eventually put the lessons he learned into practice. One result was the Baath Party’s penetration of society. Can you explain how it went about doing this, and perhaps provide some anecdotal stories?
The Party was the main vehicle for penetrating society. The penetration took numerous forms: on one hand recruiting as many new members, particularly young men and women was made a top priority, and indeed it was successful as there were branches in every corner of the country and a wide range of activities for members at all levels. But penetrating society meant also controlling it, and this took the form of written forms that every citizen had to fill in about himself/herself and their families which were later stored in their files. Military officers and even security officers had to receive approval before marrying, which gave the security apparatus the ability to collect more information about the spouses and their respective families.
4. Another issue was the Baath Party’s ability to recruit people throughout different generations. You found some records from 2002 just before the U.S. invasion about party membership. What was Iraq’s population at that time, how many were in the Baath Party, and how many had real authority?
A great deal of pressure was brought to bear on citizens to join the party and some became members under duress, but many joined voluntarily, through conviction or from a desire to benefit from being a Baathist. The documents abound with evidence of citizens applying to join or rejoin the party. The vast majority of party affiliates, however, played little active role because of the party’s rigid hierarchy; only the top three levels of membership were effectively involved in executing policies. Active members were subjected to frequent evaluation, and promotion required passing special “training” courses, immersion in the “cultural” aspects of the party, and demonstrating the potential to serve in a more senior rank. Even so, a complex web of checks and counterchecks ensured that the privileged few could not become too powerful. The number of party card holders reached about 4 million by the end of 2002. Thus, out of an estimated population of 25 million in 2002, those affiliated with the Baath Party constituted about 16.5 percent, a very high number indeed especially compared to Communist countries where the average membership was between 8 to 10 percent. But, a closer look at the statistics shows us a fundamentally different conclusion: the upper echelons of the party represented only 14.5 percent of the overall affiliates and about 2.4 percent of the overall population in 2002.
5. Saddam also singled out women to be recruited into the party. Why did he do this, what kind of rights did he give them, and how did that eventually change over time?
Saddam Hussein was secular, and this is important to keep in mind. In the 1970s, he advocated the rights of women and encouraged them to be active in education and jobs. He wanted to get their support as they constituted half the population. Indeed, women progressed and achieved almost the highest standard in education in the 1970s. During the 8 year war against Iran (1980-1988), women assumed important functions as many men were recruited to the front. Unfortunately by the end of the war, two events shaped his attitude: the rise of unemployment and the delisting of more than half a million soldiers and their return to the civilian life; and more importantly the rise of Islamism and Khomeinism. Saddam decided to accommodate both factors at the expense of the rights of women.
6. That ties into another of Saddam’s tactics, the use of carrots and sticks and divide and conquer policies. The repressive measures were what Iraq was famous for, but Saddam could not rule simply through that. Can you give some examples of the rewards that the party offered, which led to so many people supporting the government?
The Baath managed to co-opt a large number of individuals by making it advantageous, both to those who became part of the organization and even to those who were outside it, to continue supporting the regime. This system co-opted a large segment of the population into dependence on rewards. Tens of thousands of Iraqis were the recipients of different medals, badges, certificates, and insignias during the Baath rule. All signified status and privileges, which in turn corresponded to whatever medals or badges the recipient had, and the more medals accumulated, the higher the rewards. The most coveted medal or identity card, however, was called “Identity Card of the Friends of Mr. President Leader Saddam Hussein, May God Protect him.” The front of the card displayed the holder’s personal details, but intriguingly, the back featured a headline called imtiyazat (privileges), followed by seven items such as adding five points to the average of examinations of the friend’s children; help in getting accepted to universities for the member and his family; easier access to deal with government bureaucracy, and last but not least an annual gift of two summer suits, and two winter suits to be made available from the presidency of the republic!
7. It’s also important to not forget how ruthless the Baathist government could be. Could you explain how the regime used collective punishment as one means to deter dissent and resistance?
