The Carrot and the Stick

  November 09, 2021   Read time 2 min
The Carrot and the Stick
In 1977 bloody riots erupted in the Shia city of Karbala. Again, because of government secrecy we do not know precisely what triggered them. Since the trouble occurred during the period of pilgrimage—when Shias converge on Karbala to venerate the martyred Shia leader Hussein— religion certainly was a factor contributing to the disturbances.

But there were unmistakable political overtones to the affair as well. The regime ordered a communitywide purge of militants, with security forces rounding up scores of minor clerics and religious students, many of whom were subsequently executed. Saddam also decreed it a crime punishable by death to belong to Dawa, which would seem to confirm that in the regime’s eyes, this had been a political manifestation.

Along with the crackdown, Saddam sought to placate the Shias. Most notably he acted to improve the quality of life of Iraqis generally, and since the Shias were the most distressed members of the population, this redounded largely to their benefit.The Ba’thists in the days immediately after the Arab oil embargo had practiced extraordinary austerity. They wanted to modernize Iraq, but not at the expense of putting the country in debt to the international money market. They therefore rigorously restricted imports and attempted wherever possible to pay for whatever infrastructure they acquired. As a result, Iraqis—despite the potentially enormous wealth of their country—subsisted under conditions that were positively frugal. Although their general welfare was assured—no one starved, no one was reduced to begging—they had few luxuries. Moreover, this was a condition that apparently affected everyone across the board; Iraq in the early 1970s resembled Egypt under Nasser—to all appearances it was a classless society.

In the late 1970s Saddam in effect turned away from the austere life-style and opened his country to imports, flooding it with a wide range of consumer goods. The purists among the Ba’th Party bosses roundly condemned his move. But the success of his action was instantly apparent among the general populace, which indulged in an orgy of consumer spending. Along with liberalizing the economy, Saddam instituted a change in his style of rule. In effect he switched personas. Whereas previously he had been a remote figure, with little or no contact with the general populace, he now—in the words of one Western reporter—“got out and pressed the flesh.” He toured the Al Thawrah district, the Shia quarter of Baghdad, soliciting the residents’ opinions and concerns.

The Ba’th was never a populist institution. It was not much interested in establishing rapport with the masses. Indeed, it was the party’s policy that it would lead the masses into the modern era whether they desired it or not. Thus Saddam’s striving to accommodate himself to the public seemed to many old-time party leaders the worst sort of pandering. The Ba’thists were committed doctrinally to the principle of collective leadership. The chairman of the party was viewed as primus inter pares. In Saddam’s new leadership style many Ba’thists thought they could detect the emergence of a cult of personality, and they condemned this development as well

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