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The Military Coup of 1968


After 'Arif took control in 1963, the Ba'th Party was forced underground and began to make sweeping changes in its leadership and strategy in order to recapture power. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr became secretary of the Regional Command of the Ba'th Party in 1964. He was assisted in reorganizing the party by Saddam Hussein, who had participated in the attempt on Qasim's life in 1959. Saddam Hussein proved instrumental in rallying civilian Ba'thist support for al-Bakr. A premature attempt to seize power in September 1964 led to the imprisonment of the principal Ba'th leaders, including al-Bakr and Saddam Hussein. In 1965 al-Bakr was released because of illness, and in 1966 Saddam Hussein escaped.

On July 17, 1968, the government was overthrown by the army. The reasons given by Ba'th--the corruption of the 'Arif regime, Kurdish disturbances in the north, the government's failure to support other Arab countries in the Six-Day War of 1967--were only circumstantial. The root cause was that the 'Arif regime, because it had not held popular elections, had failed to attain legitimacy and had become completely dependent on military support. Thus, when the Ba'th Party persuaded a few officers in key positions to abandon the regime, the fate of the 'Arif government was sealed.

Four officers agreed to cooperate with the Ba'th Party. These were Colonel 'Abd ar-Razzaq an-Nayif, head of military intelligence, Colonel Ibrahim 'Abd ar-Rahman ad-Da'ud, chief of the Republican Guard, Colonel Sa'dun Ghaydan Colonel Hammad Shihab. The first two agreed to cooperate on condition that an-Nayif would be the new premier and ad-Da'ud the minister of defense. The Ba'th Party accepted this arrangement as a means to achieve power but intended to bridle them at the earliest possible moment, having little confidence in their loyalty.

On the morning of July 17, 1968, President 'Arif's palace was stormed by Ba'thist officers led by al-Bakr; Colonel Ghaydan had opened the gate for them. 'Arif was awakened and informed that the army had revolted. He immediately surrendered and agreed to leave the country. He went to London and then to Istanbul, where he lived in retirement. Almost 20 years later he returned to live in Baghdad. The first act of the new regime was to establish the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), which assumed supreme authority. The RCC elected al-Bakr president of the republic, and he invited an-Nayif to form a Cabinet. Al-Bakr was not interested in administrative details, and as he grew older and his health deteriorated he began to depend more heavily on Saddam Hussein to carry out the business of government.

Almost immediately a struggle for power arose between the Ba'th and Nayif-Da'ud group, ostensibly over socialism and foreign policy but in fact over which of the two groups was to control the regime. On July 30, 1968, an-Nayif was invited to lunch at the presidential palace. After the meal, Saddam Hussein entered with a group of armed officers and told an-Nayif he was under arrest. It was agreed that an-Nayif's life would be spared if he left the country, and he was sent to Morocco as ambassador. Ad-Da'ud, who was then on a mission to Jordan, was instructed to remain there.

This bloodless coup, which did not cause any disturbances in Iraq, cleared the way for the Ba'th Party to control the regime. Al-Bakr assumed the premiership in addition to the presidency. Most Cabinet posts were given to Ba'th leaders. Sympathizers of the Nayif-Da'ud group were removed, and a number of civil servants considered unfriendly to the regime were retired or relieved of duty.

The Interim Constitution was issued on Sept. 21, 1968. It provided for an essentially presidential system composed of the RCC, Cabinet, and National Assembly. Until the National Assembly was called, the RCC exercised both executive and legislative powers. The Ba'th Party, already highly organized, began to infiltrate and influence almost all national organizations.

Disturbances in the Kurdish area and several attempts to overthrow the regime kept the Ba'th leaders preoccupied and prevented them from launching planned social and economic programs. The attempts to overthrow the regime were suppressed without difficulty, but the Kurdish problem proved more complicated.

Even before the Ba'th Party achieved power, the Kurdish question had been discussed in several meetings of the Ba'th National and Regional Commands. However, in late 1968, fighting between the Kurds and the Iraqi army began once again and escalated to full-scale war. With military aid provided by Iran, the Kurds were able to pose a serious threat to the Ba'th regime. By early 1970, negotiations between the Ba'th leaders, the Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani, and the leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party were under way. The government agreed to officially recognize the Kurds as a "national" group entitled to a form of autonomous status called self-rule. This would eventually lead to the establishment of a provincial administrative council and an assembly to deal with Kurdish affairs. This was proclaimed in the Manifesto of March 11, 1970, to come into effect in 1974, following a census to determine the frontiers of the area in which the Kurds formed the majority of the population.

On April 9, 1972, Iraq and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship. The two countries agreed to cooperate in political, economic, and military affairs. The Soviet Union also agreed to supply Iraq with arms.

To strengthen the Ba'th regime, two important steps were taken: the conflict with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), which had arisen after the revolution of 1958, was reconciled; and the National Progressive Front was established to provide legitimacy to the regime by enlisting the support of other political parties. Since the March Manifesto had established a basis for settlement of the Kurdish problem, Kurdish political parties were willing to participate in the National Progressive Front. The ICP had also shown interest. A Charter for National Action, prepared by the Ba'th Party, was published in the press for public discussion. It became the basis for cooperation with the ICP and other parties.

In March 1972, Ba'thist and ICP leaders met to discuss the content of the charter and express their views about basic principles such as socialism, democracy, and economic development. A statute was drawn up expressing the principles agreed upon as the basis for cooperation among the parties of the front. It also provided for a 16-member central executive committee, called the High Committee, and a secretariat. The front officially came into existence in 1973.

In 1973-74, negotiations with al-Barzani and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) to implement the March Manifesto failed. The census promised in the March Manifesto had not been taken, and al-Barzani and the KDP refused to accept the Ba'thist determination of the borders of the Kurdish area, which excluded the oil-rich Kirkuk province. Nevertheless, on March 11, 1974, the Ba'th regime proceeded to implement its own plan for self-rule, establishing a provincial council and an assembly in cooperation with Kurdish leaders who were opposed to al-Barzani's militant approach.

The Kurdish war started in March 1974. Al-Barzani's decision to go to war with the Ba'th government seems to have been made with the support of the shah of Iran, who sought to pressure Iraq to alter the water frontier in the Shatt al-'Arab to the thalweg, or median line of the river. (Under the terms of the 1937 treaty, the boundary was set at the low-water mark on the Iranian side, giving Iraq control of the shipping channel.) The shah stopped his assistance to al-Barzani when the Ba'th regime agreed to negotiate with him about the Shatt al-'Arab boundary.

The shah and Saddam Hussein met in Algiers in March 1975, and they came to an agreement quickly. Saddam Hussein agreed that the thalweg would be the boundary in the Shatt al-'Arab, and the shah promised to stop his assistance to the Kurds. On the basis of the Algiers Agreement, the foreign ministers of Iraq and Iran met in Baghdad on June 13, 1975, and signed an elaborate treaty embodying the settlement of all disputes relating to frontiers between the two countries. This agreement virtually ended the Kurdish war.

Relations between the Ba'th regime and the ICP deteriorated after 1975. Ba'th policies were openly criticized in the communist press. Many communists were arrested, and by 1979 most of the principal ICP leaders had left Iraq. The absence of communist representation deprived the front of an opposition party that often voiced dissent on fundamental issues. Iraq's other opposition parties also were forced underground.


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