On the evening of August 8, 1979, immediately after 21 executions that he and his Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) had ordered and witnessed, Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, President of Iraq, stood on the balcony of the presidential palace in Baghdad, his arms raised in salute. Over 50,000 demonstrators roared their approval and chanted, "Death to the traitors!" As he looked down, Hussein might have contemplated the example of King Sargon II, the Assyrian king and clever military tactician whose battle success is celebrated in 2,500-year-old reliefs from the throne room at Dur-Saharukin, today displayed in the splendid Iraqi Museum. In one, Sargon stands in his chariot reviewing his victorious army, while soldiers build a pile of his enemies' heads in tribute. Not entirely self-assured, the king stands behind a burly bodyguard.

Although he assumed the presidency only last July, Saddam Hussein, a lawyer now 42 years old, had been for years the strongman of the Baathist group that took power in Iraq in 1968. In November 1978, he played a leading role in organizing the Baghdad summit meeting at which Arab heads of state joined forces to condemn the Camp David accords between Egypt, Israel and the United States. A year later, at the second Arab summit in Tunis, he celebrated what he regards as Iraq's succession to Egypt as the preeminent organizing force in the Arab world. Hussein is the first modern Iraqi leader to dream of restoring the power of the ancient Mesopotamian city-states.

A thousand years before Sargon (whose rule collapsed after 16 years in the face of border assaults and internal division), the lessons of ancient political authority had been enunciated by the conqueror Hammurabi. Having "stormed the four quarters of the world," as he put it, Hammurabi dictated his conclusions in the famous code of law and administration, cut into black stone stelae and erected throughout his domain. The lessons reflected in the code were simple: never err in distinguishing between the people of the homeland, with whom you must be predictable and just and whose property you must assure, and your enemies beyond your borders. With them, be unpredictable, ruthless and terrible; but use threats instead of war, and avoid protracted military campaigns far from home.

Mindful of Hammurabi's advice, Hussein is little troubled that many Western observers regard him and his colleagues on the RCC as "wild men" of the Arab world.1 Beyond their borders, they prefer to be feared rather than liked or understood. They are confident that among Arab states, the Baghdad regime is the least knowable, the most unpredictable, the most difficult for Western (or Soviet) intelligence services to penetrate. The incomprehension with which the Iraqis' policy moves are interpreted by diplomatic networks and the press is consequently a source of satisfaction (and much amusement) in Baghdad.

Hussein is, moreover, in no hurry to make his foreign relationships more conventional. Diplomatic links with the United States, he has said in response to several overtures from the State Department, "will remain severed until we are convinced that their resumption will be beneficial to Iraq and the Arab nation." With as much venom as is customarily reserved for the United States and Israel, senior Iraqi spokesmen also warn that the Soviet Union, with which Baghdad has a formal friendship treaty, should stay out of the Gulf of Arabia (the Persian Gulf to some), Saudi Arabian territory and the Red Sea. With Britain, whose influence lasted in Mesopotamia until the first Baath coup in 1958, Hussein maintains a posture of calculated disdain.

Last summer, as the European states sought to ensure stable supplies of oil for the winter of 1979-80, Iraq was able, by arranging official visits to Baghdad within days of each other, to play a tough and enticing diplomatic game. To the French Premier, Raymond Barre, increased oil supplies were offered at stable prices in return for major new arms purchases, plus confirmation that the experimental Osirak nuclear reactor, now being constructed by the French in Iraq, will be supplied with at least an initial charge of highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, which President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had tried to withdraw. (Hussein also reminded the French government that he wants the return of the original black stele of Hammurabi, which sits in the Louvre.)

To the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, Iraq offered its willingness to lift a trade embargo that had been in effect since mid-1978, when Iraqi intelligence agents assassinated a political opponent in London and a round of diplomatic expulsions was ordered in both capitals. Iraq also offered to reconsider the fate of two British businessmen, in jail in Baghdad for espionage and bribery, as hostages for its man in an English prison. With Canada, Hussein was adamant that Prime Minister Joe dark's campaign promise to move his embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would result in an embargo on oil supplies; early in July, Baghdad ordered a tanker waiting to discharge Iraqi crude for Toronto to return without unloading, relenting only after last-minute negotiations with Ottawa. The West German, Belgian and Irish foreign ministers, together with the Japanese minister for international trade, were also drawn into the game in return for a wide range of economic and political commitments, partly hinging on their attitude toward the Palestinian issue.

But Hussein's initiatives went further. In the summer and fall of 1979, he sent military commanders to draw up detailed mutual security arrangements with Saudi Arabia; promoted plans for a formal dialogue between the Arab Gulf states and the European Economic Community; was assiduously courted for support by Libya in its border conflict with Egypt, by Algeria and the Polisario Front for similar support in the desert war with Morocco, and by several delegations from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Appearances of a rift notwithstanding, he continued to maintain aid payments to Syria, fixed at the Baghdad summit at around $200 million for 1979. An economic development mission was sent to the Yemen Arab Republic (Sanaa) while agents were dispatched to assassinate an Iraqi Communist Party lecturer teaching in the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (Aden). On the other hand, in September an emissary of the Sultan of Oman, come to request Iraqi support for security guarantees for the Strait of Hormuz, was sent away empty-handed.

