Small Wars Journal

Iraq’s Power Vacuum: A Counterfactual Analysis of Saddam Hussein’s Authoritarian Rule

Tue, 01/01/2019 - 3:17am

Iraq’s Power Vacuum: A Counterfactual Analysis of Saddam Hussein’s Authoritarian Rule

Kyle Amonson

If Saddam Hussein had remained in power, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as Daesh, may not have been able to secure a foothold and establish dominance in the region. This counterfactual approach specifically assesses Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship as a stabilizing factor in the state of Iraq, effectively opposing transnational terrorist networks like Daesh. Due to the climate of cultural division in Iraq, history has displayed that only strong dictators have successfully been able to unify the region through Arab nationalism, albeit through extreme violence and fear; the prime example of this is Saddam Hussein. Political scientists often use the counterfactual argument when assessing or justifying causal hypotheses, in this case, Saddam’s role in the stabilization of Iraq (Fearon, 1991, pg. 161-162).

This counterfactual approach will initially present Iraq in the context of the historic “Sykes-Picot” agreement that further exacerbated long-standing divisions within state boundaries that opposed a democratic structure and supported violent extremism. The removal of Saddam thus created a vicious power vacuum which facilitated the entrance of Daesh’s extremist religious ideologies, leveraged by Iraq’s lack of state identity and prevalent ethnic divisions. The purpose of this counterfactual approach is not to focus specifically on the history of Iraq, or the Daesh, but to analyze how a dictatorship was effectively able to control a chaotic region, and to ultimately emphasize the deliberate approach required in foreign policy development to oppose dictators in the international community.

This counterfactual approach will provide a historical context to emphasize the religious and geo-political complexity of the Middle East; discuss Saddam’s rise to power and authoritarian rule; transition to the overthrow of Saddam and the conditions that led to the rise of Daesh; and conclude with an analysis of what may have happened in Iraq if Saddam had remained in power.        

Counterfactual Approach

“Counterfactuals and the counterfactual strategy of hypothesis testing play an important but often unacknowledged and underdeveloped role in the efforts of political scientists to assess causal hypotheses” (Fearon, 1991, pg. 194).

-- James Fearon

Counterfactual cases involve an academic approach to a specified topic in which a hypothesized causal factor is supposed to have been absent. Support for a causal hypothesis in the counterfactual strategy comes from arguments about what would have happened. These arguments are made credible (i) by invoking general principles, theories, laws, or regularities distinct from the hypothesis being tested; and (2) by drawing on knowledge of historical facts relevant to a counterfactual scenario (Fearon, 1991, pg. 176). Many scholars that work in the field of political science, international relations, and history, debate the effectiveness of the counterfactual approach. For example, according to A. J. P. Taylor, "a historian should never deal in speculations about what did not happen.”. Or, in M. M. Postan's words, "The might-have-beens of history are not a profitable subject of discussion (Fearon, 1991, pg. 173).

In the case of Saddam Hussein’s effect on Iraq, Iraq’s divisive historical predisposition, and the power vacuum analysis of removing a dictatorship, there are many approaches one could take to study the dynamics of this chaotic region. While there are many contributing factors to the region’s history of religious conflict, the unification of the diverse ethnic groups and the subsequent dictator power vacuum merits evaluation. The conditions that established the climate for Saddam’s successful rule of Iraq from 1979 to 2003 are described in the following “Context” section to further support the usefulness of the counterfactual approach. Additionally, we will analyze how Saddam’s rule unified Iraq to help prevent the rise of transnational terrorist organizations within his sphere of influence.


Historical Overview of Iraq

Modern Iraq was created in 1932 from the amalgamation of the three provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, which constituted Mesopotamia, primarily based on tribes external to the main city centers. (Sassoon, 2011, pg. 16).The seminal moment in this region’s overall history was the rise of the Islamic religion. Historians trace the origin of Muslim culture to a man named Muhammed in the Arabian town of Mecca at the end of the sixth century (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 40). Muhammad was in his forties when the Islamic faith claims he started receiving visions from Allah. Through these visions Muhammad developed what transpired to be the Islamic faith. What is unique to this religion is that Muhammed did not just create a faith, he subsequently created the first “Islamic State.” This theocracy is the integration of political, social and religious ideals that were originally based on Arabic tribal structures. In a region controlled by Persia at the time, the Islamic State quickly spread and gained territory, not just by military means, but through religious expansion among the Arabic tribes. The common method of advancement was through an appeal to Arab kinship and the promise of riches and paradise (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 41). This introduced the world to the concept of the Arabic Islamic State, marked by the fluid characteristic of religious expansion that circumvents all aspects of political structure and territorial boundaries.

