Saddam Husayn and Civil-Military Relations in Iraq: The Quest for Legitimacy and Power

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This article addresses civil-military relations in Iraq under Saddam Husayn over the past thirty years. Historically, the Iraqi armed forces have intervened regularly in the political process of the country. This has been to the detriment of political stability, the ability of Iraq to play a role in regional politics and to emerge as a major military power. Saddam recognized this early on and implemented a series of stringent controls to bring the military to heel under civilian rule. But the military has continued to threaten his rule. At the present time, Iraq has come under immense pressure from the United States, which has threatened it with war to remove the regime. Is there any possibility that the military might intervene and remove Saddam itself and under what circumstances? How would a civilian government in a post-Saddam Iraq establish civilian control over the military?

July 2002, Iraqi President Saddam Husayn celebrated 34 years in power. This is an impressive record by any regional standard. He had been leader of Iraq longer than any other person since the creation of the modern Iraqi state in 1921, and had managed to retain power in spite of numerous calls for his removal and actual efforts undertaken to unseat him. For years, many observers thought that the most likely institution that could remove Saddam Husayn from power was the Iraqi armed forces, either by means of a successful assassination attempt or by coup d'etat.

Saddam Husayn has survived numerous assassination and coup attempts, often encouraged or supported by foreign powers. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini called upon the Iraqi military to rid itself of its leader. On February 15, 1991, in the midst of Operation Desert Storm, US President George H.W. Bush declared "that there is another way for the bloodshed to stop. And that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside."1 No one, it was thought, could survive a disaster of the magnitude that was facing the Iraqi leadership.' But Bush's exhortation to the Iraqi army was based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of civil-military relations in Saddam's Iraq. The Iraqi military was either unable or unwilling to heed this call.3

Yet for a number of years after the Gulf War the US and other members of the coalition continued to believe that the Iraqi military was the best hope for overthrowing Saddam Husayn. While defeat had failed to unseat him, history provided some reasonable expectation that Saddam would ultimately go: the long tradition of involvement of the Iraqi military in the political process and several repeated attempts by officers to overthrow the regime. All that was needed was one successful coup, Saddam's foes kept telling themselves and the world.

Given the history of involvement by the Iraqi military in the political process, outside observers have not been able to understand why the Iraqi military did not move against the regime.4 Our understanding of the nature of civil-military relations in Saddam's Iraq has generally been deficient. Indeed, not much analysis has been undertaken on contemporary Iraqi civil-military relations per se, and particularly on how Saddam Husayn has managed to control the armed forces over the last 30 years.

The extremely sensitive nature of civil-military relations in a highly secretive regime was clearly a major obstacle to research. Moreover, while a number of Iraq experts have had to address contemporary civil-military relations in their studies of Iraq under Saddam, this was not often a focus of attention. Apart from a joint article by Andrew Parasiliti and Sinan Anton, and one by the former alone, there has been no recent contribution devoted to the subjects The first goal of this article is to assess the nature of civil-military relations, and to analyze in detail the manner in which Saddam Husayn has controlled this key institution. …