Hussein also oversaw Arab preparations for the Havana Nonaligned Conference and carefully managed the drafting of the political declaration by a Conference committee which Iraq chaired. At Havana, Hussein, who will succeed Cuban President Fidel Castro as the head of the Nonaligned Conference in 1982, paid considerable personal attention to African delegates, and tentative arrangements were drawn up for state visits in 1980.

And, in October, Hussein became the first major Arab head of state to break with Iran's Islamic regime, deriding it as "a non-Islamic revolution," with a special slap at the authority of the ayatollahs: "The Koran was written in Arabic," he remarked, "and God destined the Arabs [not the Iranians] to play a vanguard role in Islam." The threat of injury was added to the insult by the announcement that Iraq would intervene militarily in Bahrain if the Iranians made any move to implement their new territorial claims there. Normally reticent about military visitors, the Iraqi news agency pointedly announced, only days after Hussein's broadside, that the general commanding Romanian border forces had arrived in Baghdad to "exchange expertise between the two countries' border troops."

In Washington, this burst of activity has passed virtually unremarked. It is possible, of course, that the flurry is mostly rhetorical, and has produced little of substance. At the State Department, where the Iraq desk is even more isolated from the senior policymakers of the Near Eastern Bureau than the unrecognized U.S. Interests Section is isolated from political affairs in Baghdad, it is now almost a reflex action to label Hussein as a bluff artist, paranoid about internal dissent and so beholden to the Soviet Union as to be incapable of autonomous foreign policy, let alone the delicate task of coordinating inter-Arab economic and diplomatic objectives.

In fact, Washington has seriously misjudged the man and underestimates the capabilities of his government. For better or worse, Iraq does indeed have weight in the Middle East and means to use it.


The present Baathist regime came to power in 1968 after a military group, led by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, and a civilian group, dependent on the military and led by Saddam Hussein, edged non-Baathist elements out of the cabinet and into exile. But between 1968 and about 1977, Iraq's potential power was undercut by its evident lack of economic, military and political capability. Despite initial efforts to nationalize foreign oil interests-largely British, Dutch and French-the Baghdad government was unable to control the rate of oil production or its oil revenues, which until 1972 grew very slowly as the foreign oil companies filled demand with output from Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1972, foreign concessions of the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC), operating in the north, were nationalized, although it was not until December 1975 that the Basrah Petroleum Company, an IPC subsidiary operating in the south, was also taken over.

Iraq was unable to benefit as much as its neighbors from the initial OPEC price increases because of the loss of international contracts stemming from nationalization, and because disputes with Syria stopped the transit of oil from the northern Kirkuk fields to Syrian port terminals in early 1976. Exploration for new oil was minimal until 1975-76, although in hindsight this had a positive twist-no one but the Iraqis has an accurate idea today of the size of the country's oil reserves.

Counting both proven and probable reserves, the published 1978 CIA estimate for Iraq was 36 billion barrels, a fraction of Saudi Arabia's 150 billion, and behind Kuwait's 71 billion, Iran's 60 billion, the Soviet Union's 40 billion, and the United States' 39 billion.2 Subsequent analysis of the Saudi fields has caused some revisions. In both Saudi Arabia and Iran old oil has been pumped faster than new oil has been found to replace it. In both countries, production limits have been imposed, as much for technical recovery problems as for economic objectives. In Iraq, on the other hand, exploration activity since 1977 has steadily expanded proven reserves and increased sustainable capacity (although not production) levels. The government's past inability to rely on oil output and revenue estimates naturally debilitated its economic planning and hampered investment programs, but since 1977 these constraints have largely disappeared. Senior officials at the Iraqi Oil Ministry will confirm no figures, but they are content not to dispute recent British estimates of potential reserves of 95 billion barrels.3 Daily production in the third quarter of 1979 was 2.9 million barrels per day.

Regarding military capability, Iraq's inclination to involve itself in fighting on the eastern front with Israel was limited for years by the protracted campaign to suppress the Kurdish rebellion in the northern border areas as well as by border and territorial disputes with Iran, Kuwait and Syria. In neither the 1967 nor the 1973 War were Iraqi forces heavily committed-in 1973 even less than on the earlier occasion. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the Kurds-aided by the Shah of Iran and covert American policy-were able to tie down the bulk of the seasoned Iraqi army and air force. Defense purchases during that period also drained a substantial share of the national budget away from agricultural and industrial development.

Since the first Baathist coup of 1958, led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Kassem, Iraq has been militarily dependent on the Soviet Union. At that time, U.S. moves to land marines in Lebanon were deliberately intended to have a demonstration effect on Baghdad, even more than they were designed for an impact on Lebanon itself. Although the demonstration was only minimally successful in destabilizing Kassem's regime, which survived until 1963, the possibility of another U.S. intervention in the area has been the preoccupying military concern of Baghdad defense officials ever since. The turn to the U.S.S.R. for military aid culminated in the Soviet-Iraqi Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1972.

Thus, Iraq now has a powerful military force, well equipped with enough MiG-23 fighter bombers, SAM and Scud SSM missiles, artillery and tanks (mostly Russian T-54s, some T-62s, but no T-72s reported yet) to deter an American landing or an Iranian or Syrian attack. In offensive terms, this complement might pose some threat to Saudi Arabia (mitigated by the terrain and long distances involved in a potential incursion), but it posed little real threat to Israel.

