"In 1968, Iraq had a weak president who was beholden to Nasser, a follower of Nasser. But the defeat of [the Arabs by Israel] in 1967 meant that whatever government was in power when that defeat took place had to go. So the Ba'ath saw an opportunity in this and they thought the time has come for them to take over the country again. The background was extremely interesting. There were two things happening within Iraq at that time. They were developing their own oil and very close to giving the concessions for huge new oil fields, to the USSR and France. And the price of sulpher had shot up so greatly that they were about to mine the sulpher mines in the north and sell it in the world market.
The United States didn't want either to happen. The United States wanted the oil for American oil companies; they wanted the sulpher for themselves. They thought that if Iraq went to the Soviet Union or France, Iraq would be lost to them. In this they were joined by the Ba'ath Party. The Party used the concessions for oil and sulpher as a bargaining point to endear itself once again to America. And they arrived once again at some kind of an agreement of collaboration between the two sides. On the American side negotiating for both the oil and sulpher was a well-known personality, Robert Anderson, the former secretary of treasury under Eisenhower. He met secretly with the Ba'ath and they agreed that if they took over power these concessions will be given to the United States.
And so once again the United States was in the business of supporting the Ba'ath office for the government of Iraq. The Ba'ath was successful. This time Saddam Hussein played a key role. He was one of the people who donned a military uniform -- though he's not a military man -- and attacked the presidential palace and occupied it. The president, being weak, surrendered immediately. Two weeks after they took over power on the 17th of July 1968, there was what they call "the correction movement." That meant getting rid of the non-Ba'ath elements in the coup, and Saddam was prominent in that. As a matter of fact he held a gun to the head of the prime minister and said, "You're going with me to the airport because you're leaving this country." And the guy pleaded with him, said, "I have family, I have a wife and kids." And Saddam said, "Well as long as you behave, they'll be fine." He took him to the airport, he put him in a plane, he deported him, and of course years after, he assassinated him in front of the Intercontinental Hotel in London. The man couldn't escape him in the long run.
However, the communists are hardly thrown out and not long after, they turn to Saddam, and he personally leads a delegation to Moscow, and there's a development of a relationship between the two. What game was he playing?
Well, alliances of convenience don't last very long. The Ba'ath Party was committed to certain things which American foreign policy could not tolerate. In this particular case it lasted a very short time, really a matter of two weeks. And Saddam got rid of all of the pro-American elements in the government and he asserted his authority on the country. He was not the president. He was the second man, after a relation of his from Tikrit, President Ahmed Bakr. But what happened immediately after that is the things they needed, they couldn't get from the United States anymore. They needed help economically. They needed arms. And the United States were not in the business of openly supplying arms to Arab countries to re-equip themselves for another round of fighting. That was the major issue between the two sides. Saddam knew he could get the arms from Russia and he journeyed to Russia -- this was his first trip outside Iraq, outside of exile of course -- and he got what he wanted. And the alliance of convenience disintegrated as they always do.
So, there was a new alliance, this time with the Soviets.
In 1972, Iraq and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation. They wanted to seal the cooperation taking place between them in a formal alliance. The reason Saddam signed that treaty of friendship and cooperation was because that obligated the local communist party, which was very strong, to cooperate with the Ba'ath Party, which was not so strong at that time.
Of course the Russians loved an opportunity to have a hold on Iraq and they signed the treaty and told the local communist party to join the Iraqi government. That alliance internally did not last very long. But the external one was on and off for a very long time. And the Soviet Union at one point thought Iraq was a more important ally than Egypt. Its army always acquitted itself better than the Egyptian army. It was a wealthy country that didn't need a lot of aid, like Egypt. And it was the gateway to the Gulf, to oil. It represented a more immediate threat to the West's lifeline than Egypt did.
So Saddam in the early '70s is Iraq's vice president. Could you describe how he's already setting up a Stalinist system with control of the government.
In the early '70s, Saddam started out controlling one small department called the Peasants Department; at that time the Ba'ath regime, for a very brief period of time, was committed to installing a democratic system in Iraq. It was a bit of a dream. Came the time for them to assign the job of head of the security system, and no one from the inner circle wanted the job. Everybody says, "This is a dirty job. I don't want it." Young Saddam Hussein raised his hand, and said, "I want the job. I'll take over the security system."
He took over the security system, called it the Department of General Relations and proceeded to expand it. This was his first step towards attaining power.
The president at the time, Ahmed Bakr had been a general, and a very nice man. Quite a religious man too. Saddam was a relation of his. He surrendered everything to Saddam, because Saddam worked an 18-hour day. In no time at all, Saddam was head of security, he was head of the Peasants Department, he was head of relations with the Kurds, he was head of the committee that controlled the oil. He was head of the committee that controlled relations with the Arab countries. He was head of the workers syndicate.
There was a conflict between all these departments that Saddam controlled so tightly and the armed forces -- because the armed forces is the one organization capable of overthrowing government. Saddam proceeded to emasculate the army and place his professional soldier relations from Tikrit in key positions. For example, his brother-in-law became chief of staff of the army. And of course soon enough, like all people who are dictators, who are jealous of the army, he appointed himself general and eventually like Stalin he became field marshal.
So much of what you just described certainly has Stalinist overtones.
Without any doubt everything Saddam did had Stalinist overtones. In particular, the reliance on the security system rather than the armed forces, the jealousy of the generals in the armed forces, the use of criminal elements within the country, and, incorporating them into the security system. And those people were sort of semi-literate thugs whose loyalty was to Saddam, without whom, they were nothing. And so he brought them in, he depended on them, and they did him service. Anybody he wanted to get rid of he got rid of. And the door was wide open.He had two qualities that put him ahead of his colleagues. His ability to work an 18-hour day. Endlessly. And a sense of organization. You didn't see Saddam at three o'clock and miss that appointment by five minutes. Because Saddam would ask you why you are five minutes late, or five minutes early. If you had an appointment with Saddam at three, you showed up at three. That was that. He is that organized. He is that methodical. "