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This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War. As one might expect, it has reignited debates about American decision making and intelligence failures. Far less attention has been paid to the considerable advances made in what we know about Iraqi thinking in 2002 and 2003. Ironically, scholars have wider access to archival documentation about Saddam Hussein’s regime than they do about the George W. Bush administration. The records of the latter are still classified. By contrast, the entire archive of the ruling Iraqi Ba‘th party as well as a smaller number of Iraqi state records have been open for over a decade. These records offer unprecedented insight into Saddam Hussein’s worldview and his strategies as Iraq and the United States barreled toward war in 2003.

The following is drawn from my book Iraq against the World, which uses internal Iraqi files to examine Saddam Hussein’s confrontation with the American-led, post-Cold War order in the 1990s and early 2000s. As these documents demonstrate, Saddam was a populist and he felt that the most important driver of international politics was the ability to manipulate the masses. He felt he could achieve his goals through bottom-up political pressure in foreign states. In doing so he thought he could influence the foreign policies of his adversaries. This highly politicized approach to international politics served Saddam well in times of peace. He was able to divide his opponents and undermine international policies designed to contain his regime. However, he failed to understand the limits of his strategies in the face of conventional wars first in 1991, and then even more disastrously for his regime and his personal safety in 2003.

Western analysts have tended to view Saddam’s Iraq through the frameworks that have dominated Western international relations: the military, high diplomacy, and economics. Those were important elements of Iraqi power under Saddam – after all he used his oil wealth to build a large army, then invade two of his neighbors, and he dreamed of leading Arab armies into Jerusalem. While military officers and diplomats are certainly not absent from internal Iraqi records, those files place more emphasis on political and populist elements of Iraqi strategy. Ba‘thist records highlight what Western analysts would call Baghdad’s political “influence operations” and what the Iraqis called al-taharruk (literally, moving someone). These operations were far more extensive than anyone outside the Ba‘thist regime understood. The Ba‘th Party and the Iraqi Intelligence Service embedded themselves in Arab diasporas and worked from Iraqi embassies around the world. They attempted to shape political discourse in and among key states and they organized disparate constituents in foreign countries using a combination of moral and political persuasion.

Partly, the prominence of such strategies in Iraqi records stems from some idiosyncrasies surrounding the available sources. Archives from the Iraqi Intelligence Service and the Ba‘th Party survived the 2003 war. The records from the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, which undoubtably would have emphasized more traditional forms of diplomacy, did not.

However, even without relying on skewed sources, a careful study of Ba‘thist Iraq would reveal that the military and traditional diplomacy were not the primary lenses through which Saddam viewed international politics. Saddam owed his power to his place within a populist, self-described revolutionary political party. Unlike most other Arab dictators, he did not rise through the ranks of the military or state security services. As one of his biographers noted, “for all the uniforms, titles, and honorary ranks … Saddam never had any military experience, had probably never read a military textbook, or even considered the finer points of strategy and tactics.”[1] In fact, the Ba‘thist regime that he ruled had a history of turbulent relations with the Iraqi military and other state institutions. A short-lived Ba‘thist coup in Iraq had gone awry in 1963 when military officers turned against the party. Therefore, immediately after they took power in 1968, the Ba‘thists purged Iraqi military and intelligence officers, replacing them with political activists who were loyal to the party. It should come as no surprise, then, that Saddam saw the party rather than the military as the source of his power, and throughout his life, he tended to view the world through the lens of its populist politics.

It was also no coincidence that many of what might be called quintessentially Saddamist institutions were described as “popular.” When Saddam needed a loyal militia to defend his regime in the 1970s, he created the “Popular Army.” When he wanted to mobilize international Arab support, he held the “Conference of the Popular Arab Forces.” When he wanted to mobilize Islamic opinion, he organized the “Popular Islamic Conference.” The word popular in these instances is a translation of the Arabic term sha‘bi. It suggests something coming from the masses, unofficial, and of the people. And even Iraqi sources from outside the Ba‘th Party show that when the regime engaged in international politics, it saw populist efforts as its natural source of strength. For example, when attempting to influence international Islamic opinion during the war with Iran, the Iraqis distinguished between official (rasmi) and popular (sha‘bi) efforts. The Iraqis considered other states to be more adept in pursuing the official track; Saddam’s regime focused on the populist track.[2] This view of the importance of popular mobilization in international politics was not limited to Islam and it remained an important part of Iraqi strategy until the end of Saddam’s rule in 2003.[3]

