Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Saddam Hussein

A Political Biography

by Efraim Karsh

“Karsh and Rautsi have set a standard for evidence and analytical rigor that other biographers will be hard-pressed to match… Not only do the full documentation and precise style reflect a long investment in research and writing, but the authors have produced a subtle interpretation of Saddam, which casts him as a man forged by his society even as he sought to reforge it.” –Martin Kramer, New York Newsday

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date January 15, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3978-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Authors Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, experts on Middle East history and politics, have combined their expertise to write what is largely considered the definitive work of one of the world’s most reviled and notorious figures. Drawing on a wealth of Iraqi, Arab, Western, and Israeli sources, including interviews with people who have had close contact with Saddam Hussein throughout his career, the authors trace the meteoric transformation of an ardent nationalist and obscure Ba”th party member into an absolute dictator.

Skillfully interweaving a realistic analysis of Gulf politics and history, and now including a new introduction and epilogue, this authoritative biography is essential for understanding the mind of a modern tyrant.


“Karsh and Rautsi have set a standard for evidence and analytical rigor that other biographers will be hard-pressed to match… Not only do the full documentation and precise style reflect a long investment in research and writing, but the authors have produced a subtle interpretation of Saddam, which casts him as a man forged by his society even as he sought to reforge it.” –Martin Kramer, New York Newsday

‘dissects Saddam’s career with surgical precision… what emerges is deviousness of a more than Satalinian subtlety… To be recommended as an accurate, even scholarly, account of the present situation in Iraq, as well as various kinds of the past -all the way back to the Babylonian captivity.” –Anthony Burgess, The Observer

“Probably the best biography of Saddam Hussein…. presents a coherent view of a man who has generated a good deal of mythology.” –Roger Hardy, BBC World Service

“An excellent biography.” –The Economist

“A detailed and dispassionate account of Hussein’s rise to power and the political milieu in which he thrives..

.Recommended for scholars of the modern Middle East as well as informed laypersons.” –Library Journal

“One of the great virtues of the Karsh and Rautsi book, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, is that it captures so well not simply the consequences of the system of power, but also the social and moral worlds in which it exists and thrives… To understand this process is to understand something not simply about the workings of Iraqi politics or the place of Iraq in the region, but also about security, instability and war in the Middle East as a whole. Karsh and Rautsi are to be congratulated for writing a book that is sensitive to these larger questions and provides the best and most serious analysis hitherto of the phenomenon of ‘saddamist” politics in Iraq.” –Charles Tripp, Survival

“Karsh and Rautsi have written what will become a standard biography of Saddam Hussein.” –Gerd Nonneman, International Affairs

“… All such events have unequivocally proved the very scrupulous, accurate, and lucid explanations and elaborations that Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi have masterfully provided in this in-depth political biography of Saddam Hussein… This is a first-rate biography of Saddam Hussein on many accounts… This book gives the reader as sense that he is living in the mind of Saddam Hussein and in his surrounding atmosphere… This is an authoritative biography, which should be read by every scholar interested in the contemporary history of Iraq and its role in shaping the geopolitical equation in the whole Middle Eastern region. The fluent, lucid, and colourful language in which the book is written must be commended.” –Mohammad Ja”afar Mahallati, Political Science Quarterly

“An excellent and scholarly work.” –The Middle East

Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography is a timely and lucid assault on the distorted image we have formed in the West, of Iraq and its leader. This book deserves to be widely read, and might even help to set us back onto the path of attempting to understand rather than condemn the Arab states of the Middle East.” –Sean McKnight, Small Wars and Insurgencies

“For the newcomer to contemporary Iraqi history, this is a useful book, very well organized and clearly written.” –William F. Powers, Washington Post


The Making of a Baʿthist

In 1394, as the Tartar hordes of Timurlane swept over Mesopotamia, they took the trouble of stopping at a small provincial town on the Tigris river, some hundred miles north of Baghdad, where they erected a pyramid with the skulls of their victims.1 The name of the town was Tikrit, and its choice as the site for demonstrating Timurlane’s ferocity was not accidental. A small garrison protected by a formidable fortress, Tikrit had been a center of defiance to external invaders, leading the eighteenth-century English historian, Edward Gibbon, to define it as an “impregnable fortress of independent Arabs.”2 This was the place where Saladin, the legendary Muslim military commander who defeated the Crusaders in the renowned battle of Hittin and liberated Jerusalem from Christian rule, had been born in 1138. Exactly 800 years later, it was to become the birthplace of a modern Iraqi ruler, aspiring to don the mantle of his great predecessor: Saddam Hussein.
Saddam would always hold his birthplace in great affection and pride.

