Hussein meets Hafez al-Assad at the Arab Summit of 1978.
Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, with the support of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, used the CIA to orchestrate a campaign of sabotage and subversion from 1972 to 1975 for the express purpose of bringing down the government of Iraq. The CIA infiltrated Iraq via Iran and worked with Iranian agents in Northern Iraq to supply arms to Kurdish rebels then trying to topple the regime. Fearful the Iraqis would suspect Iran's role, the US protected its ally Shah Pahlavi by sending Iran large quantities of Russian arms captured by Israel from the Arabs in the 1967 war. These weapons were used to arm the revolt, but they could not be traced to the Iranians. Kissinger, a geopolitical realist concerned with global stability but uninterested in reforming the world, decided to abandon the Kurds in 1975. After a series of border skirmishes between Iraq and Iran over the Khuzestan province, he helped draft a peace treaty between Iran and Iraq to avoid potential bloodshed. To ease tensions, both he and the Shah proposed ending aid to the rebels. The peace treaty was signed, but many Kurds were subsequently slaughtered. "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work," Kissinger opined.
In the midst of this impasse, it was not often remarked that perhaps covert action does not always lead to an intended or desirable result. Ironically, the Ba'ath Party had first risen to prominence in a CIA-sponsored coup. The CIA under Eisenhower and Kennedy had dealt with the rather similar problem of Qassem's leftist regime in a rather similar manner: CIA-sponsored regime change. The CIA repeatedly attempted to assassinate Qassem, armed Kurdish rebels against his regime, allegedly plotted a joint US-Turkey invasion of Iraq to remove him, and worked to isolate him diplomatically. The CIA had contacts with the Ba'athist plotters of the 1963 coup in Iraq and Egypt, and CIA records suggest it financially assisted the coup. Writing in his memoirs of the 1963 coup, long time OSS and CIA intelligence analyst Harry Rositzke presented it as an example of one on which they had good intelligence in contrast to others that caught the agency by surprise. The Baíath overthrow ďwas forecast in exact detail by CIA agents.Ē
"Agents in the Baíath Party headquarters in Baghdad had for years kept Washington au courant on the partyís personnel and organization, its secret communications and sources of funds, and its penetrations of military and civilian hierarchies in several countriesÖ CIA sources were in a perfect position to follow each step of Baíth preparations for the Iraqi coup, which focused on making contacts with military and civilian leaders in Baghdad. The CIAís major source, in an ideal catbird seat, reported the exact time of the coup and provided a list of the new cabinet members. ÖTo call an upcoming coup requires the CIA to have sources within the group of plotters. Yet, from a diplomatic point of view, having secret contacts with plotters implies at least unofficial complicity in the plot."
The CIA would have paid a lot of money for this steady supply of information, especially because American planners had determined that the Baíath Party would be the best for U.S. policy in Iraq going forward in 1962. The First Political Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq in 1963 during the coup, Bill Lakeland, has admitted that CIA officer Ed Kane told him that the U.S. ďhad people who informed us about thingsÖThe CIA was kept aware of what was happeningÖ[The CIA] had paid informants within the Baíath, but had no control of any operationalÖIt was ultra secretÖ.Ē The best direct evidence that the U.S. was complicit is the memo from NSC staff member Bob Komer to President John F. Kennedy on the night of the coup, February 8, 1963. The last paragraph reads, "We will make informal friendly noises as soon as we can find out whom to talk with, and ought to recognize as soon as weíre sure these guys are firmly in the saddle. ________excellent reports on the plotting, but I doubt either they or UK should claim much credit for it." Thus, when former CIA Near East Division Chief James Chritchfield claims the 1968 coup was a "radical" "counter-coup," perhaps his language reflects the reality that it overthrew a government the US covertly helped bring to power. It has been said that the Iraqi Ba'athists told their Syrian comrades, in their own defense, that they "had come to power on a CIA train," just as Lenin had been sent into Russia to launch his revolution on a German train in the First World War.
The US's temporary alliance with the Ba'ath ended briefly after the US-backed Iraqi President, Salam Arif, purged the Ba'ath from the government in late 1963. Saddam was apparently arrested in 1964 for trying to overthrow that government. A series of power struggles within the ruling party and the Ba'ath brought the most extremist elements of both to the fore. Salam Arif was overthrown in the 1966 coup that brought his brother, Abdul Rahman Arif, to power. Though the US continued to assist the regime due to the armed revolt against it by the Iraqi Communist Party (which was increasingly aligned with the Ba'ath); in 1967, in the wake of the war with Israel, Arif expelled all of the Americans from the country and cut off all ties with the US. Arif's regime collapsed just one year later, leading to the Ba'athist takeover of Iraq.
Saddam seen here negotiating with a terrorist.
General al-Bakr was named President. Though he was a little-known figure outside of Iraq, Saddam quickly became the second-most-important Iraqi official in the country. He was the formal vice-president by 1973. Saddam headed the security apparatus of the state, and thus had considerable leverage to intimidate opponents from within the party as well as from without. He visited countries such as France to represent Iraq throughout the seventies, and signed a treaty of friendship between Iraq and the Soviet Union. While the US worked to destabilize the regime, Moscow's massive supplies of military aid helped to keep it afloat and to avoid a collapse. The Soviet Union played a crucial role in training Iraq's secret police. However, relations between the two countries did occasionally grow strained due to Brezhnev's open disgust at the persecution of Iraqi Communists by the state.
Saddam would regularly tell his colleagues that he sought to make Iraq "into a Stalinist state." They all assumed he was joking, and when they began to suspect he was serious, it was too late to stop him. Al-Bakr attempted in 1979 to demote Saddam to a position of relative obscurity. Saddam responded with a counter-coup, forcing al-Bakr to resign and conducting a ruthless purge of hundreds of Ba'athists to intimidate the rest of the party into acquiescence. He was named President of Iraq on July 16, 1979.