This was the situation until very recently. Since Iraq settled its border differences with Iran (1975), Kuwait (1976), and Syria (1977), and by ending the Kurdish war, its military planners have been able to concentrate far more on the larger Arab conflict with Israel. In addition, the disintegration of Iranian military forces during the Islamic revolution, and their preoccupation with Kurdish and ethnic Arab insurrections ever since, have lifted a major defense burden.

Although the Soviets in the last few years have been almost as reluctant to help build Iraqi capability against Israel as they were to accede to demands for additional counterinsurgency weaponry during the late stages of the Kurdish conflict, the French have been more than willing to step in. Most recently they have agreed to provide Iraq with up to 100 Mirage F-1 and Delta-2000 fighters and fighter-bombers, as well as new tanks, antitank weaponry, and naval vessels for the Gulf.

Since the Baghdad summit of November 1978, the Iraqi and Syrian military commands have met jointly to coordinate their procurement and deployment of weaponry and troops, and to unify their tactical plans. Both groups have made approaches to Jordan to participate (with partial success). Nonetheless, Israel is still more than equal to their joint threat. Despite considerable successes achieved by Arab missile crews against Israeli tanks and aircraft during the 1973 war, the three countries' radar, artillery and missile systems are poorly coordinated and much of the equipment is incompatible. Thus, a potential Israeli strike force would be left with plenty of room to slip through Arab defenses.

The Israelis do not, however, have attack aircraft with adequate range to hit targets inside Iraq, as Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman repeatedly told the Pentagon and press during 1979. (At least publicly, this is one of Israel's rationales for requesting accelerated delivery of American F-15s and F-16s.) It is common for Israel to inflate Arab offensive capabilities to boost the credibility of its arms requests in Washington, and it is arguable that the buildup of air defenses on both the Arab and Israeli sides along the eastern front has now checked each side's inclination to attempt a first strike against the other, at least by conventional forces.

In one key respect, however, Iraq may be developing a military capability unmatched by its allies, with a potential for threatening Israel which has not existed before. This is Iraq's potential nuclear capability. It has been clear for some time that Israel has been stockpiling nuclear warheads, and has its own missiles to deliver them to Cairo or Baghdad. Iraq, which is a signatory of the international Nonproliferation Treaty, has conventionally armed Soviet missiles with the range for striking Israeli cities. With the development of the French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad,4 it may be intent on acquiring the material and technology for arming these missiles with nuclear warheads. For this reason Israel applied intense pressure on the French government, and on the United States also, to break the 1976 agreement to provide Baghdad with highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium to fuel the reactor. But French efforts (hastened by U.S. pressures) failed to persuade the Iraqis to accept "caramel," a lower grade uranium unusable for nuclear munitions.

In April 1979, only days before the reactor core and other components were to be shipped from the French plant at Seynesur-Mer, a sophisticated squad of sappers evaded light security and blew up the shipment. The agents were almost certainly Israeli, and it is widely believed that they must have had the assistance of elements of the French Directorate for the Surveillance of the Territory.

Although the sabotage has caused as much as two years' delay in the installation of Osirak, Hussein's subsequent negotiations with Premier Barre in July 1979 kept the original fuel supply contract in force; if anything, Hussein extracted further commitments from the French to strengthen Iraq's potential for air and naval as well as ground-launched missile attacks.

It is significant that Iraq's new oil power has coincided with its freedom from debilitating local conflicts. Both factors have allowed it to decrease its dependence on the Soviet Union, although the Soviets will continue to serve as a future counterweight to deter any U.S. moves in the Gulf-a strategic tie which the Iraqis will not lightly let slip.


Domestic prospects are less predictable. While settlement of the Kurdish war has contributed to domestic tranquillity, it has not necessarily assured the Baath regime of political stability or popular legitimacy. By conventional standards, the political history of Iraq since 1958 has been marked by chronic instability and violence. One observer counts, in the past 20 years, "at least ten coups and attempted coups, two armed rebellions, and a full-scale civil war."5 Although Washington's traditional assessment of Iraqi (like other Arab) politics overemphasizes internal sectarianism and factionalism, significant cleavages are present. Western intelligence sources believe that the large Shi'ite population is resentful of its meager share of the senior political or administrative positions; and that sharp conflicts also divide the military and political elites, most of them Sunni Muslims, who have precariously juggled power among themselves since the 1968 Baathist takeover. The success of the Iranian Shi'ites in deposing the Shah might also be viewed as a potential stimulus to their traditionally repressed co-religionists in Iraq.

With time, however, the indicators of instability have shown marked moderation. Ousters of top officials by force have become less frequent; purges of the bureaucracy and military forces uncommon and limited in scope; political murder very rare. Factionalism and open quarreling have been progressively confined to civilian circles; military officers have stayed out of politics, and regular troops have not been called on to take sides in political conflicts.

The most serious challenge in recent years was the abortive coup attempt by Nazim Kazzar, the chief of the security police, in June 1973. During that attempt, the defense minister was killed, and the minister of the interior wounded. Kazzar and at least 34 others were executed, and the internal security forces substantially purged and reorganized.