The few men he would choose to trust and be his chieftains would, by and large, come from Tikrit and share his strong attachment for the home of their formative years.
Yet, despite his fond thoughts of Tikrit, Saddam’s was a poverty-ridden and troubled childhood. According to official sources, he was born on April 28, 1937. His place of birth was a mud house belonging to his maternal uncle, Khairallah Talfah.3 His father, a poor landless peasant by the name of Hussein al-Majid, died before Saddam was born and his mother, Sabha, who could not support the orphan, left him to be raised by Khairallah’s family. The child’s name, Saddam, meaning, “one who confronts,” turned out to be strangely prophetic.
At the time of Saddam’s birth, Iraq was a precarious constitutional monarchy, ruled by a non-Iraqi dynasty–the Hashemite family–originating from the Hijaz (part of today’s Saudi Arabia). Established in the wake of the First World War by European great powers on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, which had controlled the Middle East for nearly four centuries, Iraq was administered by Great Britain under a mandate from the League of Nations until 1932, when it joined the international organization as an independent state. The “founding father” of the Iraqi state, King Faisal I, who by virtue of his personality and astute leadership had managed to keep the various centrifugal forces in the country under control, died in 1933, and was succeeded by his only son, Ghazi. Faisal’s premature death and Ghazi’s inexperience (he was 21 years old upon ascending the throne) and weak personality ushered in a period of acute political instability. During a seven-year period between gaining independence and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Iraq was governed by no fewer than 12 cabinets. In 1936 the country experienced its first military coup d’”tat; by 1941, six further coups had already taken place.4
The Iraq of Saddam’s early years was marked by profound political instability, compounded by the gathering storm in Europe and the eventual outbreak of a general war. Resenting the continuation of British presence and influence in Iraq–despite its formal independence the country remained tied to Britain by a bilateral treaty signed in 1930, which gave the latter preferential political status and two military bases on Iraqi territory5–the militant Iraqi nationalists looked forward to the triumph of Nazi Germany and its allies. A Nazi victory, they believed, would dislodge Britain from the Middle East and render Iraq, and the other Arab lands of the Middle East, truly independent. As the Germans went from strength to strength, anti-British sentiments soared and Baghdad became one of the main regional centers for pro-Axis activities. A showdown between the nationalists, who enjoyed widespread support within the army, and the British seemed only a matter of time.
In April 1941 London approached Baghdad with a request to allow the landing and transfer of British troops through Iraqi territory in accordance with the 1930 Treaty. Iraq’s pro-Nazi Prime Minister, Rashid Ali al-Kailani, who had come to power earlier that month through a military coup, viewed the request as a de facto occupation of Iraq. Yet, mindful that the real agenda behind the British demand was his own overthrow, he took care to profess his readiness to abide by the bilateral treaty. The British, nevertheless, did not take any chances, and in late April began landing their troops in southern Iraq. At this point Rashid Ali ordered his army to move on the British air base at Habbaniya, near Baghdad, and appealed for German support. In the ensuing hostilities the Iraqi army was decisively beaten by a British expeditionary force, and Rashid Ali and some of his supporters fled the country. The authority of the monarchy was restored by British bayonets. Many participants in the uprising were jailed and some of them executed by the old-new government.
These events had a profound effect on Saddam’s life. His uncle and foster father Khairallah, an army officer and ardent Arab nationalist, participated in the ill-fated uprising and was subsequently dismissed from the military and jailed for five years. The young boy was thus forced to move to the small village of al-Shawish, near Tikrit, to live with his mother who had meanwhile remarried. Her new husband was Hasan Ibrahim, a brother of Saddam’s late father. In the following years he was to ask his mother time and again where his uncle was, only to be given the routine answer: “Uncle Khairallah is in jail.” In Saddam’s own account, his empathy with Khairallah had a crucial impact on the development of his nationalist sentiments in that it fueled a deep-seated hatred of the monarchy and the foreign power behind it, a feeling which he was to harbor for years to come.6 As he would write later: “Our children should be taught to beware of everything foreign and not to disclose any state or party secrets to foreigners ” for foreigners are eyes for their countries, and some of them are counterrevolutionary instruments [in the hands of imperialism].”7
The move from Tikrit to al-Shawish was quite traumatic for Saddam. To be sure, there was nothing remarkable about the Tikrit into which he was born. Since its destruction at the hands of Timurlane’s hordes, the town had fallen into decay. Nineteenth-century foreign travelers passing through it in the course of their journeys found a desolated place, remarkable only for the remains of a ruined castle on the high cliff that overlooked the town.8 The town’s residents, Sunni Arabs notable for their garrulousness, earned their modest living by manufacturing kalaks, round rafts made of inflated animal skin.9 Yet, in comparison with al-Shawish, Tikrit was a bustling center. Like most Iraqi rural settlements at the time, life in Saddam’s small village was filled with hardships. Not only did it lack paved roads, electricity, or running water, but the appalling health and sanitary conditions made physical survival a demanding task. According to Iraqi official statistics, infant mortality in the three major cities (Baghdad, Basra and Mosul) in 1937, the year Saddam was born, amounted to 228 per 1,000 births, and the rate was admittedly much higher in rural areas.10 This meant that one of every two or three babies in an Iraqi village was condemned to death before reaching one year of age, mainly from infirmity and malnutrition. The survival of the fittest was, literally, a reality for Saddam from the first moment of his life.
Those who were lucky enough to survive their early childhood, were to suffer throughout their lives from nutritional deficiencies and to be afflicted by numerous epidemic diseases such as malaria, bejel (a non-venereal form of syphilis), hookworm, tuberculosis, and trachoma.11 This difficult existence was further compounded by the miserable poverty which permeated every household in the village. In Saddam’s own recollection, “life was difficult everywhere in Iraq. Very few people wore shoes. And in many cases they only wore them on special occasions. Some peasants would not put their shoes on until they had reached their destination, so they would look smart.”12
This was the environment into which the young Saddam was introduced upon moving to the village. Unlike Khairallah, who as a military officer enjoyed a relatively high social status, the Ibrahims were considered “local brigands.” Saddam was thus condemned to a lonely existence. He had no friends among the village boys, who often mocked him for being fatherless, and he used to carry an iron bar to protect himself against attacks.13 According to exiled Iraqi sources, Saddam often amused himself by putting such a bar on the fire and after heating it red, stabbing a passing animal in the stomach, splitting it in half. The living creature closest to his heart, as Saddam would later reveal, was his horse. Even at that early stage, he recognized the grim ‘reality” that “a relationship between man and animal can at times be more affectionate, intimate, and unselfish than relations between two human beings.” So profound was Saddam’s affection for his horse that, according to him, upon learning about the death of the beloved creature, he experienced paralysis of his hand for over a week.14
To make things worse, nobody in the family showed great interest in Saddam, who had to look after himself from his first days in the village.15 His stepfather, “Hasan the liar” as he was known locally, was a brutish man who used to amuse himself by humiliating Saddam. His common punishment was to beat the youth with an asphalt-covered stick, forcing him to dance around to dodge the blows. He prevented Saddam from acquiring education, sending him instead to steal for him; the young boy was even reported to have spent some time in a juvenile detention center.16 Saddam learnt from firsthand experience, at a very early age the cruel law of homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man). Its corollaries of suspicion and distrust of one’s closest associates, a need for total self-reliance, and for intimidating others so as never to be seen as prey were to guide his thoughts and acts from that time forward.

