On January 20, 1970, the government of Iraq crushed a coup attempt … and in the days immediately ensuing it executed a reported 44 people.
From the vantage of the decades since passed, this must appear but a minor bloodbath — and an early harbinger of the lethal political orbit of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq at this point was a mere 18 months into the rule of the Ba’ath party, commanded for the moment by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, elder cousin to his number two, Saddam Hussein. Over the course of the 1970s, Saddam became ever more the essential man in Baghdad until by decade’s end he was able to usurp his kinsman in another bloody purge.
Although as a young man Saddam had been a CIA asset against a previous ruler, Ba’athist Iraq was Soviet-aligned — and an enemy to American-backed Iran. As usual for the Cold War, everyone was interested in overthrowing one another’s proxies.
According to Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, the coup that forms our concern this date was led by two retired senior officers, Abd al-Ghani al-Rawi, a loyalist of the Ba’athists’ Nasserite predecessors, and Salih Mahdi al-Samarra’i — and, Baghdad charged, backed by “Iran, the CIA, and the Zionists.”
According to the official account, the plotters formed “hit squads” that were supposed to kill Party and governmental officials. The zero hour was set for 10:00 pm. on January 20, but most of the plotters had been arrested beforehand. The hard core of the plot, some 50 armed men headed by al-Samarra’i, managed to set out for the Presidential Palace. Once they reached their destination, the gates were thrown open, and after entering without resistance, the grou pwas led into a large hall. As they weighed their options, the door was thrown open and Saddam entered the hall, accompanied by several officers. The plotters surrendered peacefully, after recognizing that they had been lured into a trap.
A snap tribunal chaired by Taha Yassin Ramadan — himself destined for hanging during the American occupation — instantly convened and began meting out death sentences by the fistful: for civilians, hangings; for military men, shootings conducted with the rebels’ own weaponry.