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The Ba'thification of Iraq

The Ba'thification of Iraq
Saddam Hussein's Totalitarianism

This fascinating analysis of a wealth of documents from the Hussein regime reveals the specific tactics used to inculcate loyalty in the Iraqi people during the nearly quarter century-long rule of Saddam Huessein and the Ba’th party.

November 2015
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320 pages | 6 x 9 | 5 b&w illustrations, 1 map |

Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq as a dictator for nearly a quarter century before the fall of his regime in 2003. Using the Ba’th party as his organ of meta-control, he built a broad base of support throughout Iraqi state and society. Why did millions participate in his government, parrot his propaganda, and otherwise support his regime when doing so often required betraying their families, communities, and beliefs? Why did the “Husseini Ba’thist” system prove so durable through uprisings, two wars, and United Nations sanctions?

Drawing from a wealth of documents discovered at the Ba’th party’s central headquarters in Baghdad following the US-led invasion in 2003, The Ba’thification of Iraq analyzes how Hussein and the party inculcated loyalty in the population. Through a grand strategy of “Ba’thification,” Faust argues that Hussein mixed classic totalitarian means with distinctly Iraqi methods to transform state, social, and cultural institutions into Ba’thist entities, and the public and private choices Iraqis made into tests of their political loyalty. Focusing not only on ways in which Iraqis obeyed, but also how they resisted, and using comparative examples from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, The Ba’thification of Iraq explores fundamental questions about the roles that ideology and culture, institutions and administrative practices, and rewards and punishments play in any political system.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chronology
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part I. Introduction
    • Chapter One. The Inculcation of Loyalty
    • Chapter Two. The Origins of Husseini Baʿthist Totalitarianism
  • Part II. Ideology
    • Chapter Three. Husseini Baʿthism
    • Chapter Four. Culturalization
  • Part III. Organization
    • Chapter Five. The Leader and the Party
    • Chapter Six. The Party State
    • Chapter Seven. The Baʿthification of Society
  • Part IV. Terror and Enticement
    • Chapter Eight. Terror
    • Chapter Nine. Enticement
  • Conclusion. A Total Strategy
  • Postscript. The Legacy of Baʿthification
  • Appendix 1. A Work Plan for Coordination between the Party and Mass Organizations in the Field of the Baʿthification of Society
  • Appendix 2. Special Regulations for How to Deal with the Relatives of Criminals Convicted for Political Crimes
  • Notes
  • Glossary of Arabic Terms
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Arlington, Virginia

Faust holds a PhD in Middle East History and Statecraft from Boston University. He has lived and traveled widely in the Middle East, including in Syria from 2008 to 2009 as a Fulbright Scholar and National Security Education Program Boren Fellow. He currently works at the US Department of State.


The Inculcation of Loyalty

I hope that his party loyalty is stronger than his familial allegiance.

Saddam Hussein, on a Baʿthist whose nephews joined an opposition party


On March 4, 1984, the secretary of the Arab Baʿth Socialist Party’s (h. izb al-baʿth al-ʿarabī al-ʾishtirākī) Wasit branch wrote to the head of Iraq’s High Committee for Deserters and Draft Dodgers praising a citizen’s act of allegiance to “the land, the nation, and the victorious leader, Saddam Hussein (God keep him) . . . which is without precedent in history, even in the first Qādisiyya.” A Partisan from the Wasit branch’s Saad section, the secretary wrote, tried to convince his son to turn himself in to his army unit after deserting. The son refused, so the Partisan, a sixty-two-year-old bicycle repairman from Suwayra, shot and killed his son while his son slept before turning himself in. “Please be apprised, and present this unrivaled, awesome example of the fidelity of Iraqis to the president (God keep him) so that the president may consider stopping the legal investigations against [the father],” the secretary concluded. Saddam Hussein reviewed the secretary’s letter and agreed with the recommendation. Writing his instructions in green ink in the letter’s right-hand margin, Hussein pardoned the man, granted him a medal, and had the event included in official documents and
films about the Iran–Iraq War.

Contrary to the Wasit branch secretary’s assertion, the Baʿth Regional Command Collection (BRCC) documents show that the phenomenon of family members killing or turning each other in to be executed for capital crimes was not uncommon in Hussein’s Iraq. A 1985 report to the Baʿth Party’s highest administrative unit, the Office of the Party Secretariat, describes thirty-seven “exemplary and honorable cases” where citizens informed on their family members for desertion. A number of these citizens accompanied the detachments sent to apprehend their brethren. One man refused to accept his nephew’s body; another killed his brother because the brother would not turn himself in. These incidents continued even after the Iran–Iraq and Gulf wars. In 1993, the father of a Special Republican Guard member threw his son out of the house because he repeatedly ran away from his unit. When the son hit him and attacked his mother in retaliation, the father killed him. In an almost identical incident, in 1995, a man from al-Kut tried to apprehend his son in order to turn him in but could not physically arrest him. He presented himself to the police after shooting his son dead. He too received a pardon for his “act of courage.”

