According to the Iranian media, the seventh year of the war was again to be the “decisive year.” For Iraq it was a year of more “achievements and victories” under the leadership of the “militant leader.” On March 21,1987, the Persian New Year, Saddam Hussein brought thousands of demonstrators to the streets of Baghdad to celebrate the end of the “decisive year” without an Iraqi defeat. Perhaps he was not aware that in Tehran they date the war years from September to September. Then again, to celebrate not being defeated yet as a victory is typical of the demagogy in which the Iraqi leadership indulges. It reveals, moreover, that the most favorable outcome the regime can envisage is to withstand Iranian assaults until Tehran is exhausted or until the big powers intervene to force a halt to the hostilities.

Since 1983, it has been clear that, barring an Iraqi collapse, Iran would not end the war unless it were subject to serious international pressure. Hence 1987 might prove to have been Saddam Hussein’s lucky year. He worked hard to internationalize the war after his troops were routed from Iranian territory in 1982. Now he can console himself that the “forgotten war” is no longer so, thanks to Iranian intransigence and to his strategy combining attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf, escalation of the war against civilian targets and use of chemical weapons.

This is Saddam’s only recourse. In spite of Iraq’s overwhelming arms superiority, his army seriously lacks morale. One indication of this is that Iran holds now around 75,000 prisoners of war, as against no more than 10,000 POWs in Iraq. In addition, several thousand Iraqis have deserted the military and have taken refuge in the marshy regions in the south or joined the partisan movement organized by the Communists and the Kurdish nationalist parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iran’s growing aggressiveness and insistence on invading and occupying more Iraqi territory has alarmed most Iraqis. But this has still not enabled Saddam to win credibility as “defender of the homeland.” Iraqis remember too well how the Iraqi army plundered the Iranian city of Khorramshahr. They have not forgotten Saddam’s declared intent to divide Iran, or his unilateral abrogation of the 1975 treaty with Iran. Besides, Saddam’s meddling in the minute details of military campaigns, coupled with the institution of fayaliq al-‘iqab (punishment corps) in the rear lines to execute military commanders who perform poorly, has made it safer for Iraqis to surrender to the Iranians or to desert.

This was the military situation when Saddam tried to gain leverage against the Iranians with a strategy of “moving defense.” Under this strategy, Iraqi forces occupied the Iranian town of Mehran. Not surprisingly, the Iranians overran the Iraqi forces a few weeks later and forced them to surrender. The “strategy” ended in a one sentence Iraqi communique which stated that “our brave armed forces have decided to evacuate the Mehran area.”

The Baath regime had been working overtime to convince its Arab allies that Baghdad remains their key defender against the Iranians. This left Baghdad with no option but to revive its effort to recruit external intervention. This at least was the scenario advanced by “senior officials” of the Iraqi Baath. The war will end, they confided to Robert Fisk of The Times (London) in August 1986, “when the Iranians capture Basra.” “The fall of Basra,” they argued,

would drastically alter the map of the Middle East…. The Americans would re-inforce their five-unit task force in the Gulf, sail to the north-western corner and threaten military intervention if both sides did not return to their respective sides of the international frontier. The Iraqis would thus regain Basra and retake possession of the Fao peninsula. The withdrawal of the Iranians would provide the Iraqis with their victory. Iran would have lost the war because Saddam Hussein would remain in power. [1]

The Iranians breached Iraqi defenses around Basra in January 1987. The threat to Iraq’s second major city was so grave that it would have been logical to anticipate that the Iraqi leadership would arm and mobilize the people to defend their town, especially since the Iranians do not utilize sophisticated weapons. After all, this was what the Iranians had done in Khorramshahr. In fact, the Iraqi command allowed civilians to evacuate their homes, reversing an earlier policy of obliging civilians to stay put.

“Worthless Pockets”

Senior Iraqi officials, including Saddam Hussein, proceeded to minimize the scale of the latest humiliation. Bad news for the Iraqi regime is no news. The territory occupied around Basra was proclaimed “worthless pockets” which the invaders were allowed to occupy, the better in which to crush them. The Iranians have accumulated by now a good quantity of these “worthless pockets” — the Fao peninsula, eastern Basra and the Majnoun Islands, in addition to some hundreds of square kilometers in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now that the United Nations Security Council is busy discussing how to put an end to the war and President Reagan’s gunboat diplomacy is gaining momentum, the question that arises is whether ending the war and maintaining Saddam’s regime are two compatible objectives, from domestic, regional and international points of view.

