Recently opened archival material from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq paints a different picture of the brutal dictatorship.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Modern Times Review.
Published date: August 13, 2018

State of repression: Iraq under Saddam Hussein

Lisa Blaydes

Princeton University Press, 2018

We know Iraq as a terrible mess. Shia Muslims are fighting Sunnis. Chaldean Christians, Turkmen and ethnic Persians are persecuted, and the Kurdish North is trying to break loose. The chaotic place is fertile ground for the Islamic State and the like. Often it is considered a result of Iraq being an artificial state, drawn on the map with a ruler by the British in 1932, without taking ethnic groups and natural borders into consideration. The usual Middle Eastern post-colonial story, you would say. On top of this, Iraq lived through the oppressive Sunni-led dictatorship of Saddam Hussein who only took the internal splits of this problematic country to new extremes and is seen as the main culprit of the present situation.

«Lisa Blaydes has gotten access to archival material that was captured by US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.»

All this is not necessarily true. Lisa Blaydes, Associate Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, has gotten access to thousands of documents from Saddam Hussein’s archives and lots of other archival material that was captured by US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and only now has become accessible to researchers. This has positioned her to give an account that goes about the matter a bit differently.

Oil money

Without doubt Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a state of utter and brutal repression. But it was not as ethnically divided as is usually claimed. Actually the regime made an enormous effort to integrate the minority groups. Of course the aim was to strengthen the rulers in Baghdad by any means, but this was done by nurturing a common Iraqi identity. According to professor Blaydes it was the international sanctions that made internal strife spring to life, and that came at a later stage.

The main actor is the Ba’ath Party that took power in 1968, ten years after Iraqi independence. It was an offspring of the original Ba’ath in Syria, best described as a nationalist movement for Arab resurrection with a socialist inclination. Saddam Hussein became vice-president in 1973 when oil revenue started to rise sharply. He became the mastermind of what the author calls the «state building period.» Wealth distribution was to the benefit of all ethnic groups, and the leadership was striving for some sort of welfare state.

«The Iraqi regime became increasingly paranoid. For the smallest misdeeds people were imprisoned in the thousands.»

In exchange, all citizens were supposed to accept Ba’atism as the only ideology, and the common identity should be Arab. Early on the regime introduced the teaching of Kurdish to Arab-speaking students, and vice versa, as an important step for reducing language barriers in the country. In 1976 legislation criminalised the use of tribal names or names that would indicate family origin: Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, for example, became Saddam Hussein. Oil money enabled him to hand out rewards. Shops were well stocked and the number of schools doubled over a couple of years. Faithful cadres got presents from the party, like a television set, but those that cheated and obtained more than one television for a household were punished with torture and prison terms.

Nonstop war

It all changed in 1979. Coinciding with the Islamic revolution in Iran, Saddam Hussein became president of Iraq. He started out by declaring war against their neighbour, fearing that the revolution would spread. Blaydes’ findings show that Shia Muslims were among the most eager to enlist for the war, and as a result the southern Iraqi city of Basra took particularly heavy personal losses.

A 1990s mural of Saddam Hussein with Nebuchadnezzar behind him.

When state funds for compensating bereaved families started to run low the tide turned. And the period of the international embargo against Iraq until Saddam Hussein’s final demise (1991-2003) could be characterised as nonstop war and natural disaster. The prolonged economic shock of sanctions seriously damaged the ability of the Iraqi regime to earn broad-based support through public goods provision. At the same time, however, the regime’s competent management of a bare-bones ration system increased citizen dependence on the state in the face of severe food insecurity.

The regime became increasingly paranoid. For the smallest misdeeds people were imprisoned in the thousands or executed, and lacking the means to reach the outlying parts of the country, power was given over to nominally loyal tribal leaders. At that stage sectarianism and local self-interest became widespread.


Lisa Blaydes

Lisa Blaydes finds a good case story in the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. They are not a coherent society, she argues. The Kurds are divided into several tribes that are not necessarily on good terms. One’s first duty has historically been to tribe and chief, and the concept of national duty towards fellow Kurds was practically non-existent, she points out.

The reason for the Kurdish reluctance to sign up for the war against Iran had less to do with consideration for fellow Kurds on the other side of the front than with a feeling of not getting a bigger share of the revenue from the oil found in Kurdish soil. And therefore Saddam Hussein’s hammer of repression hit them harder when things got tough for the regime in Baghdad.

Bystanders in the West explain this as sectarianism, while Lisa Blaydes offers us a more nuanced explanation. With this as a prime example she underscores her understanding of what is really the matter with this battered nation and its suffering people.

Modern Times Review