In addition to these examples of extreme loyalty, the BRCC tells stories of tribal sheikhs who executed their tribesmen for criminal activity, of Baʿthists who turned in their nephews for joining opposition movements, and of friends who reported their fellows for comments made in confidence.⁶ The BRCC contains tens, if not hundreds, of reports about Iraqis who composed oaths of allegiance to Hussein signed in their own blood. Poets wrote odes to his leadership.⁷ Hussein’s institutions of tyranny—the security services, police, Baʿth Party, and military—required hundreds of thousands (and during the Iran–Iraq and Gulf wars, millions) of officers, volunteers, and conscripts to carry out his wars and domestic operations. Each year, thousands of young people from all regions, sects, and ethnicities applied for admission into the Baʿth’s security, police, and military academies. These applicants knew the secret police’s penchant for unwarranted arrests, frequent use of torture, and murder, often after “disappearing” their victims. But they still applied. State institutions and their vast bureaucracies needed qualified officials and technocrats. Schools required teachers. The streets had to be swept, and the Baʿth found an ample supply of willing mukhtārīn, or local watchmen, to keep an eye on their neighbors. Finally, the Baʿth Party needed members. In the 1970s, the Baʿth counted its membership in the hundreds of thousands. By 1986, BRCC statistics show that the party’s roles had grown to over 1.6 million people at all levels of party membership; by 2002, they contained four million, or almost 16 percent of the population.⁹ Even if most of the people mentioned above never killed or carried out oppression themselves, they worked for the system that did, thereby either explicitly or tacitly affirming it. Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq as a dictator, often micromanaging mundane affairs in far-flung provinces, but the BRCC documents demonstrate that he could not have survived as president from 1979 to 2003 without creating a wide base of support at all levels of government and throughout society.

Why did millions of Iraqis participate in Hussein’s government, go along with his social policies, and regularly demonstrate their fealty to him and the Baʿth Party, especially when doing so required turning against their religious and ethnic groups, families, and tribes? How did Hussein and the Baʿth inculcate this kind of loyalty in their citizens? Why did the system of control they constructed prove so durable through uprisings, two wars, and UN sanctions?

Why, moreover, did the same system that elicited so much loyalty also spark resistance, insubordination, and criminal behavior? If, overall, the Baʿthist system worked—it kept the Baʿth in power for thirty-five years, twenty-three of those with Hussein as president—the extent of Hussein and the party’s authority varied over time and place. It was never absolute, often inefficient, and despotic enough that many Iraqis fled, defected, and deserted even though they knew the potential consequences for themselves and their families. While in the most extreme cases Iraqis proved willing to kill family members for the regime, BRCC statistics show that the vast majority did not. The Baʿth neutralized their existential opposition, but the party’s files contain hundreds—if not thousands—of reports of Baʿthists, policemen, security service personnel, and soldiers killed or injured while investigating crimes, chasing down deserters or opposition party members, and guarding party offices. These offenses occurred so often that the regime promulgated eight amnesties from 1980 to 1999.

If Iraqis generally showed their loyalty, they often did so grudgingly. While many Baʿthists attended meetings, the BRCC reports that significant numbers skipped them and otherwise “shirked” their party duties (al-tasarrub). Lower level party organizations did not respond to requests for information in the stipulated time and handled secret party correspondence carelessly. Accounting irregularities occurred because Baʿthists stole from party coffers. The Baʿth frequently had trouble recruiting new members and had to plead with their existing cadre not to take part in “mistaken” or “un-natural” religious practices. After the Iran–Iraq War, soldiers left the party in the hundreds of thousands. When the 1991 uprisings broke out, few party members reported to their posts to defend Baʿthist and government installations. In 1995, the regime had to pay its top officials to attend public ceremonies.

How should we understand the stories of extraordinary allegiance, middling support, and resistance that the BRCC documents tell? How and why did Hussein and the Baʿth achieve such power and influence over Iraqi state, society, and their citizens’ individual lives, despite the inefficiencies, corruption, and both tacit and overt opposition that their rule produced?


