I don’t believe it would be wise to clash with the religious current in the Arab world when it is possible to avoid it. On the other hand, we would launch a big attack on them if they are close to taking power.
- Saddam Hussein, July 24, 1986
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq there was a great debate within the west over Saddam Hussein’s relationship with Islamist groups. The Bush administration argued that it was cooperating with Al Qaeda to attack the west, while others argued that the secular Baathists were antagonistic to the rise of political Islam. It wasn’t until after the invasion that the true relationship between Baghdad and Islamists was revealed. Captured recordings and documents showed that Saddam and his inner circle were open to relations with Islamic groups, but were also ready to attack them if they threatened the regime.
At a meeting with his advisers in July 1986 Saddam Hussein discussed what Iraq’s stance should be towards Islamist parties. Saddam argued that Baghdad should take a pragmatic approach to the growing religious current in the Arab world. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz supported him. Both noted the threat the movement posed to some governments in the region such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Sudan. They also believed that the Islamist current would benefit Iran and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For example, Saddam believed that if Islamism spread to Saudi Arabia it would be pro-Iranian and against Iraq’s interests. Aziz warned that Iraq faced its own Islamist rebels in the 1970s probably referring to the Dawa Party, and also had Iraqis fight on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq War likely meaning the Badr Organization. He went on to argue that given that history and the role of Iran, Iraq had to confront the Islamists in both Egypt and Sudan. Saddam countered that Baghdad had problems with many Arab states, so a little instability was not a bad thing. In the end, both Saddam and Aziz came to the conclusion that while Islamists could be a threat domestically, they needed to be engaged in other countries. During the 1980s Islamism was going through its latest revival due to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That led to calls for jihad against the Russians. Iraq decided to make contacts with these new groups to at least keep tabs on them. At the same time, if any such parties emerged in Iraq, especially ones linked with Iran they would be stamped out to protect the government’s hold on power.
Woods, Kevin, Palkki, David, and Stout, Mark, The Saddam Tapes, Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Tokyo, Mexico City: Cambridge University Press, 2011