Ba'ath Regime's Bloody Background

an interview with Samira Haj

Samira Haj, a Palestinian activist and feminist living in the United States, isa student of the history of modern Iraq. David Finkel interviewed her for Against the Current at the beginning of September.

ATC: Since you’ve studied contemporary Iraq, can you start by explaining the origins of the present regime and what it represents, especially since Saddam Hussein has suddenly popped up as the new embodiment of evil in the American ideological system?

Sandra Haj: In 1958 there was a nationalist revolution in Iraq, representing a united front of various national groups including the Ba’ath Party [an attempt at a pan-Arab secular nationalist movement, with verbal socialist trappings.—ed.]. This revolution was to destroy the Hashemite kingdom that was installed by British imperialism in 1914; it inaugurates the post-colonial era.

This united front collapsed; the first people to be eliminated from the regime were the pan-Arabists, including the Ba’ath, and soon after, the Communists [for more on this period, see below—ed.]. The regime became much more of a military dictatorship under Abdul Karim Kassem. That’s the period when you can relate Iraq’s claim to Kuwait.

It’s true that Kuwait, and in fact all the region’s nation-states, were created by the Europeans, in this case the British. There were no boundaries between Kuwait and the southern border of Iraq’s Basra province. Kuwait was a British protectorate till 1961, then Iraq refused to recognize it as a separate nation-state.

Kassem put his forces on the border, but the British sent back the troops and threatened to fight back. So Kassem retreated because he had a lot of internal problems. [In fact he was overthrown and killed in the subsequent 1963 coup—ed.]

The Ba’ath were out of power until 1963, when another military coup took place. The Ba’ath took power but once again were eliminated, until Saddam and his crowd came in through still another coup in 1968. Since Chen they have been the main power.

The Ba’ath is really a military organization, based on its own militia. Its regime is really a police state, not at all democratic. But at the same time the regime has done a lot, spending wealth to build an infrastructure.

in Iraq—so Ted Koppel was surprised to see all the modem highways and buildings But the agricultural base has been largely destroyed, which is why it’s so tricky for Saddam now with the embargo. Iraq can’t survive with just the internal production.

[A chilling portrayal of the Ba’ath’s methods of rule in Iraq, and the extent of the regime’s totalitarian controls over the population and all forms of organization, appears in Samir al-Khalil, Republic of Fear. The Politics of Modern Iraq, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989—ed].

ATC: What kind of society is it? How do you characterize the social and economic structures created under the Ba’ath?

S.H.: Originally they nationalized all the main industry and collectivized agriculture, creating a state capitalist kind of regime, which was very bureaucratic. But in 1978 when Saddam himself became president through an internal coup—before that time he had been vice president—they began to privatize agriculture, because under collectivization production had disintegrated to the point where they couldn’t feed people.

Some of the results could be seen in the early 1980s, during the war with Iran. During the first stages the population suffered quite a bit because all the resources went to war, but after 1982 there was quite a bit of internal production. So the decollectivization of agriculture paid off in this sense: the peasants had the incentive to produce for a market; you could see locally produced eggs, vegetables and so on.

Industries began to suffer as well in the war. A lot of money was given to them by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait They began to sell the public-sector industries to private owners, many of whom had become wealthy as subcontractors from state industry: in construction, for instance.

Some old money, from some of the traditional wealthy families, was also involved; but most of the accumulation is in the hands of a new bourgeoisie, actually created by the oil state, which is now becoming independent from the state.

ATC: Would this new bourgeoisie be basically loyal to Saddam Hussein’s regime?

S.H.: Yes, absolutely, because they benefit from Saddam. But of course, the invasion of Kuwait might have made them uncomfortable, because it affects the political stability of Iraq, especially if it proves to be a disaster. So they might be ambivalent in their attitude.

ATC: And what would be the attitude of the Iraqi working class in all this?

S.H.: There’s discontent, but it would be expressed individually because of the political repression, which is the most hated aspect of the regime. Economically many workers have benefitted—in construction, for example, they are very well off.

They may talk about the need for political freedom, but they aren’t organized. There’s no organization or political process through which they could express political views and act on them. The trade unions are created by the state and controlled by the Ba’ath. You can’t voice opposition, or you’ll really be eliminated.