Baʿthification: Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Totalitarianism

In analyzing Baʿthist Iraq, much of the prevailing literature has focused on what Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett call the “highly personalized politics” of Saddam Hussein’s emergence as Iraq’s strongman following the Baʿth’s successful 1968 coup and his takeover of the presidency in 1979. As Amatzia Baram and Ofra Bengio have detailed, Hussein cultivated a loyal inner circle and political and economic elite, based upon longtime party association and the traditional loyalties of family, clan, tribe, sect, and region. The ties inherent in these “primordial” allegiances, combined with Hussein’s tendency to shuffle top officials in and out of positions of power, enabled him to consolidate control over the major pillars of his regime: the security services, the Baʿth Party, the military, and the oil industry. Charles Tripp’s work has shown how these elites also served as conduits for patronage, creating clientelist networks that fanned out into a “shadow state” representing “the real nexus of power” behind the government. In his analysis of the BRCC documents, Joseph Sassoon shows that kin and clan connections were critical to Hussein’s grip on authority. In one of its own documents, an official in Hussein’s most powerful security service, the Special Security Organization (SSO, jihāz al-ʾamn al-khās.s.), attributed the SSO’s efficiency to “total loyalty based on kinship and the substantial rewards enjoyed by employees.”

The research for this study confirms the work of these scholars about how Hussein held the Baʿthist elite together through kin and clan connections, clientelism and patronage, and a policy of “carrot and stick.” Nevertheless, the tactics that Hussein used to manipulate his inner circle do not explain how he cultivated such a large support base within all segments of society, a base that the documents reveal stretched beyond the personal and patronage networks of the “shadow state.” Why would a lowly bicycle repairman from Suwayra, who did not occupy a top party position, and who had no personal connection to Hussein, shoot his son out of loyalty to the regime? Why would thousands of Kurds join the National Defense Regiments (ʾafwāj al-difāʿ al-wat.anī), a Kurdish militia created by the Baʿth to help suppress the Kurdish population? Why would Shiʿi taxi drivers and hoteliers living in the holy shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala collaborate with the Baʿth Party and security services to root out their co-religionists in opposition parties, and to suppress popular Shiʿi rites during the holy month of Muharram?

For Kanan Makiya, the answers to these questions lie in the totalitarian “Republic of Fear” that Hussein and the Baʿth created through their extensive use of violence. As Makiya wrote, “Violence generates the fear that creates the complicity that constitutes the power, which first passed to the party and then to Saddam Husain in the form of his authority.”²¹ The Baʿth, Makiya argued, employed violence as a direct application of the ideology of party founder, Michel Aflaq, who justified harsh tactics against the Baʿth’s enemies in the name of pan-Arabism.²² Since violence both perpetuated and legitimized Baʿthist rule, the party had to use violence even after Makiya believes it eliminated all opposition and established its “absolutist leadership.” The Baʿth consequently continued to assert their enemies’ existence in order to rationalize their brutality. As Makiya explained:

Tyrannies and dictatorships resort to violence when their authority is placed in jeopardy. But for the Baʿth, violence is no longer merely the ultimate sanction used periodically against a genuine opposition. The Baʿth invent their enemies; violence—not the threat of it—is institutionalized, forever reproducing and intensifying that all-pervasive climate of suspicion, fear, and complicity so characteristic of their polity.

As a result, Makiya wrote in the 1998 introduction to his book, “Expansion of the means of violence . . . had undergone the classic inversion: from being a means to an end, the elimination of opponents and the exercise of raw power, they became horrific ends in themselves.” This produced “a polity made up of citizens who positively expected to be tortured under certain circumstances.” To paraphrase the totalitarian theorist Hannah Arendt, violence was the essence of the Baʿth’s form of government.

Information gleaned from the BRCC documents supports much of the Republic of Fear thesis but also contradicts it in many ways. As this study shows, fear played a large part in Baʿthist Iraq and violence played a role in creating it. Violence was not the only factor that produced fear, however, and the production of fear was not the primary purpose behind the Baʿth’s violence. As discussed throughout this book, Iraqis complied with the regime—but also resisted it—in response to a wider array of stimuli than Hussein’s organs of terror produced.