Saddam has been doing his utmost to prove to the Western countries and Japan that his survival is essential to any guarantee that Iraq will pay its debts or allow them access to the Iraqi market in the future. To his Arab allies, he presents himself as their champion whose fall would lead to their inevitable collapse. Finally, he has demonstrated to the Iraqi big bourgeoisie that under his rule they can reap tremendous profits even during the gloomy war years.

On the other hand, it seems that preserving the status quo may be too costly, if it is possible at all. Saddam’s more influential allies in the region, notably the Saudi rulers, have signalled the Iranians their willingness to disengage themselves from Saddam — if a compromise can be reached that will not open the way to a radical change in Iraq’s socioeconomic orientation.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two staunch American allies, have such a strong influence on Iraq that they can force Saddam to his knees. Iraq’s cumulative debt to Saudi Arabia is generally estimated in the region of $40-$50 billion. Besides, Iraq has been lifting 310,000 barrels per day of Saudi and Kuwaiti oil since 1982, keeping the sales proceeds as financial aid. The bulk of Iraqi imports passes through Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Most decisively, virtually all Iraqi oil exports pass through Saudi Arabian or Turkish pipelines and ports. With oil comprising more than 60 percent of Iraq’s gross domestic product and oil revenues providing more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, these two countries could easily cripple the Iraqi economy.

Turkish intervention in Iraqi politics goes back even further than the agreement with the Iraqi government which Baghdad made public in 1984. When Kenan Evren, then the chief of staff of the Turkish armed forces, visited Iraq in 1978, rumor had it that the two sides had signed a mutual security pact. [2] Since May 1983 Turkey has launched at least three major military campaigns inside Iraqi territory. On all these occasions they were met with fierce resistance by Kurdish fighters and other partisans.

Turkish authorities insist that their campaigns are defensive, directed against Kurdish guerrillas with Turkish nationality who take refuge in Iraqi territory. The official Iraqi declaration of 1984 revealing the agreement tells another story. According to this declaration, the two governments have agreed “on a set of arrangements to face the terrorist acts committed by destructive elements…that extended their hands to the foreigners at a time when our country is facing the Iranian racist aggression.” [3] It is clear that these “elements” are not Turks. Paradoxically, the fear of Iraqi opposition groups has led the Iraqi regime to extend its hands to “the foreigners.”

While Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran have divergent views on who should replace Saddam, they nevertheless share a common attitude towards the radical secular Iraqi opposition movement. The Iranians have not even tried to maintain a relationship of pragmatic coexistence with this movement. They have pursued the shah’s strategy of trying to turn the Kurdish nationalist movement in Iraq into shock troops for the invading Iranian troops in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iranians, it must be said, no longer take the possibility of strict Islamist rule in Iraq seriously. Withering Iranian dreams of achieving a clear-cut victory, the rapid deterioration of the popular base of the Islamist movement in Iraq and the multiplicity of the Iraqi Islamist parties and organizations, in addition to unfavorable regional and international circumstances, all led the Iranians to such a conclusion.

The Kurdish Opposition

Since 1984, the Iranians have gained new allies among the Iraqi opposition organizations. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, rival to the influential Kurdistani Democratic Party (which has collaborated with Iran since 1980) and to the Communist Party, suddenly decided to end contacts with the Iraqi regime and itself became an ally of the Islamic Republic. PUK leaders, notably Jalal Talabani, had earlier tried to convince Iraqi authorities that they could liquidate the partisan movement in Iraqi Kurdistan if the Baath regime would recognize them as the main political force there. To prove their goodwill, the PUK massacred 80 Communists in May 1983. The Iraqi government, facing a host of problems, was anxious to find someone who could render such service, but the idea of sharing power with other political forces is totally alien to Baathist mentality in general and Saddam’s disposition in particular. After two years of cooperation, the Baathists thought it was time to force more concessions out of Talabani. Since 1984 he has been branded as a collaborator with the enemy and his bridges with the secular opposition burned.

The PUK turned out to be eminently pragmatic. Talabani went to Tehran, engaged in self-criticism at a press conference and announced that he had put himself under the guidance of the Islamic Revolution. Militarily Iran gained the support of a local partisan group that could facilitate their troops’ penetration of the area. No less important was the political gain: no longer could they be accused of imposing a fundamentalist Islamic regime on the Iraqi people, now that a non-Islamist organization had proclaimed support for their war.

This provided the opportune moment for the “Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq,” a coalition of Iranian-sponsored Iraqi organizations, mostly Shi‘i Muslim, to hold a congress “to discuss the future of Iraq.” Iraq’s Communists boycotted the December 1986 congress on the grounds that such an activity should neither be supervised nor attended by representatives of foreign states, nor be convened on Iranian territory.

