The 1979 Saddam Hussein coup d'état in Iraq

History Jul 22, 2021 4 min read

Exactly 42 years ago, on July 22, 1979, vice-president of Saddam Hussein staged a coup and took over the reins from President Hassan al-Bakr. Saddam justified this purge based on a perceived conspiracy organized by the left military wing of the Baath-Party interested in unifying Iraq with Syria at the expense of Iraq. The pro- Iraq-Syria unity segment of this party was declared as treacherous and Saddam ordered that they should be executed.

The year 1979 was, however, more importantly, the year that Egypt normalized with Israel after Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Egypt gave up its leadership position over the Arab world and the main supporter of the Palestinian liberation struggle. A power vacuum emerged in the Arab world creating renewed chaos as the competition for new leadership for the liberation of Palestine and the Arab world opened up. Additionally, since Israel no longer had to fight on two fronts, it turned, with renewed aggression towards Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Especially Iraq was seen as threatening for Israel because of its nuclear weapon program. In 1981 Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin March 1979

Politics became highly existential in the year 1979 in Iraq. No longer was the Baath party interested in collaborating with the Communist party under the Soviet supported national progressive front of the 1970s. Nor was the Baath party interested in trying to integrate the Shia peasant class into Iraq’s political economy anymore, or accommodating identity-based movements of minorities in the north. While negotiation between the government and Iraq’s different groups from time to time was on the table in the 1970s, repression of any form of alternative political maneuvering became the norm in the 1980s.

Saddam Hussein and Saudi Prince Fahd Abdul Aziz 1982

The main reason was that the civilian wing of the Baath party believed that the Soviet Union would occupy the north of Iraq (similar to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan). The USSR would then the Iraqi Communist party overtake power in Baghdad and mobilize the Shia of the south against the Baath party. Therefore, Saddam decided to partly privatize the Iraqi economy, distance Iraq from the Soviet bloc in international politics, and occupy the Iraqi Shia working class and the various non-Arab minorities with a war against Iran. Of course this has also a lot to do with anxieties surrounding the increased power of Saudi Arabian and Gulf capital. The Arab gulf countries tremendously benefited from increased oil prices and allowed them to threaten Arab republics such as Iraq, Syria, Egypt and more.

Saddam was attempting to preempt this Gulf threat by accommodating Saudi interests. The amplified repression of Islamic movements in Iraq was part of this renewed “Arab unity” as well, making sure that the Iraqi Shia masses were exhausted and occupied with survival by instrumentalizing the Iran-Iraq war against them.

To break the class power of the Iraqi working class, guest-laborers from all over the Arab world were employed. This also helped to spread Saddam’s leadership ideology over the rest of Arab world. Meanwhile, the Baath party allocated economic development funds to the weapon industry, while also extensively buying up weapons and weaponized chemical capabilities from France and other Western countries using them then against Kurds and Iranians. Additionally, the Iraqi secret service was professionalized and increased in its ability to monitor schools, unions, religious institutions, the Dawa party and the Communist party. Of course, for some segments of the Iraqi population, especially Iraq’s rising business class and the urbanized elite this was a time of great privilege and power.

Saddam Hussein and Vice-Chairman Izzat al-Duri

In the 1990s Saddam’s entourage realized that it had no use to accommodate the Gulf or the West, but Saddam already played his role as a mediator for the transition to a post-Soviet middle East dominated by American capital and hegemony. In Saddam’s many reflections in the 1990s he often expressed this realization by saying that the Iran-Iraq war was a mistake and he tried to improve relations with Iran. By the end of the 1990s the Iran-Iraq relationship was accelerating.

It seems that after 1991, for the USA and their allies in the middle east, it was time to get rid of Saddam, first through sanctions and then a full blown occupation. Years later Iraq’s fight against American imperialism is still ongoing.

Further readings:

Franzen, Johan. Pride and Power: A Modern History of Iraq. Hurst & Company, 2021.

Abdullah, Thabit AJ. Dictatorship, imperialism and chaos: Iraq since 1989. Zed Books, 2006.

Khoury, Dina Rizk. Iraq in wartime: soldiering, martyrdom, and remembrance. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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