This study supports the claim that Baʿthist Iraq was “totalitarian” but follows a definition of the term that recognizes that no regime can wield unlimited authority, elicit unremitting allegiance, and eliminate all opposition. As Richard Overy has noted, “the paradigm of completely unrestricted power, exercised in a coherent, centralized polity by men of exceptional ruthlessness who brooked no limitations or dissent was, and remains, a political-science fantasy.” Instead of as a regime type that actually achieves total power, historians today define “totalitarianism” as the aspiration to apply an exclusivist, utopian, populist ideology. No totalitarian dictator—not even Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin—has ever fully realized this aspiration. The ideology that inspires it nonetheless lends itself to a strategy of rule that leads totalitarian leaders to seek a monopoly over political power and thought based in the popular legitimacy they claim comes from their unique ability to advance the collective welfare of their nations. Unlike authoritarian leaders who govern by the logic of “might makes right,” or “Oderint Dum Metuant” (“Let them hate as long as they fear”), totalitarian rulers want their citizens to love big brother. They want to have their cake and eat it too: to retain autocratic power in the name—and at the behest—of “the people” or “the masses.” Yet because the necessities of retaining autocratic power invariably require the oppression of at least some of a ruler’s citizens, because no ruler can obtain all of his citizens’ approval, and because a ruler cannot abolish all opponents and alternative political ideas, a wide gap inevitably emerges between a totalitarian ruler’s utopian promises and claims of mass support and the illiberal, imperfect reality his citizens experience. Acknowledging this gap would debunk the ideological claims at the core of a totalitarian regime’s legitimacy. The strategy that totalitarian rulers apply therefore consists of coercing and eliciting support from their citizens and eliminating institutional and human elements in society that refuse to be co-opted. This allows them to simultaneously work toward their conception of an ideal society, consolidate and perpetuate their political power, and prove the popular legitimacy they assert. When a ruler pursues these goals with sufficient resources and the willingness to employ any and all means necessary to achieve them—violent, peaceful, bureaucratic, ideological, organizational, cultural, religious, and more—a totalitarian strategy is born. In theory, this strategy enjoys the active support of the masses, mobilized by the party, and led by the leader for the glory of their unified nation. In practice, it becomes the forced simulation of mass popular consent.

When defined in this way, “totalitarianism” is a useful tool for historical analysis because it explains why Hussein and the Baʿth operated as they did instead of just describing the extent of their authority in a given time and place. From a comparative perspective, it identifies the common modus operandi of Hussein’s Iraq, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Mao’s China, North Korea, and most of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1953. Simultaneously, it recognizes that these regimes emerged out of distinct historical and cultural contexts; they were not identical.

Calling these regimes “totalitarian” nonetheless differentiates them from their authoritarian cousins. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism share autocratic traits, but their strategies of rule differ. Totalitarian regimes rule by politicizing and mobilizing their citizens, by attempting to turn everyone into active supporters: “A totalitarian regime not only rules ‘from the outside’ through violence, it also seeks the full and unconditional loyalty of the individual citizen.” Authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, demobilize large segments of their populations to keep them out of politics, permitting a “limited political pluralism” so long as nothing threatens their authority.

The term “totalitarian” can also mark different periods or geographies in the same regime’s time in government. As Arendt argued, after Stalin died the Soviet Union went through a period of “detotalitarization” when the arts returned and dissidents could plead “not guilty” in court. While maintaining many of the same methods of rule, the Soviet regime began to moderate its aspirations—that is, it no longer pursued total control— a trend that advanced in fits and starts, eventually culminating in perestroika. For its part, Hussein’s regime never pursued the same comprehensive strategy in the Kurdish and marsh regions as it did in the rest of Iraq.

The totalitarian strategy that Hussein and the Baʿth used to rule Iraq was called “Baʿthification” (tabʿīth). The main purpose behind Baʿthification was to inculcate loyalty in the Iraqi populace by making the brand of Baʿthist ideology employed by the regime during Hussein’s presidency— Husseini Baʿthism—the primary basis for political and social order and the supreme source for individual and collective identity. Husseini Baʿthism consisted of a mixture of ideological and personal motives deriving from the utopian, totalitarian aspirations of traditional Baʿthist thought and the selfish and pragmatic necessities required for Hussein and the Baʿthist elite to retain power within the context of modern Iraqi history and culture. Baʿthification was a particularly Iraqi phenomenon in which Hussein manipulated Iraqis’ tribal and familial conceptions of honor, and religious and ethnic sensibilities, interweaving them with classic totalitarian methods to solidify his control.

As with other totalitarian regimes in history, the Iraqi Baʿth aimed to create a “new man” (al-ʾinsān al-jadīd ) in a “new society” (al-mujtamaʿ aljadīd ), to transform the nature of human beings in order to advance the fortunes of Saddam Hussein’s person; the values of the Baʿth’s July 17–30, 1968, revolution; and the collective welfare of the Iraqi and Arab nations. During Hussein’s presidency, the Baʿthist propaganda machine fused these three elements—the leader, the party, and the nation—into one mythsymbol complex representative of Iraqi patriotism and national identity. Throughout this study I refer to this myth-symbol complex as the “Baʿthist Trinity.” It formed the real content of the ideology behind Hussein’s regime from 1979 to 2003, as opposed to the purely idealistic principles of the Baʿth’s traditional slogan: “Unity, Freedom, and Socialism.” Each symbol within the Baʿthist Trinity equated to the other so that pledging allegiance to one demonstrated an Iraqi’s loyalty to all. Conversely, the Baʿth considered an attack on Hussein or the party to be “national treason.” Baʿthification was thus a fusion of an idealistic aspiration to mold Iraq’s heterogeneous population into one nation united behind Husseini Baʿthist principles and a strategy for Saddam Hussein to establish and perpetuate his dictatorship. Ideally, if Hussein could transform Iraqi society into a Husseini Baʿthist society—if he could “Husseini Baʿthize” it, or “Baʿthize” it for short—he would not need to use force to control the population.

