Iraq was a British mandate under the League of Nations from 1920 until 13 October 1932, when it became a sovereign and an independent state. Following a military coup of July 1958 that overthrew the monarchy, Iraq was declared a republic and has since been governed by various constitutions. According to the 1970 Constitution and its 1973 amendments, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was the supreme organ of the state. A simple majority elected its members from the Regional Command of the Socialist Arab Ba'ath Party. The RCC oversaw foreign as well as domestic policies, declared war, concluded peace, and ratified treaties. It elected the president and the vice president by a two-thirds majority. The president of the country was concurrently the chairman of the RCC. The president was responsible to the RCC, but the Constitution did not spell out his term of office. The president was the commander in chief of the armed forces, nominated members of the council of ministers, and appointed Iraq's diplomatic representatives abroad. The vice president and minister were responsible to the president.
The Constitution contained provisions for a National Assembly with responsibility to consider bills suggested by the RCC or the assembly members. No National Assembly existed in Iraq between the 1958 revolution and 1980.
On 8 February 1963, a military coup carried out by the Ba'ath Party and Nationalist Army officers overthrew the government of Abdul Karim Qasim. Abdul Salem Arif, who had been sentenced to death by Qasim in January 1959, became the prime minister. Following this coup, Saddam Hussein returned to Baghdad from Egypt, where he had been living in exile, and became active in the Ba'ath Party. When political disagreements arose between Ba'athists and Arif, Arif declared the Ba'ath Party illegal, and Hussein and other Ba'athists went underground. Hussein was arrested in 1964 and imprisoned, but escaped in 1966. He fled into hiding again and was named deputy secretary of regional leadership for the Ba'ath Party in 1966.
When Arif was killed in a helicopter crash in April 1966, his brother Abdul Rahman Arif became the president. A group of Ba'athist officers under Hassan al-Bakr organized a military coup on 17 July 1968 and deposed Abdul Rahman Arif. Al-Bakr then became the president and the chairman of RCC. Saddam Hussein, who took an active role in organizing the coup, was elected acting deputy chairman of the RCC, a post he held from November 1969 until July 1979. Finally, on 16 July, President al-Bakr announced his resignation from both the Ba'ath Party and the government because of health reasons. He relinquished the presidency to Hussein, who became chairman of the RCC, prime minister, and secretary of the Ba'ath Party.
A year later, in June 1980, the first National Assembly was elected, but it was comprised of members close to Hussein and had little power. Through the 1980s, National Assembly elections were held fairly regularly (1980, 1984, and 1989).
Saddam Hussein's ambition was to become a regional leader. In September 1980, he decided to invade Iran, partly in an attempt to broaden his regional sphere of influence and partly because he feared the growing power of Islamic fundamentalists in that country. He used the war to generate internal as well as external support for his regime and to weaken opposition forces in Iraq.
Opposition to Hussein came from disparate Kurdish, Communist, and Shiite organizations within Iraq. Although these forces were internally divided and often antagonistic toward one another, they would repeatedly attempt to forge efforts to unseat the government of Saddam Hussein. In turn, Hussein's government tried to coerce, intimidate, and appease the opposition. Kurdish and Shiite opposition intensified during the course of the Iran-Iraq War. In November 1980, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the Unified Socialist Party of Kurdistan (USPK), and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) formed the Democratic Iraqi Front. Around the same time in Syria, a National Pan-Arab Democratic Front, composed of different groups, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Ba'ath, as well as ICP dissidents, was formed. In November 1982, the Shiite opposition established the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq for the purpose of overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government. In May 1988, the DPK and the PUK announced that a coalition of six organizations had been formed to continue the struggle for Kurdish self-determination.
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait after a lengthy dispute regarding territory, debt repayment, and petroleum production quotas. In reaction, the United Nations (UN) imposed sanctions on Iraq and set a deadline of 15 January 1991 for Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. Hussein refused to withdraw his troops, triggering what would become known as the Persian Gulf War. A multinational force led by the United States began "Operation Desert Storm," comprised of a series of air strikes on Baghdad followed by a ground offensive to liberate Kuwait. Defeated in a few short weeks, Hussein withdrew his forces from Kuwait and accepted UN Security Council Resolution 687, which indicated the terms for a ceasefire, war reparations, and conditions for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq.
Over the next few years devastation resulting from Allied bombing, coupled with the effects of the UN sanctions, led to a deterioration of economic conditions: hyperinflation, the devaluation of the Iraqi currency, the rise of unemployment, and the decline of agricultural production. Most industrial development projects requiring foreign participation were suspended. The Iraqi economy continued its decline throughout the 1990s and living conditions for all Iraqis deteriorated as a result. UN sanctions, imposed in 1990, prohibited Iraq from selling oil on the global market and froze Iraqi assets overseas.
In May 1991, recognizing the need to rebuild Iraq's damaged infrastructure and restore its industrial production, the government approved new regulations to encourage greater Arab investment and provided incentives for farmers to enhance agricultural output. Hussein adopted various policies to retain or enhance his political power. Through these measures he expected to attract the support and loyalties of a broader spectrum of the population, as well as to weaken political opposition to his regime.
No legislative elections had been held since 1989 and Hussein's Ba'ath party had a stranglehold on all political activity; in March 1996, when the legislative election for the fourth National Assembly was held, all 689 candidates either Ba'ath Party members or nonpartisan supporters. (The same was true of all candidates in the 27 March 2000 election for the fifth National Assembly.)
Throughout his years in power, actual and potential opponents of Hussein were systematically purged from the government and military and replaced by loyalists. Learning from the experience of military coups in the 1960s, Hussein paid close attention to the loyalties of senior military officers and the political control of the military forces by the Ba'ath Party. His relatives and members of his clan from Takrit filled most sensitive positions in the military, and Hussein used both the "carrot and stick"—surveillance and intimidation accompanied by lavish material incentives—to keep them under his control. Despite such inducements and control, coup attempts by senior army officers were reported in 1989 and 1995. Moreover, a coalition of opposition groups created the Iraqi National Congress in October 1992 to overthrow Hussein. Some of these opposition forces were encouraged or supported by Iran and Syria, but they remained weak and divided.
In December 1996, the UN agreed to an "oil for food" arrangement with Iraq. The program allowed Iraq to export $2 billion in oil to buy food and medical supplies. Iraq began receiving 400,000 tons of wheat in the spring of 1997. In 1999 the UN's "oil for food" program was expanded to allow for the sale of $5.25 billion in oil by Iraq over a six-month period to buy good and medicine. As of 2000, most observers agreed that the decade-long UN sanctions, while impoverishing Iraq and threatening its population with a major humanitarian crisis, had failed in their goal of weakening Hussein's hold on power.
Despite the scarcity of food, educational supplies, and other basic necessities caused by nine years of international trade sanctions against his country, Hussein celebrated his sixty-third birthday in 1999 with the unveiling of a large mural depicting himself as Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of ancient Babylon. Supporters paraded as part of the birthday celebration, carrying banners that proclaimed, "With your birth Iraq was reborn." By April 2003, Hussein's regime had ended, with his whereabouts unknown.