Had Saddam spent his entire youth at his mother’s secluded village, he would most probably have become an undistinguished Iraqi peasant. However, to his great excitement, in 1947, shortly after his uncle’s release from prison, he left his mother and stepfather and returned to Khairallah’s home in Tikrit where he began attending school. Studies were quite burdensome for the young boy, who at the age of ten did not know how to spell his name. He would rather amuse his classmates with practical jokes, such as embracing his old Koran teacher in a deceptively friendly hug and then inserting a snake beneath his robe.17 Yet, Khairallah’s constant encouragement and guiding hand kept Saddam going through these difficult years. Another source of support was provided by Khairallah’s son, Adnan, three years Saddam’s junior and his best friend, who would later become Minister of Defense. In the fall of 1955, having graduated from primary school, Hussein followed his uncle to Baghdad where he enrolled at the Karkh high school. He was then 18 years old.18
Those were days of national fervor and the cafes of Baghdad were alive with intrigue and conspiracies. In 1955 Iraq joined Britain, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan in forming a regional defense organization, known as the Baghdad Pact. In taking this step, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri Saʿid, was motivated by wider objectives than the containment of the ‘soviet threat” which, ostensibly, constituted the raison d’”tre for the new security system. Faced by mounting public pressure for a unilateral abrogation of the 1930 Treaty with Britain, but reluctant to jeopardize Iraq’s relations with its main international ally, Saʿid sought a magic formula that would allow him to have his cake and eat it too: to project himself as a staunch nationalist who freed his country from foreign influence, while keeping British support for Iraq intact. The Baghdad Pact, he reasoned, could offer such a solution by creating a multilateral framework that would put Anglo-Iraqi relations on a new footing, amenable to both Britain and Iraq. Besides, if joined by other Arab states, such as Jordan and Syria, the Baghdad Pact could give Iraq a springboard for outshining Egypt, its traditional rival for leadership of the Arab World. Since the ancient struggle for regional hegemony between Mesopotamia and Egypt, the relationship between Iraq and Egypt had been a competitive one.
These expectations turned sour. By the time the pact was established, it was already evident to Saʿid that he had lost the battle over the minds and souls of the Arab masses to the young and dynamic Egyptian President, Gamal Abd al-Nasser. In September 1955 Nasser dealt a blow to the West by concluding a large-scale arms deal with the Soviet Union (known as the “Czech deal” since Prague was the official signatory to the agreement), which gave Moscow a doorway to the Middle East, hitherto an almost exclusive Western “preserve.” (It was the Western great powers that had defeated the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and carved up the Middle East between them in a series of League of Nations mandates in accordance with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.) Ten months later Nasser publicly snubbed Great Britain by nationalizing the Suez Canal. The British response was not slow in coming: in October Egypt was attacked by an Anglo-French-Israeli war coalition. Even though the Egyptian army was defeated by the Israelis and suffered significant losses at the hands of the British and the French, and although it was the United States (and to a lesser extent, the Soviet Union) that saved the day for Nasser by forcing the invading forces to relinquish their gains, in Arab eyes Nasser was the hero of the Suez Crisis; the person who had taken on “world imperialism” single-handedly and managed to emerge victorious.
While Nasser was steadily establishing himself as the standard-bearer of the anti-imperialist struggle and the embodiment of Arab nationalism, the Iraqi leadership was increasingly viewed as a “lackey of Western imperialism,” a reactionary regime out of step with the historic march of Arab destiny. Hence, not only did Iraq fail to attract other Arab partners to the Baghdad Pact, finding itself in glaring regional isolation, but the formation of the pact met with considerable domestic disapproval. The left-wing factions resented Iraq’s involvement in what they viewed as direct aggression against the USSR. The nationalists, for their part, considered the pact a submission to Western imperialism and a betrayal of the cause of pan-Arabism.19
Public dissatisfaction in Iraq reached its peak in the fall of 1956 when widespread riots engulfed Baghdad in reaction to the regime’s passivity during the Suez Crisis. One of the many people who roamed the streets during those heated days was Saddam, who felt in his element in this turbulent environment. The political milieu was not daunting to him; indeed he was well suited to it. His uncle’s example had inspired him to political activism and his lack of close, emotional ties in his early childhood had taught him to scheme and manipulate to survive. Finding anti-government activity far more gratifying than studies, he plunged wholeheartedly into the seething streets of the capital. In early 1957, at the age of 20, he joined the Baʿth Party.

The Baʿth Party, meaning the party of the Resurrection, or Renaissance, was established in Damascus in the early 1940s by two Syrian schoolteachers, Michel Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox Christian, and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. A radical, secular, modernizing party, its ideology is a patchy mixture of pan-Arabism and socialism, which can be reduced to three organizing principles: unity, liberation, and socialism. This “holy trinity,” as the Baʿthists tend to call it, constitutes a unified metaphysical whole. None can be fully achieved without the attainment of the other two; all are means to promote the ultimate goal of the spiritual rebirth of the Arab nation.
This rebirth, according to Baʿthi doctrine, should be a profound and revolutionary process, extending far beyond such practical considerations as international boundaries, to encompass the “liberation” of the individual from former tribal, religious, or regional loyalties. Yet, high ideals apart, from its early days of activity the Party’s agenda has been essentially predicated on one issue: elimination of the “traces of colonialism” in the Middle East and unification of the Arab nation. Since, in Baʿthi thinking, the great powers carved up the Middle East in the early twentieth century in such a fashion as to satisfy their particular interests and keep the Arab nation divided and weak, this wrong has to be rectified. The colonial powers must be pushed out of the region, and the artificial boundaries left behind should be abolished to accommodate the advent of a unified Arab state. Israel, which in Baʿthi thinking was a colonialist creation designed to fragment the Arab nation, had to be eliminated altogether.
This pan-Arab agenda has been illustrated not only by the main Baʿthi motto–”One Arab Nation with an Eternal Mission”–but also by its organizational infrastructure. The Party’s supreme decision-making body, the National Command, is international in composition, comprising representatives from branches in the various Arab countries. These local branches are called Regional Commands, implying that all Arab states are merely parts of the wider Arab nation.20
Baʿthi ideas began infiltrating Iraq in the late forties through Iraqi students studying in Syria and Lebanon, and Syrian students in Iraq. In 1952 the Iraqi branch of the Baʿth received official recognition from the Party’s National Command, and Fuad Rikabi, a Shiʿite engineer from the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya, was appointed Secretary of the Regional Command in Iraq. Yet, whereas the Syrian Baʿth developed into a significant political force during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Iraqi branch remained an ephemeral organization, numbering fewer than 300 members in 1955. This was partly due to the lack of intellectual interest in the complex Baʿthi ideology. Although Baghdad had once been a major center of learning and the arts in the more distant past, particularly under the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786–809), 400 years as one of the more desolate corners of the Ottoman Empire had left a deep intellectual void.
An even more important reason for the failure of the Baʿth to make deep inroads into Iraqi society was the tough competition it faced from other political parties and groups. The socialist message of the Baʿth did not stand much chance against that of the communists who, at the time, were a significant movement on the Iraqi political map.21 On the nationalist front the Baʿthi position was even more precarious. A fragmented society, beset by unbridgeable ethnic and religious divisions, Iraq hardly represented a model nation. And yet from its early days of statehood, modern Iraq has vigorously and persistently championed Arab nationalism. At the highest level of abstraction this aspiration can be viewed as a continuation of the historical struggle between Mesopotamia and Egypt for regional mastery of the ancient world. At a more proximate level, however, it reflects the inextricable mixture of great personal ambition and perennial vulnerability characterizing twentieth-century Iraqi politics. On the one hand, the mantle of the pan-Arab cause offered the regime a potent instrument to assert its leadership role in the region. On the other, it provided the political elite with a unifying concept that might transform the “unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea” into a cohesive social and political entity. If all Iraqis are Arabs, and all Arab states are merely regions of the wider Arab nation, what difference does it make if the ruling few are Sunni or Shiʿite?
Hence, not only did the regime propagate its own ambitious nationalist schemes (such as Premier Nuri Saʿid’s plan in the 1940s for the unification of the Fertile Crescent under Iraqi leadership), but the Baʿth had to outbid several nationalist groups which predated it and offered a much more straightforward program. These ranged from the right-wing militant Istiqlal (Independence) Party, to the centrist Ahrar (Liberal) Party, to the leftist Sha”b (People’s) Party. Each offered its own unique concoction of nationalism and social reforms. Each was more established in the Iraqi political system than the Baʿthi newcomer.22
Precisely what drove Hussein to join the Baʿth Party at such a low ebb in its development is difficult to say. In later years he was to argue that the Party’s commitment to the idea of Arab nationalism was particularly appealing to him. Yet such inclinations could have been readily satisfied within the other, more prominent, nationalistic parties. It is true that Baʿthi radicalism provided an outlet for the unbounded energies and discontentments of the young Tikriti, but so could have the rest of the radical factions that abounded at the time in Iraq. The main reason for Hussein’s preference for the Baʿth over the seemingly more promising alternatives seems therefore to be less romantic and more prosaic, less related to his ideological predilections than to his relations with his uncle and foster father, Khairallah Talfah.
Khairallah probably had the most influence on molding Saddam’s character. It was he who played the role of father to the boy and was his object of male identification. As both model and mentor, he nurtured the nationalistic sentiments of the young Saddam. He introduced Saddam to people who were to play a key role in his rise to power, including the future President, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, Khairallah’s cousin and close friend throughout the 1940s and 1950s.23 Following in his uncle’s footsteps, Hussein applied to the prestigious Baghdad Military Academy, but failed the entrance examinations. His unfulfilled desire to don an officer’s uniform was to haunt Saddam Hussein for nearly two decades until in 1976, while number two in the Iraqi leadership, the man who had never served in the Iraqi military had the rank of General conferred upon him by his then superior, President Bakr.
In Hussein’s eyes, Khairallah, who became headmaster of a local school following his expulsion from the army, was an intellectual “who understood the value of going to school.”24 What kind of values the uncle managed to instill in his nephew is not entirely clear. To judge by Khairallah’s public and political behavior in future years, however, it would seem that his home provided a useful workshop in which Saddam took his first lessons in manipulation and intrigue, vital tools for survival in the devious corridors of the Iraqi political system.
After his nephew began rising in power, Khairallah became the Mayor of Baghdad, a position he exploited to the full in order to accumulate fabulous wealth. A greedy and exploitative person, his corruption reached such preposterous proportions that Saddam was eventually forced to remove him from office: shortly before the occupation of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, seventeen companies run by Khairallah were closed and their executives arrested.25 A chilling insight into Khairallah’s outlook was afforded in 1981 when Saddam, already President of Iraq, arranged to have his uncle’s philosophical thoughts published by the state press. In a slim treatise entitled Three Whom God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews, and Flies, Khairallah defined Persians as “animals God created in the shape of humans.” Jews, in his view, were “a mixture of the dirt and leftovers of diverse people,” while flies, the least appalling of the three, were trifling creatures “whom we do not understand God’s purpose in creating.”26 To judge from Saddam’s diatribes against Israel and Iran throughout his career, Khairallah’s ideas about Persians and Jews had fallen on fertile soil.

