The Iraqi Baath Party

Shortly after the defeat of the Arab forces in Palestine in 1948, three young Syrian men arrived in Baghdad, to continue their studies.

Pan-Arab secular nationalism was organisation's ideology

The three men, Fayiz Ismail, Wasfi al-Ghanim and Sulayman al-Eisa – returned to Syria and joined political scientist Zaki al-Arsoozi, who was intent on founding al-Baath (renaissance) party. 

Al-Arsoozi’s desire was to restore Arab pride. The men joined the party and pledged to carry the Baathist name back to Baghdad.

Upon their return to Baghdad in 1949, they established the Iraqi Baath Party. The party membership grew steadily from just 50 members in 1951 until they gained recognition by the Baath National Leadership in Damascus.

Party organisation and structure

From its earliest days, the Iraqi Baath Party relied upon and recruited college and high school students, as well as intellectuals and professionals. Most recruits were of urban Iraqi Arab origins.

Military officers, who joined Baath membership in the early 1950s, included Ahmad Hassan al-Bakir, Saleh Mahdi Ammash and Abd Allah Sultan, all of whom assumed prominent responsibilities in Iraqi political affairs in later years.

The party cell or circle was composed of three to seven members. It constituted the basic organisational unit of the party.

Cells functioned at the neighbourhood or village level, where members would meet to discuss and execute party directives.

A party division comprised of two to seven cells. They were spread throughout the bureaucracy and the military where they functioned as the party’s watchdog.

A party section, which comprised of two to five divisions, functioned at the level of a large city quarter, a town, or a rural district.

The branch came at the top of the section, and was composed of at least two sections which operated at the provincial level.

The party congress, which combined all the branches, was responsible for electing the regional command as the core of the party leadership and top decision-making mechanism.

The national command of the Baath Party, ranked on top of  the regional command. It was the highest policy-making and coordinating council for the Baath movement throughout the Arab world at large. 

Baath ideology

The party promoted its ideology of pan-Arab secular nationalism with socialist leanings.

In early 1988, the Baath Party began calling for parallelism between regional (qutri) and national (qawmi) goals.

Territorially and politically divided Arab countries were merely regions of a collective entity – The Arab Nation, according to party rationale.

The Baath movement in one country was considered merely an aspect of, or a phase leading to, “a unified democratic socialist Arab nation”.

The crucial test of legitimacy for any Baath government would be whether or not their policies and actions were compatible with the basic aims of the revolution. 

The Baath party embraced the principles of “unity, freedom, and socialism”.

Although the party’s efforts to create a unified Arab nation faced many problems, it did not abandon its goal of Arab unity.

But Arab unity was to become a long-term ideal rather than a short term objective.

By 1982, Baathists advocated that “Arab unity must not take place through the elimination of local and national characteristics of any Arab country but must be achieved through common fraternal objectives”.

In practice, this meant that the Iraqi Baath Party had accepted unity of purpose among Arab leaders, rather than unification of Arab countries.

Baath political objectives and role

The Baath Party remained underground during the 1950s. Members had little choice, since their call for the overthrow of the Iraqi monchary and Syrian government meant they were liable to be arrested.

Baath joined other opposition parties to form the United National Front and participated in the activities that led to the 1958 revolution ending the British control of Iraq.

But the new republican government did not favour pan-Arab causes or other Baath principles.

Some younger party members, including a young Saddam Hussein, became convinced that Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim had to be ousted. 

In addition, the United States became concerned at Qasim’s ties to the Soviet Union. The US Central Intelligence Agency is believed to have backed the plot to assassinate him.

But the attempt on Qasim’s life in October 1959 failed. Saddam, one of the assassins, fled Iraq while other party members were arrested and tried for treason.

The party was again forced underground, and internal dissensions over which tactics to use to achieve their political objectives rose among its members.

The second attempt to overthrow Qasim in February 1963 was successful, and brought the Baathists to power for the first time.

But the Baathists, riven by factions and outmanoeuvered by political rivals, were forced out of government within nine months.

It was not until 1965 that the Baath overcame its ideological and personal rivalries. The party then reorganised under the direction of General al-Baqir as secretary general with Saddam Hussein as his deputy. Both men were determined to return the Baath to power.

In July 1968, the Baath finally staged a successful coup, and al-Baqir became first Baathist president of Iraq.

New values and principles

The government’s primary concern since 1968 had been domestic issues rather than pan-Arab concerns.

The Baath attempted to create a strong and unified Iraq, using political campaigns to eradicate what it called “harmful pre-revolutionary values and practices”.

The party concentrated on fighting exploitation, social inequality, sectarian loyalties, apathy, and lack of civil spirit.

Official statements called for the abandonment of traditional ways in favour of a new lifestyle based on the principles of patriotism, national loyalty, collectivism, participation, selflessness, love of labour and civic responsibility.

Those principles were the major goals adopted by the party since 1968. By the late 1980s, the party had succeeded in socialising significant economic sectors including agriculture, commerce, industry and oil.

But government investment in the industry sector remained in government hands. Large-scale industries such as iron, steel, and petrochemicals were fully owned and managed by the government.

Power wielding under Saddam

The Iraqi Baath Regional Command Council (RCC) was supposed to be the body which makes decisions regarding party policy based on consensus.

In practice, however, all decisions were made by the party Secretary General Saddam Hussein, who since 1979, was party RCC chairman and president of the republic.

Saddam ruthlessly dealt with suspected opponents of his rule from within the party.

In one display of his brutality, Saddam stood in front of an audience of party members where he named several high-ranking Baathists who were quickly ushered out of the auditorium and executed for allegedly planning a coup.

The infamous speech was videotaped and used to strike fear in anyone who dared consider challenging Saddam’s authority.

If party members were not executed, they were forced into retirement.

Following the US-British occupation of Iraq, the Baath party was dissolved along with its affiliate organisations.

Go back: Special Report

Source: Al Jazeera