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Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015]

Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[This review was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Despite the attention that Iraq has commanded in the news media and among policymakers since 1990, the country’s history, politics, culture, and economy have remained remarkably understudied. This situation is beginning to change, and Joseph Sassoon’s Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party represents a major contribution to recent scholarship. Sassoon poses the question of how Saddam Hussein was able to maintain power through two disastrous wars, crippling economic sanctions, and the prolonged and assiduous efforts of the United States to bring him down. Sassoon’s book answers this question with the assertion that the Ba‘th Party was critical to maintaining the compliance, complicity, cooperation, and support of a significant segment of Iraq’s population until the American-led invasion of 2003. 

Perceptive surveys of Iraq’s history such as those by Charles Tripp (A History of Iraq, Cambridge, 2007) and Phebe Marr (The Modern History of Iraq, Westview, 2012) acknowledge that Saddam’s regime successfully entangled and implicated many Iraqis in an elaborate system of patronage and surveillance. Sassoon places the Ba‘th Party at the center of this enterprise, looking inside the party to reveal its machinery and its relationship to other institutions of the state. By examining how the regime rewarded its loyalists, he adds a dimension largely absent from Kanan Makiya’s The Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (University of California, 1998), which focuses on the regime’s repressive capacity. Sassoon’s book explores the party’s role in cultural production and thereby complements Eric Davis’s Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq (University of California, 2005), which explores the regime’s endeavor to maintain itself through crafting a hegemonic worldview to impart to its citizens.

Sassoon bases his account on extensive use of Iraqi archival sources, among them textual records of the Iraqi government and audiotapes of meetings between Saddam and his close associates, which the United States seized during its occupation. The documents are now archived at the National Defense University in Washington, DC. A second major collection of archival sources that Sassoon exploited is the Ba‘th Party Regional Command documents, also taken to the United States in the wake of the invasion. This collection amounts to some six million pages, which have been digitized and made available to researchers at the Hoover Institute on Stanford University campus. Sassoon also draws upon the records of the Iraqi secret police that were seized by Kurds during the March 1991 uprising in the north of the country. These documents include about 2.4 million pages that are archived in digital form at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In addition to the impressive archival research, Sassoon uses memoirs, Saddam’s novels and published speeches, and the Iraqi press. He also interviewed a number of Iraqi officials and military officers who served in the Ba‘thist regime.

From these sources Sassoon reconstructs how the Iraqi Ba‘th Party sustained Saddam’s rule and constituted, along with the state bureaucracy and military, one of the three key components of the regime. The party’s membership represented a reserve labor force that could be called upon to augment the capacity of the bureaucracy, security forces, and military. We learn that the party was hierarchically organized, hyperregulated, and bureaucratized, but also that it was also capable of fostering initiative and competition among its units. It even devoted considerable attention to conducting elections for the leadership of some levels of the hierarchy. Sassoon traces the lives of party members to demonstrate how party activism was professionalized and constituted a full-time career for Ba‘thists in the party’s upper echelons. Members passed through stages of initiation into the party, and most met their party responsibilities while pursuing careers in government administration, the military and security forces, private business, or the professions.

The party’s members, supporters, and affiliates exposed themselves to intense scrutiny and surveillance, and also undertook to inform on fellow party members, opposition organizations, and Iraqi citizens in general. The party also bore much of the responsibility for preventing military coups. It had its own military commissariat that operated parallel to the military chain of command, and party members permeated every level of the military and its security services. The party also had its own intelligence units as well as military and paramilitary formations.

Marr claims that Saddam allowed the Ba‘th Party to deteriorate and relied for support instead on his own extended family and networks of Arab tribes, especially after the 1991 Gulf War. Sassoon, however, establishes that the party’s membership and responsibilities did not diminish during the period of economic sanctions after the war and that the party displayed extraordinary flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions. He explains that although the regime abandoned its former hostility to tribalism and cultivated relations with Iraqi tribal leaders after the war, the party continued to successfully recruit new members, run party schools and conferences, and sponsor public festivals. The party, in fact, took some responsibility for managing the state’s relationship with the tribes.

According to Sassoon, the party branches also managed the “Faith Campaign,” the regime’s ostentatious promotion of Islamic institutions and social norms, which was launched in 1994 to facilitate the identification of observant Muslims—Sunni and Shi‘i—with the state. Nonetheless, he writes, “the Ba‘th regime defined Iraqis not by their religion but by their support and loyalty to the party—unlike the situation after 2003. Kurds, Shi‘is, and Christians were all part of the system.” He notes that the party continued to recruit women into its ranks, although they were nearly absent from the party’s upper levels of leadership. His portrayal of the regime’s turn to Islam as purely instrumental contradicts Amatzia Baram’s assessment, which describes a much deeper transformation and suggests that Saddam himself might have experienced a sort of religious conversion (“From Militant Secularism to Islamism: The Iraqi Ba‘th Regime 1968–2003,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, History and Public Policy Occasional Paper, October 2011).

In addition to explaining how the party maintained the regime, the book demonstrates how the party constituted a critical part of the machinery that produced authoritarianism in Iraq. Sassoon does not situate the regime within a typology of authoritarianism. He does, however, pursue some limited but telling comparisons of Saddam’s Iraq with the Soviet Union, Romania, Syria, and North Korea, particularly the roles played by official parties and the personality cults of leaders in those countries. Sassoon does not regard Saddam’s Iraq as a totalitarian regime. This is because the regime did not attempt to establish full state control over the economy as the Soviet leadership did, but instead chose a mixed economy to distribute rewards and punishment and thus ensure the compliance of Iraqis. 

Sassoon’s analysis does not proceed through a rigorous theoretical framework, nor does it attempt to make an intervention in debates about the conceptualization of authoritarianism, political parties, or state-society relations. Yet the lack of theory by no means represents a flaw in the book. Especially given the preliminary state of our knowledge about this regime, there is a place for a work of deeply informed description and narrative such as Sassoon’s, and it can be left to other scholars to apply its findings to their theoretical endeavors. In fact, Sassoon’s preference for clear prose over specialized social scientific terminology helps make the book a compelling read. This is no minor accomplishment for a study so focused on bureaucratic procedure. Although it is well written and includes a chapter surveying Iraq’s history, the book is probably too challenging to be assigned in introductory college courses. It is more appropriate for graduate or advanced undergraduate classes, and specialists in Iraqi history, politics, and culture will appreciate the book most fully. 

Scholars whose research might build on or respond to Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘th Party will have to face the question of whether it is ethical to conduct research using Iraqi documents held by the United States. This question is particularly significant in light of the fact that the Iraqi National Library and Archives has demanded the return of the documents, but it is not a question that Sassoon addresses. That matter notwithstanding, Saddam’s Ba‘th Party is an impressively researched and perceptive book.

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