This populist worldview permeated Iraqi strategic thought, even during conventional wars. Beginning almost immediately after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, Baghdad sent a steady stream of instructions to Iraqi Ba‘thists outside Iraq. The regime ordered them to use all their connections and capabilities to mobilize the Iraqi, Arab, Islamic, and foreign masses. They were to work through local parties and unions, as well as political, humanitarian, cultural, and social leaders to hold “angry demonstrations” against “America, the Zionists, and their allies among the bloodsucking (masasi dima’) peoples who are cooperating with them.” The Ba‘th Party told its followers to hold sit-ins and gatherings at religious sites, UN offices, humanitarian organizations, and any other influential place in their areas.[4] Ba‘thists abroad were to arrange statements of support from local allies for Saddam and for “the free government of Kuwait,” which was an Iraqi creation that Baghdad tried to present as an indigenous Kuwaiti initiative.[5]

            Throughout the Gulf Crisis, Saddam attempted to defeat his enemies by making the war politically untenable for them. Most notably he tried to draw Israel into the war by targeting it with SCUD missiles. The Iraqis hoped that Arab coalition members such as Saudi Arabia and Syria would balk at finding themselves on the same side of the conflict as the Jewish state. Tellingly, some of the SCUDs fired at Israel were a variant the Iraqis called Hijara al-Sijil (stone from dry clay) because they contained concrete warheads.[6] Western analysts concocted all sorts of explanations for why Iraqis would employ such warheads. An Iraqi general later revealed that Saddam wanted to mimic the rocks that Palestinians were hurling at their Israeli occupiers in the First Intifada.[7] In other words, the SCUDs were more performative than operational; they were designed to be a spectacle.

Elsewhere, Iraqi Ba‘thists and intelligence officers embedded themselves in anti-war movements. In the United States, Ba‘thist cells used slogans such as: “Why sacrifice the sons of America for the sake of the families of corrupt dictators.” And, “We do not want another Vietnam.” They criticized the “oil sheikhs,” and argued, “It is not possible to compare the blood of Americans with the price of oil.”[8]  Throughout the Middle East and Islamic world, the Iraqi military joined with the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs to produce propaganda designed to “raise the emotions of hatred and hostility of all Muslims against [the Saudis and their Western allies].” It stressed “the Islamic holy sites are being violated by foreign forces that entered the holy land and the desecration of the Kaaba and the Prophet’s grave.” In doing so, the regime hoped to “emphasize jihad for God’s sake to expel the American invaders and their allies.”[9]

These efforts were not enough to stop the war. Yet, they did succeed in gaining Iraq countless new allies among anti-war activists around the world. The Iraqi military and economy were decimated in the war. Nevertheless, several months after the Gulf Crisis, Saddam looked back on it and noted, “this war, however, was beneficial for us.”[10] As astounding as such a claim sounds, one must remember that Saddam interpreted power through the lens of mass politics. In the months after its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq knitted together a network of international supporters. The Ba‘thists worked covertly, using proxy organizations and disassociating with the Iraqi embassies “to provide cover for their [Ba‘th] Party activities.”[11] They courted people on both the political left and the right: academics, student organizations, militant Islamists, pacifists, liberal activists, and conservative isolationists. They found allies in the media and even among some mainstream politicians. Then, they attempted to bring these incongruent groups together into a loosely organized political force designed to achieve Iraq’s strategic goals.[12]

The Ba‘thists built upon this coalition in the 1990s. In places like France, Ba‘thists tapped into growing discontent with what French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine derisively termed American hyperpower.[13] In Russia, Iraq courted hardline nationalists who were dissatisfied with what they considered to be Moscow’s kowtowing to Washington.[14] Elsewhere, Iraqis touted their opposition to Western hegemony, a position that was increasingly popular among non-Western and post-colonial populations.

