[Documents menu] Documents menu

From owner-imap@chumbly.math.missouri.edu Sun Oct 20 10:30:17 2002
Date: Sat, 19 Oct 2002 19:26:53 -0500 (CDT)
From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org>
Subject: LeMondeDip: How Saddam keeps power in Iraq
Article: 146222
To: undisclosed-recipients:;


How Saddam keeps power in Iraq

By Faleh a Jabar, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2002

THE impending United States military campaign against Iraq is reminiscent of the death foretold chronicled in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel - given the Bush administration's longing for Saddam Hussein's unconditional surrender. Yet overthrowing Saddam's regime may well prove prohibitively expensive and could even lead to chaos, because of his unique political system. This has survived war against Iran (1980-1988) and stinging military defeat in 1991, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and the outbreak of the Gulf war. Saddam's political durability is no fluke: it is the outcome of complex and carefully calculated plays for power.

As a young man, Saddam Hussein admired Hitler's system of government. His fondness for totalitarianism came from his maternal uncle, Khairullah Tilfah (1). Stalin and communism were subsequently Saddam's exemplars. He tailored his system along Nazi and Stalinist lines, though it had a number of new features. In keeping with Nazi ideals, Iraq's Ba'ath party had four main pillars: totalitarian ideology, single-party rule, a command economy (nominally socialist), and firm control over the media and the army.

Unlike the Nazi model, the Ba'ath version deployed Iraq's traditional tribes and clans in key state institutions; these groups still survive in the provinces and outlying rural areas. Three strategic posts were set aside for the ruling clan: the defence ministry, the party's military bureau (al-maktab al-askari) and the National Security Bureau (maktab al-amn al-qawmi). In the early years of the regime, state tribalism (the ruler's employment of his own tribesmen in state institutions) focused on the tribe that made up the ruling elite: Albu Nasir and its leading core, the al-Beijat clan. In later years other junior tribal groups were admitted (2). This strategy, based on fear, aimed to strengthen the regime's power base, build a monolithic ruling elite, and stem the schisms and power struggles that had plagued the army and party politics between 1958 and 1970.

Oil revenues were another essential component of the Ba'ath party system. Iraq's vast oil reserves enabled the government to expand public services and social safety nets. As a result, the Westernised middle classes took advantage of expanded opportunities and prospered during the oil boom that followed the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The success of the upper classes exceeded all expectations, despite the restrictions of the command economy. In 1968 Iraq had 53 millionaire families, measured in dinars (a dinar was then worth $3.10). There were around 800 such households in 1980 and 3,000 by 1989. Salaried employees and property owners in the middle and upper classes became powerful social forces. They did not owe their prosperity to a free market system; they were dependent on government employment and contracts.

In the corridors of power and the newly ascendant clan classes, tribal or kinship-based groups held strategic positions. These clan classes maintained a tight grip on the army, the Ba'ath party, the bureaucracy and business. Their bonds were in shared ideology and economic interests, together with intermarriage and the glorification of kinship, in spite of official anti-tribalism.

This totalitarian system brought together modern and traditional elements. It sought to control the state's power structures and the restless multi-ethnic and multi-cultural masses. Iraq's Arab population are divided between Sunnis and Shi'ites, while the Kurds form a sizeable minority (see article Kurdistan: on the map at last). This blend of the modern and the traditional has been the primary source of the regime's longevity, as well as its chief weakness.

In dealing with the cohesiveness and stability of the ruling elite, the Ba'ath regime contrasted sharply with its predecessors. These included General Abdul-Karim Qassim (1958-1963), who relied on military discipline to keep order, and Marshal Abdul-Salam Arif (1963-1968), who married military discipline with blood ties to the Jumailat clan. Both leaders failed to secure a stable power base. The Ba'ath party added its own original ingredients to the basic formula of army plus tribal solidarity.

This new and complicated mixture took years to set since its two sides were so contradictory. Modern party norms, which the Ba'ath party ostensibly espoused as a socialist and Arab nationalist party, did not make the party immune to internal divisions. And these norms ended up conflicting with tribal bonds, too.

