Response to Response: Yes, Saddam Laid the Groundwork for the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 12, 2016

Iraqi army MIA1 Abrams tanks march under the victory Arch landmark during a parade to mark the 91st Army Day in Baghdad on January 6, 2012, weeks after US troops completed their pullout. The Armed Forces Day display by the fledgling 280,000-strong security force completely reformed after the US-led invasion of 2003. AFP PHOTO/ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

The “Victory Arch,” which Saddam built after the war with Iran. (January 2012)

About three weeks ago I wrote a piece for The New York Times explaining the evolution of Saddam Hussein’s regime away from the hard-secularism of its Ba’athist origins, and how this had prepared the ground for the Islamic State (IS). I received much positive feedback, but the social media reaction was inevitable: little thought and much anger, particularly from people who view Iraqi history through a political prism and felt I was trying to exculpate George W. Bush. With rare exceptions, the critique could hardly be called thoughtful. So it is nice to finally have such a critique to deal with, from Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill in today’s Foreign Affairs.

To dive right in: the authors contend that their “rigorous study” of the Saddam regime records “has found no evidence that Saddam or his Baathist regime in Iraq displayed any sympathy for Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism.” As the authors note, even those who see Saddam’s regime having Islamized note the anti-Wahhabi component to the Faith Campaign. But the authors are unconvinced by the distinction between Salafism and Wahhabism. Saddam was “equally antagonistic toward them,” Helfont and Brill write. Later in the piece, however, the authors note: “Domestically, Saddam also opposed Islamism and those promoting any other version of Islam than his own.” Exactly.

In what I wrote in The Times, I said: “In the Sunni areas … the [Faith] campaign was effective, creating a religious movement I call Baathi-Salafism, under Mr. Hussein’s leadership.” I have previously written of this aspect of the Faith Campaign, dealing with the claim that it was really anti-religious because it involved the infiltration and even assassination of leaders of the religious trend that (I think the evidence shows) Saddam had aligned with. This is about Saddam’s approach to power, not his ideology:

Of course Saddam’s regime infiltrated the Salafi Trend and tried to bring it under control … Saddam still believed that only his movement was the true one, even if others were complementary. In a regime where the intelligence agencies spied on one-another, Saddam’s approach to the Salafi Trend is hardly a surprise. The Salafi Trend largely made its peace with the Islamized Saddam regime but it remained independent of the regime, and therefore a possible threat.

Or, as Amatzia Baram put it, “For Saddam the defining question was whose religious activities were to be targeted. … He was not at all suspicious [of religious activities], provided those activities were his.”

The authors contend,

Saddam had expressed the desire to instrumentalize these Baathist views on Islam as far back as the 1970s, but it was not until the 1990s that his regime developed the institutional capacity to teach its Arab nationalist version of Islam and the security architecture to ensure that doing so did not unintentionally aid hostile religious movements. The maturation of these capabilities rather than ideological shifts was the basis of the Faith Campaign.

Abu Nuwas statue in Baghdad

Abu Nuwas statue in Baghdad

This is exactly the wrong way around. When the Ba’ath regime was powerful enough in the early 1970s—after it was stabilized from the 1968 coup—that was when it showed its stern secularism and even what Baram calls “implied atheism”. The construction of a giant statue of the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas, whose verse consists primarily of homoeroticism and wine, in 1972 cannot have been other than to provoke the traditionalists (see especially the bucket-sized wine glass in the statue’s hand). The Ba’ath was at this time also competing with the Communists for the urban intelligentsia and its high-brow produce, namely the magazine, “The Arab Intellectual,” produced in Baghdad between 1970 and 1975, laid the implied atheism on thickly, with its references to “science” and “progress” and a cosmological design that conspicuously didn’t mention god. It was during the war with Iran, when the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s propaganda calling Saddam an “infidel” was finding an audience inside Iraq, not least because Iran was winning on the battlefield, identifying Islam with power as well as right, that Saddam turned to Islam for legitimation. This intensified after the crushing defeat in Kuwait. The Islamization of Saddam’s regime was, among many other things, a profound admission of failure.

But the terminology from the early days remained: “Islamism,” “Salafism,” and especially “Wahhabism” maintained their negative connotations, specifically in official documents, and were used to denote non-Saddamist religious activities.

