This is a shift from the backing that Washington and London gave to Saddam Hussein’s regime throughout the 1980s, up until Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
For working people in Iraq, the Baath Party has consistently governed on behalf of the country’s capitalist rulers. In fact, the first Baath Party government, brought to power by a military coup on Feb. 8, 1963, dealt Iraqi workers and farmers the single biggest defeat in the country’s modern history.
In those events Baathist leaders joined a number of military officers in overthrowing the government of Gen. Abdel Karim Kassem. The new regime executed Kassem and other prominent figures, and imprisoned thousands of members of the Iraqi Communist Party and other opponents in makeshift camps. Three days after the coup, the new government was recognized by Washington, London, and other imperialist powers, as well as by Moscow.
In carrying out these ferocious purges, the Baathist government decapitated the vanguard of the revolution of 1958. The July 14 Revolution, as it is known, had begun with the overthrow of the British-backed monarchy. Iraqi working people poured into the streets in celebration of that victory.
Kassem’s government, supported by nationalist-minded forces that included a wing of the Baath Party, had legalized trade unions and implemented a land reform aimed at dismantling feudal domination of the countryside. It placed heavy curbs on the operations of the British-controlled Iraqi Petroleum Company and established the Iraqi National Oil Company.
Kassem’s procapitalist regime also took a number of reactionary steps. He banned political parties, including the Stalinist Iraqi Communist Party, whose leaders had supported his government and had campaigned for inclusion in his cabinet. He also launched a military assault in the north against the Kurdish struggle for national self-determination.
Formation of Baath Party
In addition to its bloody purges, the regime installed by the 1963 coup continued the anti-Kurd offensive. Later that year the Baath Party leaders were themselves purged from the government.
The Iraqi party had been formed in 1954 with the name Baath Socialist Party. The Baathist movement--meaning "rebirth" in Arabic--had originated in Syria, where the party was founded in 1947. The party also exists in Jordan.
The formation of the Baathist parties was part of the rise of Arab nationalism and resistance to the colonial oppression of the major European capitalist powers. The most prominent spokesperson for Arab unity of the period was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president from 1956 to 1970. Nasser’s government nationalized important sectors of the Egyptian economy and in 1956 seized the Suez Canal in the face of British and French government opposition.
The Iraqi party retook power in 1968 in a coup headed by Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. The new government embarked on a course of industrialization, benefiting from the vast revenues provided by oil exports. In 1972 the oil industry was nationalized.
Saddam Hussein rose to become prime minister of the new government in 1970. Within a decade he had emerged victorious from the party’s inner power struggles, assuming the presidency and the leading role in the country’s armed forces.
The president and his supporters have molded the party as a secretive and repressive instrument of their rule. Party cadres function as part of the police and military apparatus, while constructing their own parallel structures of surveillance and repression.
At the same time, Saddam Hussein has built loyalty to his capitalist government on clan and regional lines. His support is based on his home province of Tikrit in the north. Dispensing privileges from its oil revenues, the regime fosters support among a layer of those Iraqis who identify with the Sunni branch of Islam. The Sunni population is more urban than the Shiites in the south, who face even harsher living conditions.
The soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s Special Republican Guard, a 15,000-strong elite force entrusted with the defense of central Baghdad, are recruited primarily from Tikrit and other areas considered loyal to the regime. Several of the guard’s top officers are drawn from Saddam Hussein’s own family.
The armed forces have targeted the Shiites, most of whom eke out a living in the desert or marshes, for ongoing repression. The present regime has also maintained Baghdad’s campaigns against the Kurds. In 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War, both the Kurdish people and Shiites in the south rebelled. The imperialist forces stood aside as Saddam Hussein sent his army to crush the uprisings.
With this police-party dictatorship functioning to stifle opposition by workers and farmers, Saddam Hussein pursued a course of industrialization, militarization, and territorial expansion through the 1980s. Much of the industrial and military equipment was supplied by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.
Saddam Hussein also built ties with the imperialist powers--particularly Paris.
Regime found favor with imperialism
Baghdad’s expansionist and anti-working-class policies also found favor with U.S. imperialism--most dramatically in the Iran-Iraq war.
The overthrow of the shah by the Iranian workers and peasants in 1979 tore down one of the principal props of imperialist domination in the region. Washington publicly encouraged Baghdad to launch a military offensive to regain the Shatt-al-Arab waterway--relinquished to Iran under U.S. instructions four years earlier.
In September 1980 Baghdad launched its invasion of Iran, touching off a war that lasted eight years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives on each side. While Tehran ceded the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in the 1988 ceasefire, Baghdad returned it in August 1990 to relieve military pressure on its eastern flank as Washington mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops in preparation for the Gulf War.
True to the Baathist tradition, Saddam Hussein used anti-imperialist demagogy to justify its 1990 grab for Kuwaiti land and oil. He cynically attempted to "link" the Palestinian struggle with the invasion, promising to withdraw from Kuwait if Palestinian demands for national self-determination were granted.
It is "the unfortunate fate of the Palestinian issue to be manipulated and used by the Arab leaderships historically for their own ends...whether economic, political, regional, or international," commented Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi in a May 1991 interview with the Militant.
Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait registered a deadly miscalculation. Saddam Hussein had gambled that Washington would take no action. In fact, the imperialists imposed brutal sanctions, staged a massive buildup, and unleashed a bombing campaign and invasion in which 150,000 Iraqis were slaughtered. Over the next 12 years Washington, London, and Paris imposed no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Along with UN sanctions and "weapons inspections," these "patrols" helped to set the stage for the current assault.
In the face of the rapid U.S. and British military drive, the Baath Party leaders have been unable to mobilize resistance, in spite of widespread opposition to the imperialist violations of national sovereignty. They have tried to coerce working people and youth into taking up arms--resorting to the methods of terror that have marked their rule since they dealt workers and farmers an historic defeat nearly 40 years ago.
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