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Iraq: What Does A Postwar Future Hold For The Ba'ath Party?

Political power in Iraq is concentrated in a repressive one-party apparatus dominated by President Saddam Hussein and the Arab Ba'ath Party. With the United States poised to invade Iraq, observers are debating the future postwar role of the Ba'ath Party, which Iraqi officials say has more than 2 million supporters.

Prague, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The pan-Arab Ba'ath Party, which calls for the unity of all Arab states, was founded in 1947 in Damascus. According to Ba'ath doctrine, the politically and territorially divided Arab countries are merely regions of a collective entity called "the Arab nation."

The Iraqi Ba'ath Party was established as a clandestine movement in the early 1950s. During that decade, the Ba'ath and other opposition parties formed the Underground National Front and participated in the activities leading to the 1958 revolution that toppled the Iraqi monarchy.

In 1959, the Ba'ath Party plotted to assassinate then-Iraqi leader General Abd al-Karim Qasim. Their attempt failed, and some party members were arrested and tried for treason, while others fled the country.

The party's second attempt to overthrow Qasim in February 1963 was successful and resulted in the formation of the first Ba'ath government. It lasted only nine months until the party's coup partners were able to expel all Ba'athists from the government. Five years later, in July 1968, the Ba'ath Party staged another coup and has been in power ever since.

Experts say Saddam Hussein has gradually molded the Ba'ath Party into an effective instrument for ruling a massive police state. Hussein concentrates enormous power in his hands. In addition to being president, he is also prime minister, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council -- the Ba'ath Party's governing body, which exercises both executive and legislative authority.

Iraqi opposition groups in exile and international human rights groups accuse the Ba'ath leadership of rampant abuse of power, corruption, and supporting ethnic cleansing and extrajudicial killings. The Ba'ath Party tolerates no opposition.

Mahmoud Usman, a Kurdish politician, told RFE/RL the party is particularly hostile to Kurdish movements. Usman has participated in past negotiations between Iraqi leaders and Kurdish representatives on the issue of Kurdish autonomy. "[The Ba'ath leadership] believes only in using force against opponents. They don't believe in dialogue; they don't believe in solving problems peacefully. They are cruel. They don't believe in having an opposition with a different opinion, an opposition that criticizes them. If you ask [Ba'ath leaders] about the opposition, they would say that all of them are [foreign] agents. They don't think there should be an opposition," Usman said.

According to official figures, the Iraqi Ba'ath Party has more than 2 million members and sympathizers. Many educated Iraqis, qualified specialists, and intellectuals are connected to the party. Their absolute dominance in Iraqi political life has led many observers to question what will become of the Ba'athists should the United States launch a military campaign in the country. Some members of the Iraqi opposition are calling for extreme postwar measures, such as the complete de-ba'athification of the country, much like the denazification of West Germany following the defeat of the Third Reich.

Other observers speculate the United States may choose to work with Iraq's traditional political structure, removing Hussein but leaving power in the hands of his ruling party.

Jeremy Biney, a Middle East expert based in London, told RFE/RL the party is likely to play a role in any postwar transition scenario. "I think Ba'ath is going to play a role in a transition period. The party has taken over all elements of the Iraqi state. There is no way that can be replaced immediately. There is no way that there can be a rapid purge of the Ba'ath Party. The leadership needs to change and will change pretty quickly. For the majority of members of the Ba'ath Party -- many of whom may have joined the organization just to get ahead in Iraqi society rather then because they are particularly pro-Saddam -- they will probably have to stay in place, continuing their jobs in Iraqi bureaucracy, etc.," Biney said.

Safa al-Falaki is a member of the Ba'ath Party and a former diplomat who over the past three decades has served as Iraq's ambassador to Malaysia, Portugal, Nigeria, Romania, and the Netherlands. Al-Falaki said it would be impossible to follow a possible war with a transition period that does not include Ba'athists, in part because many educated Iraqis are connected to the party. "I don't think the Iraqi system should get rid of all Ba'athists," he said. "There are about 2 million Ba'ath members. [Only] a minority of them are really pro-Saddam Hussein. I believe the majority of the members simply ignore the party. Most Iraqi experts, educated people, and intellectuals, one way or another, are linked to the Ba'ath Party. You cannot really ignore them. You have no alternative in this country."

Usman said ordinary Ba'ath members should take part in any opportunity to rebuild the country. "[After a possible war in Iraq,] if there will be a constitution, if there will be democracy in Iraq, if there will be a law for party activities, and if these [Ba'ath members] meet the conditions and work according to the constitution, I think they should be allowed to work. No party should be excluded," Usman said.

Al-Falaki compared the situation to that of postcommunist states in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He said Iraq's transition may resemble what has happened in former Soviet states, that "the same people [former Communists] are in power again but as members of other parties, not as Communists," al-Falaki said.

Al-Falaki said that in any potential postwar period, the Iraqi Ba'ath Party might have the opportunity to reform itself into a more liberal, democratic movement. But such a transformation, he added, would take a great deal of time and effort.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.