Earlier in 1979, Iraqi president and chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr had begun to make treaties with Syria, also under Ba'athist leadership, that would lead to the unification of the two countries. Syrian president Hafez al-Assad would become deputy leader of the union, and this would drive Saddam Hussein and his Sunni clique into obscurity. Hussein acted to secure his grip on power. The ailing al-Bakr resigned on July 16 under the threat of force, and formally transferred the presidency and chairmanship of the RCC to the "cherished comrade Saddam Hussein". RCC secretary Muhyi Abdel-Hussein objected to the transfer of power.
|BBC News "Saddam's 1979 Baath Party purge", Footage of the purge from a Ba'ath Party video|
Hussein hurriedly convened an assembly of party leaders on July 22. During the assembly, which he ordered videotaped, he claimed to have uncovered a fifth column within the party. Abdel-Hussein, broken after days of physical torture and under the threat of his family's execution, confessed to taking a leading role in a Syrian-backed plot against the Iraqi government and gave the names of 68 alleged co-conspirators. These were removed from the room one by one as their names were called and taken into custody. After the list was read, Hussein congratulated those still seated in the room for their past and future loyalty. Those arrested at the meeting were subsequently tried together and found guilty of treason. Twenty-two men, including five members of the Revolutionary Command Council, were sentenced to execution. Those spared were given weapons and directed to execute their comrades.
By August 1, hundreds of high-ranking Ba'ath Party members had been executed. On August 8, the Iraqi News Agency announced that twenty-one of the twenty-two Iraqis were executed by firing squad for "their part in a plot to overthrow Iraq's new president". The twenty-second man was condemned to death in absentia because he was "nowhere to be found", the agency said. A tape of the assembly and of the executions was distributed throughout the country. "On an August afternoon in 1979, his face tense and somber, Saddam Hussein from the balcony of the presidential palace in Baghdad "informed a chanting crowd of 50,000 supporters "that he had just witnessed the punishment the state court had ordered for 21 of those men: They had been executed by a firing squad. The crowd cheered".
Essayist Christopher Hitchens argues that the purge was the watershed moment in which Hussein became supreme leader of Iraq, comparable to the Night of the Long Knives in Nazi Germany or the murder of Sergey Kirov, culminating in the Great Purge in the Soviet Union.