Thus the authors are partly correct when they write:

The Baathists were ruthlessly consistent in their attempts to track down and “neutralize” anyone with the slightest hint of Salafist or Islamist sympathies. In fact, throughout the 1990s, the regime kept spreadsheets containing the names of every Islamic leader in every mosque. The party secretariat asked the local branches, which created these spreadsheets, to take special note of adherents to “Salafism, Wahhabism, and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

What the authors mistake is the ideological element; Sunni clerics who were arrested and/or removed from their positions were targeted for what they said, not what they believed, and unlike in the Shi’a areas the Sunni/Salafi clerics who spoke against the regime were rarely killed.

Joseph Sassoon, who like the authors contends that Saddam remained hostile to mixing politics and religion, wrote of this database:

[E]very party branch and section was asked to undertake a survey of all mosques and husseiniyyat (Shi’i religious centers) in their areas, and to evaluate all the employees from a security point of view.

A document for the Saladin Province, dated November 18, 1998, shows that twenty-four of forty-one imams (nearly sixty percent) were associated with the party, four of them as full members. Seventeen “independent”—i.e. non-party but operating in an environment of totalitarianism—were written-up positively and some even recommended for party membership. Just two were put on a watch list because of rumours their associates included “suspicious and Wahhabist elements.” Again, the focus is whether the clerics are a threat to the regime—”Wahhabist” sometimes serving as a euphemism for alleged Saudi agents, about which the regime was paranoid—not against religion per se.

As can be seen from the above, religion was effectively nationalized by the regime. As Sassoon notes, summarizing a document from April 1996:

The regime not only monitored Friday sermons and those who attended mosques, but also was involved in every appointment by the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in any religious institution, and it tried to impose party loyalists in every position.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a different story. The restrictions on the Brotherhood were lessened by the end of the 1990s, but mostly because the regime’s capacity was fraying. Saddam had deliberately chosen “to mainly promote Salafi Islam in order to develop Salafism as an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Saddam considered a threat to his rule,” writes Joel Rayburn in his history of Iraq. Saddam feared the Brotherhood’s tight-knit, conspiratorial structure, and above all their transnational connections.

Saddam had suppressed the Brotherhood on entry to power—the Brotherhood’s party, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), went dormant between 1969 and 1979, with only intermittent underground meetings. The upswing in public religiosity following the Iranian revolution and the onset of the Iran-Iraq War opened the Brothers’ chance. Saddam was an aggressor against fellow Muslims, the Brethren region-wide (except in Syria) said—something for which the Salafists attacked them: Salafists saw the Brotherhood’s tactical alliance with the Shi’ite Islamists in Iran against a Sunni despot as evidence of the Brotherhood’s unprincipled nature. (This “quietest” trend was among the things that made the Salafists useful to Saddam later.) But it was the discovery that the IIP was prepared to do more than talk against the regime that earned them the lasting enmity of Saddam.

The IIP sought direct permission from the Muslim Brotherhood’s general secretary Umar at-Tilmisani in Cairo for action against Saddam. Permission was granted. An underground network of IIP cells proliferated, helping Kurds defect to the north, where a revolt broke out in the midst of the war with Iran, and while IIP itself abstained from terrorism it facilitated attacks by other groups, many of them Iranian-allied or -run like the Dawa Party. The IIP infrastructure was finally discovered in 1986 and rolled up by 1987. Most of its leaders were put on death row, but they were then released in an amnesty in 1991. Many of these old Brotherhood hands—some of whom were harassed until they left the country, like Harith ad-Dari—were then brought back in after 2003 and collaborated with the remnants of the regime in launching the insurgency.

The authors dispute the significance of the 1986 meeting of the Pan-Arab Command (PAC), the regime’s highest ideological institution, which reoriented policy to the Islamists:

The Iraqi Baathists had similar tactical alliances with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood since at least the early 1980s, if not earlier, and yet continued to suppress the Iraqi branch of the movement.

In The Times piece I agreed with this: “In a few tactical instances during the 1980s, Mr. Hussein allied with Islamists, notably the Muslim Brotherhood, to destabilize his regional rival in Syria, but these were limited, plausibly deniable links.”

The significance of the 1986 PAC meeting was that moved the earlier tactical alliances into a formalized internal change, which was supposed to stay secret—though could not since if Saddam is taking credit for foreign “martyrs” in State media, it requires some explaining why Islamism abroad is okay but Islamism internally is not. One can tell from the transcript of the meeting—and Tariq Aziz’s objections, when he arrives late and doesn’t realize Saddam favours the change—that the stakes were understood by the participants, and this was indeed a “clear departure” from the old secularism.

