The Head of the Snake

The problem in Iraq is not just Saddam Hussein. It's an entire political structure that has kept him in power for nearly 25 years. That structure—meaning, above all, his Baath Party—must be destroyed.

Iraq is a police state, governed by a totalitarian party much like Hitler's Nazi Party and Stalin's Communist Party. The Baath Party has its roots in the European totalitarianism of the 1930s. The party was founded in 1943 by French-educated Arab intellectuals.

After World War II, the Baath Party emerged as the leading force of radical pan-Arab nationalism. In the 1960s, the party came to power in Syria and Iraq. But those two countries became bitter rivals, each claiming to represent true Baathist ideals, much as the Soviet Union and China claimed to embody the truest form of communism.

The Baath Party maintains total control of Iraq's political life. Only about 10 percent of Iraqis are members, but the party ruthlessly suppresses all political opposition. In some ways, Baathism resembles Soviet Communism. Baath Party cells reach into every village, neighborhood, and factory. The party has controlled all Iraqi media. Every military unit has an ideological commissar. Elections offer a choice of one party.

In other ways, the Baath Party resembles the Nazi Party. It has a deeply entrenched paramilitary culture. Hitler had the SS. Saddam has his Republican Guard. The fedayeen are Saddam's storm troopers, with the same brutality and fanaticism. "Our blood, our souls, we sacrifice for Saddam," Baath Party members chant.

The Baath Party's extensive network explains why ordinary Iraqis have been reluctant to celebrate the arrival of their liberators. They're afraid, said David Ignatius, former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune. "While I was in Umm Qasr over the weekend, there was a program to give jobs to young kids from the town," Ignatius said last week. "They kept looking over their shoulders to see if people they suspected were in the Baath Party were in the group. One of them said to me, 'You know, if you Americans and British leave here, they'll hang us. We're dead.' "

Saddam's Baath Party and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda are both enemies of the United States. But they have different roots—the Baath Party in the Arab nationalist tradition, Al Qaeda in Islamic fundamentalism—and different dreams.

Saddam dreams of an Arab empire spanning the Middle East—a new Ottoman Empire ruled by Arabs, not Turks. The Baath Party is, by tradition, secular. In the 1970s and '80s, Iraq under the Baath Party became an advanced, modern country where women were emancipated.

Over the past decade, however, Saddam's ideology has shifted. He has embraced Islam—building dozens of mosques, banning alcohol, mandating religious education, even adding "God is great" to the Iraqi flag.

All totalitarian parties are rigidly controlled from the top. They degenerate into cults of personality—Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Saddam's Iraq. Saddam's real religion is himself. In Saddam's Iraq, religion serves the interests of the state.

Osama bin Laden dreams of a Muslim empire, spanning the world, strictly ruled by Islamic law. Although Saudi by birth, bin Laden has been exiled from Saudi Arabia. He has no country. In bin Laden's empire, the state serves the interests of religion.

Bin Laden's goal? To rid the world of nonbelievers. "God said [the faithful] should pick up arms and kill all those who are infidels and who do not believe," bin Laden exhorted his followers on an audiotape released in February.

In the 1980s, both men benefited from U.S. policies: bin Laden from U.S. support for Afghan resistance fighters in their war against the Soviet Union; Saddam from U.S. support in his war against Iran.

In the 1990s, after the Persian Gulf War, both men became devoted enemies of the United States—Saddam because the United States challenged his ambition to dominate the region; bin Laden because he could not tolerate a U.S. presence on holy Muslim soil and a U.S. culture that corrupted Muslim purity.

While bringing bin Laden to justice is a high priority for the United States, it is not essential to winning the war on terrorism. Bringing down Saddam, however, is essential to destroying the Iraqi regime. "It's almost like cutting off the head of the snake, and the rest of the body will go," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said.

The bet is that when Saddam and his henchmen are gone, the Baath regime will crumble, just as the Nazi Party did after Hitler's suicide in his Berlin bunker. The United States insists it's making war only on the Iraqi regime, not on the Iraqi people, or even the Iraqi military. The United States is trying to get the Iraqi people and soldiers to switch sides, which is something that's not likely to happen until the Iraqis see proof that Saddam is truly gone. Ignatius reported, "Another [Iraqi] talked about the magic that Saddam has, to somehow survive and survive, and said, 'We won't sleep well at night until we know he's dead.' "

After the war, the coalition will have to undertake a de-Baathification campaign, just like the de-Nazification campaign conducted in Germany after World War II, to get rid of the poisonous political institution that kept a brutal dictator in power.