Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq

After a long career as an Iraqi Baՙth Party militant, and after serving as deputy to army strongman Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr following Bakr’s coup in 1968, Saddam Hussein managed to consolidate full power and hold a dictatorial position as Iraq’s president until he was overthrown after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Summary of Event

Saddam Hussein’s political career began in the 1950’s. This period reached a major turning point in July, 1958, when a violent military coup, carried out by a group known as the “Free Officers,” overthrew King Faisal II and proclaimed a republican form of government. Revolutions and coups;Iraq Within a short time, a strongman behind the coup, Abdul Karim Kassem, Kassem, Abdul Karim removed his rivals through arrests, banishment, and violence. Among the groups menaced by Kassem were members of Iraq’s Baՙth, or “Resurrection,” Party, an Arab nationalist group that aimed at unifying all Arab lands under a single secular political system. Iraq;government
Baՙth Party[Bath Party]
[kw]Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq (July 16, 1979)
[kw]Hussein Takes Power in Iraq, Saddam (July 16, 1979)
[kw]Iraq, Saddam Hussein Takes Power in (July 16, 1979)
Baՙth Party[Bath Party]
[g]Middle East;July 16, 1979: Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq[03650]
[g]Iraq;July 16, 1979: Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq[03650]
[c]Government and politics;July 16, 1979: Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq[03650]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 16, 1979: Saddam Hussein Takes Power in Iraq[03650]
Hussein, Saddam
Bakr, Ahmad Hasan al-
Mashhadi, Muhyi Abd al-Hussein

Hussein’s documented participation with the Baՙth Party began when party activists failed to assassinate Kassem, in 1959. Assassinations and attempts;Abdul Karim Kassem[Kassem] Circumstances of Hussein’s involvement in the unsuccessful assassination attempt and his subsequent flight to Egypt to escape arrest remain vague. By the time the Baՙth succeeded in overthrowing Kassem in 1963, however, Hussein had become well known for his tactical skills.

By the mid-1960’s, rifts had occurred that pitted Iraqi Baՙthists against their Syrian Baՙth counterparts, the original founders of the Baՙth Party. This factor contributed to Hussein’s takeover of the Iraqi Baՙth Party by the end of the 1970’s.

Saddam Hussein speaks at a news conference in 1980.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Hussein’s political station in the Iraqi Baՙth Party was elevated dramatically in 1968 when he joined General Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr in the coup that seemed to prove that the Iraqi Baՙthists could prevail over both internal and external enemies. Bakr’s accession to the presidency brought reformation of party discipline, a function to which Hussein seemed well suited.

There were important factors that helped Bakr and Hussein stay in power; the most notable aspect was their apparent dedication to improving Iraq’s economic situation through more effective use of oil revenues. The 1973 war pitting Egypt against Israel in the Suez Canal zone brought an unprecedented increase in international oil prices. In 1975, Baghdad was in a position to invest large amounts of money earned through oil sales into developmental projects. Informed observers agree, however, that the impact of such investments was unequal. In an effort to bolster popular support, government treasury surpluses were used to subsidize basic foodstuffs and to raise both the minimum wage and wages in the state sector. Some tax cuts were also announced.

Effective progress, however, was constantly hampered by Baghdad’s inability to integrate rebellious Kurdish regions into the central political structure.

In the mid-1970’s, until the Algiers Agreement Algiers Agreement (1975) of 1975 stopped substantial Iranian and U.S. support for the Kurds, violent confrontations occurred throughout northern Iraq. After the 1975 agreement, circumstances changed, but the Kurdish problem, in addition to the growing split between Syrian and Iraqi Baՙthists, clearly weakened Bakr’s hold on the presidency. Such factors made the likelihood of another political coup imminent. That likelihood, and Hussein’s dramatic action to thwart it, became a reality by mid-1979.

The first sign that Hussein was preparing to consolidate his power in Iraq was his self-proclaimed promotion in January, 1976, to the rank of general. Such a move, by someone who had never actually served in the military, could only have been accomplished if it were coordinated with calculated coercive methods. In fact, the growing influence of the so-called People’s Militia, the armed branch of the Baՙth Party, helped Hussein in his bid for power. Recruitment to this body was stepped up, making it a potential counterweight to any discontent in the regular army.