By the mid-1990s and then even more so after a corrupt oil-for-food program went into effect in 1996, the Ba‘thists incorporated economics into their influence campaigns. The political and economic aspects of Iraqi influence operations reenforced one another. Party branches around the world and the Iraqi Intelligence Service identified actors who would assist the regime in circumventing or degrading sanctions. Iraq had one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, and as the United Nation’s independent inquiry later noted, Saddam’s regime “was willing to forego revenue from oil sales or to overpay for imports to reward or encourage certain foreign politicians, journalists, and businesses to exert influence in its favor, … especially in advocating a lifting of the sanctions.”[15]

Iraqis could not alter the fundamentals of international politics, but they prodded potentially revisionist states to act on latent inclinations. Throughout the 1990s, they did so to great effect, breaking up the coalition that had fought against Iraq in the Gulf War and then contained it with economic sanctions and weapons inspections in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, that containment regime had broken down in the face of French, Russian, and Middle Eastern opposition. Weapons inspectors were no longer in the country and the Iraqi economy was quicky recovering.

Saddam never fully understood how the September 11 attacks changed the United States or the danger that these changes posed for his regime. As Iraq moved into George W. Bush’s crosshairs in 2002, the Ba‘thists felt their strategy to divide the international community and raise popular opposition to American policies was working and that it would protect Iraq from American aggression. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, and its most important foreign policy official, Tariq Aziz, argued that prior to the war, “France and Russia each secured millions of dollars’ worth of trade and service contracts in Iraq, with the implied understanding that their political posture with regard to sanctions on Iraq would be pro-Iraq.” Of course, these countries would oppose war. Aziz insisted that the French wanted “to safeguard their trade and service contracts in Iraq. Moreover, they wanted to prove their importance in the world as members of the Security Council; that they could use their veto to show they still had power.”[16]

Similarly, in October 2002, the Iraqi ambassador to Moscow wrote to Baghdad that “our friends [in Russian intelligence] have told us that President Putin has given very clear instructions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vis-à-vis Iraq.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the ambassador, “will not allow the new resolution to include any intention that would allow the use of force against Iraq.”[17]

In addition to these official positions, Saddam put considerable weight on the fact that opposition to another war against Iraq inflamed popular opinion around the world. Mass anti-war protests began in the fall of 2002. Between January and April 2003, these ballooned into the largest wave of protests in global history. More than 35 million protestors participated in nearly 3,000 separate protests in 90 countries. The largest single protest in history occurred on February 15, 2003. Over 10 million people gathered at almost 900 separate events in 78 countries.[18]  

Iraqi Ba‘thists had embedded themselves in the anti-war networks that coordinated these protests and they helped to organize them. Of course, there were numerous reasons for the protests, many of which would have existed without Ba‘thist involvement. The George W. Bush administration’s hubris alienated global audiences. The Bush administration’s glib attitude toward anyone who disagreed with it – even close allies – inflamed anti-American and anti-Western sentiment around the world. The Ba‘thists channeled and amplified those sentiments. They connected disparate groups and ideologies, and they linked large networks, which allowed activists to coordinate protests across time and space.

These forces led the regime to feel secure in the face of American threats. The Iraqis never fully cooperated with the international community because their worldview blinded them to the threat they faced. After the downfall of the regime, several senior Iraqi officials spoke about their misperceptions prior to the invasion. Incredibly, the then former Chief of Staff of the Iraqi Armed Forces stated, “No Iraqi leaders had believed Coalition forces would ever reach Baghdad.” The Commander of the Iraqi Air and Air Defense Forces said, “We thought this would be like 1991. We figured that the United States would conduct some operations in the south and then go home.” The Director General of the Republican Guard’s General Staff similarly claimed, “We thought the Coalition would go to Basrah, maybe to Amarah, and then the war would end.” When an American debriefer asked the Director of Iraqi Military Intelligence, “What did you think was going to happen with the Coalition invasion?” He responded, “We were more interested in Turkey and Iran.”[19]

Yet, in a damning indictment on the Ba‘thist understanding of international politics, the Bush administration pushed ahead despite everything. The American-led military coalition quickly dispatched the Iraqi military and sacked Baghdad, ending over three decades of entrenched Ba‘thist rule. For all the successes that Saddam felt he had achieved with populist politics and manipulative statesmanship, these strategies proved no match for a determined adversary willing to use overwhelming military power.



