Sharp: By the early 1950s a teenaged Saddam was demonstrating against the government. Like countless other Iraqis, he was expressing a general sense of resentment against British colonial rule and Iraq's domination by rich landowners. Pan-Arabism was also on the rise---the movement to bring Arab states together into one big nation. In 1958 a revolution overthrew Iraq's British-backed monarchy. The change ushered in a chaotic and violent decade. By this time Saddam Hussein had joined the pan-Arabist Baath Party. In 1959 he and fellow Baathists tried to assassinate Iraq's new military leader General Abdel Karim Kassem. The attempt failed and Saddam Hussein was forced to flee the country. Four years later he came back, just after the Baathists did manage to kill Kassem.
They showed their ruthless side, parading the general's bullet-riddled body on television. But the Baathists were thrown out of power nine months later. The years after this, the mid-60's, were critical ones for Saddam Hussein. He linked up with his one of his uncle's cousins, now high up in the Baath Party. Historian Charles Tripp says Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr and his young sidekick made quite a team.
Tripp: "Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr was very much an old style regimental officer. And Saddam Hussein was not an officer, was not in the army, but was an excellent "street organizer" I think is the phrase often used euphemistically which meant someone who could organize the beating up of opponents, demonstrations, street violence, who had his ear to the ground in ways that Ahmad Hasan al Bakr couldn't."
Sharp: The Baath Party returned to power for good in 1968. Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr became president. Saddam Hussein quickly emerged as his right hand man. And he turned out to be more than just a party thug. He was also methodical, and politically astute. He took over the state security apparatus. Then he and Bakr began to eliminate their rivals. Some were executed, some were shipped off to diplomatic posts, some were simply outmanoeuvered. Even as they consolidated their power, the Baathist leaders were intent on modernizing their country. And shaking off foreign influence.
Excerpt from President Bakr's Oil Speech 1972: "...Patriots and progressives, in the Arab homeland and in the entire world, in waging decisive battle against the oil monopolies our revolution is taking forward positions in face-to-face clashes with imperialism and its monopolies, to carry out an honorable patriotic and national duty..."
Sharp: President Bakr announced the nationalization of the Iraqi oil industry in 1972. His message was "Arab Oil for the Arabs." A year later fuel prices shot up. Iraq's oil revenues quadrupled. The Baathist regime poured its new money into the military, but also into education and infrastructure. Roads were built, villages electrified, literacy campaigns launched. Iraq became a modern, urban state with a substantial middle class. But if Iraq was modernizing on the surface, behind the scenes something far more primitive was unfolding. Saddam Hussein turned out to be merciless in his quest for power. In 1979 he made his move on his old patron, Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. Hussein forced his relative to resign and took over the presidency himself. No sooner had he done so than he purged the party's Revolutionary Command Council. Hussein announced the discovery of a plot against himself and the Baathist regime. Then he held a kind of show trial, which he videotaped. The footage shows party members gathered in a large auditorium. Saddam Hussein is on stage, smoking a cigar. The alleged plot leader confesses his crime. Then he reads out the names of his supposed co-conspirators. As their names are called out they are led from the hall to be arrested and shot. Members of the audience shout out their allegiance to Saddam Hussein...
Archival Audio of 1979 Meeting
Tripp: "You notice the mounting hysteria as nobody knows quite who's name is going to be called out next. And so of course this means that the survivors cheer even more frenziedly for Saddam Hussein. It's a very chilling documentary. But Saddam Hussein wanted that to be seen. This was an exercise of power which he would use to impress upon the surviving Baathists in Iraq that he had absolute control over their lives and deaths."
Kanan Makiya: " The whole thing is like theatre except it happens to be real."
Sharp: Kanan Makiya is a prominent Iraqi writer and dissident. He's also seen the footage---and researched what happened next.
Makiya: "And when the firing squad is assembled to execute these so-called traitors who does he use but the remaining members of the Revolutionary Command Council and his own ministers and so on to implicate them in a sense in his own rise to power. Because that is the event upon which he cements his own presidency."
Sharp: By this point any political ideology Saddam Hussein once adhered to seemed to have vanished. Fear became the key to his rule. Historian Phebe Marr says Pan-Arabism had given way to Saddamism.
Marr: "This is a one-man regime, it's more of a personal dictatorship in which we find the cult of Saddam. And yes it's in the name of the Baath Party and yes there's some kind of ideology but the ideology is whatever Saddam says it is."