The Iraqi Baʿth considered itself a “vanguard” (t.alīʿa) and “leading party” (al-h. izb al-qāʾid ), which derived its legitimacy from popular support and the ability to advance the welfare of “the people” (al-shaʿb) or “the masses” (al-jamāhīr). As Hussein put it, “The relationship between the party and the masses is a living dialectical relationship, for the party without the masses remains merely an elite, and the masses without the party remain merely raw material and a broken capacity (t.āqa muʿat.t.ala) led astray amid the turmoil of the daily progress of events.” Like the Baʿth’s relationship with the Iraqi state, Baʿthist ideology held that the masses needed the party to give them direction. In turn, the party needed the masses to supply it with members, fight in its wars, partake in its rituals, and otherwise support its initiatives. Whether sincere, coerced, or elicited, mass support justified the Baʿth’s totalitarian strategy because the party’s rationale for using such strict control was to advance the people’s welfare. The Baʿth thus had to demonstrate that the people felt their welfare was in fact being improved. This is why the Baʿth did not content themselves with authoritarian means—with simply suppressing their citizens—and why they did not tolerate neutrality.³⁹ Instead, the Baʿth spent considerable effort mobilizing their citizenry to participate in the party’s rituals, wars, and initiatives, and they expected Iraqis to exhibit active support in these venues to prove their loyalty.

Despite Hussein and the Baʿth’s efforts, the oppressive realities of life under their rule belied their progressive narrative. Perhaps because of this obvious gap between rhetoric and reality, the secondary literature has largely denied both classical and Husseini Baʿthist ideology a significant role in the history of Hussein’s presidency. Hanna Batatu, for example, argues that the theories of the most influential Baʿthist philosopher in Iraq, Michel Aflaq, “do not add up to an entirely consistent point of view.” Similarly, Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett criticize Majid Khadduri for discussing the post-1968 Iraqi Baʿth in ideological terms, “as if the Baʿth had a coherent set of ideological principles.” Only Makiya finds fault with this “reluctance to come to terms with the coherence of the Baʿth,” arguing that “ʿAflaq’s early ideas had to have been followed through by later Baʿthi leaders.” What do the documents suggest?

The attack against Baʿthist ideology as a cover for self-serving action is true if Hussein’s policies from 1979 to 2003 are judged against the purely theoretical principles preached by Aflaq and his cofounders in the 1940s and if Hussein never really meant anything he said about his ideological desire to pursue Iraq’s greatness or Arab unity. But Hussein did not try to apply traditional Baʿthist ideology during his presidency. Instead, he pursued a Husseini Baʿthist version. Recordings of Hussein’s private conversations, moreover, show that he tended to say the same things in public as he did behind closed doors. He consistently expressed his belief in the Baʿth Party’s message in addition to asserting that only under his leadership could the party steer Iraq toward a better future. In his rhetoric, Hussein consequently kept the ideological elements of classical Aflaqian Baʿthism that legitimized the party’s attempt to seek total power while transferring that power to himself in the form of a leadership cult. The production of this cult rationalized the move from “collective leadership” (al-qiyāda aljamāʿiyya) under his predecessor, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, to making Hussein “the leader” (al-qāʾid ) of the country. Hussein could therefore justify the use of any means necessary to retain power because according to the logic of Husseini Baʿthism, anything that he did was good for Iraq by virtue of the fact that he did it. Just as the Italian Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile defined the “real ‘views’ of [Benito Mussolini]” as “those which he formulates and executes at one and the same time,” Hussein’s words and deeds became Husseini Baʿthist doctrine. It is too simple, therefore, to say that Hussein was motivated purely by either personal or ideological reasons because in Baʿthist Iraq those reasons were the selfsame thing. Anything that Hussein said immediately became the official philosophy of all facets of Baʿthist society.

