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.
The Baath party runs youth and pioneer wings, and cells are found in city neighborhoods and places of work. Absolute loyalty is demanded of every Iraqi. Disloyalty is a capital offense.
The Baath party hierarchy and the ruling Revolution Command Council are intertwined to form the leadership of Iraq - with all important decisions made by Saddam.
The president has ensured the loyalty of those around him by ordering the dismissal and execution of anyone coming under suspicion, and by appointing members of his own family and clan from the town of Tikrit to top jobs - both in the Baath party and the government.
The leadership of the Baath party is also closely associated with the Sunni Muslim community in Iraq, which accounts for less than one-quarter of the population and is centered around the capital, Baghdad.
The Sunni domination has added to the hatred felt by many Kurds and Shiites toward the Baghdad leadership.
Watching for signs of disloyalty on the lower rungs of the Baath party ladder and throughout the population are four internal security and intelligence services, each with a duty to report on the activities of the others.
The ideology of the Iraqi Baath party has been swamped by the personality cult surrounding the president. This has given Saddam the freedom to use the party for his own ends.
For example, during the Gulf crisis, he stressed Islamic ideals - ideals that had not been expressed before nor since and were hardly in keeping with the Baath party principle of secular socialism.