Following Muhammed’s death in 632 CE, Muslims became divided on the idea of who should be the caliph, or leader, of the Islamic State. The term for the Islamic government ruled by a caliph is a caliphate, or formal Islamic State (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 16). These two divided Muslim groups became known, as they are today, as the Sunnis and the Shias. The Sunni’s believe the caliph should be elected by popular vote whereas the Shia’s believe the caliph has to be a direct descendent of Muhammed, recognized as the Ayatollah. Understandably, due to the divergence of leadership and the religious decisions associated with those leaders, this chasm within the Islamic community continues to be one of the leading sources of discord and sectarian violence in Iraq to date. While not always defined by specified borders, Iraq remained the cultural and economic center of the Islamic State throughout most of Islamic history.

The former Mesopotamian region was a politically chaotic and endured several significant assaults throughout most of its early Islamic history. The initial Islamic State was destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, who were subsequently conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1533, which also endured a chaotic expansion. One of the key challenges of the Ottoman Empire was that their sultans were unable to maintain loyal military forces across their provinces, the result being that local leaders, with local interests and local militias, filled the void (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 63).

The Ottoman sultans and the Persians (ruled by shahs) faced similar challenges as they attempted to unify and promote cohesion through the region. The Ottomans over-prioritized expanding their empire and exceeded their ability to apply state power to project and enforce their domestic structure. They overestimated their ability to control Iraq and did not emphasize internal development or appeal to the existing tribal structures. Like many other ancient empires, the Ottomans were fueled by the simple concept of “the strong do what they have the power to do,” making significant errors in their Middle East conquest, misunderstanding the existing cultural, ideological, and ethnic demographic structures (Thucydides et al., 1805, pg. 402).


The Ottoman Empire ruled this region from 1299 until 1922, marking their defeat during the First World War, after which the British and French established the political boundaries of Iraq, bordering the Persian Gulf between Iran and Kuwait. In 1920, Iraq was declared a League of Nations mandate under United Kingdom administration and introduced the region to a rudimentary “Western” government structure (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017). Tim Marshall describes this period of geographical division in his book, Prisoners of Geography:

When the Ottoman Empire began to collapse, the British and the French had a different idea. In 1916, the British diplomat Colonel Sir Mark Sykes took a grease pencil and drew a crude line across a map of the Middle East. It ran from Haifa on the Mediterranean in what is now Israel to Kirkuk (now in Iraq) in the northeast. It became the basis of his secret agreement with his French counterpart Francois Georges- Picot to divide the region into two spheres of influence should the Triple Entente defeat the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. North of the line was to be under French control, south of it under British hegemony (Marshall, 2014, pg. 146).

This “grease pencil drawn agreement,” lacking all acknowledgment of existing regional demographics, would be henceforth referenced as simply “Sykes-Picot.” Once again, this arbitrary demarche led to a chaotic period in the Middle East, of “states developed not out of logic of socio-economically driven conditions, but belatedly out of the ruins of empires…not as a “melting pot” within a cohesive national identity, but more as a powder keg of competing aspirations” (Stansfield, 2016, pg. 50).

The defining state boundaries, depicted by Sykes-Picot, are a key destabilizing factor that continues to affect the present conflict in the Middle East. When the European Powers created the territorial boundaries after WWI, they did so without regard to existing Arabic tribal boundaries or cultural environment, with many Arabs considering the state borders as “artificial.” This created a substantial challenge for any future democratic organization to govern among divided people groups, whose only commonality is their state. Naturally, this affected national cohesion, resulting in a challenge to weak governments, providing opportunities for other non-state actors to take charge.

Iraq attained its independence as a Kingdom in 1932 and proclaimed itself a “republic” in 1958 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017). Many of the post-WWI occupants of Iraq were still organized as tribes, resentful of the European form and fashion of government, creating a general distrust of the West and any structure perceived as non-Muslim. These tribes were still important non-state actors.  Likewise, the Sunni, Shia, and an ethnic group known as the Kurds, who were included in Iraq’s boundaries when the territory was drawn, were all key players in the newly established “state.” Between these three factions and the intra-state power struggles, developing nationalist cohesion was nearly impossible. Iraq’s King Faisal during this nascent period was judiciously noted as saying “in Iraq, there is still no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic ideal…connected by no common tie…and perpetually ready to rise against any government” (Stansfeld, 2016, pg. 69).

According to the most recent assessments listed in the Central Intelligence Agency Fact Book: Iraq, consisting of data from 1987 to 2018, modern day Iraq is home to roughly 39 million people, making it the 35th largest country in the world, with 70.5% living in an urban environment. The population is 75-80% Arabic, 15-20% Kurdish and 5% other nationalities based on the most recent Iraqi government assessment in 1987. The median age in Iraq is 20 years old, with 39.46% of the population between 0-14 years old, 15-24% 15-24 years old, 33.84% 25-54 years old, 3.99% 55-64 years old and 3.46% 65 years old and over. Religiously, the population is 95-98% Muslim (64-69% Shia and 29-34% Sunni), 1% Christian and 1-4% listed as “other” (Central Intelligence Agency, 2017).

