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From ensubscribers-owner@monde-diplomatique.fr Mon Dec 16 08:14:10 2002
From: Le Monde diplomatique <english@monde-diplomatique.fr>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <english@monde-diplomatique.fr>
Subject: Iraq: the party in power
Date: Mon, 16 Dec 2002 12:40:34 +0100 (CET)

The party in power

By David Baran, Le Monde diplomatique, December 2002

ORDINARY Iraqis who are hostile to the Ba'ath party without truly opposing it often describe it as a façade or a nothing. It is a near-ubiquitous presence that ensures that President Saddam Hussein's portrait is on display in government offices and the tiniest shops. In October 2000 the Ba'ath party (which in Arabic means rebirth) even raised a people's army of 7m volunteers in just six weeks. Yet the extravagant size and the objectives of the Jerusalem liberation army (jeish tahrir al-quds) belied the rhetoric, which was far removed from all reality.

The Jerusalem army was a fine example of the Ba'ath party's paradoxical nature. It was launched after a summit meeting at which Saddam ordered the creation of military training camps for Iraqis committed to the Palestinian cause. There was never a question of them being sent into actual battle. But since Saddam is so flattered and feared, his simplest wish is enough to start the mechanism to give substance to his grand visions. Five days after the summit the Ba'ath party announced with customary precision that 421 ,522 men and 127 ,179 women had already attended the camps. As proof, impressive parades were held across Iraq in the next month. In Baghdad it took 13 hours for a huge procession to wind past the presidential platform.

Watching file upon file of conscripts passing makes you wonder how Iraqi citizens can be subjugated so easily. Despite those analysts who write of oriental tyrannies, Iraq's control mechanisms are more sophisticated and less brutal than is believed. The Ba'ath party is the central pillar of a system of constraint that relies more on intimidation than force. It enables the regime to exert moderate yet steady pressure on lives. This is enough to secure the superficial, yet smooth, co-operation of a population grown passive and indifferent.

For the retired military personnel responsible for training them, the Jerusalem army represents a rare opportunity to top up their pension income; this is an important consideration given the economic ruin caused by sanctions. But Ba'ath party activists, responsible for recruitment, need to work hard if they hope to meet quotas and gain promotions within the party. They have even been known to enlist volunteers they have never met. This is a lucrative practice, since some recruiters charge people $75 to find replacements for them in the camps.

For the Iraqis liable to be called up, the Jerusalem army causes problems, since participation is unpaid and physically demanding, and often means lost earnings. In the countryside, where each household must volunteer a member for a two-month training session every summer, manpower shortages are a real hardship. Still, the recruitment process is not barbaric. It is in the interests of farmers to be on good terms with the party, which provides access to vital government agricultural programmes, including seeds. And the party uses arguments that are tailored carefully for each professional sector. Only Jerusalem army-affiliated university staff are eligible for foreign teaching assignments. For students, volunteering means access to certain career tracks; and military training also qualifies them for bonus points on exams.

Pressure is sometimes more overt, even reaching into neighbourhoods where party activists keep detailed census records. Recruiters make direct reference to Saddam if necessary: Are you going to ignore the president's call? Recruitment depends on party activists working in close proximity to their target groups rather than on arrests, torture or executions. It is a painstaking process of implicit threats, punishments and minor privileges, particularly effective in times of hardship.

The party resorts to harsher measures if necessary; it has an armed militia for repressive operations. But in their daily activities Ba'ath party activists at the neighbourhood or workplace level often choose to ignore obstinate characters (Kurdheads), who are not important or numerous enough to be reproved.

The most provocative and rebellious cases do face retribution. Keeping the Ba'ath party's approval is a prerequisite for navigating Iraq's administrative channels. And the party ultimately has the power to excommunicate people, leaving them ineligible for food rations, bank accounts or homes. Though they may not be victims of direct brutality, they soon find themselves on the street. And taking away civil rights is more radical and cruel than sending in the police, a step the regime rarely takes.

Nominal consent

The Jerusalem army is a charade, and its ranks are full of forced conscripts unwilling to fight the Zionist enemy, let alone the Americans. But hundreds of thousands of people do run around training camps working up a sweat. What they think is unimportant; all they have to do is show their subjugation and to stay in line. The party is not seeking ideological recruits, just the nominal consent of a pragmatic and embittered population.

The Ba'ath party's hierarchy-based tree structure serves all these goals. At the lowest level, study circles (halaqa) and cells (kheliya) hold weekly meetings with a dozen or so activists from the same neighbourhood or sector. They talk about current events, or the party version of them, in line with the inclinations of the regime. Basic instructions are issued; any irregularities observed during the week are discussed with the cell leaders and written up in obligatory reports. The party's divisions (firqa), which include all the cells within a district, office or factory, occupy the next highest level, then the sections (shu'ba) and branches (fara'), which make up urban areas or governorates (1).