Understanding the principles of Husseini Baʿthism, regardless of their objective truth or the extent to which the population believed them, is critical to comprehend the logic behind the regime’s Baʿthification policies and how the Baʿthist State functioned. Husseini Baʿthism provided a logical and moral consistency to what, on its face, was an incoherent and immoral state of affairs. It provided the message behind the Baʿthist liturgy, into which the party indoctrinated its members and citizens. It directed and ordered the Baʿth Party apparatus and, in turn, the party’s organization of society. Husseini Baʿthism identified the Baʿth’s enemies, countenanced the violence used against them, and validated the preferential treatment given to Baʿth Party members and independent loyalists. In a regime where political considerations were paramount, Husseini Baʿthism stood in for the traditional roles of law, religion, and culture as the sources of legal, ethical, and normative rules in society. As such, ideology was central to the maintenance of Hussein and the party’s power even if, as Eric Davis suggests, Baʿthist philosophy “was not taken particularly seriously by the political elite under Saddam.”⁴⁶ In an intellectual sense, few Iraqis, it seems, truly believed in Baʿthist principles. Those principles nevertheless ordered the environment around them, so they were well served to study them in order to survive in the system. As the Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski said about ideology behind the Iron Curtain, “It is a paradox that this ideology, in which practically everybody has ceased to believe—those who propagate it, those who profit from it, and those who must listen to it— is still a matter of the most vital importance for the continuing existence of this political system.”⁴⁷ When the United States and its allies removed Iraq’s Baʿthist exoskeleton in 2003, Iraq disintegrated. The reasons for this go beyond a “de-Baʿthification” policy that removed the army, a cadre of technocrats, and high-level officials critical to maintaining the Iraqi state. The BRCC documents show that by 2003, Baʿthification had destroyed or emasculated most of Iraq’s pre–1968 governmental, civil, social, and familial institutions and value systems, and had transformed or replaced them with Husseini Baʿthist versions. In addition to stripping the state of expertise and manpower, de-Baʿthification removed the underpinnings of a society conditioned for thirty-five years to operate according to Baʿthist—and for twenty-three years, Husseini Baʿthist—dictates.

Measures and Methods

Practically, Baʿthification manifested itself in a set of policies and tactics designed to coerce and elicit support for Hussein’s regime, and to eliminate alternatives to it. Employing the Baʿth Party as his chief political instrument, Hussein attempted to transform every state and social institution, civil society organization, private family, and individual person in Iraq into a Baʿthist entity or a Baʿth Party member—or to otherwise solicit the institution or individual’s loyalty. Baʿthification also required ridding Iraq entirely of alternative political organizations and ideas, and forcing Iraqis to, at least outwardly, subordinate their social, economic, religious, cultural, familial, and individual bonds to Hussein and the Baʿth Party—in addition to their personal inclinations, beliefs, and creativities. As a piece of literature put out by the party’s Euphrates bureau in 1985, entitled “A Plan for the Baʿthification of Society” ( tabʿīth al-mujtamaʿ), stated, Baʿthist organizations were “to put in place new measures and methods of mobilization that would lead the masses of the people in their entirety to rally around the revolution and to create absolute loyalty (al-wilāʾ al-mut.laq) to the party and the leader.”⁴⁸ During Hussein’s presidency, the BRCC records show that loyalty—or, more accurately, Hussein and the Baʿth’s perception of a person’s loyalty—dictated his or her fate more than any other factor, including his or her familial, tribal, ethnic, sectarian, or local background.

The “measures and methods” that Hussein employed to Baʿthize the country fell under four general rubrics: ideology, organization, terror, and enticement. These four categories of controls are analyzed briefly below and in-depth throughout this book. Although each chapter scrutinizes aspects of these controls so as to better flesh out their characteristics, in reality, the controls overlapped and reinforced one another. Combined, the BRCC documents show that the boundaries these controls placed on permissible action and thought trapped many Iraqis in an environment that channeled their behavior into avenues supportive of the regime. At the same time, the severe consequences that accrued to Hussein’s opponents meant that once his regime identified a person as an enemy, the person had little choice but to turn to a life of crime, resistance, or exile.

The language employed by the BRCC’s authors demonstrates that Hussein and the Baʿth viewed themselves in quasi-religious terms, as nationalist missionaries sent to save the Arab and Iraqi nations by preaching their Husseini Baʿthist faith to the masses. Since the Baʿth believed they held a monopoly over historical truth, anybody who held an alternative view was not necessarily evil but unenlightened, somebody who did not possess “sufficient awareness that the way of the Baʿth is the right way to serve the people and the nation.”⁴⁹ Accordingly, the documents’ authors explain the core of the Baʿth Party’s mission as to “explain” (tawd. īh. ) Husseini Baʿthist principles to the masses in order to “indoctrinate” (tawʿīyya), “culturalize” (tathqīf ), and “frame” (taʾt.īr), or mold, them into Baʿthist believers who would “mobilize” (taʿbiʾa) behind the regime’s policies. As a result, the Baʿth leaned heavily on ideological propaganda, cultural production, and a plethora of rituals in all areas of life. The Baʿth designed their indoctrination and culturalization campaigns to imbue an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual faith in Husseini Baʿthism. In an ideal world, this faith would take the place of Iraqis’ traditional allegiances and manifest itself in their active and unprompted political support. The particular character of Baʿthist ideology, which Aflaq claimed was “a general philosophy in life” ( falsafa ʿāma fī-l-h. ayāt), like a religion, allowed the Baʿth to stake a claim to control anything they desired, and Hussein’s success amassing so much power allowed him to aspire to do so.