The adherents to Sunni Islam, the global majority known as the Sunni, and adherents to Shia Islam, the global minority known as the Shia are still divided by the same theocratic ideology question of Muhammed’s succession that originated after the death of Muhammed. Roughly 85% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, with the remaining 15% being Shia. However, Iraq is unique to the fact that it has a majority Shia population, with a minority Sunni population. In respect to Islam’s intersection with a governing structure, Sunni’s invest only political authority in their caliphs, with Saddam being an exception in the Baathist party, (typically leaving spiritual authority in the Muslim community as a whole), Shiites invest both political and spiritual authority in their imams (Prothero, 2007, pg. 320). This intersection of religious and political leadership plays an important role in how majority Muslim countries interact and respect their political leadership, and how that relationship is proven in relation to different government structures.

In addition to the Sunni/Shia divide, the third major player worth mention is Iraq’s five million Kurds, concentrated in the north and north-eastern provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, Dahuk, and their surrounding areas (Miller, 2014, pg. 151). Broadly, the Kurdish people inhabit a swath of land through northern Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, a people without a land, all victims to the “Sykes-Picot” of Middle Eastern state recognition. Kurdish nationalists across the Middle East reject their nationality as anything other than Kurdish, with end of WWI and fall of the Ottoman Empire catalyzing Kurdish nationalist demands of a self-determined Kurdish state. However, Kurdish nationalism remains fragmented, interacting with the rivalries among the four states (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran) and their changing international conditions. Additionally, repressive state policies in the Middle East sometimes have the unintended effect of promoting Kurdish national sentiment (Baylis et al., 2017, pg. 436). In Iraq, the Kurds have established a semi-autonomous state in the northern regions, contributing to the substantial challenge of instituting a strong central government presiding over the Iraqi state.

Iraq struggled as an authoritarian state through the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Although technically a republic, Iraq post Second Gulf War continues to be challenged to establish a democratic government. Iraq is plagued by the lack of state identity due to strong religious disagreements and ethnic division. This severe lack of nationalism and abhorrence to Western government (or ideals) has made this region a breeding ground for counter government organizations and terrorist networks. Comparable to HIV or AIDS virus in humans, the environmental factors (such as weak-governmental systems, a lack of national identity and sectarian violence), weaken the host, Iraq in this case, indirectly strengthening and empowering violent extremists (McChrystal et al., 2015, p. 32).

Saddam Hussein’s Rise to Power

“In his mind, the destinies of Saddam and Iraq are one and indistinguishable. His exalted self-concept is fused with his Baathist political ideology. His Baathist dreams will only be realized when the Arab nation is unified under one strong leader” (Post, 2010, pg. 343).

Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, has been characterized as “the madman of the Middle East.” However, while barbaric and violent, categorizing Saddam exclusively to the realm of madness is misleading. Many decision makers of the era believed Saddam to be unpredictable, when in fact he was not. An examination of the record of Saddam Hussein’s 34 years of leadership in Iraq reveals a judicious political calculator who was by no means irrational, but still dangerous to the extreme. (Post, 2010, pg. 335). Leading a country with diverse ethnic groups and a history of sectarian violence took a specific type of leader to establish control, with an iron fist: Saddam proved to be that leader.

Saddam Hussein was born in 1937 to a poor Iraqi family living in north-central Iraq. Born into a situation of domestic adversity, Saddam’s father and brother died from natural causes during his mother’s pregnancy, leading his mother to a failed suicide attempt and a subsequent unsuccessful attempt to abort Saddam. Saddam was raised during his infancy by distant relatives and eventually reunited with his mother, now remarried, at age the age of three. By most standards, Saddam was neglected, and extremely resentful of his mother and stepfather. At age ten, illiterate and bitter towards his family and living conditions, Saddam ran away to Tikrit to live with his uncle, seeking a better life. Saddam’s uncle, who would serve a seminal role as Saddam’s father-figure and mentor, and later hold the office of mayor of Baghdad, held extreme nationalistic views, Baathist ideologies, and harbored deep-seated hatred of foreigners. The Baath party which Saddam’s uncle supported was established in Syria in 1943 by a group of Christian and Muslim intellectuals, dissatisfied with the leadership and Soviet influences in the Middle East; they sought to promote traditional Arab ideals through an inclusive, pro-Arab, platform.

