The Ninth Congress of the Ba'th

  January 30, 2022   Read time 3 min
The Ninth Congress of the Ba'th
In June 1982, Saddam called a congress of the Ba’th Party. This in itself was extraordinary. The party’s bylaws mandate that a congress be held every five years, but there had not been one since 1975.

Indeed, one of the controversies surrounding the party revolt of 1979 had been the failure of the Ba’thists to meet. By calling a congress just before Iran’s invasion, Saddam obviously sought an endorsement of his leadership, it being unlikely the party leaders would repudiate him in a moment of national crisis. This would have sent a most disturbing signal to the Iraqi people, and probably would have destroyed public morale.

At the congress the leaders voted to support the president’s war policy. In concrete terms, they assented to a shakeup in the party structure that favored the president.53 They dropped several leaders of questionable loyalty from the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Iraq’s supreme governing body, and they created a new tier of leadership. Seven junior Ba’thist leaders assumed the newly created posts of presidential counselor. The RCC empowered these newly elected counselors to sit in on its meetings and, although they could not vote, to take part in its debates.

Saddam could take encouragement from the fact that all of the counselors were his men, but this alone was not what distinguished them. Practically all were seasoned bureaucrats who had exercised authority in troubled areas during periods of crisis. With one exception, they were all regional bosses during the period of severe internal strife in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mohammad Hamzah, for example, had been the boss of the southern region, the scene of Dawa-inspired unrest in Basrah that he had curbed with exceptional ruthlessness.

It is also worth noting that six of the seven men elevated as presidential counselors were Shias. This was an effective way of offsetting Iranian propaganda to the effect that the Shias of Iraq were a discriminated-against majority. All of the foregoing could be said to have benefited Saddam by easing his task of providing leadership. To stand up to repeated Iranian invasions, the regime needed to be assured that its home front would hold together. There are two ways of ensuring this: by inspiring the populace with patriotic appeals or by cowing them with draconian discipline. The Ba’thists used both methods. And the principal agents of discipline were the party apparatchiks—men like Hamzah—who carried out RCC directives to the letter.

At the same time senior party leaders were not completely deferential to Saddam’s wishes. At the congress, they managed to win a say in formulating strategy. This conclusion emerges from a careful reading of the congress’s final report. The text emphasizes that the RCC is the primary decision-making organ of the government and that, within it, decisions are made by consensus.

The top party bosses appear to have taken advantage of this quasi- Why Iran Invaded Iraq 67 public forum to reassert the primacy of the party over all other institutions in Iraq, including the presidency—a way of reminding Saddam that he was merely first among equals. He was not to make policy on his own. In insisting on this, the bosses were in effect resurrecting the old “democracy in the party” issue. The point has particular significance, given the widely held belief that Saddam rules Iraq as an autocrat. A point that we want to make here—and will expand on later—is that Saddam, unlike the shah, has a base of power in the Ba’th Party that he must take care of.

One last point—the bosses’ activity underscores the difference in approaches to waging war of the opposing camps. In Iran, the clerics had emphasized mobilizing popular support for the conflict. In Iraq, the leaders sought to maintain popular commitment by strengthening the party. By their actions the Ba’th leaders showed that they expected the party rank and file to impose discipline on the people. The contrast in styles between Iran and Iraq could not have been more telling. The party is Saddam’s constituency. He can ignore it when things are going well. In times of peril, he dares not do so.

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