Since 1973, the regime has reacted forcefully at least twice to suppress public demonstrations by Shi'ites. Street riots in Najaf and Karbala in February 1977 may have been largely instigated by Syrian Alawites, a Shi'a sect to which Syrian President Hafez al-Assad belongs, and whose members have dominated the Syrian government and military forces for almost as long as the Sunni-dominated Baathists have been in power in Baghdad. These demonstrations, for which army detachments were called out, reportedly also resulted in a large number of arrests, and at least eight executions after hearings by Baath Party tribunals.6

Less widespread and less violent were the June 1979 demonstrations in Najaf (reportedly in Baghdad also, but that cannot be confirmed), which were contained by regular police forces. A Shi'ite clergyman, Sayed Sadr, who was arrested before the disturbances, apparently played a central role in them. According to the Iraqi news agency, Sadr was put under house arrest for preaching political opposition in the mosques of Najaf; according to other reports, he had been stimulating covert military preparations against the regime.

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) is the oldest surviving political organization in the country, and despite periods of clandestine existence, it has been legal in the eyes of the regime and was at one stage formally co-opted into the cabinet. However, in 1977 and 1978 Hussein decided to put an end to alleged attempts the ICP had made to organize party cells in the army, to suspend the ICP newspaper for criticism of the regime's foreign policies and to remove the communists from the cabinet and the National Progressive People's Front (a largely ceremonial coalition of Baathist, Kurdish and minor parties). Official reports said that 22 Party organizers were tried and executed for subversive activities. A larger number of Party members fled abroad, and have since been instrumental in a variety of anti-government activities, provoking retaliation by government agents and a spiral of bombings and assassinations in several Middle Eastern cities.7

Against such a background, the events of July and August 1979 in Baghdad might appear more the rule than the exception in the disorder of Iraqi politics. The shakeup this time was major-involving the installation of a new president, the ouster of many top government officials, and the arrest, trial and in some cases execution of a good number of those deposed.8 In the shuffle, Saddam Hussein replaced the ailing Ahmed al-Bakr as President, and the former Minister of Planning and newly appointed Deputy Premier, Adnan Hussein al-Hamdani, was among government leaders purged. In early August, a special tribunal, composed of senior RCC members, sentenced 21 of those arrested (including Adnan Hussein) to death, and 33 to prison sentences, releasing another 13. The executions were carried out on August 8-by a firing squad reportedly composed of 400 Baath Party members drawn from all over the country, with the surviving membership of the RCC as witnesses.

But what lay behind these dramatic and violent changes? Commentary by outside observers has emphasized international actors. Reports from Cairo and Beirut, as well as most of the Western press, claimed that the conspirators named Syria and President Assad as the origin of the plot. According to this theory, the conspiracy reflected the ambitions of a group of Shi'ites who had hoped to see Assad emerge as the leader of the unified Iraqi-Syrian Baath Party and state, negotiations for which had been going on for more than a year. Other theories point to Soviet agents as the source of the plot (in retaliation for the anti-communist purge).

As guides to Iraqi political behavior, however, such theories err in being both too general and too personal. The Shi'ites executed were too few to pull together the large group of conspirators involved. No alleged conspiracy had links to the ICP or the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, analysis of the list of conspirators does reveal discernible signs of the factionalism that was more likely to have been involved. One particularly notable group centered around the Ministry of Planning and the young and widely admired Adnan Hussein. It included ministers and the first two echelons of civil servants from the Ministries of Planning, Education, Industry, and Tourism. Because the planning ministry controls all budgeting and supervises the spending and investment plans of the entire government, it exerted considerable control over policy. Adnan Hussein and his associates may have challenged the President's decision to put defense spending ahead of educational and industrial investment (and in that sense may have been a faction of "capitulationists" as was charged). After their removal, ministry officials remaining will be hesitant about taking initiatives that are not first cleared by the President himself, insuring that the new President is the sole source of policy review.9

A second group of victims occupied positions in the Foreign and Information Ministries. There may have been some opposition in this group to Saddam's softer line with Saudi Arabia, but this is impossible to verify.10 A third group can be identified as having had important administrative or security roles in the main northern city (Mosul) and in the surrounding districts and Kurdish areas. But it is impossible to say how or why they may have acted together against Hussein.

Whatever the explanation, the harshness of the sentences apparently aroused sufficient criticism that the President was moved to announce a series of placatory measures. Cost of living and general salary increases were announced for civil servants and the military forces; and foreign exchange and duty-free purchase allowances for Iraqis traveling abroad were raised. In mid-August, the RCC announced an amnesty for 725 political prisoners, most of them Kurds and Shi'ite demonstrators, and a small number of communists. Finally, on August 19, Tariq Aziz, a Deputy Premier and RCC member, declared the regime's intention to implement the articles of the Constitution dealing with a national assembly and to hold general elections soon. This announcement, so soon after the exposure of the August conspiracy, indicates more than that "the Iraqi revolution is strong and is confident of its future," as Tariq Aziz declared. Saddam Hussein knows that he cannot repress internal political opposition forever, and he is mindful of the need to mix a show of mercy and generosity with a stroke of ruthlessness, as if perhaps to compensate for his lack of Nasserist charisma.