In the regime's early years co-existence between the Ba'ath party's civilian and military wings was uneasy; and in the end, the military was confined to its barracks. The tribal groups were fraught with internal rivalries, and there were bloody fights over power and wealth, but they did provide some cohesion. Clashes arose when these opposing forces and political discourses were forcibly joined. Still, there were the beginnings of a peaceful co-existence. With each new crisis, reforms were introduced to restore the balance of power. Such flexible fine-tuning became Saddam Hussein's usual practice.

Secular nationalism had never supported the tribal elites' traditional beliefs, yet it eventually incorporated the tribal value system, based on lineage, into its ideological fabric. With Iraq's oil revenues in constant flux, primitive forms of economic control were put in place.


Regional and global realities once encouraged totalitarian nationalist systems, but this changed dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of single-party government in eastern Europe.

The Iran-Iraq conflict and the Gulf war led to constant restructuring. During the eight years of war against Iran's Islamic revolution, religion appeared on the political agenda. Baghdad was particularly concerned with Iraq's militant Shi'ite Muslims and their attitudes toward Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic republic. Weakened by the long conflict with Iran, Iraq lost control over traditional social groups in rural and provincial areas. This weakness led to renewed tribalism.

The war devoured Iraq's $38bn surplus and left it with a $50bn debt. The army's 1m soldiers grew restless. The war generation longed for the prosperous civilian life it had known in the past, the military seemed dangerously out of control and the state's power structures and social engineering mechanisms showed the strain. Against this backdrop Iraq, in the hopes of restoring stability, invaded Kuwait. But its defeat in 1991 led to chronic structural crises.

The Iraqi state was seriously weakened. Reduced to almost one-third of its pre-war size, the army was crippled by insurrections that broke out in the north (Kurdistan) and in the predominantly Shi'ite south. Military difficulties increased when the US created two no-fly zones. Iraq's security services, targeted by the uprisings in spring 1991, lost much of their database and many experienced personnel.

The systems of ideological control - the structures of the ruling party - also went into decline. Ba'ath party membership, which peaked at 1.8m in 1990, had plunged by 40% by the 10th party congress in 1991, and continued to drop before the 11th and 12th congresses in 1996 and 2001. Estrangement was most pronounced in the southern cities of Basra and Nasiriya, in the central region (including the cities of Hilla, Najaf and Karbala), and in the capital. These losses reduced the Ba'ath party's ability to manage the state and dominate society.

The sanctions on Iraq deprived the government of the huge oil revenues it had enjoyed. As a result, GDP dropped by 75% from its 1982 level. Annual per capita income was $4,219 in 1979, plunged to $485 in 1993 and has since fallen to an estimated $300 today. Feeling the pinch, the government raised taxes and printed more money. The regime could no longer afford to bribe a large proportion of Iraqi society, nor could it provide social services nor finance the economy.

A new relationship between government and society is taking shape. The Iraqi state stands to lose its monopoly on social wealth. The planned economy, once supported by oil revenues, is beginning to fracture. Market forces, though still embryonic, have also been eroding state power.

The salaried middle classes - once a key source of Ba'ath support - have also fallen on hard times. Hyperinflation has destroyed livelihoods as people struggle to get by on meagre government benefits. The Iraqi dinar traded at $3.10 before the war; in 1996 one dollar was worth 3,000 dinars. Exchange rates subsequently fluctuated between 2,000-1,200 dinars to the dollar before stabilising around 2,000 dinars. To survive, people have been reduced to selling their clothing, furniture, books, jewellery and household utensils. Middle-class disillusion is so profound that General Jabar Muhsin, the official Ba'ath party ideologue and propagandist, has lamented the middle classes which we have lost (3). Millions of Iraqis are emigrating to Jordan, Europe and the US.

The revolutionary legitimacy that justified Iraq's single-party system and command economy was hit hard by the end of the Soviet Union and East European single-party states, and the effects of limited liberalisation in the Middle East.

The disastrous aftermath of two unnecessary wars disconnected popular patriotism from official nationalism, leading to massive dissent after the government brutally quelled the 1991 uprisings. Ceasefire conditions and UN Security Council resolutions saddled the regime with unprecedented constraints and handicaps. As a result, the ruling elite lost its grip on power and the state was too frail to supervise the restless, if segmented, urban masses. Schisms at the top were inevitable, striking at the centre of the leading house, al-Majid. Dissidence became epidemic within the party and army. More than 1,500 high- and mid-level army officers fled to the West while many Ba'ath party officials sought asylum abroad.