Saddam traveled to Baghdad with his uncle to attend school. He soon became obsessed with Iraq’s oppressive history, striving for the opportunity when he could oppose imperialistic powers like the historical Iraqi heroes he admired. In his early twenties, while living in Baghdad, Saddam joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party and quickly gained a reputation for using violence as a political tool within the community. Saddam’s reputation earned him the task of assassinating a key Iraqi leader who had turned on the Baath party. This botched assassination attempt forced Saddam to flee from Iraq, to Egypt, where he would study law and successfully rise to leadership positions in the Egyptian Baath Party.

In 1963, following a successful coup, the growing Baath Party gained power in Iraq, enabling the 26-year-old Saddam to return to his homeland. Saddam’s dedication to the Baath Party and famed story of exile enhanced his political reputation, resulting in the current Baath Party leader naming Saddam as his successor. In 1968, as leader of the Iraqi Baath Party, Saddam achieved a successful coup of the Iraqi government and began the 35-year reign of the Baath Party in Iraq. In 1979, Saddam Hussein officially became president of Iraq, creating a powerful authoritarian government based on a system of violence and an extraordinary surveillance network, as well as a robust rewards and incentives for devoted supporters of the regime (Sassoon, 2011, pg. i).

Saddam led the Iraqi government with extreme rigidity, surrounded by frightened officials, with any form of criticism of Saddam or his decisions seen as unpardonable disloyalty. One example of ruthless leadership is when Saddam’s Minister of Health recommended that he (Saddam) temporarily step down from power during a period of tension, until peace was renegotiated with Iran. Saddam immediately had him arrested and, promising the man’s wife her husband would be home soon, sent him home dismembered in a body bag the next morning (Post, 2010, pg. 343).

Saddam had a superficial and capricious conscience: He did not recognize that commitments and loyalty are tempered by circumstance, and circumstances change. If an individual, or a nation, was perceived as an impediment or a threat, no matter how loyal in the past, that individual or nation would be eliminated violently without a backward glance, and the action justified by “the exceptionalism of revolutionary needs” (Post, 2010, pg. 339).

Saddam was a devout Iraqi nationalist and a student of history. He acknowledged the failures of attempted governmental structures in Iraq’s past. First and foremost, he recognized that any democratic government attempting to control the vast landscape of Iraq’s ethnic, religious and ideological divide would be opposed. Second, he recognized that any governmental platform representing any specific idea other than the universal concept of Arab nationality, as supported by the Baath party, would be vehemently rejected by an opposing ethnic group. Third, Saddam acknowledged that, regardless of his platform, the most prevalent and effective transition of power within Iraq’s history was through the force of a coup d'état.  Saddam benefitted from coups in the past, but such overthrow was now a threat to his position. Saddam deliberately addressed these three key factors at the onset of his dictatorship.

Saddam established his government through three main structural tenets, the Baath Party, the military, and the bureaucratic offices. While bolstering Iraq’s military and security capabilities, Saddam decreased the military’s political power and centralized Iraq’s military decision-making forum to exclusively Baath Party leadership; this lowered the possibility for potential coups. Saddam maintained strict control of the bureaucratic functions of his government, but enabled them to maintain self-sufficiency for a majority of his rule, relegating them strictly to managerial state tasks, operating out of fear of retribution.

Saddam and the Baath regime defined Iraqis not by their religion but by their support and loyalty to the political party (in contrast to the post-Saddam Iraq after 2003.) Although Sunnis served a majority role in Saddam’s government, Kurds, Shias, and Christians were all part of the system and were involved in its operations and intelligence services. Religious activities of any kind were considered dangerous, and all mosques were kept under surveillance (Sassoon, 2011. pg. 11). Saddam maintained a consistent and centralized narrative, centered on him, promoting the Arab identity, and Baathist ideologies. The fear of, or loyalty to, Saddam was the single unifying factor in the diverse land of Iraq.

Saddam’s control also lay in his ability to attract large numbers of supporters and make them feel vested in the system. Saddam held a reputation of meeting anything that could be seen as disloyal with extreme violence, while displaying comparable benevolence to those who offered him support. This support-based polarization drove many previously divided ethnicities to support his government, to earn favor and avoid punishment. In its recruitment policy, which was a major element of Bathification, the party sought to achieve a good percentage of women members and, more importantly, to overcome the aging of its cadre by attracting the younger generation (Sassoon, 2011, pg. 9). Recruitment targeting the younger generation also inadvertently served a key role in securing the support of the most probable demographic group to resort to religious extremism. With control centralized, the military suppressed diverse people groups unified through fear or favor, and the historically eccentric younger generation were effectively recruited to the Baath party. Saddam had achieved a level of dominance incomparable to any other leader in 20th century Iraq.