On the whole, Hussein emerged personally in control. The entire affair lasted less than five weeks, and was limited to the senior political and administrative elite. Only two serving military officers were implicated (and shot); there was no mobilization of forces, and throughout the climactic week of the trial there were no unusual security precautions or display of arms in Baghdad, no opposition demonstrations, and considerable evidence instead of real (if also orchestrated) popular support.

The one useful generalization about the conspiracy is that it was one of loosely related factions, or a set of cliques, without central direction, outside resources or common ideological line. At one time each probably discussed criticisms of Saddam with others, and that was their downfall. What appears central is Hussein's refusal to tolerate the formation of independent factions within the RCC or ministries, whatever views they might have held. Also he struck, as his Assyrian models might have recommended, before his opponents had any chance to threaten him, in a manner which clearly signalled what others might expect if they were tempted in the future.


In viewing Iraq's internal development, then, the importance of sectarian conflict or of Syrian-Iraqi tension should not be exaggerated. Saddam's stated commitment to proceed with Iraqi-Syrian unity negotiations remains in force. For reasons which reflect the length and methods of colonial rule in Syria (French) and Iraq, the two countries have developed very different patterns of ethno-religious relationships. Also, the development of the Baath Party has proceeded quite differently in the two countries. In Syria, Party blocs have developed a sectarian character dividing different areas; this has not been the case in Iraq. Sectarianism has also been far more significant in the Syrian armed forces than in the Iraqi.

It is therefore quite misleading to speak of the Iraqi Shi'ites as oppressed by the Sunnis. Over the last decade two factors have largely erased the significance of both ethno-religious and regional loyalties: rapid urbanization, particularly the near-doubling of Baghdad's population, has undermined the strength of traditional communal ties, while universal and compulsory education has diminished religiosity and opened up job and income opportunities that reduce intercommunal inequities and rivalries.

Nor, in general, would the Iranian pattern seem applicable to Iraq. The Iraqi cities, unlike Tehran, are relatively free of slums and poverty. Nowadays, Baghdad is a vast suburban city whose center is occupied mostly by office buildings and large hotels. Gone is the traditional infrastructure of mosques, markets and Arab tenements which have remained in Tehran and represent there the geographical base for the clergy's organization and power. In fact, Iraqis are considerably more secular in their culture than the Iranians or than other Arabs. Neither Shi'a nor Sunni religion has much drawing power, and in a population in which two out of every three Iraqis is under 25 years old, this can only grow less with time. The Iranian revolution next door poses a foreign, not an internal, problem for Iraq.

The most important underlying cleavage that remains in Iraq is between rural and urban areas, and systematic efforts to stimulate agricultural investment and improve rural living standards, together with accelerated programs in the Kurdish areas, have made strides in alleviating that source of grievance. Policymakers realize that with a population of just over 12 million, two-thirds of whom live in cities, and an annual population growth of about 3.3 percent, the improvement of both agricultural and industrial development are essential. Iraq alone among the Arab oil states has the potential for self-sufficient food production; traditionally, it has been a sizable exporter of dates. But the historical evolution of the agricultural sector indicates deep-seated problems. Land reform efforts since 1958 have been unable to stem the flight of rural capital, along with labor, into the cities. Providing irrigation and assuring water supplies will involve not only substantial domestic investment but also difficult agreements with Turkey and Syria over sharing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. In 1978, Iraqi crop production increased and imports declined, by comparison with the previous year, but in most cases output has failed to match the peak levels achieved in the early 1970s, while crop acreage and yields have also fallen.

In its direction of agricultural and industrial policy, Iraq, like most developing (and developed) countries, is hampered by shortages of skilled manpower. Bureaucratic reorganization is common in both areas, and implementation of ministerial directives involves long and unreliable chains of command through state corporations, down to the provincial and district levels.

Despite its bureaucratic problems, there seems no doubt that Iraq will remain a centrally planned economy geared to equalizing the distribution of income and resources. It is unlikely, however, that the government will want to enlarge its control over what remains of the private marketplace. The regime is notably willing to bend to consumer demand. In public housing, for example, Shaker Mahmoud, the Under Secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Reconstruction, told me that it would obviously be far more efficient and cheaper for the government to build apartments for people. But, he had to admit, Iraqis, especially peasants just arriving from rural areas and used to traditional village compounds, would not accept this type of housing. They insist instead on detached houses with lots large enough for gardens. The result is a very expensive anomaly in the arid Middle East: a horizontal version of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon with suburbs of squat houses, each in a green plot, which sprawl from the center of Baghdad in all directions for more than 20 miles. The sprawl devours water and electricity, and demands bus transportation and commuter highways far faster than they can be built.

On the other hand, its central role in the economy has enabled the government to control inflation because it directly employs (and sets wages for) somewhere between a quarter and a third of the economically active population, and directly subsidizes or purchases outright for its people their food, housing, medical needs and education. Information about wages is not as readily available as most other statistics, but one does not hear the same complaints about loss of purchasing power in Iraq as can be heard in no less socialist Arab economies, such as the Libyan. If the most recent year created an abnormal strain on prices-and some officials indicated to me that it had-then Hussein's August announcement of a public-sector wage hike would have been particularly mollifying.