Some of the material in this article was originally published in Iraq against the World: Saddam, America, and the Post-Cold War Order, by Samuel Helfont, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press

[1] Con Coughlin, Saddam: His Rise and Fall, (New York: Ecco, 2005), 177.

[2]وقائع المؤتمر الإسلامي الشعبي الثاني  [Proceedings of the Second Popular Islamic Conference] (Baghdad: Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, 1986), 385-90.  

[3] Taha Yasin Ramadan, “Continuous Popular Mobilization,” CRRC, SH-MISC-D-001-446, January 28, 1999,

[4] “برقية جفرية” [Cable] From the Command of the Office of Iraqis outside of the Region, To: The Organizations of Iraqis outside of the Region. BRCC, 2827_0001 (0482-0483), December 26, 1990.

[5] “توجهات” [Directives] From: The Secretary General of the Office of the Bureau of Iraqis outside the region, To: All Organizations of Iraqis outside the region. BRCC, 2827_0001 (0294), August 4, 1990; “نشاطات” [Activities], From: The Secretary General of the Office of the Bureau of Iraqis outside the Region, To: All Organizations of Iraqis outside the Region. BRCC, 2827_0001 (0297), August 9, 1990.

[6] Pesach Malovany, Wars of Modern Babylon: A History of the Iraqi Army from 1921 to 2003 (Lexington KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 549.

[7] Charles Duelfer, Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq Hardcover (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 71-2.

[8] “برقية” [Cable], From: The Director General of the Office of the Secretariat of the Region, To: The President of the Republic / Secretary of the President of the Republic for Party Matters. BRCC, 2827_0001 (0391), September 18, 1990.

[9] “Miscellaneous Information Regarding the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and the American Operation to Liberate Kuwait,” CRRC, SH-GMID-D-000-998, September-October 1990.

[10] “Discussion Following the First Gulf War,” CRRC, SH-SHTP-A-000-835, 1991.

[11] “محضر اجتماع هيأع مكتب الامانة العامة” [Proceedings of the Meeting of the General Secretariat Group], BRCC, 026-5-5 (207), February. 15, 1989.

[12] The Ba‘th Party archives contain thousands of pages on the party’s influence operations in the 1990s and early 2000s. In addition to sources cited above and below, see the following for a small sampling: “مقترح” [Recommendation], From: The Director of the Office of the Secretariat of the Region, To: The Presidential Diwan, BRCC, 2837_0002 (585), April 1992; “برنامج عمل” [Work Plan], From: The Secretary General of the Central Office of Students and Youth, To: The Office of the Secretariat of the Region, BRCC, 2749_0000 (567), Dec. 22, 1991; and “نشاطات” [Activities], From: The Assistant to the Secretary General of the Founding Leader Branch Command, To: The Regional Command of Iraq/Office of the Secretariat of the Region, BRCC, 2099_0003 (505), Feb. 24, 1999.

[13] “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a 'Hyperpower,'” International Herald Tribune. February 5, 1999.

[14] Samuel Helfont, “The Gulf War’s Afterlife: Dilemmas, Missed Opportunities, and the Post-Cold War Order Undone,” Texas National Security Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2021); Samuel Helfont, “From Iraq to Ukraine: A New Perspective on The Russian-Western Confrontation,” War on the Rocks, May 16, 2022,

[15] Paul A. Volcker, et. al., “Management of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme,” Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme Vol 1. (2005): 39.

[16] Kevin Woods, et al., Iraqi Perspectives Project: View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership (Washington DC: Institute for Defense Analysis, 2006), 28-9.

[17] Woods, et al., Iraqi Perspectives Project: View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership, 28-9.

[18] Dominique Reynié, “Does a “European Public Opinion” Exist?,” Forum Constitutionis Europae, Humboldt University, Germany, September 2009, 12-3,

[19] Quotes taken from, Woods, View of Operation Iraqi Freedom from Saddam’s Senior Leadership, 25, 31. See also, Duelfer, Hide and Seek, 10.

About the Author

Samuel Helfont

Samuel Helfont

Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy in the Naval War College program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California
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