Hand in hand with indoctrination, Baʿthification sought to “organize” Iraqi state and society in their totality so that both the forms and content of all governmental, civil, social, and private institutions and relationships supported the claims of Husseini Baʿthist ideology. Hussein used the Baʿth Party to take over the Iraqi state—to make it into the Party State—and then to use the resources at the Party State’s disposal to incorporate social institutions and individuals into the party, state, and the Baʿth’s ersatz civil society associations, the “Professional and Mass Organizations” (PMOs). Hussein did this by co-opting or replacing top state officials and social leaders with Baʿthists; recruiting; instituting bureaucratic, administrative, and regulatory controls over Iraq’s previously independent social institutions such as the country’s tribes and religious establishments; and implementing laws and regulations that controlled normally private matters such as marriage. As with the Nazi policy of Gleichschaltung, or the integration and synchronization of German society, organization affected Iraqis’ tangible, day-to-day interactions by influencing them to act obediently through the countless, repetitive, institutionalized practices of the “infrastructural power” of the state.

Terror and enticement facilitated indoctrination and organization by, in the former case, clearing Iraq’s public and private spaces of organized opposition and alternative worldviews, and, in the latter, by providing positive incentives to support the process of Baʿthification. As with Baʿthification’s other means, Hussein used violence primarily for instrumental purposes: as a tool to eliminate people and groups in society that he perceived as a threat to his authority, and as a deterrent to crime and attacks against his regime, which he considered tantamount to political opposition. The fact that Hussein held arbitrary (albeit not absolute) power with few legal or other checks on his authority meant that, like Stalin, he frequently employed violence to eliminate anybody that he merely suspected of disloyalty. No consequences accrued from his use of violence, so it was better to be safe than sorry. As a result, Hussein or another Baʿthist official’s irritation or paranoia could lead to the killing, torture, or incarceration of innocent citizens and longtime regime supporters alike. That does not mean, however, that violence became the raison d’être of the Husseini Baʿthist system of governance. Violence was, rather, a byproduct of the arbitrary nature of the system, which included a broad definition of Hussein and the Baʿth Party’s enemies.

Equally as important to the Baʿth’s use of terror was an established regime of awards, medals, honors, and statuses that brought their winners financial, professional, academic, health, social, and other benefits. Hussein and the Baʿth employed these in tandem with violence and surveillance as incentives for Iraqis to pledge their fealty. Iraqis called this phenomenon “tarhīb wa-l-targhīb,” or “terror and enticement.” The combination of these two elements cemented many Iraqis’ loyalties. Terror and enticement offered a stark choice: oppose the regime and face the consequences or support it and live what passed for a normal life in Baʿthist Iraq. As with people everywhere, the BRCC shows that Iraqis wanted to provide for their families, put a roof over their heads, ensure themselves and their children good educational and professional opportunities, move up the social ladder, and live with dignity. Terror and enticement made it so that everybody had something to lose and something to gain if they played by the regime’s rules. Baʿthist Iraq was a “Republic of Fear,” but it was not only fear of violence. It was also fear of hunger, homelessness, poverty, and the loss of respect, honor, and opportunity.

Terror and enticement worked particularly well because a person’s actions affected the fate of his extended family, and vice-versa. As a result, if for no other reason, an individual who cared about his kin submitted to the Baʿth’s rules. Conversely, families had an incentive to preserve their collective welfare by policing their members. When a relative crossed the regime, the BRCC shows that families severed ties with him quickly and decisively in prominent displays of loyalty meant to reassert their allegiance—like the family members who killed their relatives. Especially in a society that greatly valued individual and communal honor—be it familial, tribal, national, or religious—forcing Iraqis to downgrade these normally robust allegiances in favor of Hussein and the Baʿth pressured them to commit otherwise unthinkable acts against their brethren on the regime’s behalf. As the process of Baʿthification persisted, these acts happened so frequently that over time they became common. Terror and enticement thus contributed to a normative environment produced by the incentives inherent in its rewards and punishments whereby many Iraqis felt compelled to act for the benefit of the Baʿthist Trinity.

Strategy and Tactics

The BRCC documents show that Hussein never abandoned Baʿthification as his ruling strategy throughout his tenure as president. This conclusion contradicts the conventional narrative. The narrative holds that in the early 1990s Hussein downgraded the Baʿth Party and began to accommodate and curry favor with tribal and religious elements in society as a way to hold onto power and reassert his legitimacy. Proponents of this view assert that these actions transgressed traditional Baʿthist values, which were antitribal and secular. The regime, they argue, consequently gave up on Baʿthification and totalitarianism. As Makiya wrote in the 1998 introduction to his book, “Republic of Fear . . . describes a state system that no longer exists in post–Gulf War Iraq. The war, the uprising that followed on its heels, and seven terrible years of sanctions and economic privation have seen to that. Nothing in Iraq is as it was in the heyday of the regime’s absolutism.” Instead, the Baʿth regime maintained its power by encouraging Iraqis “to fear one another” and by “inculcating sectarianism, confessionalism, and tribalism as its new instruments of rule.”