Within this relatively positive internal situation, the most serious long-run problem to the regime lies in the youthfulness of the population. For the Iraqis are an exceptionally young people; one in five is presently under ten years old, and two in three are under 25. How is this group, which has grown to adulthood since the 1968 revolution, to be motivated with the values of the regime? Although the majority of Iraqis were illiterate 20 years ago, the youthful group has experienced the expansion of educational opportunity without limit. Before the 1958 revolution, the life expectancy of the average Iraqi was less than 40, and his short lifetime a hopeless struggle with rural poverty. For the post-revolutionary youth, expectations are richer, more diverse, and more sophisticated. For al-Bakr, Hussein and their associates, there were only two paths to career advancement-through the army or through the law. And for men like Hussein, who chose law, it was Cairo, Beirut or Damascus, rather than Baghdad, which promised the involvement in Arab politics they sought. This too has changed dramatically.

At the same time, the present leadership is relatively young itself, indicating a long potential hold on power. If Saddam Hussein, at 42, is to survive another 30 years in political life, does he anticipate having to purge or kill off young turks like Adnan Hussein every ten or 15 years? Will the President seek to impose a benign despotism in the fashion of Hammurabi for at least another political generation? Or is Hussein himself unsure about the political means to be allowed in the Baath, while he remains intent on securing the political objectives of the Party as he understands them?

The youthfulness of the Iraqi regime differs notably from the typical Arab pattern (and from the Iranian and the Israeli, for that matter). Having largely avoided the 1973 engagement with Israel, the RCC has a memory that is singularly free of humiliation or of personal defeat. As a result, the Iraqi leadership believes that it is in no hurry. Time, I have been told many times in Baghdad, is on Iraq's side so long-and the conditions are crucial-as the policy objectives of the Baath are constantly and tenaciously adhered to. "If you want to know the course of the revolution," an intimate of the President told me last August, "then you should watch the way the ship heads and not the rudder which swings as the wind changes."

As far as the internal development of Iraq is concerned, the socialist egalitarian commitment is central. With time, the regime looks forward to the disappearance of the traditional divisions of the ancient land, particularly tribal and religious sectarianism, and it anticipates the evening out of regional inequalities to remove the vestiges of the Kurdish grievance. Only if these things occur first can a Baathist experiment in parliamentarism succeed in diversifying the means of political expression without succumbing to the conflicting demands inherent in a modernizing economy as well as to the renewal of factionalism.


If the United States wants to understand Iraqi policy, it would do well to examine Hammurabi's ancient prescriptions. The present-day link between assuring the internal welfare of the country and enhancing its power abroad is oil.

To administer the sixth largest (possibly the second largest) oil stock in the world, the Iraqi Oil Ministry shares pricing and production decisions with an interministerial planning board. Under this coordinated direction, Iraq's oil policies can be expected to remain as consistent and clear as they have been for the past two years. They will emphasize government-to-government supply agreements, which index the volume and price of oil exports to the reciprocal commitment of large-scale industrial investments and capital goods imports (steel and nuclear plants and arms from France; fertilizer, conventional electrical generating, liquefied natural gas and oil refining plants from Japan; and agricultural investments from Italy, for example). The major purchasers of Iraqi oil are France (23 percent), Italy (21 percent), Spain (6 percent), England and Japan (8 percent). With 1978 imports of only 75,000 barrels a day, the United States is a minor importer.

By keeping production well below capacity and by holding surplus revenues in mixed, largely European currencies, Iraq is able to provide special supply bonuses to its friends without loosening the overall international market. For instance, during the unexpectedly cold months of February and March 1979, the Iraqis delivered to France about 25 percent more than its normal monthly allocation. At the same time, Iraq avoids the damage which tight markets and the declining dollar have inflicted on such producers as Saudi Arabia, whose exchange reserves are dependent on the United States. For these reasons, Iraq has been one of the leading advocates among the Arab oil producers (OAPEC) and in OPEC itself for price increases, production limitations, and for repricing oil exchanges in a basket of currencies in place of the American dollar.

Dr. Awni al-Ani, the Oil Ministry's Director General of Foreign Relations and Investments, says that present policy is to pump less and leave the oil in the ground for the next generation. "Rather than burn oil as fuel, we think it has a much more noble use-petrochemicals, medicines and phosphate. And so we are thinking of nuclear and solar energy sources [for home consumption]." At the same time he points out that his country is more than prepared to meet, and during 1978-79 has in fact met, the demands for increased output from its European consumers. Al-Ani also emphasizes that the oil industry is run completely by Iraqis now, and that their policy is not to invest the surplus outside the Arab area: "We don't want to support countries who stole from us for 50 years." Recent investments of $212 million, directed by the Ministry, have been made in Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Iraq has also said that it proposes special economic aid to the Third World, along the lines of the proposal made at the October session of the U.N. General Assembly by Fidel Castro.

What Iraq will not accept is pressure from the United States, either directly or through Saudi Arabia. Confrontation with America on oil policy is largely rhetorical, since the oil trade between the two is so small. With Saudi Arabia, Iraq has preferred to avoid public or private conflict, but sought instead to do two things: first, to mobilize as many of the other OPEC members behind its positions as possible, to outvote the Saudis; and second, to provide the Saudis with a wide range of economic, political and military assurances of Iraq's goodwill and flexibility on common interests.

