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Interview: Charles Tripp Discusses Saddam Hussein's Rise To Power And How Iraq Should Be Governed In The Event That The U.S. Goes To War With Iraq

Morning Edition: February 13, 2003

Iraq's History


Saddam Hussein has been the most powerful man in Iraq for three decades. Charles Tripp is author of "The History of Iraq," and a professor of Near and Middle Eastern studies at the University of London. He says Saddam Hussein rose to power using a family connection.

Professor CHARLES TRIPP (University of London): His relative, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, president of Iraq, came to power himself in 1968 in a coup d'etat, and it was thanks to him and his promotion of Saddam Hussein, his younger relative, that Saddam Hussein managed to get into the highest echelons of power and eventually took over.

EDWARDS: And what was Saddam Hussein's position at that time?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, he was on the Revolutionary Command Council, but more important, Ahmad hassan al-Bakr had put him in charge of all the intelligence operations of the Ba'ath Party, put him on the Security Committee, put him on the military committee, and also, of course, had left it up to him to organize the party in the streets as a kind of militia. So he was very well placed to know exactly who was doing what to whom and where the weak spots were, who were the main enemies that needed to be eliminated.

EDWARDS: And when did he become president?

Prof. TRIPP: He became president in 1979. I mean, he'd effectively been the most powerful man in Iraq since about 1973-'74. But in 1979, there was the revolution in Iran, and this threw Iraq, and particularly the Ba'ath Party, into considerable consternation, partly because, of course, 60 percent of the Iraq population are Shias. They're Arab, but still, there was a fear that the call of an Islamic republic across the border would lead to mass disaffection. And it was felt by many, not just by Saddam Hussein, that Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr's hand on the tiller was a bit weak, and therefore, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr was persuaded to retire on grounds of ill health, and Saddam Hussein became president.

EDWARDS: And did tribal affiliations play a role in Saddam's success?

Prof. TRIPP: To some degree, in the sense that Saddam Hussein and Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, many of the people around him came from the al-Bu Nasir, which is a tribal grouping around Takrit in northern Iraq. And many of the people who are in charge of the special security organizations, the intelligence services, are not only from his direct family, which one might expect, but also from the al-Bu Nasir. They form many of the recruits, in fact, for the special Republican Guard, which is the core of the regime's protection service.

EDWARDS: And his party, what is it about?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, the Arab Ba'ath Party was a party that emerged, in fact, in Syria and Lebanon in the 1940s. It's an Arab nationalist party, a party that believe rather romantically that the Arab nation stretches from the Atlantic to the Gulf, as they put it, and should therefore inhabit one single state. I think this was never very practical, but it certainly appealed to many young Arab nationalists who were deeply feed up, not only the old colonial order, but also with many of the rulers who'd been put in charge by the colonial powers.

EDWARDS: How has it changed since he became the leader?

Prof. TRIPP: Well, the main change, of course, is the fact that Saddam Hussein didn't want lots of Arab nationalists or indeed Arab socialists telling him what to do, so he didn't want to feel that his style was going to be cramped. He's a much more pragmatic and some would say ruthless leader. He wanted, basically, a party that would follow what he said. To that end, he purged the party very bloodily of the Arab nationalist ideologues, of the socialist ideologues and left the party a kind of hollowed-out core or instrument of social control that he himself uses to make sure that people are obedient to his commands. He said rather openly and frankly, `Ba'athism is, from now on, whatever I say it is,' and that was said in the 1980s. And I think that's remained the case ever since.

EDWARDS: What would you see happening if there is regime change in Baghdad?

Prof. TRIPP: There are two possibilities. Clearly, one is that Saddam Hussein be finished off by people within Iraq before American forces invade the country, in which case one has a strong sense that the people who displace Saddam will be doing it not because they love democracy, but because of questions of self-preservation. And so a regime not unlike that of Saddam Hussein will reproduce itself. The other possibility is, of course, that America invades and sets up a military government of its down, and under the auspices of that, claims to restructure Iraq. And I think that there are so many question marks hanging over that one that I think two major possibilities emerge. One is, of course, that the Americans and the United Nations stay there for a very long time and basically reorder Iraqi politics. The other possibility is that the Americans will not want to see their troops in Iraq for years and years and will do some kind of deal, whereby they hand over power to somebody who can keep the country together, keep the oil flowing, keep social order. And unfortunately, as many of my Iraqi friends point out, that tends to again favor somebody who has come out of the same kind of security culture that produced Saddam Hussein.

EDWARDS: Charles Tripp is author of "The History of Iraq," and a professor at The School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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