From 1979 until 2003, Saddam Hussein ruled supreme, controlling the country through different institutions, most of them linked to the mukhabarat, or “intelligence,” state, which he helped develop. Power also remained fi rmly tied to an elite composed of family members and tribal supporters. From 1980 to 1988, the Iraq-Iran War exacted a huge toll; the country’s resources were stretched to the maximum, and its people were drained, because of the hemorrhage of casualties at the front and the air raids on Baghdad and Basra.

One of the consequences of the war was that the regime amassed a foreign debt so staggering that it teetered on bankruptcy. In the two-year interlude between the IranIraq War and the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the regime deployed the army against its internal enemies, especially the Kurds. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War and the defeat of Iraq by an international coalition force, the world was stunned to see the swift retribution meted out to insurrectionists by a still-intact Iraqi army in the southern and northern parts of the country.

After the imposition of a devastating array of sanctions on the country, the most severe ever devised by the international community (supported in whole or in part by the United States and the United Kingdom), Hussein’s government grew ever more defi ant, manipulating the embargo to reward allies and friends. After September 11, 2001, U.S. president George W. Bush galvanized the United Kingdom and other countries to attack Iraq and to occupy the country. We are still facing the consequences of this move today, a move that was decried by the United Nations as illegal. As of this writing, the U.S. Army is still stationed in Iraq, fighting a growing and deadly insurgency.

The Mukhabarat State

The growth of Saddam Hussein’s power occurred in conjunction with the creation and rapid expansion of an interconnected system of military and civilian intelligence agencies directly answerable to the president. The intelligence and security organizations Hussein created from as early as 1968 onward were designed as institutions of state control and became the vital building blocks of the mukhabarat state that supported his later rule.

In the early years, as vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Hussein’s primary task had been to serve as President Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr’s chief enforcer; Hussein had been the man who arrested and ordered the assassination of a number of the country’s political forces, including Communists, Nasserites, and lapsed Baathists.

Alternately wooing or imprisoning and executing Communist as well as “radical” Baathists leaders, al-Bakr and Hussein were able to purge all those independent elements that could pose a threat to the new regime. Relying on men of Tikrit, Bakr and Hussein’s birthplace, Hussein recruited kinsmen he could trust and eventually positioned them to be subordinate to him on the RCC, the security organs of the state, and in the Baath Party itself.

The controlling aspect of the Iraqi intelligence network went by the formal name of Jihaz al-Mukhabarat al-Ama (General Directorate of Intelligence) and held a power in Iraq similar to that of the KGB of the former Soviet Union: It collected information both externally and internally and held the power of arrest. Rooted in precursor Baathist security and intelligence organizations led by Hussein, the Mukhabarat was divided into three bureaus—political, administrative, and “special”—that contained a combined 28 directorates whose purviews included electronic surveillance, secret operations, counterintelligence, propaganda, surveillance, and military industrial security.

There were also four directorates concentrating on Iraq’s four main regions. These were located in Mosul, Basra, Ramadi, and Karbala. Considering the enormous power such a position held, Hussein took care to place the leadership of the Mukhabarat in the hands of a Tikriti, usually a close family member.While skillfully balancing different elements within the country through co-optation and financial incentives, Hussein also relied on patronage networks (especially those emanating from within his own family and clan), tribal loyalties, and the power of the purse in maintaining authority.

But overall, it was the security agencies that ensured the early detection of potential coup plotters, counteracted internal resistance, planned and carried out action against foreign countries or leaders, and protected the president from enemies near and far. The result was an oppressive system that sustained and privileged Saddam Hussein’s rule for 35 years. “It is estimated that between twenty thousand and thirty thousand people [most of whom were Communists] were arrested in the period 1979–81 . . . while hundreds ‘disappeared’ or were killed” (Salucci 2003, 2005, 64).