During 1979, first at the OPEC meeting in June, and then at ministerial meetings in late summer, the Iraqis were able to bring about significant shifts in Saudi positions. A delicate accord may be developing-although firmly opposed by the Saudi Oil Minister, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani-according to which Saudi Arabia will stop playing the spoiler in OPEC by boosting its oil output to stem price increases, while Iraq will moderate its price and foreign-exchange demands. In concrete terms, this may mean a slowly declining level of production from Saudi Arabia and reciprocal Iraqi cooperation in stemming the sharp price increases proposed by other OPEC members. Thus, Iraq hopes slowly to wean Saudi Arabia away from its American ties.


Apart from oil, the outlines of Iraqi foreign policy are also clear. First and foremost, Iraq is Arab, and no ideological or practical line of policy will be tolerated if it were to put non-Arab interests ahead of Iraqi Arabism or nationalism. This is the reason that communism in Iraq has coexisted with the regime so precariously. When the ICP, albeit firm in opposition to the Camp David accords, sent anniversary wishes in 1979 to the Israeli Communist Party, it transgressed a fundamental principle of the Baath. ICP members can only be tolerated as long as their communism is not internationalist in orientation.

The same underlying nationalism ensures that, in Iraq's case, the relationship with the Soviet Union must always be a contingent one. The Soviet friendship with the Iraqis they regard as the corollary of their enmity toward the United States. Hussein, whose public speeches are not always easy to interpret, has put this matter succinctly: "Our relationship with the Soviet Union . . . is not linked to any special time, but to our understanding of the extent and nature of the Arab struggle, as well as to what the Soviet Union can do to help the Arab nation, through agreement on strategies, mutual interest or both."

When Iraq judges that the Soviet Union is pursuing a line that may suit its own but not Arab interests, it has been far from reticent in advising the Soviets to desist, and in organizing to block them if need be. Last August, for example, Saddam Hussein's brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, the Chief of Intelligence, warned in an article for Ath-Thawrah, the Baghdad party newspaper, that the Soviet Union should end its attempts to gain strategic control over the Red Sea. He singled out Soviet moves "to arrange the international situation in Aden in accordance with their future plans," and Soviet strategy "opposing independence for Eritrea . . . completely ignoring our Arab people's just struggle [there]."

The Iraqi attitude toward the United States, and toward Israel, which is regarded as entirely an American creature, is less complicated. For, as I have already indicated, the Americans are perceived as directly threatening military intervention and occupation, if necessary, through the Gulf, while Israel is seen as potentially ready to annihilate the country by nuclear attack from the east. In more immediate terms, the Iraqis feel that American pressure on Arab oil policy and the potential for Israeli economic expansion in the Middle East (with or without Egypt) constitute fundamental challenges to the goals and methods of Iraqi economic development. The political mobilization of the country's youth, Hussein's diplomatic campaigns in Europe, Africa and the Arab world, the use of the "oil weapon"-these are all elements of a single anti-American, anti-Zionist strategy that will not be softened.

On the other hand, the regime will treat Arab moderates, who in Iraqi eyes are prepared to compromise with the United States and Israel, far more gently than might be expected. The Iraqis have studiously avoided direct attacks on Morocco, for instance, which has stayed close to the United States, and is now accepting Egyptian arms and military advisers, and requesting new American arms for its war against the Polisario. Asked to comment directly on the Western Sahara, Tariq Aziz said that Iraq "does not desire the establishment of small entities, but supports the Arab people's will." Hussein has refused to be drawn into an attack on Morocco. He said last October: "We hope that Moroccan-Algerian relations will not deteriorate to the point of clashes that weaken these two countries. . . . The enemies of the Baghdad summit are indeed trying to turn the Arabs against each other."

The Iraqi approach, therefore, can accommodate considerable flexibility and compromise, but within Arab limits. Like the Saudis, they have entered the process of mediation and negotiation with Algeria and the Polisario, but they would scorn the approaches Saudi officials were reported to have made in Washington, urging the United States to approve new arms supplies to the embattled King Hassan (and offering to pay at least part of the purchase price).

The Iraqis calculate that it is only a matter of time before the Saudis will draw away from their special relationship with the United States. They count on time (age, popular education) to replace the older members of the royal household, and expect a much closer entente with the younger members who will take over (those whom Minister Yamani has derisively called "a young turk Mafia").

In this respect, the crucial testing period for American policy lies just ahead, for if the Carter Administration, under intense pressure from the presidential candidates or the cold weather, tries to increase the pressure on the Saudis to stave off a drop in oil output, the result may be an acceleration of Saudi moves to a more independent position. The political calendar for the first half of 1980 provides plentiful opportunities for the discreet signals the Saudis usually favor. Therefore, a revival of the anti-Saudi militancy which appeared in the Senate in 1979 would be disastrous for the United States.

Once again to put the situation into Iraqi perspective, Hussein considers it absurd for the United States to emphasize Saudi Arabia as a "cornerstone for attaining U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Arabian peninsula," as the Pentagon publicly states the position. Riyadh's internal security is relatively untested, and despite recent improvements in the electronic monitoring and guard systems which watch over the Saudi oil fields, the Abqaiq fire of 1977 remains a reminder that the kingdom's principal asset can never be secured against sabotage.

