Iraq in 1979: An article from Atlantic Monthly when Saddam was not yet President
- April 1979
by Claudia Wright
The Atlantic Monthly
I am looking at sandstone eagles in a desert temple dating from 744 B.C. The
enormous birds sit in repose, legless, wingless. Nearby is a statue of a
headless Hercules, his genitalia worn away by the wind and sand to a
proportion that appears ludicrous compared to the grossness of his body.
Further into the dark depths of the temple all the statues seem to have
larger-than-life proportions to simulate strength.
Today Iraq tries to recreate the ancient message of the temple statues of
Hatra, and the larger-than-life concept can be found in the desert in the
form of huge metal sculptures billowing orange flares and pumping the oil
that provides economic strength to the Iraqi people.
Those who seek the mystery and the opulence of the rest of the oil-fed
Middle East won't find it here. The visual contrasts in Iraq are jarring: on
the one hand, traces of Babylon, Assyria, and Sumeria; on the other, the
most advanced plutonium breeder reactor. But the visitor to Iraq must listen
rather than look, and what he will hear is a new tone of Iraqi
self-assertion and confidence.
The country was for a long time regarded as a pariah in international
politics, was forced to travel to other Arab capitals to plead its cause and
was rarely listened to. But the summit meeting of Arab leaders in Baghdad
last November was carried off by the Iraqis in a confident new style. It
marked not only the first time that President Assad of Syria and the leaders
of Iraq had agreed to meet since 1972 but the first time since 1976 that the
PLO leader Yasir Arafat had met with Iraqi officials. (Twelve months of
bloody feuding between the Arafat-led Fatah group and Iraqi-supported
factions of the PLO preceded the meeting.)
The Baghdad summit was also the first major set of Middle Eastern talks
initiated and carried through by the Iraqis. Whether in the Palestinian
showdown with King Hussein in 1970, the Iranian arms buildup in the Gulf,
the oil embargo, or the wars against Israel in 1967 and 1973, the record
shows that Iraq has been generally reluctant to collaborate in joint Arab
initiatives, and other Arab nations have been reluctant to join with Iraq.
The American view of these events has lulled policy-makers into an easy
disregard for the Iraqi regimean attitude compounded by ignorance, lack of
contact, and a noticeable scorn among State Department veterans. (The two
countries have had no formal diplomatic links since the Iraqis broke off
relations in 1967.) By contrast with the once prosperous and confident
embassy in Tehran across the border, Baghdad has been a backwater and a
To foreign visitors, Baghdad may still evoke the intense
security-consciousness and secrecy associated with Iraq since 1958, when the
British-installed monarchy was overthrown by a nationalist coup, and
certainly since 1968, when the present military-led Baathist regime took
power from a civilian coalition.
The Palace Road quarter of Baghdad contains the kind of expansive,
palm-lined avenues that British colonial engineers built all over their
empire. This is where Baath party President Hassan al-Bakr and Vice
President Saddam Hussein live, along with other leading party and government
officials. In this section tanks can suddenly appear, take up a position for
an hour or two around prominent official buildings, and then disappear.
Heavily armed soldiers can be seen from time to time on the roofs
surrounding the television and radio broadcasting studios, and photographs
of these and other government buildings are not permitted. Although
uniformed police are less obvious in Baghdad than in New York or Washington,
random checks of cars are not uncommon.
Many years ago Munif al-Razzazz, now in his sixties, collaborated with
Michel Aflaq in creating the pan-Arab Baath party. Razzazz is assistant
secretary general of the National Command of the party, which nominally
covers both the Iraqi and the Syrian Regional Commands.
I asked Razzazz about his life as a member of the party. Pale-skinned,
impeccable, and resembling Basil Rathbone, Razzazz sat in his office at the
modern national party headquarters. He told me that he regretted the long
time he had spent away from his home and family but, he emphasized, he did
not regret the solitary confinement and the many years he had spent in jail
as an advocate of the party: "I've seen our revolution grow from ideas we
all had in jail cells."
Not an Iraqi by birth, he acknowledges the volatility of Iraqi and Baathist
politics, but he says that the course of the revolution has depended on it.
Without sharp and fairly continuous change, he insists, the Iraqi regime
would not have achieved the success he believes it has today.
Others who neither share the Baath vision nor would normally be comfortable
with Razzazz's rhetoric now grudgingly accept his verdict. Neighboring
Arabs, the Frenchwho are replacing the conventional nuclear reactor Iraq
obtained from the Russians with a sophisticated plutonium breeder plantand
the Japanesewho are trading oil for vast investment credits, consider that
the Iraqi regime has all but shrugged off the instability of the past, and
that it is about to assume major regional and international status. In a
recent interview in Washington, Hisham Sharabi, president of the National
Association of Arab-Americans, linked this position to the Camp David
accords: "If Egypt signs a separate bilateral agreement with Israel and is
thereby isolated, the role of Iraq would be the potential leader in the
Eastern Arab world."