That Saddam Hussein was a man of action rather than of letters, an operator rather than an intellectual, was evident from his earliest days of political activity. A low-ranking new member of the Baʿth, Saddam’s initial assignment was to incite his high-schoolmates into anti-government activities. This he did with great enthusiasm, rallying the students (as well as some local thugs) into an organized gang that struck fear into the hearts of many inhabitants of his Baghdad suburb of Karkh by beating political opponents and innocent passers-by. In late 1958, at the age of 21, Saddam was implicated in the murder of a government official in his hometown of Tikrit and thrown into jail.27 He was released six months later, apparently due to insufficient evidence against him. However, shortly after this initial notoriety, he was given, together with several other young and relatively obscure Baʿthists, his most important party assignment until then: participation in an attempt on the life of Iraq’s ruler, General Abd al-Karim Qassem.
Relations between the Baʿth and Qassem, who headed a group of “Free Officers’ in overthrowing the Hashemite monarchy in a bloody coup on July 14, 1958, were initially warm. The Baʿthists wholeheartedly embraced the coup. They did not hesitate to participate in Qassem’s cabinet and to capitalize on the nationalist fervor which swept the country in order to expand their narrow popular base and to consolidate their organization. Yet relations quickly soured as the two parties found themselves hopelessly polarized over the key political issue facing Iraq at the time: whether or not to join the Syro-Egyptian union called the United Arab Republic (UAR), established in February 1958. This was a political union of Egypt and Syria, with Nasser as its President and Cairo as its capital. Yemen joined in 1958 to form a federation called the United Arab States. The union was, however, short-lived, for Syria withdrew in 1961, soon followed by Yemen.
While the Iraqi Baʿthists, like their Syrian counterparts, pressed for a speedy merger with Egypt, which they viewed as a major stride toward the ultimate unification of the “Arab nation,” Qassem was vehemently opposed to such a move. His position was essentially pragmatic. He would not transform Iraq into yet another part of an Egyptian-dominated wider state, thereby subordinating himself to Nasser, whom he disliked and feared. He also anticipated that such a union would strengthen the position of his second in command, Colonel Abd al-Salam Aref, who had his eyes set on the country’s leadership. These fears were fully justified. In a meeting with Nasser in Damascus a week after the July 1958 coup, Aref had promised Nasser that Iraq would soon join the UAR and that Qassem would be removed from his post. Word of this conversation soon reached Qassem.28
Anxious to shore up his position against what he perceived as an imminent threat to his leadership, Qassem swiftly took on the “unionists.” Aref and Rashid Ali al-Kailani, the veteran Arab nationalist and former Prime Minister, were put on trial and sentenced to death (their sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment). Simultaneously, as a result of its support for the union, the Baʿth Party rapidly lost its newly acquired influence in military and political institutions, with many Party members being thrown into the overcrowded prisons. In his struggle against the “unionists,” Qassem chose to rely on the communists, whose influence consequently grew. In a desperate bid to stem this mounting tide of communist influence, in March 1959 non-Baʿthist Arab nationalist officers staged an abortive uprising in the northern city of Mosul. Qassem’s retribution was prompt and ominous. One of the bloodiest episodes in Iraq’s modern political history ensued. The communist militias were given a free hand in Mosul to take revenge. Rapes, murders, lootings, summary trials and executions in front of cheering mobs followed. Hundreds lost their lives, most of them Arab nationalists.
The horrors of the Mosul massacre forced the Baʿth underground. They were now convinced that Iraq’s salvation lay with the killing of Qassem. Despite the growing deterioration in Qassem’s relations with the communists, following yet another massacre carried out in Kirkuk, this conclusion remained unchanged. Hence, in the early evening hours of October 7, 1959, a group of young Baʿth activists, including Saddam, ambushed Qassem’s car on his way home from his office and shot him at close range.29 Wounded, but narrowly escaping death, the shaken dictator ordered a nationwide clampdown on the Baʿth Party from his hospital bed. Although the ensuing purge severely disrupted the Party’s organization and curbed its activities, the defiant stand of many Baʿthists in the public trials which were held put them in the national spotlight and exposed the still-small party to widespread recognition and respect.
The abortive attempt on Qassem’s life became a major landmark in the evolution of the Iraqi Baʿth, as well as in the life of Saddam Hussein. Suddenly he emerged from complete obscurity to become one of the country’s most wanted men. A fanciful story came to embellish his role in the assassination attempt. Saddam, the young idealist waits pistol in hand for the hated dictator, ready to martyr himself for a national cause. Wounded in the act, the revolutionary on the run is denied proper medical aid. Unflinchingly, he uses a knife to extract the bullet from his flesh and gallops through the desert on his horse, resourcefully escaping numerous military patrols in hot pursuit. The determined fugitive warrior swims to freedom in the icy water of the Tigris river, knife between tightly clenched teeth.30 The assassination attempt and Saddam’s escape would become an essential component of the Iraqi President’s legend, glorified in numerous publications, television programs and even a movie. The story contains all the essentials of the making of a national hero: patriotism, courage, manliness, iron discipline.
The truth about Saddam’s role in the assassination attempt is less glamorous. His original task was secondary: to provide covering fire for his partners as they were shooting Qassem. However, according to his semi-official biography, “when he found himself face to face with the dictator, he was unable to restrain himself. He forgot all his instructions and immediately opened fire.”31 While this sympathetic account seeks to glorify Saddam’s behavior by underlining his initiative and eagerness to rid the country of a detested dictator, it nevertheless implies that he risked the entire operation, if not failed it altogether, through his premature action. By ignoring the original plan and acting independently, he confused his partners and enabled Qassem’s bodyguards to recover from their initial shock and to respond more effectively. In the ensuing confusion one member of the “hit squad” was killed by friendly fire, and Saddam himself was injured by one of his comrades. Whatever the actual outcome of Saddam’s impetuous behavior, this episode constitutes one of the few documented accounts of Saddam losing his nerve when faced with grave danger. His public exposure and later glorification of the incident notwithstanding, the young Saddam must have been disconcerted by his contribution to the failure of the Baʿth’s most important political mission until then. Nor was the need to flee his home country for an unknown period of time a welcome development for the young man, who had never before been outside Iraq, and had cherished no such plans for the immediate future. Apart from marking an important milestone in his political career, the abortive attempt had a sobering impact on Saddam, teaching him the merits of self-control, patience and caution.
In any event, Saddam managed to cross the border to Syria where he was very warmly received by the Baʿth leadership, then part of the joint leadership of the United Arab Republic. Michel Aflaq, a founding father of the Party and its chief ideologue, reportedly took a personal interest in the young political exile and promoted him to the highest rank of Party membership, full member.32 Even though Aflaq later recollected having met Saddam only after 1963,33 there is little doubt that they quickly established a close rapport, and their friendship proved highly rewarding for Saddam Hussein. In 1964, largely due to Aflaq’s efforts on his behalf, he was elected to the Iraqi Party’s highest decision-making body, the Regional Command. Later on, Hussein would use the elderly spiritual figure to strengthen his own ideological credentials and legitimize his regime. Like the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, who used Lenin’s name as a source of legitimacy for his personal rule, so Saddam “had a living Lenin who could be wheeled out on suitable occasions to ratify his decisions and above all his status as guardian of party orthodoxy against successive groups.”34 Even Aflaq’s death in 1989 was used to promote Saddam’s political purposes. The Iraqi leader spread the word among his subjects that he personally paid to build a tomb for the founding father of the Baʿth Party.35

