Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

"Identity" and Political Survival in Saddam's Iraq

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

"Identity" and Political Survival in Saddam's Iraq

Article excerpt

Because of Iraq's brittle national identity, the ruling elite have had countless opportunities to define and redefine the country's identity in accordance with their political interests. Particularly relevant to authoritarian regimes, it is no coincidence that this practice has been used frequently in the era of Saddam Husayn, especially during the crisis-ridden years of the 1980s and 1990s. During the Iran-Iraq war, it was the Arabist identity, followed by the Islamic identity in the Gulf war. As his support waned in the wake of the war, Saddam increasingly relied on tribal identity.

"Any student of contemporary Iraqi history," writes a prominent Iraqi intellectual "will discover... that the primary factor for the persistence of tension and violence [is] the brittleness of Iraqi national identity."' This brittleness can be traced all the way back to the origins of the Iraqi state. Iraq was created in 1921, from the amalgamation of three provinces of the defunct Ottoman empire, Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. It was a forced creation, lacking the essential underpinning of nationhood. The south of the country was overwhelmingly Arab Shii, the central part Arab Sunni, and the north contained substantial non-Arab populations, primarily Kurdish, and to a lesser extent Turkoman. The Shi`is made up over half of the population, but the reigns of power were held by the Arab regimes that have ruled Iraq since the demise of the monarchy in July 1958.6 This is so because centralizing dictatorships, lacking a broad institutional base, need to rely greatly on mobilizational efforts, such as appeals to identity. Thus, it is not coincidental that the most frequent definitions and redefinitions of Iraqi identity have occurred in the era of the most centralizing and personalized rule of Iraq's contemporary history-that of Saddam Husayn.

In the early years of the Ba`thi 1968 seizure of power in Iraq, Saddam, only 31 years of age, had to share power with the ruling Bath Party but, by 1979. he had successfully eliminated his most dangerous rivals, all senior members of the party. Immediately afterwards, he began creating for himself a personality cult the likes of which had never been seen before in Iraq or the Arab world.7 Kanan Makiya, writing under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil. vividly describes this ubiquitous personality cult:

A large painted cut out figure of Saddam Hussein towers over the entrance of every Iraqi village; often at night it emits a lurid fluorescent glow. A thirty foot high version can be seen near Baghdad city center. Photographs adorn every shop, school, police station, army barracks, and public building, and can be seen in people's offices and living rooms and overhanging the streets from the parapets of houses. No official will appear before a camera without a picture of the president in the background, and his name is evoked in every public address. . ..School children memorize verses in his honor, praising his qualities. Slogans attributed to him are visible everywhere. School notebooks carry his portrait on the front and his latest sayings on the back."

This personalization of power was bound to occur at the expense of the Bath Party. In the mid- 1970s, the party boasted a following in the country of over a million people, and on the policy-making level, party members dominated the Cabinet and the Revolutionary Command Council, the senior decision-making body. During that period, the party controlled "policy formulation, policy legislation, and policy execution."9 But as Saddam's personality cult grew after his assumption of the presidency in 1979, the party's role correspondingly diminished to a purely mobilizational function. It became an organization whose only purpose, indeed its raison d'etre, was to ensure the wholesale support, publicly declared with much manufactured passion, of all strata of Iraqi society for the imperious president.

Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, from the early 1980s, Iraqi politics became inexorably linked to the person of Saddam Husayn. …

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