Iraq's emergence is the result of three things: oil, military strength, and
internal development. Superficially, Iraq is not overwhelmingly endowed in
any one respect. Saudi Arabia has more oil. Israel and Iran are stronger
militarily in the region. By any measure of industrialization, agricultural
productivity, literacy, and manpower skills, Israel is much more developed.
However, the combination of these three factors has led to Iraq's new status
and to the recognition, everywhere else if not in the United States, of its
extraordinary potential for pre-eminence in the Middle East.
With oil reserves now estimated by State Department analysts at over 75
billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia in the World, Iraq has pursued
an oil production and development program which gives it an independence
that no other oil producer possesses, inside or outside of OPEC. Iraqi oil
power is a very recent development, for despite initial efforts at
nationalization of its oil concessions in the early 1960s, Baghdad was
unable to force the private British, French, Dutch, and American companies
on which it continued to depend to produce at levels much higher than 40
percent of capacity. Since 1972, however, when the foreign-dominated Iraq
Petroleum Company (IPC) was taken over, the regime has steadily strengthened
its control over expansion of daily output and has dramatically improved
Strategically speaking, Iraq could not hope to develop its economy without
resolving serious territorial disputes with Iran and Kuwait and ensuring
stable conditions for its oil trade in the Persian Gulf. As a consequence,
in 1975 Iraq signed a border settlement with the shah, and after protracted
discussions over mutual guarantees and protection for Urn Qasr, the new
tanker port being built at the neck of the Gulf, Iraqi troops were withdrawn
from adjacent Kuwaiti territory last year. These agreements helped to end
more than twenty years of tense exchanges and bloody shooting matches.
Iraq is now in a position to recoup the lion's share of its oil exports and
to accelerate the increase in revenuesor almost, for its plan to use oil
revenues and move ahead with national development hinges on the government's
capacity for anticipating future annual oil receipts and for keeping these
in balance with planned expenditures and the rising cost of imports.
What the government has done is unique in the Middle East, for wherever
possible it has negotiated the sale of oil for the import of goods and
technology on a fixed-price, government-agreement basis. Italy, France, and
Japan are currently the major oil purchasers. With each Iraq has signed an
oil-for-import barter agreement. Japan, for example, will buy 9 million tons
of oil a year and provide an annual import purchase credit worth about $1
billion in return. Italy and France have negotiated similar agreements. For
each country, Iraq has used its credit somewhat differentlythe Japanese
have been building power stations, refineries, and petrochemical plants; the
Italians, a fruit and livestock farm complex; and the French, an iron and
steel plant, a nuclear power reactor, and Mirage fighter jets.
The record of their complex trade, credit, and investment deals illustrates
also that the Iraqis are restraining oil output and conserving their
resources. According to CIA estimates, the government is holding its
production and export of oil to 67 percent of current capacity, far below
the output-to-capacity ratios of Saudi Arabia (72 percent), Iran (87 percent
before the anti-shah blowup) or Algeria (93 percent). This reflects the
determination of Iraqi planners to limit both production and expenditure
needs over the short term in order to maximize revenues over the longer
future, when they expect the value of their oil to become much greater.
They are also hedging in a clever way to protect their oil earnings from the
effects of the declining. U.S. dollar and worldwide inflation. Instead of
accumulating large dollar surpluses, which the Saudis have put on deposit in
the United States and cannot now move without causing even further dollar
losses and depreciation of their assets, the Iraqis have opted for variable
currency holdings. Unlike Iran and Kuwait, which have used export earnings
to buy reserve positions or long-term borrowing rights in the International
Monetary Fund, Iraq is keeping virtually all of its international reserves
in highly liquid form, 96 percent in foreign exchange and 4 percent in gold.
Thus, the Iraqi oil minister, Tayih Abd al-Karim, was able to say at the
OPEC conference in Abu Dhabi last December that "we do not believe the
Americans will succeed in stabilizing their currency. The only alternative
to the dollar that we can see is a basket of currency like the special
drawing rights, where the dollar has one of many shares with other
Ironically, Iraq has obtained a far more effective system of internal
security for its oil production system than has any of its neighbors,
although it has spent only a fraction of what the Saudis and Iranians have
spent for expensive foreign military hardware. The May 1977 explosion and
fire at the main oil field at Abqaiq demonstrated how vulnerable the Saudis
are to sabotage, while the continuing conflict in Iran and the cessation of
oil exports have illustrated how fruitless the shah's precautions were as
insurance against internal dissent.
