Global Policy Forum

Saddam's Baath Party Is Back in Business


By Hannah Allam

Iraq News Net
September 9, 2004

By day, Iraqis loyal to Saddam's Hussein's much-feared Baath Party recite their oath in clandestine meetings, solicit donations from former members and talk politics over sugary tea at a Baghdad cafe known as simply "The Party." By night, cells of these same men stage attacks on American and Iraqi forces, host soirees for Saddam's birthday and other former regime holidays, and debrief informants still dressed in suits and ties from their jobs in the new, U.S.-backed Iraqi government.

Even with Saddam under lock and key, the Baath Party is back in business. The pan-Arab socialist movement is going strong with sophisticated computer technology, high-level infiltration of the new government and plenty of recruits in thousands of disenchanted, impoverished Sunni Muslim Iraqis, according to interviews with current and former members, Iraqi government officials and groups trying to root out former Baathists.

The political party has morphed into a catchall resistance movement that poses a serious challenge to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a Baathist-turned-opposition leader. Allawi has acknowledged he's holding talks with members of the former regime in hopes of gaining a handle on the violence and political disarray. But he's up against a force with deep pockets, allies in neighboring countries and an excuse to fight as long as 135,000 American troops remain on Iraqi soil.

"There are two governments in Iraq," said Mithal al Alusi, director general of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification, a group overseen by Iraqi politician and former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi. "(The Baathists) are like thieves, stealing the power of the new government. Their work is organized and strong."

Ostensibly banned since Saddam's ouster, the Baath Party has rebuilt itself by sending top members of the former regime to safe houses in Jordan and Syria, Iraqi government officials said. The foot soldiers - mainly from the vast ranks of mid-level members - remain in Iraq, where they've started Web sites and formed independent cells and communicate outside the radar of U.S. forces through a word-of-mouth network known in Baathist parlance as "the thread."

No one can say with certainty how big the latest Baathist incarnation is. The secrecy of the organization is evident even on one of its main Web sites, where a pop-up feature tells users how to erase the Web address from the computer's memory. In the Saddam stronghold north and west of the capital, a sprawling area known as the Sunni Triangle, Baathists freely distribute price lists to unemployed young men. Burning a U.S. Humvee or detonating a homemade bomb can earn them a few hundred dollars. Killing an American soldiers brings at least $1,000.

A political science professor at Baghdad University who's a former Baathist and has been involved in negotiations between the party and the U.S.-led coalition said, "The Americans came to Iraq with a foggy picture of what is going on, including their ideas about the Baathists."

The U.S. military and the U.S. State department declined to comment on the Baathist resurgence. The 52-year-old professor, who did not want his name used, said his American colleagues mistakenly believed that Saddam's capture in December was the end of the Baathist movement in Iraq. Instead, he continued, that's just when party members in Iraq started reconciling with powerful Baathists in Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan.

The result was the return to Iraq of a handful of prominent exiled Iraqi members, who created a shadowy, neo-Baathist organization called "Al Islah," Arabic for "The Reform." The group held a conference in London in early spring, according to news accounts of the private meeting and sources familiar with the participants. "This conference ... stressed one thing: that there is no difference between the Baath Party and the resistance," the professor said. "They are equal."

Within a year after the fall of the former regime, the Baath Party was restructured as an umbrella organization for opposition groups that run the gamut from anti-occupation nationalists to Islamic extremists, said Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Kadhim said there is no doubt that Baathists remain active in Iraq, numbering in "the thousands." The Iraqi government is struggling to track their activities, he said, because of the U.S.-led dismantling of the old intelligence apparatus and the fact that former Baathists are much better trained and organized than the Allawi government's fledgling agents. "(The Baathists) have their weapons and they have their money and they are still in Iraq," Kadhim said. "Some of them are highly capable and they resent the fact that they are no longer in charge."

The most brazen announcement of the Baathist resurgence came April 7, the 57th anniversary of the party. A statement posted on the Internet lamented that the holiday would be celebrated under occupation. It also made clear members' plans to take back western Iraq's Anbar province, home of the flashpoint Sunni towns of Fallujah and Ramadi. "The Baath Party and resistance are to implement a series of military operations against the U.S. Marines newly situated in western Iraq," the announcement read.

The same week, the hostility between Fallujah fighters and U.S.-led forces erupted into a full-scale uprising and a bloody, monthlong siege on the city by the Marines. By the time it was over, the Marines had effectively ceded control of Fallujah to a loosely connected band of Islamic extremists and former Baathists. The entire province is now a no-go zone for foreigners, particularly Americans.

Neo-Baathists describe the Fallujah ending as a victory, and they're using the model to recruit new members or woo former Baathists back into the fold. Several former members who've now distanced themselves from the party told Knight Ridder they've received late-night visits from their former comrades, asking for donations or reminding them of the privileges they enjoyed under Saddam.

Qusai, a middle-aged former Baathist who did not want his full name published, said he was approached by a former comrade at a marketplace in Ameriyah, a Saddam-friendly neighborhood in Baghdad. The man asked him to rejoin the party, Qusai recalled, and told him members had "already started to get reorganized."

"I asked him, `Are you kidding?"' Qusai said, recalling that he was "sweating with fear." The man clearly wasn't kidding. That meeting was in February, and the incident so disturbed Qusai that he instructed his family to tell other former Baathists who came calling that he was out of town on business. Still not comfortable that he was out of reach for the party, Qusai eventually gave up his home and now lives in another district of the capital. "It meant only one thing for me: troubles ahead," Qusai said. "I had to make a difficult decision to evade the situation."

De-Baathification officials arranged a meeting last week between Knight Ridder and a young man who is still active in the Baath Party. The man, most likely an informant for the de-Baathification commission, still carried his old identification card marking him as a member of Saddam's dreaded intelligence force, the Mukhabarat. He confirmed what government and military officials said: Baathists are a highly structured political and armed resistance force. But he emphasized that returning to the party was a one-way route. He told the story of a man from a powerful cell of fighters north of the capital who regretted his decision and tried to leave. "He couldn't take the pressure and he fled," said the Baathist, who would not reveal his name. "We found his body in the Tigris River."

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