The PUK controlled some strategic routes from Kurdistan to southern Iraq. The PUK’s affiliation with Tehran thus eased tensions and contributed to the effectiveness of the partisans in the first half of 1987. The PUK, the KDP and the Communists signed a non-aggression pact, declaring a truce in the use of armed force to settle disputes. For the first time the partisans could enter a major city like Erbil, where they organized a public meeting with the students of the university and urged them to demonstrate. Later in the same city, they shelled the headquarters of the intelligence forces and attacked official buildings. In a dozen smaller towns, demonstrators joined the partisans in combatting army units.

How significant were these operations? Saddam Hussein for many years evaded any allusion to internal opposition to his regime. In a public speech in June 1987, he confessed the presence of “a handful of bandits hiding in the mountains…whom we know. And we also know that they have a broadcasting station.” He boasted that “we can uproot them whenever we decide.” [4]

Five days before this speech, the Iraqi army launched an attack described by US diplomats as “the widest and fiercest military offensive that the Iraqi government has made against the Kurdish region for ten years.” [5] On June 5th, seven fighters signalled the start of the offensive by shelling the region with chemical weapons for the third time since 1986.

Whether the opposition movement can score additional successes depends on a host of factors, not the least of which is its ability to develop a common stand vis-à-vis the contending parties and above all Iran. This problem is crucial. Up till now, some parties have insisted that ending the war does not serve the cause of overthrowing the Iraqi regime. They place their hopes on an Iranian military victory to rid them of Saddam. Other forces, notably the Communists, hold the two tasks of ending the war and overthrowing the regime as equally important. In their view, changing the regime is one of the “internal affairs of the Iraqi people,” best served through “formulating the most precise program and slogans” around which to mobilize people to fight to end the war and “punish those who waged it.” [6]

The opposition movement, it must be said, is fragmented. This and the brutal repression of the regime has limited its ability to organize people. It goes without saying that none of the regional powers who can influence the course of events in Iraq would welcome a leftist secular alternative to Saddam’s regime.

Economic Crisis

Iraq’s debts to Western Europe, Japan and the US run at around $14 billion, plus some $12 billion in military debts. Iraq owes around $40-50 billion to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Baghdad has been striving to reschedule payments due in 1987 of about $1.5 to $2 billion. If that effort succeeds, additional sources must still be found to finance Iraq’s minimum civilian imports of around $7-8 billion plus some $6-7 billion for military imports and about $3.5 billion for hard currency remittances of foreign workers in Iraq.

Increased capacity of oil exporting pipelines have allowed Iraq to exceed its OPEC quota by around 700,000 barrels per day, an achievement that clashes directly with the interests of Saddam’s financial patrons in the Gulf. If the regime can go on exporting at the present level of around two million barrels a day, this will still yield only $12 billion, leaving a deficit of about $6-7 billion. The most acute economic bottleneck is the labor force. The armed forces account for more than 650,000 men. Another 60,000 are dead, 75,000 captured; many more have been injured; there are thousands of deserters and around 300,000 deported or forced to emigrate. Iraq’s labor force of less than four million has thus suffered a real hemorrhage. Now that economic conditions are worsening, many foreign workers are no longer attracted to Iraq.

To overcome this constriction, Saddam came out with a draconian solution. On March 11,1987, he called together the leaders of the state-controlled federation of trade unions. He startled them with his decision to abolish their unions, the labor code of 1970 and the law on pensions and social security. Eight days later the Revolutionary Command Council, the non-accountable body which has ruled Iraq since 1968, passed a law that prohibits state workers from organizing in trade unions. The regime’s propaganda praised the “great achievement” that “transformed the so-called class struggle in Iraq to a positive and constructive one,” [7] while equalizing the status of state laborers with that of civil servants. Saddam made sure that everybody got the message: “the purpose is plain. It is to increase production…for example, we want 12 hours of work every day. We’ll say everybody works 12 hours per day and there would not be people that work 8 hours.” [8]

These changes give the state bureaucracy a free hand in exploiting the workers by excluding them from the Labor Code that regulates the length of the workday and gives workers the right to choose their place of work. These steps went hand in hand with increasing privatization of the economy. The state farms, the last signs of the state’s presence in agriculture, are being leased to private investors, petrol stations are to be sold or leased, and some state factories have already been handed over to private capitalists. [9]

The ruling elite is doing its best to keep the effects of the economic crisis away from its social base, the big bourgeoisie. Ironically, the state is trying to boost the local construction sector at the expense of the fleeing international companies. Austerity measures did not prevent the government from going ahead with its plans to construct an Olympic village, giving the local consultants and contractors the option of forming associations with international firms. According to informed reports, “about 12 such groups were formed.” [10]

Who Guards the Guardian?