ATC: The Communist Party was historically powerful in Iraq. Is it a potential political factor today, and if not, why?

S.H.: Unfortunately the Communist Party has a long history of disaster. It was the strongest Communist party in the Middle East during the 1950s and ‘60s, and the Communists were a major force in the 1958 revolution. But they united with Kassem, the military leader, and with the national bourgeoisie.

After 1958, the first group to be pushed aside were the pan-Arabists, because they called for unification with Egypt, which wasn’t in the interests of the less-developed Iraqi bourgeoisie. The Communist Party, supporting the national bourgeoisie, aligned themselves with the regime against the pan-Arabists.

But afterward the regime turned against the Communists, especially over the issue of radical land reform that the CF demanded. That was the first disaster for the Communists. The second was the coup of 1963, when the pan-Arabists really did massacre the Communists in revenge. That period from 1958-63 was very bloody, with fighting in the streets, Ba’athists versus Communists versus national bourgeoisie.

From 1963 on the Communists began to regroup their forces and evaluate the new situation. But a wing within the CF was critical of the alliance with the national bourgeoisie and of the party’s Stalinism. It adopted more of a Maoist policy of alliance with the peasants. The split came around 1967.

With the elimination of its cadres and leadership, followed by this split, the CF was practically destroyed. Still, they had elements, they had their structure; and they were very much in support of the Kurdish national struggle in the North.

The final disaster was in 1973, when the Communists were supporting the Kurds. The Ba’athist government, unable to establish hegemony internally, offered autonomy to the Kurds. The government’s real intention was to draw the Kurds into a pretended autonomy process, in order to destroy their armed movement. But the government’s proposal drew in the Communists, who called for joining forces with the Ba’ath in support of the autonomy.

So the forces met together, with the Communists supporting the Ba’ath. Some of the Kurds—in fact, the right wing of the Kurdish movement, led by Barzani didn’t accept it because they didn’t trust the government Yet the Communists did!

The Ba’ath then turned once more against the Communists, with further executions. Whoever escaped went back to the Kurdish mountains. The Communists split again, some of them becoming supporters of the (rival Ba’athist) Syrian regime.

[Editor’s Note Arrests and executions of Iraqi Communist Party leaders and activists took place both before and after the signing of the Iraqi-Soviet friendship treaty. In July 1973 the party, signed a National Action Charter and joined a “Progressive National Front” government on terms dictated by the Ba’ath. After the Kurdish movement was smashed in 1974-75, the Ba’ath raised charges of political activism in the armed forces by Communists, resulting in arrests and executions that left the party’s Central Committee dead, in prison or exiled by 1979. See al-Khalil, Republic of Fear, 232-34. Iraqi dissidents living in Kuwait when the invasion occurred in August were taken back to Iraq and probably killed.]

So there’s not much left of the Communist Party, and it doesn’t have much of a social base. The Iraqi opposition consists basically of the Kurdish national movement and the Shi’a religious opposition.

ATC: Coming to the present crisis, what do you think is Saddam Hussein’s strategy and what are his objectives?

S.H.: I think he did miscalculate; he didn’t think the United States would send troops to Saudi Arabia. Internally, because he is so much in debt to the Gulf countries and to France, the economy is really suffering. When he targeted Kuwait, he really tried for a long time to solve the problem diplomatically. They met in Jedda (Saudi Arabia) and Cairo to try to raise the price of oil, to limit Kuwait’s production, which was causing him to lose a lot of money.

He also saw an opportunity internally, because there is strong sentiment that Kuwait does belong to Iraq. So he went in with the thought of a quick victory, the same mistake he made when he invaded Iran.

Of course he didn’t count on the fact that the United States would enter. But this plays both ways. On one hand it’s a disaster for him; on the other, it really makes him a hero among the population of the Middle East. He wasn’t popular among the Arab population, but now they feel he’s the one Arab leader that will stand up against U.S. imperialism.

The other point is that none of the Arab people really feel strongly about the Gulf states, especially Kuwait, because of its system in which sixty percent of the population are non-citizen guest workers who don’t acquire political rights or share in the benefits.

