138. Telegram From the United States Interests Section in Baghdad to the Department of State1

1528. Subj: (C) Passing the Torch: Saddam Is Solidly In Charge. Ref: Baghdad 1527.2

1. (S-entire text)

2. Summary: President Bakr’s dramatic July 16 abdication was unexpected, but the smooth succession of Saddam Hussein et al was not. Health may indeed have been the real reason, but the timing of Bakr’s exit may be fortuitous in terms of governmental stability at least in the short run. Number of factors combine to leave Saddam with a firm grip on a relatively solid regime. End summary.

3. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr was known to be old (particularly for his age—62) and not terribly healthy. The general consensus of outsiders’ opinions, however, was that the old gentleman would totter around for some years to come, probably with a steadily decreasing role other than the symbolic leader of the country. Over the past several months, there were signs of occasional weakness, but nothing of sufficient duration or impact to lead to a conclusion that he was about to resign.

4. The July 16 announcement was therefore a surprise. The extent to which there was actually a sudden deterioration in Bakr’s health or in his desire to conserve what is left of it in the quieter role of dictator-emeritus, is unclear. The pressures of office have indeed grown, as Iraq has become less and less isolated, and while Saddam was carrying the major share of the role, even the ceremonial responsibilities were taking their toll on Bakr’s flagging resources (Baghdad 1404).3

5. The announcement may have been a surprise in terms of its timing but the handing over of the Presidential and leadership responsibilities to Saddam was not a surprise in any sense. He had long since been designated as Bakr’s handpicked successor, and the passing of [Page 439] the torch has been as smooth as everyone anticipated. The clear indications that Izzat Ibrahim had been chosen as Saddam’s successor (Baghdad 1524)4 was the only real sign—in retrospect—that the announcement of a major change was in the offing but this tends to reinforce rather than weaken the assessment that Saddam is taking over a relatively unified and apparently solid regime.

6. How long it will stay that way, given low-level rumors of rivalries and factions is highly problematical. The timing of Bakr’s departure however, will probably on balance be a stabilizing factor. While there are a number of serious problems facing the leadership, in particular the possibilities of increased domestic unrest resulting from the Kurdish problem and the as-yet unmeasured threat of active Shia dissidence, the GOI is at or near the pinnacle of its aspirations. Thus far, it appears that the threat posed by the Shia majority may not be as major as early signs of trouble indicated. The recent announcement of improved relations with Iran should assist in reducing the potential for unrest to some degree, and there is also a feeling that even those who are not strongly in favor of the secular Baathi regime would prefer it to the chaos and anarchy that might result from an Islamic upheaval a la Iran.

7. To the extent that Kurds and Shia can be eliminated from the list of critical internal threats to the new regime, and the local Communists in their present decimated condition ignored, the only real question mark is the military. Whether or not Saddam (a civilian) can function as Commander-in-Chief with Adnan Khairollah (until recently a Lieutenant Colonel), as Deputy Commander-in-Chief and MinDef will be determined with the passage of time. Our preliminary estimate is that the efforts that Saddam and the party have made to purge and realign armed forces leadership over the past several years, combined with the dramatically heightened increase in the threat from Iran, are probably sufficient to hold the military in line.

8. The party itself has always been considered relatively unified, and the recent upsurge in Iraq’s Middle Eastern—and world—role should act to keep the militants happy. Saddam takes over a nation that has gained remarkable international stature in a remarkably short space of time, is wealthy and growing wealthier, faces an external threat which, imperfectly, tends to strengthen rather than weaken support [Page 440] for the changeover, and has already demonstrated considerable ability in handling minor difficulties that may occur.

9. This latter point, of course, is one of the most significant intangibles. Saddam Hussein has impressed a lot of people with his adroitness, shrewdness, and toughness. The so-called Tikriti clan i.e. the top handful, has moved upwards more or less as a bloc. The conformity of their views, opinions, objectives and methods may not be perfect, but it also does not appear to be widely divergent. They have had experience in working well together and with their enhanced positions should be able to do so in the future. Thus, in sum, it is reasonable to anticipate a further period of relative stability in Iraq. Barring the unforeseen, which in this country takes in a broad range of possibilities, Saddam Hussein is quite likely to be in power for a long time.5

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790323–0610. Secret; Immediate. Sent for information to Abu Dhabi, Algiers, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Dhahran, Doha, Jidda, Khartoum, Kuwait, London, Manama, Mogadiscio, Muscat, Rabat, Sana, Tehran, Tripoli, and Tunis.
  2. Telegram 1527 from Baghdad, July 17, outlined the changes Saddam made to the Cabinet after Bakr’s resignation on July 16. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790322–1080)
  3. Telegram 1404 from Baghdad, June 28, evaluated Bakr’s health and overall appearance during a series of recent public events, noting that during a June 19 press conference following a visit by Syrian President Asad, Bakr had a “very noticeable slackness about the face that made him look, with his glasses on, like a badly dazed Groucho Marx.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790299–0803)
  4. Telegram 1524 from Baghdad, July 16, observed: “In the midst of the July 14–17 celebrations [commemorating the anniversary of the July 1958 overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy], MinInt Izzat Ibrahim had suddenly emerged more solidly than ever before in the number three position of the Baath regime. More importantly, he may have become the heir presumptive to the deputy chairmanship of the RCC, once Saddam Husayn inevitably replaces the aging President Bakr.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790328–0158)
  5. The telegram is unsigned.