Given the numerous real and imaginary enemies that flourished under systems like the Baath, a central task of the leadership was to decide who its enemies were. During the Baath regime’s thirty-five-year rule, its enemies ranged from communists, Kurds, Iranians or those of Iranian origin to members of the Dawa Party, prominent Shia religious leaders, ex-Baathist Party members, and Baath members who at some point had planned or conspired to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Whether in Iraq or similar dictatorships, the regimes “sought merely not to restrain or annihilate their actual enemies, but to destroy even the potential for resistance and dissent.” Instilling fear, however, was the fundamental condition for success. Fear was cultivated through sending a plethora of messages, to the party elite as well as to the population at large, that dissent would not be tolerated. The Iraqi people were keenly aware of the repercussions of resisting the regime. As in Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, or North Korea, family members were considered guilty by association, and were used to inculcate fear or to break down the will of opponents or those considering opposing the regime. Families of “traitors” were severely punished either directly or indirectly through rejection from military colleges, universities, jobs, or even denial of requests to travel abroad.
8. Another issue was coup proofing the regime. How was that done?
Coup proofing was done by creating a system, along the lines of Stalinism, of political commissars who were part of every military unit, and acted as the eyes and ears of the regime. They even intervened in military decisions to the frustration of professional soldiers and officers. But the system worked: the army was prevented from launching any coup, and most senior officers were shuffled regularly to prevent them from accumulating any power.
9. The government was always afraid of plots, internal opposition groups, and foreign influences. It tried to counter them with the security services, and informers. How extensive was this system?
The system of informants is very much alike any other authoritarian regime. Gathering information on as many people as possible was an important element in creating the impression of ubiquity of the security apparatus. There were four main agencies of security in addition to a few smaller and specialized ones. There was an overlapping in the functions of these services to prevent any specific service from accumulating too much power.
10. Many people have called Baathist Iraq a totalitarian regime, but you disagree. Can you explain why?
The Baath regime in Iraq shares many characteristics of a totalitarian regime, but I do not believe it was totalitarian. First, unlike other totalitarian regimes, there was no real control of the economy as the private sector functioned, and even thrived for most of the period under study. There was no massive industrialization or dramatic changes to the allocation of economic resources. Furthermore, unlike Nazism or Stalinism, the Baath ideology was very weak, and in fact one could argue that from the mid-1980s until the 2003 invasion, the cult of personality of Saddam Hussein was the main thrust of the ideology.
11. Many in the West used to compare Saddam and the Baath Party to Hitler and the Nazi Party claiming that Baathist ideology originally took a lot from Germany. You noted that the party was actually more like the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Can you elaborate upon that?
Saddam Hussein, similar to other tyrants, learnt from each other. He was very impressed by Stalin. He copied many of his methods and believed, like Stalin that people respect power, and no one apart from him should control power. Both tyrants rotated many of their senior colleagues and aides whenever they suspected them of gaining too much influence.
12. That ties into contemporary times with deBaathification. Some have argued that the Baath Party is inherently evil and any kind of affiliation with it should be the basis for exclusion in the new Iraq, while others have argued that working with the Baath Party was a necessity of succeeding in Iraqi society under Saddam. What is your opinion on the matter?
There is no doubt that the senior leadership of the Baath committed many crimes against the Iraqi people. The problem, post the 2003 invasion, was that deBaathification encompassed large segments of the population. This in turn led to the collapse of the state as many of those Baahists occupied senior positions in the government bureaucracy. Iraq lost its senior managers, and then lost its middle-class mangers with the deBaahification leading to chaos and insecurity.
13. Some have argued that Saddam didn’t really rule through the Baath Party as much as he did through his family and tribe from his home province of Salahaddin. Was that a true characterization of the situation?
For Saddam, the most important factor was complete loyalty to him. He was willing to rely on anyone who showed that kind of loyalty. Yet, at the same time, there was no mercy for anyone showing any inclination of disloyalty, be it from his own family, his tribe or his party. The party apparatus played a critical role in maintaining the regime for 35 years.
