The July 1968 Coup d’État

The July 1968 Coup d’État

After Abdul-Salam Aref’s demise, Abdul-Rahman Aref, in a halfhearted attempt to widen his circle of power, brought back elements of the Baathists into government consultations. Over time, the Baathists were able to return as a powerful political force. In July 1968, they exploited an opening created by infi ghting within the regime and, with the aid of important members of the offi cers corps, including leading generals in the Republican Guard, struck, taking over the headquarters of the 10th Armored Brigade, the Ministry of Defense, and the radio station.

On July 17, Baghdad awoke to a new regime, led by President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr. On the next day, a core governing group made up entirely of army offi cers and called the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) effectively became the face of the new government; it would become the main instrument holding together the Iraqi government from 1968 onward. From the very beginning, the RCC was controlled by the Tikriti, Sunnis not only allied by region but by kinship, all belonging to the Talfah clan.

These kinsmen included Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein, who were solidifying their hold on the Baath Party. But fi rst, the Baath Party had to solidify its hold on Iraq. In the days after the coup, the Baathists found themselves precariously sharing power with the offi cers who had assisted them, a circumstance they feared would lead to their own downfall. To counteract that possibility, the more politically astute al-Bakr and Hardan al-Tikriti outmaneuvered and co-opted their military allies so that by July 30, 1968, the government of Iraq was solely in Baathist hands.

When the Baathists came to power, they did not have wide support in the country; however, in the early 1970s, they were able to enact large social and economic programs that gained them favor with the most disaffected elements of society, including peasants, youth, and trade union members. There were also political forces that needed to be neutralized through temporary political alliances. In general, there were four challenges that the Baathist government faced. The fi rst concerned the control of the Baath Party and the insinuation of men loyal to al-Bakr and Hussein in various branches of the party and other organs of state.

Saddam Hussein clawed his way to the top, eventually becoming vice president of the RCC. During the subsequent years, he continued to methodically secure his political base in the party either through the elimination of cadres or individuals who stood in his way or through the co-optation of others, such as the recruitment of new members to the RCC who were loyal to him. This strategy also necessitated the rebuilding of new patronage networks answering only to him. Eventually, those developments instigated the expansion of the mukhabarat (intelligence) state and the creation of separate but competing security agencies to defend the president and thwart various enemies, at home or abroad.

The second and third challenges had to do with creating a temporary peace between the Baathists and, on the one hand, the Communist Party (which retained popularity among certain elements of the population) and, on the other, the Kurdish leadership, with its demands for regional autonomy and its on-again, off-again alliances with the shah of Iran, Israel, and the Americans. The fourth and last challenge emanated from the leadership of the Shii learned community, the hawza. Under the reinvigoration of its clerics, especially Sayyid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, as well as others, the hawza mounted a formidable challenge.

The Nationalization of the Oil Sector and Its Consequences for the Iraqi Economy

One of the developments that most lent stature to Saddam Hussein and ensured that he would be catapulted into national politics as the key political actor in the country had to do with the nationalization of oil. Conforming to a strong national desire to be independent of Western infl uence, the government nationalized the IPC’s operating fi elds in June 1972. Among those fi elds nationalized by the 1972 decree was the Kirkuk concession, discovered in 1920 and up to that period, still the basis for much of Iraq’s oil production (Yergin 1991, 584). The chief reason for the nationalization of oil had to do with the IPC’s stranglehold on the Iraqi economy.

Iraq needed the revenues from more oil than the IPC was prepared to pump, and since oil production was nearly completely controlled by the IPC, the Iraqi government had to augment its revenues from oil by bringing other fi elds online, preferably with different partners and on better terms. To embark on ambitious development programs, Iraq was prepared to risk the wrath of the IPC by asking the Soviet Union to help develop another large oil fi eld, Rumaila, located in southern Iraq and in Kuwait. It was Hussein who went to Moscow to initiate talks that culminated in the Iraq-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in April 1972, as well as a number of trade agreements (Tripp 2000, 208).

In 1975, the govermnent takeover of the oil industry was completed, to much popular acclaim. Overnight, the Baath regime now controlled vast sums of money, calculated by the Iraqi expert Abbas Alnasrawi to have been in the realm of $521 million in 1970 and upward of $26 billion in 1980 (Alnasrawi 2001, n.p.). It was, in Alnasrawi’s words, “Iraq’s prosperous decade.”

Oil earnings became one of the most important factors undergirding Iraq’s relations with the Arab and Islamic worlds and with the West. Ominously, 40 percent of that revenue went toward the buying of armaments from Western (mostly French) and Soviet suppliers, with that fi gure further increasing at the onset of the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). Just as signifi cantly, oil revenues gave a sizable boost to the Iraqi economy. In the years between the nationalization of all of Iraq’s operational oil fi elds and the eruption of the Iran-Iraq War, the high price of oil fi nanced the large-scale growth of the health, education, and public works sectors and made construction one of the prized occupations of the burgeoning middle class.

