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Contending For Iraq

Baathist Party Strayed from Original Ideals To Gain Absolute Control Over Iraqi Society. Saddam Hussein is striking decisive blows to the internal revolts challenging his grip on power. But efforts to maintain Baathist party rule are likely to face long-term Shiite and Kurdish resistance. Here, a closer look at the key factions in the country's power struggle. DEEP DIVISIONS IN IRAQ

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UNDER the absolute leadership of Saddam Hussein, the Arab Baath Socialist Party has governed Iraq since 1968 without consultation with any sectors of the population. But in apparent response to the recent popular uprisings, Saddam announced in March that democratic reforms would be introduced, including greater popular representation and freedom of the press.

If such measures are actually introduced, they will represent a dramatic departure from previous Baathist party practice.

The party was founded in Syria in 1947. In Arabic, Baath means Renaissance.

It was with a vision of the renaissance of the Arabs, based on principles of freedom, unity, and socialism that Michel Aflaq and Falah Bitar - both Syrians, one Christian and the other Sunni Muslim - formed the new party in Damascus. The party has been described as a radical, nationalist alternative to the Communist Party.

But the purity of the ideology did not live long. The Baath became entangled with the power of the military both in Syria and Iraq, where rival wings of the party which was supposed to unify the Arab world are still in power.

This rivalry stems more from the personal enmity between Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein than from differing interpretations of Baathist ideology.

The Baath party was a small institution within Iraq when it seized power in the coup of 1968. Today it dominates almost every aspect of life in the country.

Saddam is the secretary general and regional commander of his party. Immediately below him come some 50,000 fully signed up party members who enjoy special privileges. Below them there are more than 1 million party activists who are not full members.

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