What was already evident by late 1977 is now, in the wake of the Abu Dhabi
decisions, abundantly clear. Iraq has perceived that it can afford to wield
the "oil weapon" with a militancy that its Arab OPEC partners have hesitated
to do. Without the Camp David accords it might not have been able to use its
leverage over the Saudis, but by the end of the Baghdad summit, agreement
between the two countries on basic strategic principles was sealed.
The shutdown of Iranian oil exports triggered the most serious drop in world
supplies since the 1973 embargo. From the Iraqi point of view, this could
not have come at a better moment, since it enlarged earnings for the rest of
the OPEC producers at the same time that it increased Western, particularly
American, dependence on Arab suppliers. The unwillingness of the Saudis to
give in to American pressure to step up short-term output is a sign of the
effectiveness of the Baghdad summit and the Abu Dhabi meetings in cementing
the Arab leadership in a joint economic strategy.
Iraqis point also to the new strains that the Iranian situation is creating
for the Israeli economy. Although Ayatollah Khomeini's much-publicized
threat to withhold oil is disturbing to the Israelis, a selective embargo
can be survived, as it was in 1973, so long as the oil keeps flowing.
However, a total export cutoff would be crippling. So far the Mexicans have
refused to supply the full emergency rations Israel negotiated for last
year, and in desperation Tel Aviv ordered immediate new drilling on the
shore of the Sinai Peninsula, just north of the Alma field which the
Israelis captured from Egypt in 1973 and which currently produces about 20
percent of the country's daily requirements. This move sharply aggravated
President Sadat, and has been harmful to the negotiations for an
Observers who concede that the Iranian revolution has produced positive
benefits to Iraq suggest that serious costs must also be recognized. The
Soviet Union, for example, has been reluctant to make good on its promises
of military aid to Syria and Iraq in the wake of the Baghdad summit. This
inaction stems from nervousness in Moscow about the outcome of the Iranian
revolution. At first the Soviets were anxious not to be blamed for the
anti-shah movement: then they wanted to keep the Americans out while
avoiding a slide into confrontation. More than usually sensitive to the
threat of Israeli provocations in Lebanon, the Soviet Union was acutely
nervous about the proliferation of flashpoints their strategists were having
to monitor simultaneously. As a result, Soviet military leaders have
deliberately slowed the pace of talks on military aid with Syria and Iraq,
and deferred delivery dates until the environment appears more predictable.
This has provoked open Syrian annoyance, and the crucial supply questions
Leaders of the Baath
Iraq, with its population of almost 12 million, is a territory that the
British colonial administration carved out of Turkish Mesopotamia during
World War I, and then administered via the Hashemite royal family until
1958. It has been among the most volatile and unstable of Arab states. After
the republican coup of 1958 overthrew King Faisal II, factions of the Baath
party, pan-Arab groups identified with Gamal Abd al-Nasser of Egypt,
communists, and others sought to gain control of the military and the
The struggle within the Baath party took several ideological turns during
the 1960s, but by 1967 the group that had supported the party founder,
Michel Aflaq, in his contest with the Syrian Baath faction emerged in more
or less solid control of the Iraqi Baath party. The leaders of this group,
which successfully took power In July 1968, were Army General Ahmad Hassan
al-Bakr, who became the president of the new regime, and Saddam Hussein
Takritti, who was at the time deputy secretary-general of the Regional
Command, the party executive.
At the outset, the 1968 government was a coalition of Baathists and two
non-party colonels who had been commanders of the military guard and
intelligence units closest to the former president. These two, al-Dawud and
al-Nayif, became defense minister and prime minister in the new cabinet, but
were edged out in a bloodless purge within two weeks. Both were sent into
exile (al-Nayif was assassinated in London in 1978 by Iraqi agents).
And so, for the last ten years, the Baath party has been able to maintain
its position in government, and has had time and resources to mobilize every
aspect of organized Iraqi society, from the unions and the agricultural
cooperatives to the professional associations and the armed forces.
Asked for an assessment of Iraqi military strength, a U.S. State Department
official answered: "In a word, worthless. They are all talk and no action."