Unlike the cells, the sections and branches enjoy considerable privileges. They are legally authorised to incarcerate suspects using extra-judicial procedures; they have taken over many of the traditional functions of police, especially outside Baghdad; and they run specialised bureaus for cultural, agricultural and other matters. In each governorate the organisational command (qiyadat al-tanzim) is the supreme authority, alongside the traditional civil service. The Ba'ath party duplicates, infiltrates, subverts and competes with the state apparatus.

Atop this structure sits the regional command (quiyadat al-qutr) (2), which in theory is made up of directors democratically elected at party conventions; in reality voting only serves to confirm Saddam's nominees. The regional command's bureaus serve as quasi-ministries responsible for military and cultural affairs. They also oversee a parallel diplomatic corps, together with vast social groups, including farmers, workers and young people. Party membership is a prerequisite for military personnel; the army is divided into cells that report to the Ba'ath party military bureau, while monitoring any dissent within the ranks. The party's security services guarantee loyalty and orthodoxy within the party.

In contrast with the political police, the party network is powered by its membership. Members are classified according to the depth of their commitment. You can join as a sympathiser (mu'ayyed), required only to assimilate the ideological lessons at weekly meetings. The more senior supporters (nassir) and advanced supporters (nassir mutaqaddem) are symbolically willing to take up arms to defend the party. Candidates wishing to move up the ladder must submit to a waiting period and a doctrine test. In theory it takes nearly six years to become a prospective member ('udwu murashah) and then a full member ('udwu).

As they make their way up through the ranks, activists gain privileges and authority. A section member receives a monthly stipend of roughly $250, a considerable sum considering sanctions, providing a level of social prestige magnified by Iraq's wide income disparities. General secretaries at branch level earn $750 a month, and this year they were awarded luxury vehicles in an ostentatious display. For this, activists must compromise themselves by doing dirty work, from tracking down deserters to conducting repressive operations together with the security apparatus. Such actions produce envy, contempt and hatred.

Buying recruits

In theory cell leaders have no material interest in exerting control over their comrades. But to facilitate their own careers they have been known to buy new recruits. High school students can become sympathisers for a few dollars or a few CDs. Although attendance at weekly meetings is supposedly mandatory, it is possible to skip meetings by paying the cell leader.

Hardship forces many Iraqis into making degrading calculations. Party membership's most widely sought benefit is the five-point bonus given to baccalauréat-level children of party members; the students' exam results determine which course of studies they may follow. Admission to Baghdad University's prestigious College of Medicine requires so many points that students from non-Ba'ath party families are automatically excluded. The dilemma facing parents, when academic success is fraught with such uncertainty, is easy to imagine.

The Shi'ites in southern Iraq are said to be fiercely opposed to Saddam's regime. But pragmatism has prompted many to take out party membership, even though they would gladly burn down the party offices given a chance. For the time being they are flexible. A number of good deeds, including participation in the Jerusalem army, are eligible for medals; winning two medals provides access to the Friends of the President association, whose members receive benefits, including those five bonus points for their children's education. The privileges of membership also apply to other groups with links to the Ba'ath party, such as Iraq's federations for women and students.

In a land of endless frustrations party membership also confers other tiny powers: intimidating your neighbours, teachers, colleagues, and even your superiors if they happen to rank lower in the parallel party hierarchy. It is a sad state of affairs when power stems from being able to interrogate a shopkeeper who fails to display Saddam's portrait or from being allowed to carry a firearm openly (depending on party rank). As happens everywhere in the world, vulnerable, complex people often join the party for the self-assurance membership brings. Despite the weakness, cowardice and petty calculations that make the party what it is, it is still a frightening, efficient machine. And it has produced a noteworthy paradox: forced and superficial mobilisation has led to a demobilised population. All indications are that this was the initial objective.

The Ba'ath party began in Iraq in the 1950s as a political movement of like-minded activists and Arab nationalists. Its secular and progressive positions quickly won it a strong following among students, small businesspeople and military personnel. It played a key role in the 17 July 1968 coup that installed the current regime. But Iraq's rulers gradually distorted the party goals, transforming it into a malleable and compliant instrument of power.

Saddam has reduced the party to a mere executive structure, duplicating the state apparatus and at times making up for its failings. Despite all the changes, the regime continues to make cynical use of the party's worn-out ideology, a bland and predictable verbosity that allows everyone to save a little face. At the same time, the party is betraying its own principles. It was once the enemy of religious obscurantism but now organises celebrations honouring the birth of the Prophet. Michel Aflaq, the party's founder, a Syrian-born Christian, was renamed Ahmad after his death and given an official Muslim burial, despite the theoretically secular nature of the party.

What is the Ba'ath party? It is a vast network of self-importance, hypocrisy, denial and fear. Although emboldened by its millions of involuntary volunteers expertly simulating the liberation of Palestine, the Ba'ath party would be hard pressed in reality to rally 10,000 soldiers to fight the US army. The party's network will unravel the minute the regime falls. Meanwhile its status is as secure as Iraq's future is shaky.