In February 1960, after a pleasant stay of three months in Damascus, Saddam left for Cairo, still the undisputed center of pan-Arabism, since the United Arab Republic was still in existence; indeed it was to be sustained until September 1961 when Damascus unilaterally seceded from the merger. The Egyptian capital abounded with political activists and exiles of all sorts, and Saddam quickly integrated into this vibrant community. Together with his close friend Abd al-Karim al-Shaykhli, who had also participated in the abortive attempt on Qassem’s life, he joined the local Egyptian branch of the Baʿth Party. Within a short while Saddam became a member of its Regional Command. Yet, his foremost preoccupation in the Egyptian capital had less to do with revolutionary activity than with the advancement of his formal education. In 1961, at the age of 24, he finally graduated from high school in Cairo, and a year later he enrolled for law studies at the University of Cairo.
Contrary to what might be expected, Saddam’s brief spell of academic learning did little to cultivate his radicalism or political awareness. Unlike the West, where universities were seething centers of intellectual activity, university life in Egypt in the early 1960s was intellectually dull. While professing a radical, indeed revolutionary ideology, the Egyptian authorities ruthlessly suppressed any manifestation of independent thinking on the campuses, imposing a ‘stifling uniformity” on teachers and students alike. Lecturers as well as students were often imprisoned for their opinions and forced to avoid taking provocative political stands. Demonstrations by students were forbidden except on rare occasions. Academic standards were exceptionally low, particularly in the liberal arts which offered a rather undemanding route to a degree. Students were often admitted on the basis of meager grades, were required to memorize rather than interpret material, and could obtain a degree after committing perhaps a dozen books to memory.36
Saddam, nevertheless, would never complete his law degree. Nine years after abandoning his studies in Egypt, having enrolled in law studies at the University of Baghdad, he appeared at the university with a pistol in his belt and accompanied by four bodyguards to receive his certificate. Four years later, in 1976, he would arrange to have an M.A. in Law awarded him by the university.37
During his stay in Egypt Saddam decided to marry his cousin, Sajidah Talfah. The two had known each other from their early childhood. They had been brought up together at Khairallah’s home like brother and sister and, according to Saddam, when they were still children Sajidah had been betrothed to him by his grandfather. Following the traditional custom Saddam wrote his stepfather, Hasan Ibrahim, requesting him to approach Khairallah on his behalf and ask for his daughter’s hand. Ibrahim did exactly that and Khairallah gave his consent to the couple’s marriage. They were engaged while Saddam was still in Cairo and got married shortly after his return to Iraq in early 1963. A year later their first son, Udai, was born.38 Their wedding picture shows a happy, good-looking couple. Saddam had not yet grown his famous mustache. His expression is soft, the look in his eyes tender and reconciled, nothing resembling the all-too-familiar tough, bullish expression he would assume from the mid-1970s onwards.
Before returning to Baghdad, however, Saddam had to endure three unpleasant years in Egypt. Even though the Iraqi Baʿth was indispensable to Nasser in his protracted confrontation with Qassem, his clashes with the Syrian Baʿth Party in the Egyptian-Syrian union leading to the withdrawal of Syria from the union in 1961, made him wary of anything that smacked of Baʿthism. This presidential state of mind had direct implications on Saddam Hussein’s daily life. The maintenance allowance he received from the Egyptian government as a member of the Iraqi Baʿth in exile as often delayed and at times suspended. Not only was he kept under surveillance and subjected to occasional harassment by the security services, but once he was even thrown into jail for a short while. Accounts of the reasons for his detention differ. According to Shiʿite opposition sources, Hussein was arrested on suspicion of murdering another Iraqi political exile. An alternative explanation linked Saddam’s detention to the authorities’ disaffection with his political activities (he was even reported to have paid occasional visits to the American Embassy in Cairo).39 In either case, there was no basis for a legal prosecution and before long Hussein found himself a free man again.
If there was one ray of light in Saddam’s Cairo period, it was the opportunity he had to observe President Nasser in action. According to Saddam’s own account, he was then an admirer of the Egyptian President who “expressed the opinion of the whole Arab nation before the world,” and was keen on adopting his political tactics.40 Nasser’s skillful dismantling of political pluralism in the UAR and its replacement by a single-party system (the so-called National Union) probably influenced Saddam’s view on the nature of Iraq’s future regime. Nor did Nasser’s attempt to confer a semblance of democracy on his formation of a National Assembly escape Saddam’s eye: in 1980 he would resort to a similar tactic by re-establishing Iraq’s parliament after more than two decades of inactivity. Saddam also took account of the currents of pragmatism underlying Nasser’s impassioned rhetoric. When Abd al-Karim Qassem challenged Kuwait’s independence in 1961, the Egyptian President collaborated, albeit indirectly, with “imperialist” Great Britain in shielding the conservative Gulf monarchy from ‘revolutionary” Iraq: Qassem was his sworn enemy, and to allow him any gain that could boost his position was inconceivable.41
These important observations notwithstanding, Saddam was no “blind follower of Nasser,” as the acrimonious exchanges between the two after the Baʿthi takeover in 1968 would reveal. He was correct in judging that the fundamental difference in their personalities would make any indiscriminate imitation look ridiculous. An introvert and restrained person, Saddam lacked Nasser’s charismatic appeal. Unlike the Egyptian President who was often carried away by his own rhetoric and used it to inflame his listeners with fiery speeches, Saddam addressed his audience like a radio announcer, enumerating his points quietly, almost impersonally. His flat tone of voice and somewhat inhibited manner of speaking made him appear detached from his own rhetoric, and often turned the most ardent language into a boring monologue. Because of these differences Saddam knew that the substance could be borrowed from Nasser, but the appearance would have to be molded along the lines of his own personality. If he were to be a prominent Arab leader, he would do it his way.