So I think Saddam is going to play it cool. The guy is a brute and a dictator, but he’s not crazy. He’s hoping the embargo won’t have too much effect, that after a while some countries might lose interest. And the operation is costing the United States quite a bit of money, so that it’s asking Japan and Europe to share expenses.

He’ll play a cat-and-mouse game. But the United States might strike. Yet this wouldn’t be pleasant for them either. They might destroy Iraq and the regime, but in the long run it might not be in their interests. Maybe Bush has miscalculated too. It’s the first time Saddam has really destroyed the status quo and we can’t foresee the outcome. We’re starting from a new place.

ATC: Saddam Hussein seems to be the kind of leader whom we often associate with fascism, who identifies the nation with the state and the state with himself. Don’t you think his policy may bring about the complete ruin of Iraq?

S.H.: I think you’re right. Yet at the same time, the confrontation with the United States changes everything, even though everyone sees him as a dictator. And there’s the whole hypocrisy thing–all the Palestinian victims of human-rights violations, the twenty thousand dead in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And when Saddam fought the Iranians, the United States said “gas them”; it was fine then.

ATC: It’s the beginning of September. When and if war breaks out, what do you think are the U.S. objectives: just to get military bases in the area, or to go all the way for the destruction of the Iraqi regime and the power of the country?

S.H.: If war occurs, the U.S. intention ultimately is to destroy the power base of Iraq. Whether it’s under Saddam or someone else, the United States doesn’t want Iraq to stand up as a power. That would mean destroying the military as well as the economic base. And the other goal is to keep a military presence in the Gulf.

Even if this crisis leads to the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait and even the elimination of Saddam Hussein himself, Iraq would remain as a powerful state in the region. If the U.S. withdrew from the Gulf, because of the alliances of these regimes with the United States they might collapse. Even if they didn’t, Iraq would dominate the power politics of the region.

So the only way the United States is going to control the area is either to maintain a military base in Saudi Arabia or to destroy the military and economic power of Iraq.

ATC: Either way, doesn’t this jeopardize political stability all over the Middle East?

S.H.: It does. Bush jumped too soon. He’d have been better off to allow the Arab regimes to solve it Soon after Saddam took Kuwait the Arab regimes, including President Mubarak of Egypt, said this was an Arab problem. The Saudis were scared to death, but they knew Saddam was interested in Kuwait, not in going into Saudi Arabia, which he didn’t want because he knew the U.S. would intervene then. He miscalculated, but the United States miscalculated more.

I don’t think the embargo will succeed in the long run. Saddam still has borders with Iran. Even though Iran is openly in favor of the embargo, give it a couple of months and there will be a lot of ways of sending things through the border, mainly food.

Mubarak’s regime is unstable, although the media report there isn’t much opposition to his policies. Of course, a lot of Egyptian workers in Iraq have suffered badly under Saddam, not being able to send home their money and being treated terribly. And now they’re forced out by the fear of war, so that does affect sentiments toward Saddam.

But there’s opposition inside Egypt, especially with respect to the open-door policy that Sadat started, and the Begin-Sadat agreement. The opposition is especially strong among Islamic political movements. So Mubarak may not last too long. And in Saudi Arabia I think this crisis will de-stabilize the regime, once the Americans leave. So they may have no choice but to stay.

ATC: The situation seems to have very bad implications for the Palestinians. Do you agree? And do you find anything hopeful in the total situation?

5.H.: It’s a disastrous thing for the Palestinians. Of course they don’t speak in a uniform voice, because there’s a Palestinian bourgeoisie that benefits from the oil wealth in the Gulf. Ultimately their class interests lie with the United States, though they will certainly feel conflicted over the Palestinian issue. In terms of the PLO, I thought Yasser Arafat made a big mistake in supporting Saddam.

It will be disastrous for the Intifada. Inside Israel, the Peace Now and the left Zionist movement are prepared to abandon the Palestinians because the rise of Saddam threatens them. And this is at a stage where the Israelis have had some measure of success in containing the Intifada itself.

I am hopeful only in the sense that the crisis has destroyed the status quo and might give opposition forces among the various populations the chance to come out and organize. But it can go both ways; I don’t know whether these opposition forces will be progressive.

That’s the ultimate hope. I hope it doesn’t come to war, because if it does it will be disastrous for the population of the whole region.

November-December 1990, ATC 29