In a region of constant intrastate conflict, Saddam was particularly critical of religious arguments that denied the need for Arab unity. Therefore, he called for Islamic unity, knowing that centralized power and nationalized unity was the only way he could stay in power. Saddam did not allow Sunni or Shia Islamist’s teaching in schools, prohibited them from public preaching, and barred them from the military. As stated by Brill and Helfont in their 2016 Foreign Affair’s article, titled Saddam’s ISIS?, “Arab nationalism, not Islamism, continued to guide Saddam’s regime’s policies” (Brill et al., 2016).

Although Saddam Hussein was astute in dealing with internal affairs, he was less successful at understanding foreign powers. His inability to grasp the implications of invading Kuwait and his belief that the United States and coalition forces would not invade Iraq are two blatant examples of his misjudgment (Sassoon, 2011, pg. 8).

Saddam’s Fall from Power

“The worst thing that could happen would be to allow a nation like Iraq, run by Saddam Hussein, to develop weapons of mass destruction and then team up with terrorist organizations so they can blackmail the world. I’m not going to let that happen.”

-- President George W. Bush, April 6, 2002, Interview

Saddam’s tyrannical rule of violence had been on the radar of major world powers since his early years. It was not until Saddam’s emboldened power play to invade Kuwait that set the wheels into motion for his eventual fall. In 1990 Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in what would trigger the United States’ first war against Iraq, the Gulf War. By six months of Iraqi occupation, and with only five weeks of sustained combat operations, the coalition forces led by the U.S. drove Saddam’s Republican Guard from Kuwait. While U.S. and British forces achieved their military objective in the Gulf War, Saddam remained in power, creating an Iraqi narrative that Iraq had actually “won” the war, thanks to the incompleteness of the allied coalition’s victory. Emboldened by Iraq’s ostensible “victory,” Hussein and his senior subordinates taunted the U.S. and the UN throughout the 1990s by repeatedly violating UN-imposed disciplinary resolutions (Lambeth, 2013, p. 10).

Following the September 11th Al-Qaeda (AQ) attacks on the United States, and with Saddam’s dictatorship remaining the focus of international scrutiny, the U.S. quickly shifted their attention in the “war on terror” to preventing another 9/11-esque atrocity by way of Saddam’s reported weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The U.S. feared the next attack on their soil from the Middle East would not be with box-cutters, but WMDs. While the U.S. conducted their second year of combat operations in Afghanistan, invasion plans were created for the second Gulf War, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” There were many variables that affected the U.S. invasion decision, but no single publicized reason was higher than the concern regarding Saddam’s possession WMDs. The 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy stated that “we cannot let our enemies strike first….  The overlap between states that sponsor terror and those that pursue WMD compels us to action” (The White House, 2002). John Owen stated in his 2005  Foreign Policy article titled, Iraq and the Democratic Peace, that “The United States' real motives for attacking Iraq may have been complex, but "regime change" - the replacement of Saddam Hussein's gruesome tyranny with a democracy - was central to Washington's rhetoric by the time it began bombing Baghdad in March 2003” (Owen, 2005, pg. 1).

U.S. ground components entered Baghdad in April of 2003 and captured a reclusive Saddam in a hole near his home that December. Saddam declared that he would “go down fighting” but was apprehended by U.S. forces without firing a shot. Saddam spent the remaining three years of his life in U.S. custody, as the defendant in multiple international trails for his numerous crimes against humanity as dictator of Iraq. One of the most serious charges from the Iraqi Special Tribune was in regards to the “Anfal Genocide,” Saddam’s attempt “to annihilate the Kurdish race through military operations in 1988 that killed at least 50,000 civilians and destroyed thousands of villages” (Wang, 2006.) Saddam was convicted by the Iraqi Special Tribunal (for violations of Iraqi law) and executed by hanging on 30 December 2006 at an Iraqi Army Base in north Baghdad. Years later, CIA officials who participated in the final 2003 invasion planning expressed astonishment at the lack of forethought on how the country would be managed after Saddam’s deposal (Warrick, 2016, p. 154).

Iraq’s Civil War

With Saddam in U.S. custody and the Baathist party falling apart, Iraqi citizens who were initially joyful quickly searched to place blame for the national travesty. The Shias blamed the Sunnis, the Sunnis opposed the Shias and the Kurds predictably sought their own state. As the previously oppressed ethnic and religious groups emerged from their latency, Iraq dissolved into intense sectarian violence and intrastate war. The broader civil war in Iraq began in 2004 as primarily an urban guerilla struggle by Sunni insurgents hoping to drive out the U.S. and to regain the legacy power held by Sunnis under Saddam’s rule. The conflict escalated in 2006 with the intensification of violence by Shia militias, seeking to defend Shiites from Sunni “ethnic cleansing” (Fearon, 2007).  Additionally, foreign Islamic mercenaries were pouring into Iraq, drawn by the prospect of fighting the occupying Americans and aligning with insurgent groups unleashing mayhem to destabilize the country and discredit the occupiers and their Iraqi supporters (Warrick, 2016, p. 153).

