Iraq's Decision to Go to War

  October 10, 2021   Read time 2 min
Iraq's Decision to Go to War
To understand how Baghdad came to initiate the Iran-Iraq War, we need to be aware of Iraq’s situation in late 1979, on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities. Just prior to the war the Ba’th Party had undergone a fundamental change that affected not only the internal politics of Iraq but its orientation toward the Persian Gulf as well.

Against the backdrop of this change the Islamic Revolution occurred in neighboring Iran. Certain actions of the clerics deeply disturbed the Ba’thists and led to a rupture between Baghdad and Tehran. In this chapter we discuss Ba’thism and the level of political development of the Iraqis, and compare this with the political awakening of popular forces in Iran.

The important thing to bear in mind about the Ba’thists is that the leadership—and most of the membership—was recruited from the lower classes. It was not, as previous Arab nationalist regimes in Iraq had been, composed of individuals from the wealthy landowning and merchant aristocracy. Only with this awareness can one appreciate the dimensions of the Ba’thist takeover in 1968. Although initially a coup—in the sense that the Ba’thists gained power through a sudden seizure—it developed into an authentic revolution. The Ba’thists presided over a complete transfer of power from one class to another. The former ruling class was destroyed, as completely as occurred in Iran.

The fact of the Ba’thists being lower class explains their style of rule— they tended to be harsh and uncompromising. They exhibited extraordinary suspicion, as would be natural in men who had to cope with conditions and circumstances with which they were unfamiliar. Further in keeping with the lower-class character of their movement, the Ba’thists were disposed to seek violent solutions to problems that beset them. Their disposition to take violent measures earned the Ba’thists an unenviable reputation. Practically from the first days of their rule their behavior provoked international opprobrium. Shortly after taking power they put on trial persons they claimed were spies. They publicly hanged a number of them, raising a storm of protest throughout the world at the alleged barbarity of their actions.

The original Ba’thists also were violent in their ideological stands. They perceived themselves to be in the vanguard of the Arab nationalist movement, which led them to adopt positions that many construed as ultraradical. In their eyes, for example, the Arab monarchs of the Gulf were creatures of Western imperialism. The Ba’thists’ decision to support the Dhofari rebels against the sultan of Oman set the whole lineup of conservative Arab states against them. It was on the Arab-Israeli issue that the Ba’thists were most uncompromising. Because of its geographic location Iraq is not one of the so-called confrontation states. Nonetheless, Iraqi military units fought in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, on the Syrian front. They were the only one of the belligerents on the Arab side to fail to make peace; as a result they remained technically at war with Israel long after the fighting had ceased.

Nevertheless, at the end of that war a profound change came over the Ba’thists—they gradually but determinedly reduced their level of commitment to Pan-Arab causes and concentrated instead on building up their own economy. The Arab oil embargo had opened extraordinary possibilities for them in the way of financial gain. They evinced single-minded dedication to exploit these new possibilities.

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