The Egyptian period in Hussein’s life ended in February 1963 when the Baʿth Party in Iraq, together with sympathetic military officers, managed to overwhelm Qassem and to seize power. Like the ascendancy of the deposed regime, five years earlier, the Baʿthi takeover was excessively bloody. Qassem and some of his close associates were immediately executed and his supporters, the communists in particular, combatted the army and the Baʿthi militia, the National Guard, in the streets of Baghdad for several days. By the time they had laid down their weapons, between 1,500 and 5,000 people had perished.42 This, however, did not end the bloodshed. Having established themselves in power, the Baʿthists turned to settle scores with political opponents. Thousands of leftists and communists were arrested and tortured. Hundreds were executed.
Saddam, nevertheless, had nothing to do with these events. Upon arriving in Baghdad he found himself very much an outsider. At the time of his escape from Iraq he had been too junior in the Party to build up a power base, and his three years in Egypt had kept him isolated from its development. Hussein’s major credential, participating in the attempt on Qassem’s life, failed now to buy him a ticket to the Party’s inner circle. The frustrated young man had, therefore, to linger on the fringes of the newly installed Baʿthi administration and to content himself with the minor position of a member of the Party’s central bureau for peasants. Without delay, he began building up his position within the Party by joining the faction co-headed by his fellow Tikriti and blood relative Brigadier Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, who now served as Prime Minister of Iraq, and Colonel Salih Mahdi Ammash, the Defense Minister.
Hardly had the Baʿth gained power when it was torn by a bitter ideological struggle between two main rival camps. The first, a leftist and militant group headed by the Party’s Secretary-General, Ali Salih al-Saʿdi, preached a fundamental, rapid transformation of the Iraqi socio-political system to a socialist state. It was opposed by a dovish, right-wing faction that advocated a more gradual evolution to socialism and supported collaboration with non-Baʿthist military officers. Among its members was the-then Commander of the Air Force, General Hardan al-Tikriti. Bakr’s faction struck a middle course between these two extremes with a certain bias toward the right-wing camp. This centrist faction lacked the ideological commitment and political zeal of the other two camps. It did not share their willingness to commit political suicide for a theoretical position. Practical and pragmatic to the core, Bakr and his associates worked assiduously to reconcile the rival wings. They knew that the Party’s only hope lay in its unity. Either it stuck together or it would hang together.
They were fighting a hopeless rearguard action. Not heeding words of moderation, the extremist factions continued their relentless infighting. In a special session of the Party’s Regional Command on November 11, 1963, the leftist group was expelled from the Party. Secretary-General Saʿdi and four of his closest aides were arrested during the session, driven to the airport and flown to exile in Spain. This coup sparked off a wave of violence in Baghdad, bringing the capital to the verge of civil war. The National Guard, Saʿdi’s political instrument, raged in the streets, killing and looting. In a desperate attempt to mediate a compromise solution, a high-ranking Syrian delegation headed by Michel Aflaq rushed to Iraq, only to realize that reconciliation was no longer feasible and that the only way out of the crisis was to purge the Party of the two extremist camps. Within a day, the visiting members of the National Command expelled the right-wing group from the Regional Command, and its leaders found themselves on a plane to Beirut.43
By way of filling the ensuing power vacuum in the Iraqi leadership, the National Command in Damascus stepped on the scene and assumed responsibility over the Iraqi branch. This proved a fatal mistake. With the Iraqi Baʿth leadership effectively removed and the National Command’s interference in Iraqi politics viewed by the public as a blatant violation of their country’s sovereignty, the Party’s national standing plummeted to its lowest point. This in turn enabled President Abd al-Salam Aref, who had been installed in his position by the Baʿth as a titular figure, to move against his previous benefactors. In November 1963, after nine turbulent months at the helm, the Baʿth found itself outside the corridors of power.
Their ouster was a traumatic event in Baʿthist history. The general feeling was one of a great loss, of a missed historic opportunity. A soul-searching process began amid an acrimonious exchange of accusations and a strenuous jockeying for positions. Yet, just as the general good does not necessarily benefit every single individual, so a collective adversity does not bode ill for all. For Saddam Hussein, the Party’s setback was a blessing in disguise, a major turning point in his career which would transform him within a few years into one of the most powerful figures in the Party.
As a junior member in the centrist faction of the ruling Baʿthi administration, Hussein’s chances for rapid promotion had been virtually nil, given the prior balance of forces within the Party. Once the Baʿth had been thrown into disarray, however, new promising avenues were opened to the young and ambitious Tikriti. By the mid-1960s Bakr’s camp had developed into the dominant power within the Baʿth. Bakr himself was elected in 1964 as a member of the National Command and a year later he became Secretary-General of the Iraqi Regional Command. And, in his train, Saddam followed. He quickly gained Bakr’s trust, becoming his close confidant and, ultimately, his right-hand man.
The reward for his fidelity followed soon after. In February 1964 the Seventh Congress of the National Command sought to invigorate the debilitated Iraqi branch by establishing a provisional Regional Command that excluded those involved in the Party’s fall from power. Due to Michel Aflaq’s efforts, and Bakr’s support, Hussein was appointed Secretary of the new organ. When the permanent Regional Command was re-established later that year, the two introduced their young prot”g” into this institution as well.