14. Sectarianism plays a large role in Iraqi politics today, and many point to Saddam Hussein’s rule as the origins of it. Do you believe that to be true?
One could say that the Shi‘is have always been discriminated against by Iraqi governments since the creation of the state in 1932. Under the Baath, this took a different character first with the expulsion of many Shi‘is to Iran in the 1980s,and then culminating in the terrible revenge taken by the Republican Guard after the 1991 intifada in the South. Having said that, and in spite of the fact that the Baath party was obsessive about collecting information on every citizen, yet, there was one question that was never asked on any form and that was about sect. Forms tended to ask two questions: religion and nationality, so you could be a Muslim and Kurd or Christian and Arab. I think that it is important to understand that Saddam Hussein’s regime defined Iraqis not as much by their religion, but more by their support and loyalty to the party unlike the situation after 2003. Kurds, Shi‘is, and Christians were all part of the system, and were involved in its operations and intelligence services. Therefore, while sectarianism existed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, particularly after 1991, it never became part and parcel of daily life as it is currently in Iraq.
15. Saddam eventually developed a cult of personality around himself. When and why did that come about?
The cult of personality played an important role in the durability of the regime. It allowed Saddam to detach himself from the responsibility of any failures, and created an aura the great leader, the father of the nation, and the leader that the people of Iraq waited for hundreds of years. The cult began in the late 1970s, gathered momentum in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s until the collapse of the regime in 2003, was the dominant ideology in the country.
16. Part of Baathist ideology was to create a socialist state. That didn’t quite happen. What kind of economic system did develop in Iraq?
Socialism is one of the mottos of the Baath Party both in Iraq and in Syria, but it was not seriously implemented. Economic management was focused on dealing with the immediate issues rather than planning for a long term. One has to recall that the 1970s, Iraq was enjoying tremendous growth, oil prices quadrupled after the 1973 October War, and accumulated large reserves. The 1980-88 war depleted Iraq of its reserves, and turned it into a debtor country with weak infrastructure. Then came the First Gulf War (1990-91), which decimated the country, and this was followed by severe sanctions. Thus the leadership was intent on facing those serious economic issues, and the private sector was allowed to grow to overcome those economic difficulties.
17. The sanctions imposed on the country after the 1990 invasion of Iraq devastated the economy. How did Saddam use it to his advantage?
Although the Iraqi population at large suffered from the sanctions, the regime was not seriously affected. In essence, the sanctions probably expanded the role of the Iraqi state and increased regime stability. As a result of the success of the rationing system, the Baath party managed to increase its support and empathy among the civilian population during the thirteen years of harsh sanctions.
18. Today Iraq is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. There was a lot of corruption in the 1990s under sanctions as well. Can you explain what the government’s stance towards it was?
In the dire circumstances of the sanctions in the 1990s, corruption spread into every facet of life, particularly after 1996, when Iraq began selling oil under the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food Programme. Estimates of illicit income from surcharges on oil sales and bribery ranged from $270 million to more than $7 billion. Today, in Iraq, while violence has been reduced to a level that allows a semblance of normality, Nouri al-Maliki’s government, according to a recent report of International Crisis Group (ICG), has “allowed corruption to become entrenched and spread throughout its institutions.” As the ICG Report clearly indicates, the Iraqi government’s interference in and manipulation of corruption cases for its own political advantage has led to a serious deterioration in the running of government institutions. The Report characterized the spread of corruption within the country’s institutions as a virus, and warned that the government’s paralysis is contributing to “the proliferation of criminal elements and vested interests throughout the bureaucracy.” Today, corruption permeates every facet of decision-making in Iraq, thus preventing the country from taking advantage of the huge oil wealth accumulated in the last few years due to rising oil prices. Corruption existed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and gained momentum during the sanctions. But at no point during the thirty-five years of authoritarian regime was corruption as rampant and endemic as it is today.
Sassoon, Joseph, Saddam Hussein’s 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