A superficial assessment of recent Middle Eastern military history might
tend to support that view. In the June 1967 war with Israel, Iraq was
soundly defeated in the air, and its losses, although small by comparison
with Syria and Egypt, were sizable. They were more than compensated for,
however, by Soviet replacements, and the signing in 1972 of a cooperative
treaty with the Soviet Union opened the way to substantial Soviet armaments
as well as to military advisers. These remain virtually untested except for
brief and inconclusive tank skirmishes in the last days of the 1973 war with
Israel, and equally inconclusive artillery, rocket, and ground-to-air duels
with Iran in the central border area.
Other military analysts believe that while its offensive forces are inferior
to Israel's, Iraq has built a defensive force capable of deterring most
types of Israeli attack. Roger Pajak, an adviser to the U.S. Arms Control
and Disarmament Agency, points to Iraq's possession of advanced TU-22
bombers and at least 80 MiG-23Bs, the sophisticated supersonic fighters
rivaling the American F-4 Phantom. According to another analyst, when the
French-built Mirage F-1s are delivered and then weighed in the balance with
the dense deployment of SAM-missile batteries (these took a heavy toll of
Israeli aircraft over Syria in 1973), an Israeli air attack is likely to
seem too costly to be tried.
The Kurdish problem
One of the reasons Iraq has committed few of its ground forces to battle
with Israel in the past is that it has been preoccupied with the Kurdish
conflict in the northeast. Openly aided, armed, and protected by the shah
(and by the CIA, covertly), the Kurds fought tenacious campaigns from their
border mountain sanctuaries throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s, tying
down the bulk of the Iraqi army and tactical air force.
Despite negotiations for regional autonomy and promises of substantial
economic aid by Baghdad in 1970, the Kurds returned to fighting in 1974
after a three-year lull, but this time Iraq threw in more than 80,000
troops, tanks, bombers, and (because of some Russian hesitancy in meeting
Iraqi requests for more weapons) French helicopters. The result was
militarily much more decisive than in earlier campaigns, and in March 1975
the shah withheld support of the Kurds as part of the quid pro quo
negotiated with Iraq over the two countries' border disputes.
Large Kurdish communities exist not only in Iran and Iraq but also in Syria,
Turkey, and the Soviet Union, and none of these countries has been willing
to tolerate an active secessionist movement. Indeed, they were relieved that
Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani concentrated his resources on Iraq,
and that, in draining each other, neither the Kurds nor the Iraqis appeared
to have much of an appetite for neighboring territory. In 1975, with the
cessation of Iranian support and Barzani's departure into American exile,
the greatest military problem the Baghdad regime had to deal with was
substantially, although not completely, solved.
The legacy of the Kurdish problem is that Baghdad has been caught in an
awkward position toward Tehran. Though Iraq prefers an Islamic republic to
the Pahlevi regime, it was careful to avoid aggravating Tehran or provoking
any large-scale resumption of Iranian aid to the Kurds, who, according to
French intelligence reports, started sporadic raiding again in midsummer of
1978. Indeed, Baghdad was so concerned about its treaty commitments with the
shah that it invited Ayatollah Khomeini to leave his long-time residence on
the Iraqi side of the border. It should be said, however, that at no stage
of Khomeini's fourteen-year exile in Iraq did the authorities try to stop
the steady stream of the Ayatollah's visitors, or suppress his active
direction of the Moslem resistance in Iran.
Water and the land
Next to oil, water is Iraq's most precious resource, and it is the only
oil-rich Arab state with potentially enough water to become self-sufficient
in agriculture, perhaps even an exporter of food grains and livestock. This
looming self-sufficiency is endangered not only by the competing water
claims of Syria and Turkey, where the Euphrates originates, but also by
technical problems of salinity and flood control. Iraq also faces severe
administrative difficulties as it attempts to mechanize agriculture while
many peasants abandon the land for better-paying city jobs. Those who stay
on the land, however, demand more rapid redistribution under the agrarian
reforms in order to build up their holdings to economically profitable
My guide in the south, a soldier who doubled as our hunter and cook, told me
that he used to farm rice but found that being a soldier was easier and paid
more, so that, despite his absence from his village, he could better support
a family of ten. Individually, under the reform system, farmers are better
off but their holdings are small, the farm cooperatives that have been
promised are still relatively unorganized, credit takes time to flow, and
too few peasants remain to increase output or productivity. This in turn has
put a strain on Baghdad to stop food prices from rising too steeply.
Perhaps the most far-reaching result of the November summit agreement has
been the rapid improvement of relations with Syria. High-level committees,
representing both sides, have been working continuously since November to
integrate the military commands of the two countries' armed forces, to
reopen the oil trade, and to plan joint use of irrigation and water
conservation projects. On the agricultural side, this promises welcome
relief to the water supply problem while efforts are being made to encourage
Moroccan and other Arab peasant immigration to expand farm employment.