From his first moments in the Party’s supreme decision-making body, Hussein was adamant on assuming responsibility for security affairs. If there was one single lesson he drew from his experience, it was that in the violent Iraqi political world there was no substitute for physical force; that physical force was indispensable both for coming to power and staying there, as well as for subordinating any and all political factions to one’s will. It was armed force which had enabled Qassem to overthrow the monarchy in 1958 and which then accounted for his own destruction five years later. And it was lack of control over the state’s legitimate organs of violence which had prevented the Baʿth from effectively resisting the military takeover by Aref. Hence, if the Baʿth were to return to power, it would have to be achieved through military means.
Faithful to this reasoning, Hussein, who in 1964 was put in charge of the Party’s military organization, quickly moved to plot a coup d’”tat against President Aref. Before long two alternative courses of action had been devised, both scheduled for execution by mid-September 1964 at the latest. According to first plan, a group of armed Baʿthists headed by Hussein was to infiltrate the Presidential Palace during a cabinet meeting and to eliminate the entire Iraqi leadership. The second course of action envisaged the downing of Aref’s plane on his way to Cairo to attend an Arab summit meeting. Both these violent plans proved stillborn. The hopes of infiltrating the palace were dashed when an officer of the Republican Guard, who was to lead the conspirators to their destination, was unexpectedly removed from his post. To make matters worse for the Baʿth, the plan to shoot down the presidential plane was betrayed by one of the pilots, who turned out to be working for the secret services. Aref responded to this revelation by clamping down on the Party and its leadership.44
As one of the few senior Party members outside prison during Aref’s purge of the Party, Hussein faced an agonizing decision: either to try to escape to Syria and continue the struggle from there, or to stay in Baghdad and run the likely risk of being caught and arrested. Choosing the second alternative, he defied the National Command in Damascus which instructed him to leave for the Syrian capital. The reasons for this decision are not difficult to gauge. Fleeing Iraq at the time when most of the Baʿth leaders, including Bakr, were rotting in jail was likely to be interpreted as an act of cowardice which could tarnish Hussein’s prospects within the Party. Masterminding the Baʿthi campaign against the regime, on the other hand, contained the seeds of future glory and involved far smaller risks than those he had already run during the attempt on Qassem’s life a few years earlier. No death penalty awaited Hussein this time. The gravest punishment he faced was to join his colleagues behind bars which could only ‘martyr” him on “the altar of the revolution.”
Given this balance of risks and opportunities, Hussein’s decision to remain in Baghdad seemed reasonable. Like the numerous risky decisions he was to take in subsequent years, this move was anything but impetuous; rather it was made after a careful consideration of the costs and benefits involved. As in many of Hussein’s future actions, the calculated risk paid off, though not without paying a certain price: in mid-October 1964 Hussein’s hideout was surrounded by security forces, and, after an exchange of fire, he ran out of ammunition and was forced to give himself up.
Hussein’s account of his two years in Aref’s prison is conspicuously reminiscent of the prison term served by another young revolutionary whom the Iraqi leader has unabashedly admitted admiring: Joseph Stalin. He “imposed upon himself a rigid discipline, rose early, worked hard, read much, and was one of the chief debaters in the prison commune.”45 This routine enabled Hussein to sharpen his skills and assert his leadership over fellow political prisoners. More importantly, he managed to maintain close contacts with Bakr, who had already been released, by transmitting and receiving messages hidden under the robe of his baby son, Udai, who was brought by Sajidah on her weekly visits to the prison. Hussein had already established himself as Bakr’s closest aide, the “fixer” who would handle all bureaucratic and organizational problems, the single-minded strategist whose determination to reinstate the Baʿth in power would not be sidetracked by ideological or moral niceties. The extent of Bakr’s confidence in his younger associate was best illustrated when he later appointed Hussein Deputy Secretary-General of the Iraqi Regional Command.
Like many other stories relating to his underground days, Saddam’s road to freedom from behind bars was to become part of the Saddam legend. According to the escape plan which was devised by Saddam, together with two other Baʿthist friends, Abd al-Karim al-Shaykhli and Hasan al-Amiri, the three were to persuade the guards accompanying them to court to stop at a certain Baghdadi restaurant for lunch. Two of them were then to go to the washroom, which opened directly to the street, and to get away by a special car that would be waiting for them. The third was to engage the guards and try to persuade them to desert. The scheme was executed as planned. Amiri remained behind while Saddam and Shaykhli left the room, rushed into a car which was waiting outside with the doors open, and were driven away by Saʿdun Shakir, Saddam’s cousin and an active Baʿthist.46
The first major challenge facing Hussein after his escape revolved around relations with the sister party in Syria. On February 23, 1966, a military coup had brought the radical, Marxist faction of the Baʿth to power in Damascus. Aflaq, al-Bitar and the other members of the Old Guard were arrested, and the National Command, the Party’s supreme decision-making organ, was temporarily dissolved. This development was viewed by Hussein and his close associates with grave concern. The radicalization of the Syrian regime and its aspirations to re-establish the National Command under Damascus’s wings threatened to turn the Iraqi Baʿth into a mere extension of the Syrian will. The fact that the Syrian leadership consisted of military officers set an example which Hussein would later seek to avoid. Though keenly aware of the need to collaborate with the military in overthrowing Aref, Hussein had no intention of sharing political power with them. He had already learned that a powerful and independent military always posed a threat to civilian government. Above all, the ascendancy of the Marxist faction in Syria rekindled fears of a possible resurgence of the leftist faction of the Iraqi Baʿth, subdued but not completely eradicated since 1963.
Unwilling to accept Damascus’s authority, Hussein initiated an Extraordinary Regional Congress to determine the Iraqi Baʿth’s response to the Syrian challenge. The conference which was convened in September 1966 became a watershed in Baʿthi history. Although it would not be until February 1968 that the Iraqi Baʿth formed its own pan-Arab National Command, the Extraordinary Congress which met in 1966 cemented the ideological and organizational schism between the branches of the Baʿth Party in Iraq and Syria. A unified Baʿth with Regional Commands in the respective countries ceased to exist. It was replaced by two separate parties, one in Damascus and the other in Baghdad, both claiming to be the lawful successor of the original Party; and both with a pan-Arab National Command comprising representatives from other regions. It is from this time that the bitter inter-Arab rivalry between Syria and Iraq, which was to characterize many periods of Saddam’s career, began.