While Hussein might have added these instruments to his repertoire, the BRCC documents do not support the view that they constituted a shift away from Baʿthification. Instead, they reflect a regime on its heels, knocked off-balance by the size of its defeat in the Gulf War, the popular uprisings that followed, and UN sanctions. In dire financial straits and without the manpower necessary to fully implement Baʿthification, Hussein played to tribal values and religious trends in order to usurp the authority and legitimacy that came with projecting an image of a strong tribal and religious leader. Thus, Hussein and the Baʿth’s organs of propaganda emphasized tribal and religious rhetoric, and the regime embraced overt policies to back up its words. Among other measures, Hussein invited tribal sheikhs to the Republican Palace for the first time in March 1991 and embarked on a “Faith Campaign” in 1993. As part of the latter, even Baʿth Party members had to take religious exams.⁵⁸ In some ways, therefore, Hussein did “tribalize” and “Islamize” his regime.⁵⁹ Yet, evidence from the BRCC shows that simultaneous to Hussein’s adoption of tribal and religious characteristics, he intensified the Baʿthist regime’s longstanding efforts to co-opt tribal and religious leaders and remove sheikhs and imams unwilling to submit to the regime’s dictates. Hussein also worked to instill Husseini Baʿthist ideological and organizing principles in tribal and religious worldviews and institutions, and to assume the mantle of tribal and religious legitimacies in order to bring both elements more firmly under his regime’s direct control. In other words, instead of supplanting Husseini Baʿthism for tribalism and Islamism, Hussein subsumed them inside Husseini Baʿthist ideology and the Baʿthist State.⁶⁰ This does not mean that Hussein succeeded at Baʿthizing every tribe and religious entity, or that the Baʿthification of tribes and religious establishments proceeded perfectly according to a secret master plan; far from it. Improvisation and failure marked all of the regime’s Baʿthification policies at times, particularly in the early to mid 1990s.⁶¹ But the BRCC records show that the way in which Hussein approached and employed tribal and religious elements during this period conformed to his general Baʿthification strategy. Juan Linz has called political parties or movements that aspire to total control but do not achieve it “defective or arrested totalitarian systems.”⁶² Baʿthist Iraq as a whole can be characterized as such in the early to mid-1990s, and in the Kurdish areas, marshlands, and much of rural Iraq throughout the Baʿth’s tenure.

As the early 1990s era illustrates, it is important to understand both the successes and failures of Baʿthification to gain an accurate picture of life under Husseini Baʿthist rule. Even if Baʿthification did not always succeed, the regime’s attempt to apply it with fluctuating capabilities to Iraqi culture, individuals, families, state and social institutions, and demographic groups, all of which wavered between acceptance and resistance in different times and places, largely dictated the many realities that Iraqis lived from 1979 to 2003.⁶³ Baʿthification is therefore a useful conceptual framework with which to analyze, explain, and describe Hussein’s Iraq.

Baʿthification did not result from a vacuum. It emerged as a set of policy choices that the Baʿth Party’s leaders made after they took power in 1968— choices that Hussein took to extremes during his presidency and which must be set against the backdrop of the specific historical and social contexts out of which the Baʿth Party emerged, Hussein’s personal proclivities, and the Baʿth’s ideological and organizational foundations.


“[Faust] create[s] a detailed world out of seemingly banal documents that, when put together and analyzed properly, reconstruct the Baathist system and mentality. As such, his is a magisterial study of Planet Baath: critical, sensitive, and sensible. By combining archival material with a deep awareness of Iraqi history, Faust succeeds in creating a complete and convincing whole.”
The Middle East Quarterly

“Faust’s work makes an important contribution to a number of areas, some very specific, some wider, that will leave an imprint on the study of totalitarian dictatorships in the Arab world and even in the world beyond. The complex system through which Saddam and the party endeavored to ‘Ba’thize’ Iraq is presented and analyzed very convincingly and the myriad details create an impressive whole.”
Amatzia Baram, Professor of Middle Eastern History and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies, University of Haifa, and author of, among other books, Culture, History, and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq: 1968–1989 and Saddam Husayn and Islam 1968–2003: Ba`thi Iraq from Secularism to Faith

“The research is excellent, the writing is engaging. Faust is particularly good at discussing the mindset, the worldview that the Ba’thist tried to create, and fleshing this out systematically.”
Dina Rizk Khoury, Professor of History and International Relations, George Washington University, and author of Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance