War, Bureaucracy, and Controlling Religion in Saddam’s Iraq

This chapter is part of POMEPS Studies 35: Religion, Violence, and the State in Iraq. Download the full PDF here.

Samuel Helfont, Naval Postgraduate School

Scholarship on Iraq has traditionally argued that sanctions and other post-Gulf War restrictions had weakened the Iraqi regime. More recently, however, a new wave of scholarship has questioned that assumption.[1] This paper argues that the Iraqi regime strengthened in the 1990s, at least in relation to Iraq’s religious landscape, and that war played a significant role in that process. It makes this argument by examining the policies that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (1979-2003) enacted to manage both ideational and security threats emanating from the Iraqi religious landscape during war. The paper explores two instances – one from the Iran-Iraq War and one from the Gulf War – to demonstrate how the Ba‘thists responded to threats from Shi‘i Islamists in the 1980s, and from Salafis in the early 1990s, respectively. In each instance, taboos against sectarianism within the Ba‘thist bureaucracy transformed its initial policies, which were directed at a specific group of Iraqis, into much larger projects encompassing all of Iraq’s religious landscape.

How a desire to create Shi‘i scholars led to a predominantly Sunni university

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Iran-Iraq War spurred insurrection in the already restive Shi‘i regions of Iraq. The Ba‘thist regime had been concerned about unrest in Shi‘i regions of Iraq previously, but the war and the Iranian revolution transformed these concerns into real fear for the regime’s security. Baghdad blamed Iranian meddling for the increased unrest and developed numerous policies in the early 1980s to pacify the affected areas. In a meeting on September 9, 1984, Saddam wanted to limit perceived Iranian influence on the Shi‘i Muharram commemorations, which sometimes turned into anti-regime demonstrations. To do so, Saddam wanted to mitigate the influence of what he saw as Iranian-linked Shi‘i religious leaders by placing regime loyalists in key positions throughout the Shi‘i religious landscape. He ordered that “[Ba‘th] Party comrades who wish to become men of religion will be chosen with the proper specifications and competencies to perform the mission of influencing the minds of the citizens. This is a party duty and the responsibility for it lies with the party, especially in the provinces of Euphrates, the Center, and the South.”[2]

Saddam’s directive specifically dealt with “the month of Muharram” in which Shi‘is hold religious commemorations, and it mentioned the regions of the Euphrates, the Center, and the South which were home to Iraqi Shi‘is. Nevertheless, the Ba‘th Party Secretariat did not want to violate a well-established taboo on Sunni-Shi‘i relations. According to Ba‘thist dogma, Arabs were simply Arabs, and separating them into sects divided and weakened them. Thus, on September 23, 1984, the Iraqi Ba‘th Party Secretariat sent a memo with Saddam’s directive to all party bureaus, including those in the heavily Sunni areas in the north. The memo did not mention Muharram or connect the policy to problems emanating from Iraqi Shi‘is in the south.[3] The secretariat, therefore, transformed an issue that dealt specifically with Shi‘is into national policy effecting all Iraqis, regardless of sect or location.

By the beginning of 1985, the regime realized that it would not be able to find enough Ba‘thists willing to become religious leaders. Therefore, in May 1985, the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs developed a different strategy to achieve the same goals. Instead of populating the religious landscape with Ba‘thists, the regime would develop a “Special Institute for the Preparation of Imams and Sermon Givers.” Acceptance to this institute would be controlled by a special council to “ensure the desire of the student and his loyalty to the [Ba‘thist] revolution…” By creating loyal religious leaders, this institute would accomplish the same goal as the policy of having Ba‘thists become religious leaders. Saddam approved the plan a month later. The following year, in July 1986, the Iraqi daily, al-Jumhuriyya published a call for applications. The institute had been renamed the “Saddam Institute for Imams and Sermon Givers” and in closed-door meetings, regime officials stated explicitly that its purpose was to “treat negative phenomena.”[4]

This strategy proved much more fruitful and over the following years it was expanded. In 1988, the Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Abdullah Fadil, presented Saddam with a plan to develop a full university with the same mission. After undergoing reviews from the Ba‘th Party, the Iraqi Intelligence Service, and Saddam, it eventually opened in 1989 as the Saddam University for Islamic Studies. The new university emerged from the same abovementioned policies that were designed to create loyal religious leaders to counter Shi‘i unrest. As Fadil argued, the new university would “create an Islamic leadership … capable of thwarting Khomeini’s corrupt methods in the Islamic World.”[5] By the time the university opened, the Iran-Iraq War had ended and, therefore, countering Khomeini was less of a priority. Yet, policies that had originally been designed to address a particular threat in a specific region of Iraq had been transformed and broadened during the bureaucratic process. Despite the intent of the original policy, the leadership of the university and students who attended it were mostly Sunnis rather than Shi‘is. Nevertheless, the university fulfilled its role of providing religious leaders who the regime trusted, and, as discussed below, it played an important role in the regime’s religious policies in the 1990s.

Searching for Salafis in Shi‘i Hussayniyyat

On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The new war produced new threats for the regime. In particular, Baghdad became increasingly concerned about Salafis in Iraq. The Ba‘thists viewed Salafis as ultra-conservative Muslims, who practiced a deviant form of Islam, and who, despite their outward piety, promoted the political interest of Saudi Arabia and its imperialist supporters in the West. By the end of August 1990, the Ba‘thists began to respond to the perceived challenge that Iraqi Salafis would pose as tensions rose between Riyadh and Baghdad. Because the Salafi movement is Sunni, the Iraqi regime initially focused on Iraqi Sunnis. The party leadership convened a committee consisting of the heads of bureaus of the Sunni regions of the country (the North, the Center, and Baghdad), the Director of the Security Service (al-Amn al-‘Amm), and the Minister of Endowments and Religious Affairs. On August 21, 1990, the committee sent a report to Saddam titled “The Wahhabi Movement” (they used the terms Wahhabi and Salafi interchangeably). It recommended that the Ministry of Culture and Information “strengthen its censorship of texts which contain the ideas of this movement and prevent their circulation in the markets.” Furthermore, the committee proposed that the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs “assign imams and sermon givers in the mosques to erode [the influence of] this movement and to uncover their harmful intentions during their sermons.”[6] When Saddam approved the recommendations of the report on August 24, he also proclaimed that henceforth Salafis would be prohibited from a number of public sector roles on the grounds that they did not meet the appropriate “conditions of intellectual integrity (al-salama al-fikriyya).”[7]

Because of Ba‘thist taboos against distinguishing between Sunnis and Shi‘is, the regime sent Saddam’s directive to all bureaus of the country. Even those in Shi‘i areas were expected to implement it.[8] Iraqis who did not meet the standards of “intellectual integrity” were not permitted to hold positions in the Iraqi religious landscape. Therefore, a decree designating Salafis as such, required local Ba‘thists and the security services to root them out and to monitor all religious leaders for signs of Salafi influences. In order to counter the Salafi trend in their areas, the bureaus began to conduct “ongoing and rotating assessment of every man of religion and sermon giver to ensure that all of them are supporters of the march of the party and the [Ba‘thist] revolution.” However, while this surveillance originally targeted a specific Sunni threat, one finds examples of the party using this policy to monitor hussayniyyat (which are specifically Shi‘i institutions), and suspected Shi‘i Islamists were also rooted out for not possessing “intellectual integrity.” War and the eccentricities of Ba‘thism led to policies that had originally been directed at Salafis but became a blanket justification for monitoring all religious activity in Iraq, even among Shi‘is.[9]

The regime and the religious landscape in 1990s Iraq

In the 1990s Saddam began to speak more publicly about religion and to promote Ba‘thist ideas on Islam. He even launched a National Faith Campaign in 1993. The ideas of the Faith Campaign were not new, but the regime had been reticent to promote them without controlling the religious landscape of the country. The regime was concerned about two issues in particular. First, it needed religious leaders who would deliver the correct message about Islam to the Iraqi people. Otherwise, promoting religion could disseminate Islamist ideas that undermined the regime’s legitimacy. Second, the regime was infamously paranoid. It never fully trusted religious leaders and it wanted a way to monitor them. The two cases discussed above helped to mitigate these concerns.

It was no coincidence that Saddam launched his Faith Campaign the same exact week in 1993 as the first cohort graduated from the Saddam University for Islamic Studies.[10] The regime used the graduates to fill important positions throughout Iraq’s religious landscape. In fact, it was the regime’s official policy that “the graduates of the religious colleges be placed [in mosques and religious institutions].” The regime trusted these graduates to carry out its policies “in light of the close evaluation [they have undergone] to assess their loyalty to the party and the revolution.”[11] The Faith Campaign simply would not have been possible without the capacity that these graduates provided. Moreover, the attempt to root out Salafis had led to “ongoing and rotating assessment of every man of religion and sermon giver” throughout the entire country (excluding Kurdistan, which the regime did not control).[12] That was an extensive project. It required new institutions and specially qualified people.

As such, by the 1990s, wartime threats had pushed the Iraqi regime to develop the institutional capacity both to promote its version of religion and to monitor the religious landscape. As a result, increasing numbers of Iraqi religious leaders complied with, participated in, and in many instances legitimated Ba‘thist initiatives such as the Faith Campaign.[13] The regime simply did not exercise that type of control over the Iraqi religious landscape in previous periods. As such, the Faith Campaign marked a significant increase in the regime’s strength in relation to Iraq’s religious landscape.


As this paper demonstrates, the Iraqi regime developed new capabilities to monitor, manipulate, and ultimately exert control over Iraq’s religious landscape in the 1990s. These new capabilities stemmed from wartime threats as well as a sometimes irrational and convoluted bureaucratic processes, which produced ballooning authoritarian structures throughout Iraq’s religious landscape. Whatever the original intent of these policies, they eventually created a significant increase in the regime’s capacity to operate in the religious sphere. Thus, despite the debilitating sanction and other restriction imposed on Baghdad by the international community in the wake of the Gulf War, the regime was indeed stronger in relation to this sector of Iraqi society in the 1990s than it had been in earlier periods.

[1] Joseph Sassoon, “Review of State-Society Relations in Ba‘thist Iraq,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol, 43, No. 3 (August 2011): 561; Dina Rizk Khoury, Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Dina Rizk Khoury, “The Government of War,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 46 (2014): 791-3; Isam al-Khafaji, “War as a Vehicle for the Rise and Demise of a State-Controlled Society: The Case of Ba‘thist Iraq,” in Steven Heydemann, ed., War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2000); Ariel I. Ahram, “War-Making, State-Making, and Non-State Power in Iraq,” Yale Program on Governance and Local Development Working Paper, No. 1, 2015; and, Thierry Gongora, “War Making and State Power in the Contemporary Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997), 323-340; Samuel Helfont, Compulsion in Religion: Saddam Hussein, Islam, and the Roots of Insurgencies in Iraq (Oxford University Press, 2018).

[2] “Report,” BRCC, 046-3-6 (0618), September 9, 1984.

[3] “Decision,” BRCC, 046-3-6 (0614), September 23, 1984.

[4] “The Profession of Imam,” BRCC, 23-4-7 (162), June 29, 1985; Al-Jumhuriyya, July 9, 1986.

[5] “Islamic College of the University,” BRCC, 029-1-6 (0088-0089), June 30, 1988.

[6] “Wahhabi Movement,” BRCC, 3265_0003 (0100-0102), August 21, 1990.

[7] Untitled, BRCC, 3265_0003 (0098), August 24, 1990.

[8] “Intellectual Integrity,” BRCC, 3265_0003 (0095), August 30, 1990; “Activities taken by the comrade officials of the bureaus with regard to the hostile activities in mosques,” BRCC, 2696_0002 (0723-0724), undated, probably from 1993-4.

[9] “Information,” BRCC, 3199_0002 (0139), July 22, 1992. 

[10] Al-Jumhuriyya, June 25, 1993; And: Ofra Bengio, “Iraq,” in Ami Ayalon, ed., Middle East Contemporary Survey, Vol. 17, 1993 (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995) 392.

[11] “Important and Special Suggestions on the Position of Men of Religion and those who have been endorsed by the Meeting of the Comrades of the Secretariat of the Leadership of the Branches included under the Bureaus of Provinces of the Central Region.” BRCC, 3559_0001 (0163-4). Undated, probably from 1992.

[12] “Activities that were taken by the Comrades Officials of the Bureaus about the Hostile Activities in Mosques,” BRCC, 2696_0002 (0723-0724).

[13] Migdal suggests these categories are critical measures of strength. See footnote 1. Migdal, 32-3.