This can be seen even more in what followed. The authors note that in the meeting Saddam continues to speak for a “nationalistic and socialist state,” but they fail to note the stronger evidence for their case that this was only a tactical change. In reassuring the Old Guard, Saddam said:

Why not trick them [the people] when there is a chance to do that? We interact with them [the Islamists] in a way that won’t enable them to say to our faces that we are apostates. This should be enough for us to gain the support of the public, by dialoguing with them [the Islamists]. … I do not believe it would be wise to engage in a clash with the religious current in the Arab homeland when it is possible to avoid it. On the other hand, we would launch a large scale attack on them if they are close to taking over power.

One reason the authors might have avoided noting this is because Saddam then conspicuously reneged on it. When the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood actually took power, Saddam invited its leader, Hassan at-Turabi, to Baghdad to speak in his support. Saddam later established “Islamic relations” with the Taliban, despite the fact he despised them as backward, particularly for their vandalism of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The policy had a life of its own.

The authors provide no scope for disagreement in writing:

Although the Baathists claimed that Aflaq converted to Islam on his deathbed, he is most often portrayed as “a bulwark against Islamization” while he lived.

From The Times:

The changes [toward Islamism] accelerated after 1989 when Michel Aflaq, the Christian founder of the Baath Party, died, and Mr. Hussein claimed that Mr. Aflaq had converted to Islam. Alive, Mr. Aflaq was a bulwark against Islamization; as a dead convert, he could—and did—baptize a new direction.

There is much more to disagree with in the argument that Saddam “did not allow Islamists to teach in religious schools; and disqualified them from entrance into the military, teaching, and other secular academies.” The most obvious rebuke to this is Kamel Sachet, who was not only an unyielding Salafist when he was one of Saddam’s most senior generals in Kuwait, but was relieved of duty and then brought back to be the governor of Maysan between 1992 and 1994 where he set up, as one of Saddam’s more impious henchman complained, “a mini Islamic State”. Another example is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who not only entered the Islamic University in Baghdad because of family connections to the party—Izzat ad-Douri, the architect of the Faith Campaign, controlled entry—but had led at least some sermons in the mosque in his hometown, despite being an out-and-out radical at the more takfir-inclined end of the Salafi spectrum that did remain hostile to Saddam, right to the end, even launching a minor insurgency by 1999-2000.

The authors continue:

[T]here is no evidence in the Baathist records that the regime applied sharia law in Iraq. Such atrocities were carried out by regime paramilitaries such as the Fedayeen Saddam, many of whom, the regime’s records indicate, were poor Shiites who are considered heretics by ISIS.

The Shi’a contingent of the Fedayeen is one of the most common pushbacks I have received to what I wrote about that organization and its mutation into IS. There is no doubt there were Shi’ites in the Fedayeen, many of them, ironically enough, from what would become Sadr City, and many went on to form part of Muqtada as-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi. But there were Sunnis in the Fedayeen—nobody really knows the proportions either way—and, as with the Shabiha in Syria that is an “Alawite” force that undoubtedly has Sunni members, it was the Sunnis component that directed the Fedayeen, which transformed into something like a religious police force by the end, amputating hands for theft, throwing people off buildings for sodomy, and stoning people for adultery. Some of the Fedayeen who moved into IS can be named, such as the Umar Brigade, formed by Abu Musab az-Zarqawi in 2005 to conduct attacks against the Badr Corps and other Shi’a militias; some of them cannot be named but were nonetheless found in IS’s predecessor; and in the Fedayeen’s actions and appearance one gets a foretaste of IS.

As to Saddam’s non-application of shari’a, it is difficult to know where to start. Just for a few examples, before the Faith Campaign had even started:

  • 1991: Saddam introduced Islamic banking.
  • October 1991: The Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), the executive and the legislature of the Saddam regime, imposed zakat, the Islamic poor tax.
  • August 1992: Saddam ordered the Ministry of Education test the knowledge of Islam of every teacher—no matter the subject they were teaching—and ordered schools to teach the Qur’an from first grade onwards. (The result was darkly comic, with six-year-olds being lectured on personal status law and the torments of hell—the latter leading to complaints from parents that their children were having nightmares.)