Another sources of leverage involved Hussein’s marriage ties and clan linkages to his hometown region near Tikrit. A primary example of this came in 1977 when Colonel Adnan Khairallah, Khairallah, Adnan President Bakr’s son-in-law and brother to Hussein’s wife, assumed the job of minister of defense. Another key job, running the Directorate of Intelligence, came under the control of one of Hussein’s cousins, Saՙdun Shakir. Shakir, Saՙdun Indeed, a clique-based system dominated by Tikritis gave the impression, at least until the late 1970’s, of mutual confidence among members of the inner circle of political control.

Soon the Baՙth Party became the target of political adjustment. In the fall of 1977, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), headed by Bakr and Hussein, declared that the Iraqi Baՙth’s Regional Command—party officials who were expected to coordinate all Baՙthist matters via consultation with the “national command” seated in Syria—would henceforth be considered “ex officio” members of the RCC. This move implied that there would no longer be any distinction between policies of the state and policies of the party.

What began to emerge was forced loyalty to a personality cult based on the figure of Hussein. Anyone who failed to rally around Hussein’s personal leadership risked becoming suspect in the eyes of the regime.

President Bakr’s resignation announcement on July 16, 1979, followed by the immediate succession of Hussein, was a sign that almost all Iraqi political cadres should brace for a possible purge. The first major sign of what was to come occurred when Muhyi Abd al-Hussein Mashhadi, secretary-general of the Baՙth Party, was replaced by someone closer to Hussein’s personal entourage.

By the end of July, the full brunt of Hussein’s merciless methods of political consolidation would be felt. He announced that a Syrian-backed plot against Baghdad had been uncovered. Several members of the RCC were charged with complicity and forced to appear before a court made up of RCC members who had not been implicated.

Televised proceedings showed Hussein denouncing formerly highly placed figures and extracting confessions from many party members, especially Mashhadi. Within a short time, twenty-two persons were condemned and executed, including Mashhadi and four other RCC members who were no longer trusted by Hussein.

The impact of Hussein’s tyranny continued to be felt by any and all who dared to oppose him. Clearly, there was no longer any assurance that membership in the RCC could protect even those who had loyally served the Bakr-Hussein duumvirate. A second round of purges would occur in June, 1982, when half of the sixteen RCC members who had survived the 1979 “countercoup” were removed from power. By that date, however, Hussein, fully engaged in a disastrous war with Iran, did not resort to condemnations of death.


Because Hussein’s controversial tenure as president of Iraq led to several major international crises between 1979 and his overthrow in 2003, it is important to know how the situation created by his seizure of power in 1979 not only followed earlier events, but also set the stage for an ominous future. The scenario created by the 1979 takeover was one that would not be resolved by Hussein’s precipitous actions, but would continue to be a serious problem for more than two decades. First, there was the lingering problem of defining the Sunni Arab-dominated regime’s relationship to groups that were destined to form continued sources of opposition to Hussein. In 1979, Shia Iraqis were already suspected of harboring favorable sentiments toward the Shia-based regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. When war broke out with Iran shortly after Hussein’s takeover, such tensions were destined to rise, and merciless policies of repression followed. Equally ominous was the unresolved question of Kurdish loyalty to Baghdad. Because Hussein’s imposition of authority over the central political system in 1979 involved repeated resorts to violence, both Shias and Kurds began the 1980’s divided over, on one hand, expectations that Hussein’s reputation for promising economic improvements would benefit their communities once the war was over and, on the other, fear of a repetition of the brutal repressions. Iraq;government
Baՙth Party[Bath Party]

Further Reading

  • Coughlin, Con. Saddam: King of Terror. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. An easily read biography of Hussein up to the events of 2003.
  • Farouk-Sluglett, Marion. Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. This highly respected and scholarly political history of Iraq covers detailed internal and foreign relations events over a half-century.
  • Munthe, Turi, ed. The Saddam Hussein Reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. Selections from a number of Western and Middle Eastern writers on Hussein.

Arab Oil Producers Curtail Oil Shipments to Industrial States

Iran-Iraq War

Israel Destroys Iraqi Nuclear Reactor

Iraq Uses Poison Gas Against Kurds

Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait

Persian Gulf War

Iraq Burns Kuwaiti Oil Wells

Iraq Disarmament Crisis Climaxes in Air Strikes