Between 1991 and 2002 Saddam implemented a new survival strategy to deal with these challenges. This had five main objectives: restoring order to the leading tribal house; restructuring the army; reviving tribes nationwide to replace party organisations; updating the ideological arsenal; and using new instruments of economic control.

The most daunting challenge was to restore order to the ruling clan and solve the dilemma of presidential succession. State tribalism depended on a broad alliance of Sunni clans, concentrated around the Beijat clan. The latter is divided into 10 branches, or sub-clans (afkhad). Before 1968, these branches competed for traditional local leadership. Since 1978 these struggles have centred on national power. Despite professions of solidarity, leadership shifted abruptly across the branches, disrupting the clans and their relations with the party and state. Seven out of 10 clans were severely disrupted, leading to chain reactions.

Although he had effectively controlled the levers of power for many years, Saddam became president in 1979, replacing Hassan al-Bakr. This led to the demise of the Albu Bakr sub-clan (from which Hassan al-Bakr came) and the rise of Albu Ghafoor, Saddam's sub-clan.

The extended families of the Takrit clique suffered a similar fate. In the 1980s Saddam relied heavily on his kinsmen, divided into three core groups: his three half-brothers (from the Albu Khattab sub-clan); Adnan Khairulla Tilfah, his cousin, brother-in-law and ex-defence minister (from the Albu Mussallat sub-clan); and some elements from the house of al-Majid, a branch of the president's Albu Ghafoor sub-clan. Other sub-clans, such as General Omar Hazza's Albu Hazza, General Fadhil Barrak's Albu Najam and Marshal Mahir Rasheed's Albu Munim held significant but non-vital positions. These three sub-clans fell out of favour during and after the Iran-Iraq war: their leaders were executed and their sub-clans marginalised.

Al-Majid's rise to power in the 1990s posed huge problems since it infringed fundamental party and military norms: efficiency, service record and seniority. Hussein Kamil and Saddam Kamil both married daughters of Saddam. Alongside Ali Hassan al-Majid, they respectively held the military industries, the special services (jihaz al-khas) and the defence ministry. Their cousins, including Rokan, Saddam's aide-de-camp, have also held important posts.

With the rise of Saddam's two sons Udai and Qusai, the house of al-Majid proved itself even less reliable than its predecessors. The conflict came to a head when the brothers Kamil defected to Jordan in 1995, only to return to Iraq. They were executed in February 1996, as were their father, mother and sister. This bloody episode unsettled al-Majid and embarrassed Saddam. The president disassociated himself from the al-Majid members that made up his inner house, and decided to draw from his larger sub-clan (Albu Ghafoor), which includes the house of Albu Sultan. Kamal Mustapha (Albu Sultan's leading figure and Saddam's cousin) was entrusted with the Republican Guard- two corps, seven divisions, roughly one third of the armed forces - the regime's real praetorian guards. Kamal Mustapha's brother, Jamal, married Saddam's youngest daughter. There is every indication that contacts between the al-Majid and Albu Sultan houses are as tense as relations between Saddam's sons.

As Saddam's chosen successor, Qusai was entrusted with reorganising the intelligence and security services. In 2000 he was named presidential caretaker, ready to serve as interim president if necessary. Qusai had previously been appointed supervisor of the Army of the Mother of all Battles (renamed the Republican Guard). In April 2001 he was elected to the party's regional leadership (4). A new nucleus, centred round Kamal Mustafa and Qusai, has been created.

Although it is showing signs of age, state tribalism - the process of integrating the tribal lineages into the state to consolidate the power of a fragile ruling elite -is still operating. In contrast, the forces of social tribalism revive, manipulate or invent tribal structures by tapping into the cultural values and kinship networks of rural migrants and provincial city dwellers.