Inflation, which has hit the Middle East just as badly as the rest of the
world, is better controlled in Iraq than in the neighboring economies. With
more than three quarters of the gross national product produced by the
government sector. And with the unions linked to the government through
Baath party mechanisms, the regime's economic planners have managed to hold
annual price increases to less than 10 percent-an achievement that only
Kuwait among the Arab countries has been able to match.
Wages have been increased for all workers, and real income gains have been
supplemented by special government programs to assist minority and
disadvantaged groups. Land reform and extra investment have lifted, the
income of Iraqi Kurds, I was told, way above the Turkish, Syrian, or Iranian
standards, and programs of training, maternity leave, pay equalization, and
state-operated child care have improved the condition of women to an extent
difficult to match in the Moslem world.
What exactly is the structure of the Baath party, and who are the men who
control it? Tariq Aziz, one of the party's eminent publicists and
theoreticians and a senior government minister, is protected by more than
half a dozen guards carrying machine guns. But the security, which is all
that Western correspondents often see of the Baathist hierarchy, is a poor
test of the stability of the regime or of its mass appeal.
The party still retains much of the secret, compartmentalized structure and
the clandestine methods by which, like many other revolutionary parties, it
has ensured its survival. Direction of the party comes from the Regional
Command, which represents sixteen provincial units. The members of the
Regional Command are elected from a network of sections and cells not unlike
the local communist party committees in many countries. They function
everywherein the workplace, in neighborhoods, and in all ranks of the
military forcesinculcating the party's doctrines of traditional Arab unity,
nationalism, socialism, and spiritual revival. Membership in the party,
which numbers approximately half a million at present, is required of all
regular officers and diplomats.
Since its emergence from the underground, and following a decade of
experience in power, the Baath leadership has been able to train a second
elite group to operate at all levels of the bureaucracy and the military
forces. These are the commissars, and they are often from peasant or
lower-class village backgrounds; few of them have been abroad for university
degrees, and much of their training has been from the military academy.
Al-Bakr and Hussein are also lawyers. The two Iraqi leaders reflect the
strong pull and push of regional factions within the Baath party. Both come
from the same small village, Tikrit, fifty miles north of Baghdad. Several
times during their parallel careers, Al-Bakr through the military and
Hussein through the party, the former has owed his survival to the
intervention of the latter.
Hussein, forty-one years old, has worked his way up through the ranks since
high school days as a Baath youth organizer. He is quite dashing and his
photograph occupies a place with al-Bakr's in all ceremonial locations. If
there are elements of a personality cult in the country, Hussein, who is
famous for his white suits and black ties, outshines the president with his
military ribbons. Western correspondents tend to overemphasize that as a
measure of the two men's power.
They have tried to secure tenure by bringing the Communist and Kurdish
Democratic parties into the Progressive National Front and by severing the
armed forces from the political process to prevent what they call an
"Allende Coup." But challenges do occur, and are swiftly resolved. Last
year, two Communists were executed for creating an anti-cell in the army.
The Communist party has been vocal for fifty years in Iraq and has been
punished often with massacres and jailing for its internal political
schemes. The Communists want Iraqi unification with the Soviet bloc and are
against the government policy of unity with the United Arab Republic. The
government's stability really relies on the Iraqi people and on its ability
to set up the promised national assembly.
Under al-Bakr and Hussein the regime appears flexible enough to tolerate
substantial differences over social and economic policy. When big mistakes
in economic management are made, they are admitted, and the corrections are
reflected in the annual budget and investment program.
After twenty years of chronic warfare in the northeast, tension, and
military preparedness along every frontier, the Iraqis have little taste for
military adventures or bloodshed. And on the domestic front, the present
leadership cannot afford to allow the country's resources to be drained away
by unproductive investment, or its energies to be wasted in protracted
military conflict. Iraq's first goal, as officials declare in interviews and
in the hard facts of the annual budget and the current five-year plan, is to
put internal development ahead of military buildup.
Still, militant and uncompromising hostility to Israel remains the
cornerstone of the country's foreign policy. Iraq's current leadership
believes that Israeli dominance in the Middle East would increase military
pressure on Iraq's borders and threaten every one of its cities. Eventually,
even without another Israeli military success, Iraqis are convinced,
Israel's economic power would penetrate Iraq's domestic product markets,
disturb the balance of the wage and price structure vital to development
planning, and finally undermine the principles of socialism and nationalism
to which the regime is dedicated. When the Camp David accords are viewed in
that light, the Iraqis believe they are facing the most important challenge
to their state since its founding eleven years ago. Washington needs to