During the post Saddam chaos, Iraq’s administrative and bureaucratic functions fell into disrepair. Jody Warrick’s 2016 book, Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS, discussed this stating:

U.S. officials had not anticipated the breakdown in civil authority that would follow the invasion. By contrast, the decisions to dissolve the Iraqi army and ban Baath Party members from positions of authority were as deliberate as they were misguided. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, anyone seeking a management job, from school principal or police captain to the head of the intelligence service was obliged to join the Baath Party. So were applicants for Iraq’s universities...U.S. officials found themselves with two mammoth problems. One was the absence of the kinds of local security agencies best equipped to preserve order and root out illicit networks. The other was a large contingent of embittered and well-connected Iraqi officials who now had to fend for themselves without salaries or pensions (Warrick, 2016, p.155).

By arbitrary disbandment of local governing authorities, the U.S. had inadvertently dissolved any hope for security against extremist organizations while simultaneously ousting every Iraqi managerial job; this created immediate resentment towards the U.S. Many citizens were members of the Baath party out of necessity to accept a given job or position, by displaying loyalty to Saddam. The U.S. occupation attempted to support Iraq by establishing an effective government structure but gained with little success. U.S. forces. The last American combat troops departed Iraq on December 18, 2011. The Iraq America entered in 2003 was run by a maniacal dictator capable of unprecedented violence, who ruled with an iron fist and paranoid ideas stifling all opposing ideology or faction. The Iraq America left in 2011 endured seven years of intrastate conflict, had a weak government structure, poor human security conditions, stalled development, sectarian violence, and a disenfranchised youth majority. This appeared to be the perfect environment to facilitate the flame of violent extremism, in a region soon to catch fire.

The Rise of the Islamic State

“We’ve broken Sykes-Picot!... We are destroying the borders and breaking the barriers. Thanks be to Allah.”

-- Islamic State fighter, 2014 (Marshall, 2014, pg. 144).

By the conclusion of 2014, the transnational Sunni Islamist insurgent and terrorist group known as Daesh had established a strong foothold in Iraq, Syria and several countries on the periphery of the Middle East in an attempt to establish an “Islamic State,” or caliphate, to practice their extremist religious views and enforce sharia law. Although Daesh is primarily known in the West for their barbaric violence, they gained traction in the Middle East by seizing vast swaths of territory and establishing a government organizational structure with financial holdings comparable to a small country. The rapid development of Daesh as an organization shocked the international community and caught both regional states and foreign powers off-guard. Daesh was not new in any form; it grew within the ranks of existing terrorist networks and seized the opportunity to expand within the war-torn provinces of Iraq and Syria during the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the region. Daesh’s use of information technology multiplied the effectiveness of tactics employed by terrorist networks for decades, capitalizing on the exponential growth of global interconnectedness while simultaneously introducing the challenge of opposing a terrorist network that is seizing and holding territory in an effort to invoke independent sovereignty (McChrystal et al., 2015, pg. 31). Ahmed Rashid, a well known journalist and foreign policy author, is quoted as saying:

Not since the Arab Muslim armies spread out to conquer the world in the aftermath of the death of Prophet Muhammed in the seventh century have we witnessed such a powerful force that has combined brilliant military and political strategy along with abject cruelty and oppression of those under its thrall. - Ahmed Rashid (Lister, 2015, pg. 4)

While Islamic extremism is not a new concept in Iraq, Daesh began as an al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate in the late 1990’s. In 1999 AQ entrusted a Jordanian named Abu Musav al-Zarqawi to form their operations in Iraq. AQ loaned Zarqawi the equivalent of $200,000 with the task of initiating terrorist training camps in Iraq. Zarqawi’s ultimate objectives were to undermine occupying forces while simultaneously sparking a sectarian conflict in Iraq (Lister, 2015, pg. 27). Zarqawi not only hated the West, he equally despised Shia Muslims, believing they were just as much infidels as Christians and Jews. Zarqawi’s organization in Iraq became known as Jama’at al-Tawhi wa’al-Jihad (JTWJ).