Because of the vast amounts of money at its disposal, the Iraqi government expanded social services, increased spending on development, recruited more men into the army, and augmented the sum of its currency reserves to about $40 billion. By the late 1970s, oil formed 98 percent of the country’s exports, prompting the growth of total state investments, which rose from 72 million dinars in 1968 to 1.2 billion dinars in 1975 (Salucci 2003, 2005, 76).

One of the outcomes of the rise of oil revenues was the growth of the Iraqi middle class. Although this class was heavily dependent on the state and included a number of different sectors (state employees of nationalized industries, state-affi liated rural landowners, and a cadre of professionals, such as teachers and medical personnel), it was a vital source of administrative talent and managerial expertise. Interestingly, the phenomenal growth of private construction fi rms far outstripped the expansion of state industrial or agricultural concerns.

Although construction fi rms—of which the most prominent emerged in Baghdad, Tikrit, Najaf, and Basra—depended on government projects funded by oil money, they were also important to the realization of ambitious development projects requiring foreign expertise. This was especially the case from 1970 onward, when the government contracted with large Western multinationals to buy and set up petrochemical plants and new transportation systems (Farouk-Sluglett and Sluglett 1990, 238–250). Thus, the

new totalitarian, single-party system succeeded in promoting a state-run industrial sector, mobilizing and developing social services, reducing unemployment and providing better chances for the rising middle classes, which grew from 34 percent of the urban population in 1968 to more than 50 percent in 1980. General prosperity and progress in social and economic development were palpable indeed (A. Jabar in Potter and Sick 2004, 126).

State investment in the social sector also brought about important gains. In the late 1970s, the Iraqi state pushed aggressively to promote universal literacy, claiming, by the end of the 1980s, to have reached an astounding literacy rate of 95 percent, up from approximately 55 percent in the late 1970s. The Iraqi commitment to raising the literacy rate resulted in the expansion of the educational system in the 1970s, especially in the larger cities. For example, technical education increased three-fold since 1977, to more than 120,090 students in 1986.

Baghdad University, with its different campuses, had 34,555 students in 1988, Mustansiriya University attracted 11,686 students, and the University of Technology served 7,584 students. Universities in Basra, Mosul, and Irbil (Iraqi Kurdistan) “enrolled 26 percent of all students in higher education in the academic year 1983–84” (al-Hariri 1988, n.p.). This was all the more impressive because education, including higher education, was for the most part free, and up to 1982, many postgraduate students and professors were sent to study abroad on government scholarships and fellowships (Watenpaugh et al, 2003, n.p.).

Oil revenues were also plowed into the health sector; medical care was free. By 1988, Baghdad had more hospitals than any other city in the country, approximating nearly 37 percent of the total. Rural clinics were also set up by the state, in which medical residents had to serve up to four years before returning to their hometowns. Finally, social security, workers’ compensation, and pensions were regularly paid to retirees and elderly people.

However, the almost total reliance on the state left large sectors of the Iraqi economy, both public and private, wide open to governmental manipulation. More signifi cantly, under the government of Saddam Hussein, the confi scation of fortunes and the imprisonment and sometimes execution of Iraqi merchants, industrialists, and heads of private construction fi rms occurred with a depressing regularity. As a result, political as well as fi nancial insecurity continued to dog the Iraqi middle class well throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The Communist Challenge

In 1968, when the Baathist government headed by al-Bakr came to power, the Iraqi Communist Party still had infl uence in the larger cities of Iraq. Although its membership had dwindled because of arrests, imprisonment, and executions, the ICP retained a solid base among workers’ groups and coalitions of students and women’s associations. However, a new political generation, made up of surviving veterans and younger political strategists who had risen through the ranks, was divided over which strategy to espouse.

One group advocated the unleashing of social revolution through the creation of a mass urban party, while the other promoted the pursuit of a massive educational campaign in the countryside to pave the way for radical change. But there was little that the Communists could do in the late 1960s; the ICP’s leadership was largely based in Iraqi Kurdistan, away from the real center of power, and its base was fragmented, with many of its members in hiding or languishing in prison.

It was at this juncture that the newly ascendant Baath Party, hoping to bolster its revolutionary credentials as well as to create a rapprochement with the USSR, asked the Communist leadership to join it in a National Progressive Front. The invitation put the Communists in a quandary. Though recognizing the anti-imperialist infl uence of Baathist doctrine, they were not at all taken in by its antidemocratic practices (Salucci 2003, 2005; 60).

And while relations between the Communists and the ruling Baathist clique strengthened as a result of the 1972 nationalization of the Iraqi Petroleum Company, the promotion of a new land reform decree, and the USSR’s openly supportive ties to the government, the Communists were not completely immune from the Baathist rule of terror. Alternately imprisoning and torturing ICP members while pledging undying friendship to the Communist leadership at the same time, Baathist “persuasion,” by means subtle or overt, eventually brought the ICP into a tactical alliance with the government, an action which the Communists were later to regret.

Entering the National Progressive Front in 1973, the Communists were immediately confronted with having to support the 1974–75 war against their erstwhile allies, the Kurdish people and their chief, Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani. Meanwhile, the once-impregnable Communist hold on peasant cooperatives, women’s and students’ associations, and labor unions was being challenged by the Baathists, even as Communist cadres were increasingly being thrown in jail or liquidated.