After the Faith Campaign began:

  • September 1993: The Ministry of Interior closed down twenty-nine of Baghdad’s forty-five night-clubs and all-but five discothèques, and permitted the remainder only in certain districts of Baghdad.
  • September 1993: The public consumption of alcohol was banned and punished with a month’s imprisonment.
  • June 4, 1994: The RCC issued Decree No. 59 that imposed the first raft of legislation formally drawn from the Holy Law. Theft was punished by having a hand cut off at the wrist, and a repeat offence was punished by having the left foot amputated. By July 1994, amputation as a punishment was extended to many other crimes, including document forgery. Criminals were “tattooed between [their] eyebrows” in accordance with the RCC issued Decree 109, August 18, 1994, to ensure they were not mixed up with war wounded. At a Cabinet meeting in August 1994, Saddam spoke in favour of the Qur’anically prescribed harsh punishments, saying his “humanism” had blinded him to their wisdom.
  • August 27, 1994: The RCC issued Decree 118, making prostitution a capital crime, in accordance with the shari’a. (An Amnesty International report said that in October 2000 “dozens of women” accused of prostitution, and numerous men accused of hiring prostitutes, were beheaded with swords in front of their homes “in the presence of representatives of the Ba’ath Party” by members of the Fedayeen Saddam.)
  • November 2001: The RCC issued a decree imposing the death penalty for “prostitution, homosexuality, incest and rape.”

The authors highlight a “landmark speech in 1996” in which Saddam had said his regime was closest to the Nasserists. The authors neglected the January 1995 speech, in a closed session of the PAC, where Saddam said he had no longer had any opposition to a pan-Islamic State, so long as it started as a pan-Arab State—essentially the position of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna.

Finally, the authors write:

Since 2003, former Baathists have joined a variety of insurgent groups, not just ISIS. They have shifted their loyalties over time according to the political climate—basically to those they judged could successfully take power.

The former regime elements (FREs) have joined a lot of insurgent groups since 2003, and certainly up to 2005 the FRE-led Ba’athi-Salafists—funded and strategically directed by the fallen regime’s command structure, namely ad-Douri and Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, now located in Syria—were the most powerful element in the insurgency. Instructive, then, which FREs chose the 2003-04 window to join Zarqawi’s Jama’at at-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTWJ), which became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in October 2004 and formally dissolved itself into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in November 2006.

In 2003 and 2004, JTWJ/AQI is a small, foreign-led group with stringent ideological vetting for its members—demanding they repent their Ba’athism. (This continued even when ISI was in dire straits and could have used an infusion of military skills.) Why would men who just want to get back to power put themselves through this process to join an outfit that doesn’t have the power to get them back to office? They cannot have known that IS would emerge in the form it now has. Why would such an ideological group accept the ungodly?

And yet, as noted by Romain Caillet, every leader of IS’s Military Council between 2011 and 2015, its most important institution, is an FRE who joined IS before the declaration of loyalty to al-Qaeda, and had become important figures in the organization: Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr), the architect of IS’s expansion into Syria; Adnan al-Bilawi (Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi); Adnan as-Suwaydawi (Abu Muhannad as-Suwaydawi or Haji Dawud [Correction: As-Suwaydawi has been wrongly identified as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi]); and Fadel al-Hiyali (Abu Muslim al-Turkmani or Haji Mutazz).

Perhaps the Faith Campaign isn’t the reason that so many senior members of Saddam’s security sector made the ideological choice to join a jihadi-Salafist organization immediately after the regime came down, but if it isn’t then an alternate explanation is required.

In concluding, Helfont and Brill note that Nouri al-Maliki’s Iranian-backed sectarian authoritarianism and allowing the Syrian war to run have helped revive IS. There is no contesting this. It is their presumption that the “invasion and ensuing insurgency destroyed the Iraqi state as well as the Iraqi political system” that one finds the most to quibble with. In one sense they’re absolutely right, but my question all along was: What if that was coming anyway? It would be a brave soul who argued that Iraq’s government by 2003 was a model of functionality and sectarian harmony.

4 thoughts on “Response to Response: Yes, Saddam Laid the Groundwork for the Islamic State

  1. Harun

    “What if that was coming anyway?”


    Syria suffered no invasion, and yet also splintered after the death of Assad, his son being unable to hold it together. Therefore, its pretty easy to imagine Iraq having similar issues if Saddam had died, as his sons were less likable, frankly.

    It should be noted that both countries had to put down ethnic-sectarian insurrections in the past, long before US invasion, too.

    See also Libya. The counter example would be Egypt, and yet, they too have major issues – including fighting.

    If you expand this beyond the Middle East, we see again more multi ethnic states collapse into pieces and bloody civil war, but we are to expect that where Tito couldn’t create a Yugoslav nation, Iraq could?

  2. Pingback: Yes, Saddam laid the groundwork for the emergence of ISIS

  3. Pingback: One More Time on Saddam and the Islamic State | Kyle Orton's Blog

  4. Pingback: What Captured ISIS Jihadists Tell Us About the Group | Kyle Orton's Blog

Leave a Reply