Last year Iraq was able to demonstrate that its influence in ending the fighting between the two Yemens was probably more decisive than anything the Saudis were able to pull out of Washington's hat. Riyadh may also have concluded that for the security of Gulf waters and the Strait of Hormuz, the new Iraqi naval force, together with its own, would be at least as dependable and no less effective than the U.S. Navy. Washington has still to prove that any military force it could drop into the area would do less damage to Saudi interests than it would be intended to forestall.

Entente with Saudi Arabia does, however, strain the Baath's relationship to the Palestinian movement. Iraq's support for the PLO is based on a common anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist ideology, tempered on each side by somewhat different national interests. Iraqi-supported factions within the PLO have been nurtured during past conflicts with Syria and Jordan. They are adamantly opposed to tendencies within Fatah, particularly among PLO Chairman Yassir Arafat's supporters, to seek negotiations with the United States or accommodate Palestinian demands to an American-sponsored compromise. They also distrust the Saudi role in Middle East peace maneuvers, and in the past have regarded the Saudis as likely to collaborate with the United States to impose settlement terms on the Palestinians. Many PLO leaders continue to say that the downfall of the Saudi regime is a precondition of their own success.

By moving closer to Saudi Arabia, and substituting nonalignment for earlier Soviet links, Saddam Hussein has produced a severe ideological disturbance among the left-wing Palestinian leadership, who at the same time cannot afford to sacrifice Iraqi support. This has fostered a willingness in some Palestinian circles, not countenanced by the leadership, to conclude unholy alliances with some of Baghdad's most notable enemies in exile, which in turn has produced the violence that each side is now trying to suppress.

As long as recognition of the PLO remains a key Arab objective, solidarity between senior PLO and RCC officials can be maintained. Since the Baghdad summit, Iraq has faithfully paid its pledges to the PLO, and has been very effective in pressing for recognition of the PLO by its major European oil purchasers-France, Italy and Spain. For Iraq and the PLO, U.N. General Assembly recognition may count for less now than it did several months ago, while the objective of forcing the abandonment of the erstwhile Palestinian autonomy talks, under the Camp David framework, is more important.

But if the United States were to find a formula for talking to the PLO and accepting PLO representation in a new round of talks, Baghdad would have to decide whether to go along with Saudi approval in the face of opposition and condemnation from George Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and others from the Arab Liberation Front and Palestine Liberation Front. Current American intransigence on the PLO issue, together with Washington's ignorance of exactly how Iraqi policy develops, makes it easy for Hussein to keep his ambivalence to himself and avoid having to choose between old friends and traditional enemies. This is a choice which Hussein cannot make if he is to succeed in his ambition to unify the Arab world and establish Iraqi power as its core.

1 See John C. Campbell, "The Middle East: The Burdens of Empire," Foreign Affairs, America and the World 1978, p. 619.

2 The International Energy Statistical Review, Washington: National Foreign Assessment Center, 1978.

3 Patrick Cockburn, London: Middle East Economic Digest, June 3, 1977.

4 Robert J. Pranger and Dale R. Tahtinen, Nuclear Threat in the Middle East, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1975.

5 Phebe A. Marr, "The Political Elite in Iraq," in Political Elites in the Middle East, ed. George Lenczowski, Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1975. p. 125.

7 One round of violence in Beirut last summer resulted in the death of an exiled Iraqi journalist and associate editor of the PLO journal, Revolutionary Palestine, who took the nom de guerre Adel Iraqi. He had helped form the Organization for a Democratic Iraq, which includes ICP members and others critical of the Baath Party's treatment of Iraqi communists, the loosening of ties with the Soviet bloc, and the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. His associates retaliated a month later in a near-fatal machine gun attack on the Iraqi ambassador to Lebanon.

8 To summarize briefly, the summer's events started on July 12 with the arrest of Muhyi Abdul-Hussein Mashhadi, the Secretary-General of the RCC. Four days later, the RCC announced that the President, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, would step down for health reasons, and that Saddam Hussein had been elected in his place. A reshuffle of the cabinet ministries promoted Adnan Hussein al-Hamdani, former Minister of Planning and head of the presidential office, to Deputy Premier; General Adnan Khayralla, Saddam Hussein's cousin and the Defense Minister, was also elevated to Deputy Premier and Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces; Hussein's brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, moved from Deputy Chief to Chief of Intelligence. A week later, an extraordinary congress of the Baath Party was called in Baghdad. At one meeting, Mashhadi emerged to confess the existence of a conspiracy against the Party and the leadership, apparently naming as co-conspirators the recently promoted Deputy Premier al-Hamdani and other RCC leaders.

9 After he took over the presidency in July, Saddam reportedly ordered regular cabinet meetings for the first time in eleven years. Previously, ministers used to report independently to the President.

10 Ash-Sharq Al-Aswat, an Arabic paper published in London, commented on July 31 that "the downfall . . . is probably due to their opposition to the policy of rapprochement with the Gulf states. It goes without saying that a difference over Gulf policy, if it exists, or any other difference alone is not enough to topple some of the most prominent and senior figures of the regime."



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  • Claudia Wright is the Washington correspondent of the London New Statesman, and a frequent writer on Arab affairs. Her most recent visit to Iraq was in August 1979. She is the author of The Wild Men of the World, a study of radical Arab politics, to be published in 1980.
  • More By Claudia Wright