A prosperous but narrow social base cannot guarantee the stability of a regime facing such serious challenges. Iran insists on the overthrow of Saddam. Saudi Arabia is desperate to see the war end in a way that preserves as much as possible of the status quo. Opposition in Iraq to Saddam’s regime is mounting. Relations with Syria are tense. The economic scene is bleak.

A dilemma faces those looking for a limited change that keeps the regime intact. The regime has been so heavily stamped with Saddam’s personality cult that it is hard to imagine the Baath system without him. Saddam, sensing various moves to depose him, has systematically liquidated any potential opponent or alternative. In 1979, he applied this procedure first against those senior leaders who preferred not to choose him as a successor to deposed ex-president Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr. Then he executed 21 senior officials on spurious charges that they were organizing a coup d’etat against him. Three years later, some of his loyal colleagues advised him to step down temporarily and to hand the nominal presidency back to al-Bakr to satisfy the Iranian intransigence. A few weeks later al-Bakr “died” in a car accident.

Things have not gone smoothly for Saddam since then. A year later there was the crisis which led to the ousting and home arrest of Saddam’s half-brothers Barzan, Sab’awi and Watban, who held senior posts in the intelligence and security apparatus. Here was an instance of people belonging to the “ruling clan” overcoming these ties in favor of class interests when they sensed that the regime itself had been at risk. A close relative of Saddam, Major-General ‘Umar al-Hazza, was executed in July 1986 on the charge that he was involved in an attempt to assassinate the president. Another senior leader, Na‘im Haddad, is rumored to have been executed in the same case.

The extraordinary session of the Baath party congress, convened soon after the events of July 1986, witnessed the rise of new leaders closely connected to Saddam. One is Adnan Khairallah, Minister of Defense and Saddam’s cousin and brother-in-law. Another is ‘Ali Hasan al-Majeed, Saddam’s first cousin and director of security forces, now promoted to the leadership of the party. Last April, al-Majeed assumed the post of general military commander in Iraqi Kurdistan, with unrestrained authority to move military troops, direct intelligence forces and supervise the Baath party organizations in the region. Saddam’s two sons currently figure prominently in the official newspapers; perhaps they are being prepared for senior posts in the state or the party apparatus. Saddam’s half brother has been pardoned and returned to the scene. Barzan is rumored to have reassumed the post of chief of the notorious intelligence service.

The Left’s Dilemma

One reason for the tragic lack of morale among Iraqis today is that they have been led to believe that they have to choose between two barbaric alternatives: an Islamic republic or Saddam Hussein’s rule. The regime in Baghdad thinks that, faced with such a dilemma, Iraqis will rise up to defend its survival. But clannish politics is not secular politics, and obscurantism is not a feature of religious rule only.

Does the secular left opposition see the collapse of Saddam at this point to be in their interest? The left has confronted this question, but from a different angle. Is Saddam’s survival in the interest of any Iraqi patriot? Is he capable of extracting Iraq from this war? Does his complicity with the Turkish penetration of Iraqi territory and his silence about Iranian occupation of Iraqi land lend credibility to his sincerity in defending Iraq?

In fact, the left is not likely to be the decisive factor influencing Saddam’s collapse. The question is, what will their strategy be when and if his rule collapses. The question will then be how to fight for national sovereignty, which neither Saddam nor the Iranians are keen to preserve. It will be a struggle for an independent and democratic Iraq. The problem is not secularism vs. obscurantism but rather democracy vs. tyranny, despotism and dictatorship.



[1] Robert Fisk, “Why Saddam’s days could be numbered,” The Times, August 29,1986.
[2] The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1981-1982 (London, 1982).
[3] Declaration of the Iraqi Minister of Information, Al-Thawra, October 25,1984.
[4] Al-Thawra, June 11, 1987.
[5] The Voice of America (Arabic Broadcast), June 11,1987.
[6] ‘Aziz Mohammed, Secretary General of the Iraqi Communist Party, Al-Thaqafa al-Jadida (monthly organ of the party), January 1987.
[7] Al-Thawra, March 13, 1987.
[8] Al-Thawra, March 11, 1987.
[9] Press conference of the Minister of Agriculture, Al-Thawra, May 5,1987. Also see Al-Thawra, May 21,1987.
[10] Middle East Economic Digest, January 24,1986.

How to cite this article:

Isam al-Khafaji "Iraq’s Seventh Year," Middle East Report 151 (March/April 1988).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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