Having played the key role in precipitating the breach with Damascus, Hussein concentrated on reconstructing the Party’s organization in Iraq, but not before purging the remaining leftists in the ranks of the Baʿth. He completed the formation of the Party’s security apparatus (which he personally headed),47 laid the foundations for a new party militia, and expanded the Party’s network of branches throughout Iraq. Above all, together with Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and a narrow circle of associates, he began to calculatingly weave a tangled web which was to close on President Aref a couple of years later.
The Baʿthist conspiracy was largely facilitated by a rather lenient attitude on the part of the Iraqi authorities toward the Party’s activities. In April 1966 the Iraqi President, Abd al-Salam Aref died in a helicopter crash and his brother, Abd al-Rahman Aref, assumed the Presidency. A weak and colorless character, the new president found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the rival factions within the military, and virtually impossible to balance the various political forces in the country. Treading cautiously on the uncertain paths of the Iraqi political system, Aref sought to improve his position by using the carrot rather than the stick. Repression of Baʿthist activities eased significantly, and on several occasions the President even sounded out the Party’s readiness to collaborate with the regime. This, in turn, enabled the Baʿth to consolidate its power base and to wait patiently for the right moment for a renewed bid for power.
Such conditions appeared to have developed following the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967. In a brilliant blitzkrieg, within six days Israel managed to defeat the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and an Iraqi expeditionary force, and to occupy the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem with its holy sites. Coming in the wake of a month of escalating tensions and high Arab nationalist rhetoric, in which President Nasser succeeded in orchestrating an all-Arab coalition against Israel, the extent of the Israeli victory stunned the Arabs. Nasser’s personal prestige suffered a decisive blow. So did the idea of Arab nationalism. Pan-Arabism had liberated the various Arab states from colonial domination, but it succeeded neither in advancing the unification of the Arab nation, nor in uprooting the perceived major threat to this nation–Israel. If the Arab states could be so easily defeated by the “Zionist entity,” as Israel was called by the Arab states, how could they aspire to achieve the ultimate goal of unity? Even Nasser seemed disillusioned with the cause he had so vigorously championed throughout his career. “You issue statements but we have to fight,” he told a gathering of the heads of Arab states in Cairo. “If you want to liberate, then get in line in front of us.”48
As huge crowds of Iraqis took to the streets to demonstrate their anger and frustration over the defeat, the Baʿth quickly capitalized on the country’s minimal participation in the war in order to delegitimize the regime. During the last months of 1967 and the early months of 1968, it conducted a series of strikes and demonstrations which denounced the regime’s corruption and ineptitude and called for its replacement. The Party’s public activities reached their peak in April 1968 when 13 retired officers, five of whom were Baʿthists, submitted a memorandum to Aref demanding the removal of the Prime Minister, Tahir Yahya, the establishment of a legislative assembly and the formation of a new government.
These demonstrations notwithstanding, the Baʿthists were fully aware of their inability to bring down the Aref regime on their own. In a political system that thrived on physical force, they simply lacked the necessary means to overwhelm their opponents. Hence, in early 1968 the Party began sounding out the readiness of the armed forces to participate in a coup attempt. Before long they established contact with the “Arab Revolutionary Movement,” a group of young officers formed in 1966 to protect President Aref but who had become increasingly unhappy with his leadership.49 The foremost targets of the Baʿthi persuasion campaign were four senior officers who constituted the pillars of the Aref regime: Colonel Abd al-Razzaq Nayif, Head of Military Intelligence; Colonel Ibrahim Abd al-Rahman Daʿud, Commander of the Republican Guard (the President’s praetorian guard); Colonel Saʿdun Ghaydan, Commander of the Republican Guard’s armored brigade; and Colonel Hammad Shihab, Commander of the Baghdad Garrison.
Fortunately for the Baʿthists, these officers, each of whom could easily have foiled an attempted coup against the regime, were open to negotiations. Ghaydan and Shihab were sympathetic to the Baʿthi cause in the first place, and in Shihab’s case this positive attitude was reinforced by blood relations: he was a Tikriti and a cousin of Bakr. Nayif and Daʿud, for their part, were motivated by the all-too-familiar combination of impulses dominating Iraqi politics: greed and fear. On the one hand, they considered themselves the natural successors to Aref and viewed the Baʿth as a junior partner that could be easily tamed. On the other hand, they had been alienated from Aref for quite some time and had good reasons to anticipate their own impending purge. Besides, they lacked the organizational infrastructure and ideological appeal which the Baʿth could possibly offer. The reward they demanded, though, was exorbitant: the Premiership for Nayif and the Ministry of Defense for Daʿud.50
The price of the two officers’ participation confronted the Baʿth at an emergency meeting of its Regional Command, convened at Bakr’s home on the evening of July 16, 1968. While the Baʿthists viewed this last-moment decision as an unscrupulous attempt to blackmail them into further concessions, Nayif and Daʿud needed to move abruptly: a few hours earlier they had been summoned to President Aref and asked whether there was truth in the rumors about an impending coup. The two denied any such rumors and tearfully kissed Aref’s hands, assuring him of their unswerving loyalty. He believed them, but they feared that their conspiracy would soon be uncovered and decided to throw in their lot with the Baʿth.51
However irritated with the extortionist demands and however wary of the two, the Baʿthists saw no other choice but to comply. A negative response was bound to antagonize Nayif and Daʿud and would have required a dramatic revision of the coup plan, if not its indefinite postponement. This possibility was eminently clear to Saddam who distinguished himself as one of the foremost proponents of a tactical alliance with the officers. “I am aware that the two officers have been imposed on us and that they want to stab the Party in the back in the service of some interest or other,” he told his comrades, “but we have no choice now. We should collaborate with them but see that they are liquidated immediately during, or after the revolution. And I volunteer to carry out this task.””52
Saddam’s speech offers a vivid illustration of the ruthless pragmatism that was to become his main hallmark, and was to bring him within a decade to the Presidential Palace. The end justified all means. Collaboration with the most despised partners was perfectly legitimate if it served the ultimate goal of political survival. Nor was there anything morally wrong in forming an alliance with the foreknowledge that it would be dissolved at the first opportune moment. Since all political opponents were virtually ‘spies and agents,” they should be given their own medicine. As Saddam himself put it during the discussion: “It is a legitimate and a moral necessity that the Party should not be betrayed a second time [the first being the fall from power in 1963], and that it should be protected from harm.”53
Emboldened by Saddam’s emotional plea, the Party decided to accept the officers’ demands and to proceed with its putsch. A few hours later a new era in Iraq’s modern history was to dawn.