When the Iraqi government announced late last year that every one of the nation's 11.5 million eligible voters turned out for a national referendum, and that every one of them voted to keep Saddam Hussein as president, the United States dismissed the results as propaganda.
But it appears that there was an important message coming from that pseudo-election. The lesson was not that Saddam is loved, but that his ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party is so firmly in control, so well organized, that it was easily able to mobilize millions of citizens to go to the polls in a one-candidate vote.
The Baath Party is one of Saddam's primary levers of power, and now that there is war, it has proven one of his most able weapons. Party loyalists, often joining with paramilitary fighters, have put up stiff resistance in the south, staging guerrilla strikes and attacking supply lines on the road south of Najaf, U.S. military officials say.
In Basra, several hundred party members dressed in civilian clothes have exchanged fire with British troops seeking to enter Iraq's second-largest city, according to the British. In some cases, party members have forced Iraqi soldiers to fight or face execution, and they have threatened to kill civilians if they tried to flee, say the U.S. and expatriate Iraqis.
With the pivotal battle for Baghdad now at hand, the party's militia is expected to serve as Saddam's final front line, his firewall between survival and liquidation. If they fight, the Baathists are poised for urban warfare, the type of street fighting American and British troops want to avoid.
And there is every reason to believe the party members will fight.
"They are so strict and obey orders right away," said Mohammed Ismail, 26, an Egyptian businessman who spent two weeks with Baath Party members in Iraq last summer at what he called a summer camp. "Above all they have unbelievable loyalty to Saddam Hussein. They truly love this guy."
There may be another reason they are, and will continue fighting.
After the 1991 Gulf War, when it appeared the United States might help oust Saddam's government, there were popular uprisings in the north and south and Baath Party members were targets of revenge. They were hanged, burned and their homes were looted before Saddam sent in elite army forces to quell the uprising. That memory remains fresh.
"Their destiny is now stuck with the government," Saad Jawad, a political scientist from Baghdad said before the current war began.
In conventional terms, Iraq made very few preparations for a military assault this time. The wide flat roads leading into the country, for example, were largely unprotected, except for an occasional trench or machine gunner.
But that may have been part of a calculation that Iraq did not stand a chance of winning a conventional war.
Instead Saddam's government began early and aggressively to prepare its Baath Party members to fight and maintain civil order.
The party has its roots in a political ideology grounded in Arab nationalism. But during Saddam's more than two decades in power, he has transformed it into a hybrid security force, separate and apart from traditional intelligence and military services.
In addition to its own militia, the organization has a network of spies and informers. All of the top military and political officials in Iraq must, by definition, belong to the Baath Party. It is the formal institution of authority, though true power in Iraq rests in the hands of a small elite.
In the run-up to the war, Baathists were trained and organized for combat. Party loyalists were appointed to every neighborhood, street and in some cities, every block, in order to keep the public in line.
Ahmed Abdul Kalik, 27, is a Baath Party member from Kirkuk, a northern Iraqi city that is rich in oil and a potential flash point because of its mixed ethic population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen. Five months before the invasion, he had already been given a military assignment in the event of war.
"I don't think the party will lose control," he said, displaying a confidence and bravado evident in many of his Baath colleagues. "Party members can defend Iraq. ... We will fight."
The party has a formal hierarchy, one that maximizes leadership control, while limiting its vulnerability to infiltration. Candidates must pass through four steps before becoming full members ¡X supporter, sympathizer, nominee and trainee. Of the 2 million citizens that Iraqi officials say are affiliated with the party, an estimated 40,000 are full members.
At the top of the hierarchy is Saddam, who over the years converted the political party into an organization that helps enforce his own cult of personality.
"The party is accused of being a dictator party," said Sayed Nassar, an Egyptian freelance journalist who knew Saddam while he was a political exile in Egypt during the early '60s. "It has to be. How else can you rule a country with six different ethnic and religious sects?"
The Arab Nationalist Baath Party was not conceived as a security organization. Its ideology was borne of centuries of occupation of Arab lands, first by the Ottoman Empire, then the British and French. The party was founded by Michel Aflak, a Syrian Christian, and Salah a-Din Bitar, a Syrian Muslim, while studying at the Sorbonne. It featured a secular philosophy that drew on elements of Nazism and Soviet-style communism while promoting Arab nationalism. It's guiding principles were "unity, freedom and socialism."
That platform was very popular among young, educated, middle-class Arabs.
"Imagine how charming I found these slogans, especially when supported by Aflak," said Dhirgham J. Kadhim, a former party member who fled Baghdad in the '70s and is now a member of the expatriate opposition. "The feeling in the Arab world was that our backwardness was caused by the Ottoman Empire which was a religious structure. So we were very happy as young students to promote Arabism. We were so happy that Aflak was Christian."
In 1947 the group was launched in Damascus, Syria, where since 1963 it has been the ruling party. The Iraqi branch was formed seven years later and by the late '60s it split from the Syrian wing in a dispute over leadership.
In 1979, Saddam took control of the party, and in a notorious incident forever transformed the party into an obedient tool of terror.
On July 18th of that year, Saddam called together members of the Revolutionary Command Council and hundreds of other Baath Party leaders. At the gathering in Baghdad, he announced that he had uncovered a coup plot. About 60 party leaders were taken away to be killed. Saddam videotaped the arrests and later had other party members participate in the executions.
"Since then the party became just like any of his security systems," said Kadhim, who slipped out of Iraq after his own arrest a few years earlier. "They have to report what they see, they have to act to protect the state, they have to justify what the state says, and anyone who goes off of this path will be killed. That was the end of any ideology."