Zarqawi rapidly grew JTWJ, enveloping local terrorist groups and integrating them into his organization through both recruiting and strategic messaging that demonstrated his organization’s achievements and goals. He formally pledged support to al-Qaeda in 2004 and reflagged JWTJ as al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI). However, there were several key differences between AQI and AQ that produced friction. While AQ sought to initially destroy the distant enemy to gain notoriety in order to eventually topple the local enemy of Arab rulers, AQI had an entirely different approach, believing that political power and territory must first be won in the Middle East (Lister, 2015, pg. 9). Warrick described Zarqawi and Daesh during this period stating:

“Like a seed stirred up by a vile wind, the Jordanian had landed at precisely the right time in a patch of soil that had been perfectly prepared to enable him to take root. The fertile soil was Iraq after de-Baathification, the rain and sunshine were the ineptitude of the provisional authority and U.S. misunderstandings of Iraqis and their culture. All of that allowed Zarqawi to blossom and grow (Warrick, 2016, p. 159).

Daesh focused on creating the original theocratic Islamic State of Muhammed’s time, during which the religious government ruled the region and the law of the land was synonymous with traditional Islamic principles. This state is seen as the Muslim “paradise on earth” and referred to as the caliphate. The term “caliphate,” previously recognized as just an Islamic government, has changed slightly in definition. In relation to established Islamic terrorist organizations, a caliphate now more directly refers to the traditional Islamic State depicted in Muhammed’s period with the incorporation of sharia law. Sheik Abu Muhammed al-Adnani al-Shami, a spokesperson for Daesh, described the establishment of the caliphate as “a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer” and “the neglected obligation of the era.” While devout Muslims believe the entirety of the world should be an Islamic state, this mindset demonstrates that through the framework of realism that their initial goal is to establish a state with the purpose of achieving security and a level of status quo culture to exercise sharia law.

Counterfactual Analysis

“As coalition forces arrived in Baghdad at the start of March 2003, the city descended into chaos. Crowds surged into the streets to celebrate the fall of Saddam Hussein…beneath the chaos, numerous groups were maneuvering to peruse their agendas in post-Saddam Iraq. The post-Saddam power vacuum created opportunities for ambitious, radical and determined political factions.”

-- Nicholas Krohey, Foreign Affairs

The United States, driven by democratic peace theory and the claims of a nuclear threat saw fit to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Saddam was ruthless, violent, and an authoritarian considered unpredictable by international leaders. While Saddam didn’t enforce Sharia law, his law was equally as viciously violent towards Iraqi citizens. International leaders, U.S. citizens and Iraqi citizens cheered when Saddam was removed from power in 2003. But, as referenced in the counterfactual approach, what condition did this leave Iraq in? Is hind-sight 20/20 or did the U.S. and the international community recognize they would just exchange an authoritarian nationalist tyrant for a violent Islamic extremist group?

Saddam’s Iraq inadvertently prevented the rise of Daesh and other political opposition through three primary notions. First, Saddam’s Baathist party aggressively enforced their narrative of nationalism, abolishing the potential for Islamic extremism at any opportunity. His ideology was incompatible with Islamic extremism, giving that his vision advanced a nationalistic and socialist state, where as Islamism, like Daesh, would call for an “Islamic State.” Saddam would tolerate one state, his Arab state. The Baathists maintained records of every Islamic leader in Iraq and would actively track down and murder any Islamist demonstrating extremist tendencies (Brill et al., 2016). While one could argue that Saddam was anti-Islam, he was not. Saddam recognized that to maintain order, and his power, he had to defend against both a coup and the potential for a religious uprising. While the foundations of terrorist organizations, based in existing radical religious ideologies, still existed in small cells within Iraq, none could gain (or would attempt to gain) momentum and growth during Saddam’s rule.

Second, although Saddam persecuted both the Shia and the Kurds, ideologically, he attempted to unify Iraq through nationalism. Saddam’s authoritarian rule in Iraq was unique in the sense that he attempted to be inclusive, when the situation suited him. He saw any divide among people groups as capable of creating unrest that would further the potential for chaos that challenged his regime. He expanded his program of rewards to minorities and women to gain loyalty; this also inadvertently gave many previously persecuted individuals purpose in service to his administration. His favor for loyalty of disenfranchised groups prevented them from seeking purpose through traditional religious means or extremism, which he had purposely stifled.

Third, Saddam not only filled the traditional “power vacuum,” he recognized Iraq’s historical turnover of aggressive regimes, and became obsessive in its prevention. Saddam had an extensive intelligence network that prevented any other militant group from gaining traction.  He maintained a close eye on individuals associated with insurgency networks, or eliminated their threat. Saddam’s control aggressively dismantled any factions that attempted to incite change in the country. As shown by the weeks and months after the 2003 invasion, these ideological groups were present, dormant but present; Saddam’s ruthless rule kept them dormant. The centralization of power and strict mandates produced by the Baathist party prevented the possibility of the ensuing civil war that was demonstrated after Saddam’s removal. While the Baathists were brutal in their own right, it was a calculated violence relative to the chaos of Iraq’s post-Saddam civil war that set the conditions for Daesh to seize entire cities.