The Ba'ath party saw and exploited Kurdish military tribalism: as early as 1974 the chiefs (aghas) of the Sorchy, Mezouri, Doski and Herki tribes were recruited as mercenaries in the fight against Kurdish nationalism. During the war with Iran, the Iraqi regime came to appreciate the strength of the southern Arab tribes, who fought the Iranian forces and were subsequently courted by the central government. Another important development in the late 1980s was the social rise of prominent tribal leaders, made possible by the decline of modern civil associations.

As the Ba'ath party's organisational structure grew shakier, age-old kinship networks stepped in. Encouraged by the government to take charge of law and order, old tribal families took this task to heart. They reconstructed many real tribes and invented new ones. In 1992 Saddam met tribal leaders in the presidential palace, where he promised reconciliation and apologised for previous land reforms. The tribal leaders raised their banners and pledged allegiance to Saddam, reborn as chief of the chieftains. From that moment, retribalisation rapidly spread nationwide.

Exempted from military service, the fabricated tribes were provided with light weapons as well as transport and communications equipment. The major tribes, mainly Sunni, were given responsibility for national security; the smaller ones were assigned local duties such as maintaining law and order, settling disputes and collecting taxes. The tribes were organised to operate as extensions of the state organs. Their rebirth as powerful social movements filled the void created by devastated civil institutions and a damaged state, supposedly the guarantor of law and order and the defender of life and property. The revived or invented tribes operate in urban centres, not their natural rural habitat. This is endangering the fabric of an urbanised and cultured society.

State tribalism and social tribalism come with many auxiliaries of mobilisation and control, including renovated ideology. Iraqi patriotism, with its references to ancient history, was used alongside Arab patriotism to draw in non-Arab ethnic groups. According to Ba'ath party ideologues, the glorification of lineage - the definitive tribal trait - was at the heart of Arabism; without hereditary descent, Arab nationalism is meaningless.

Wahhabism, the strict Saudi version of orthodox Hanbalite legal traditions, crossed Iraq's porous southern border while the security services turned a blind eye. This ideological newcomer was seen as a desirable alternative to Shi'ite militancy.

The regime has endured for another crucial reason: under economic sanctions, the regime oversees the oil-for-food programme (5). To obtain food rations, people must present special coupons, which have become instruments of social manipulation. In the 1995 presidential election, citizens were forced to vote if they wanted to remain entitled to ration coupons; dissidents, and alleged dissidents, are not entitled to them. Never has the regime had such a powerful tool. These are the politics of starvation. Upper-class support is secured by another kind of bribery: market deregulation. Nightly, Baghdad's elite establishments host old money and nouveaux riches. The fantastic luxury of the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights could not compare with their excesses.

This mix of nationalism, patriotism, tribalism and Sunnism, with its provisions and its bribes, has enabled the regime to survive and, until now, to overcome all obstacles. If the US invades Iraq, who can foretell Saddam's legacy?

(1) Tilfah was a staunch Arabist. His fiery speeches on Radio Baghdad in 1941 (published in the 1970s) showed how much he worshipped power, the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.

(2) Tribal structure: the tribes are divided into clans, composed of sub-clans (afkhad). The sub-clans are then divided into extended families (hamula or finda, meaning breast), in turn made up of beit, translated here as houses. Distinctions between hamula and beit blurred as the tribal system broke down.

(3) Babil daily newspaper, Baghdad, 20 December 1994.

(4) The Ba'ath party's regional command is responsible for Iraq. The national command, whose officials come from different countries, oversees the entire Arab world. (5) Adopted in 1995, UN Security Council Resolution 986 (known as oil for food) was finally accepted and signed by Iraq on 20 May 1996 via a memorandum of agreement with the UN. This allowed Iraq to export a maximum of $2bn in oil every six months; this ceiling was raised to $5.2bn in February 1998 and subsequently abolished. Oil revenues flow into a special UN account, with 58% allocated for imports of food, medicine and other civilian expenditures; 13% is allocated to the three northern provinces (Kurdistan) that remain outside central government control. The rest is used to compensate victims of the war in Kuwait (25%) and for expenses of the embargo and UN operations, including the UN special commission (Unscom) responsible for monitoring Iraq's weapons. In September 2002 Baghdad increased its oil exports to 914,000 barrels a day. This represents nearly 50% of its total estimated production capacity, against 33% in previous months.