Saddam's Mortal Mistake and Unexpected Defense

  October 10, 2021   Read time 3 min
Saddam's Mortal Mistake and Unexpected Defense
Among the first undertakings of the Ba’thists in the new era of wealth was to multiply their oil outlets. In 1973 they had but one operating pipeline through Syria.

They contracted for a second line through Turkey in 1985, and along with this opened a line to the Gulf, which clearly was their most convenient and efficient avenue for transporting oil. They also built two offshore loading facilities for oil tankers. Concurrently the Ba’thists developed previously unexploited oil fields at Rumaillah, in the far south of Iraq. Concessions for these fields had been held by foreign companies that had refused—for reasons of their own—to develop them. Their refusal provoked the Ba’thists to revoke the companies’ concessions and, with the aid of the Soviets, they undertook to work them themselves.

The Ba’thists committed enormous sums for oil-related projects in the south, such as petrochemical plants. In addition they developed nonoil-related industries like salt works and sugar refineries. And they built desalinization facilities to provide fresh water for irrigation works. This accelerated development of the southern provinces created problems for the Ba’thists that ultimately influenced their decision to go to war with Iran.

The south of Iraq is the most backward area in the country. Even the Kurdish north, which the Arab nationalist regimes that preceded the Ba’th had consistently ignored, is better off. In the north the climate is salubrious, and the northerners—independent mountain people—look out for themselves against the central government. The south is a desert, where peasant cultivators subsist upon extensively irrigated plots. The society of the south is rigidly structured along class lines, and before the coming of the Ba’thists a relatively small elite oppressed the peasants, keeping them backward and estranged from the central authorities. Unable to negotiate directly with the bureaucracy, the peasants were beholden to their leaders, who performed this function for them. In effect the old millet system of the Ottomans was perpetuated in the south until the Ba’thists came.

When the Ba’thists moved to bring about the transformation of the south, they alienated the local leaders. Instead of working through them— which would have preserved the leaders’ status as mediators with the government—they brought in their own cadres to oversee the numerous development projects they meant to carry out.They also opened up the remote areas with roads, giving them access to every hamlet and town. They electrified the region and provided the peasants with television sets, so that they could receive broadcasts of Ba’thist propaganda. They built schools and made education compulsory, and of course in the schools they promoted the virtues of progress, which they equated with secularism. It was not that the Ba’thists opposed religion; it was, rather, that they were passionately for modernization. The models of modernization they drew upon stressed secularity as the means by which to advance.

This emphasis on secularity confirmed the hostility of the local religious leaders against the Ba’thists. In defense, the clerics revived the longstanding animosity of the Shias for the Sunnis. It is an unfortunate fact of life in Iraq that all regimes since the state was founded have been dominated by Sunnis, even though Shias account for up to 65 percent of Iraq’s population.

In 1975 the Ba’thists encountered their first clerically inspired antiregime activity in the south. With characteristic harshness they executed five minor clerics involved. Because of the extreme secrecy under which the Ba’thists operated, we have scant details about this affair; however, it is known that the five were accused of belonging to a group called Dawa, an organization we will encounter again just before the outbreak of the war.