Some scholars claim that Saddam’s Baathist partly paved the way for Daesh, considering that many former members joined and served key roles in the terrorist group. Brill and Helfont also address this theory, stating:

Since 2003, former Baathists have joined a variety of insurgent groups, not just ISIS. They have shifted their loyalties over time according to the political climate, to those they judged could successfully take power. Like others throughout history, Iraqis have repeatedly demonstrated a tremendous capacity for adapting to current circumstances and acquiescing to the dominant ideology. The U.S. led-invasion and ensuing insurgency destroyed the Iraqi state as well as the Iraqi political system and ignited a civil war. Daesh is a symptom of a broken state and the broken political system that has emerged since 2003 (Brill et al., 2016).

Once the reign of Saddam was lifted, conditions in areas such as the Middle East are ripe for its inhabitants to embrace any ideology that promises a positive change, for many Iraqis they hoped that “positive change” was the Islamic State (Suarez, 2015, p. 24). For years afterward, when CIA officials would dissect the mistakes of the war’s early months, some would marvel at the improbable confluences that enabled Zarqawi to achieve so much so quickly (Warrick, 2016, p. 159.)


“Whatever decision had been made in 2003, in 2014 we would be facing a major challenge.”

-- British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Many theorists believe that, by no later than 2010, Iraq would have led a revolution against Saddam.  Others believe that the Baathist party was flexible and resilient enough to maintain power if they could find a suitable heir to take Saddam’s position. We will never know what would have been the outcome of Saddam’s Iraq in alternative scenarios, but we do know it would have continued to be bloody and violent under Saddam’s fist. However, it is clear that had Saddam remained in power, Daesh would have been prevented from seizing territory, establishing a proto-state government and extorting billions of dollars of Iraqi oil funds to facilitate their rise to power within the region. An argument could be made that Daesh would have just formed elsewhere, but likely would have lacked the momentum produced by extorting Iraqi resources. A strong argument can be made that Iraq was a target of opportunity and that the Daesh movement would have attempted to grow through Syria’s chaotic civil war.

In regard to a counterfactual approach. I believe it is inconclusive. This analysis is important because Iraq is a case study among many other distressed or less developed state challenges in the international community. One additional case study, in similarity to Iraq and within the decade is Libya. Instead of Saddam, Libya had then-President and Arab nationalist Muammar Gaddafi, condemned by many as a dictator. Like Saddam, the international community found reason to remove Gaddafi from power, immediately facilitating Libya’s power struggle by factions, descending the state into civil war and generating a safe-haven for terrorism. As LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn stated, "he (Qadaffi) was a thug in a dangerous neighborhood, but he was keeping order" (Becker et al., 2016, p. 7). A similar statement could have been made about Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Alan Kuperman, in his Foreign Affairs article titled, Obama’s Libya Debacle, he stated:

Libya has not only failed to evolve into a democracy; it has devolved into a failed state. Violent deaths and other human rights abuses have increased several fold. Rather than helping the United States combat terrorism, as Qaddafi did during his last decade in power, Libya now serves as a safe haven for militias affiliated with both al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Libya intervention has harmed other U.S. interests as well: undermining nuclear nonproliferation, chilling Russian cooperation at the UN, and fueling Syria’s civil war (Kuperman, 2016, p. 4).

The primary purpose of the conclusion is not to glorify dictators and authoritarian rule in Less Developed Countries (LDC), but to emphasize the need to take conduct deliberate analysis before deposing rulers who do not align with US interests. The model challenge of an authoritarian dictator inflicting a violent and ruthless rule on his subjects in an LDC is not a new challenge. Saddam was not the first dictator and he will not be the last. It is imperative to recognize several key analysis points prior to seeking reform in these scenarios.

First, what is the demographic of the state, is it a generally homogenous culture that will likely unify following change, or is it a culture prone to sectarian violence with a high probability of transitioning into a civil war and transitioning to a failed state, like Iraq and Libya? Second, has the ruler been successful in leading that country, aside from violence, and why is that the case? What foundational values must be implemented as key pillars to a potential follow-on governmental structure? Lastly, how will the responsibility be transferred back to the state following regime change, if a regime change is pursued? An LDC cannot reasonably be expected to maintain their security after a hasty transition to a temporary or stand in government. Responsibility must be formally and deliberately transferred. Additionally it is important to emphasize that democracy can be an unrealistic goal in a state that has no common values between disjointed people groups. Solutions have to be individually developed by region, specifically unique to the state in question, there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer through democratic peace theory.

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About the Author(s)

Kyle Amonson is an active duty Army Major and graduate student at Royal Military College of Canada. Major Amonson received his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech and holds a master’s degree in International Relations - International Security from Norwich University. He has deployed in support of various operations throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Opinions expressed in his articles are those of the author's and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.