Boston Globe
Iraq's Ba'athists rebound on 2 fronts
Battle new leaders with force, politics
By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff
May 15, 2005

BAGHDAD -- Veterans of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath Party have begun
openly waging a two-pronged battle against the newly elected, US-backed
government. Some Ba'athists are publicly working to recover their rights and
regain political power. Others, according to former Ba'athists and Iraqi
officials, are now leading the bloody guerrilla war against Iraqi and
American troops.

Increasingly bold and confident, these Ba'athist leaders say that the slow
pace of democratic politics, coupled with continuing violence and
instability, has played into their hands, bringing them wider popularity
than even they expected.

Iraqi democrats and US officials view renascent Ba'athists as one of the
greatest threats to democracy. Even if the Ba'ath Party takes a new name and
abandons its allegiance to Hussein, they warn, the party still stands for
totalitarian rule and has no respect for minorities, human rights or
religious or civil freedom. And unlike Sunni Islamist extremists, who pursue
a vague and hard-to-achieve aim of pure religious rule, the secular
Ba'athists have a clear and, some say, achievable aim: to seize power
whenever America reduces its military presence in Iraq.

''The absence of the former regime and former authority created a vacuum, a
big vacuum," said Tayeh Abdulkerim, who served Hussein as defense and then
oil minister until 1982.

Ostracized for the first year after the fall of Hussein's regime, Abdulkerim
is now running for office as head of his own party, which has unabashedly
adopted the Ba'ath Party's traditional platform of central government
control, socialist economics, and Arab nationalism.

''After what Iraqis have seen of chaos and insecurity, of random killing and
destruction at the hands of the occupation forces, now they are nostalgic
and hoping for a return of the Ba'ath Party," Abdulkerim said.

He is among the most unrepentant of a half-dozen senior Ba'athists who say
they speak for the resistance and who believe that millions of Iraqis who
are Ba'athists or lean in favor of the party are longing for an alternative
to the ethnic and religious parties that dominate Iraq's Transitional
National Assembly.

But Iraqi and Western officials, alarmed by the increasingly visible role of
Ba'athists, have pledged to beat back the party's bid for power. ''We didn't
come over here and spend tens of billions of dollars and lose 1,500 American
dead, plus God knows how many injured, just to see another Saddam Hussein
rise up out of the ashes," a Western diplomat, who has met many former
Ba'athist leaders, said on condition of anonymity.

Immediately after US forces toppled Hussein's government in April 2003, the
occupation authority outlawed the Ba'ath Party, disbanded the military, and
purged senior Ba'athists from government jobs and the security forces.

This year, however, former Ba'ath members have returned to politics,
expressing an open fondness for the old regime that was unthinkable a year
ago, when even those closely linked to Hussein's rule shied away from public
praise of the former dictator.

''This is not a secret: Without the Ba'athists you cannot unite the
country," said Saleh Mutlak, a leader of the newest union of Sunni Arab
nationalist parties to storm onto the political scene in the past two

Articulate and politically aggressive leaders, foremost among them Mutlak
and former general Hassan Zeydan al-Lehibi, are trying to expand their
support base.

''The Ba'athists are the only ones who can stand against Islamic extremism,"
Mutlak said.

Since January's elections, Sunni Arab leaders have insisted, so far without
success, on nominating former senior Ba'athists for government posts. All
their nominees, including Mutlak and Lehibi, were rejected by Shi'ites and
Kurds for their histories during Hussein's time.

Lehibi, who has unflinchingly campaigned for restoration of the former army
and the withdrawal of US troops, was arrested last Sunday and released six
days later. American officials said they were not behind the arrest, and
it's unclear who detained him.

Like many Ba'athists returning to the political stage, Lehibi says that he
had a falling-out with Hussein that denied him a promotion to four-star
general. But he never criticized the regime or resigned from the Ba'ath

In an interview last month, Lehibi said that US forces must withdraw to
their bases and set a timetable to leave Iraq if they want an end to the

''As long as there is occupation, there is resistance," he said. ''For each
action, there is a reaction."

Iraqi officials estimate there were 1.4 to 2 million Ba'ath Party members;
along with their families, they may number 10 million, or more than
one-third of Iraq's population of about 26 million.

The political revival of the Ba'athists accompanies an apparent shift in
momentum inside the insurgency, in which Ba'athist military officers appear
to have eclipsed Islamist and tribal leaders, say those who have followed
its evolving tactics and financing.

Since October, Ba'athists with havens in Iraq's Sunni Triangle and in Syria
have taken control of training and arming insurgents and directing
operations, including suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks, said a pair of
US officials and five Iraqi politicians who say they have links to the
insurgency. Their assessment is endorsed by two Kurdish intelligence
officials and two Iraqi government officials who have seen intelligence from
captured insurgents.

Sadiq al-Mossawi -- a secular politician not tied to the Ba'athists who
tried unsuccessfully to persuade resistance groups to band together under a
restored monarchy -- said that Ba'athists who are committed to the old party
ideology now dominate the insurgency. Ba'athists have money they sequestered
before Hussein fled and can draw on legions of former intelligence and
military officers with tactical expertise, as well as immense weapons

But he said that former Ba'athists and Sunni Arab resistance leaders have
told him that Ba'athists are split between those who want to take power by
force and those who think they can regain it through electoral politics.

Sunni tribal sheiks have told Mossawi that they saw top Ba'athist
militants -- including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, once Hussein's top
lieutenant, and a wanted Ba'athist commander, Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad --
meeting with Iraqi tribal leaders in Syria to plan the insurgency during the
fall and winter.

The Iraqi and Syrian Ba'ath parties waged a vicious feud with each other for
three decades. But with the fall of Hussein, at least one branch of the old
Ba'athists has gained the support of Damascus, according to the Kurdish
intelligence officials, in an account corroborated by an American official
and an Iraqi government official, who have seen informant reports and
documents linking this Ba'athist faction to Syria.

Some insurgent Ba'athists are working with Syrians, while others who want a
political rebirth for the party are hostile to Syrian influence, according
to Mossawi and Abdulkerim, the Hussein-era oil minister.

Five US Embassy officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have
expressed doubt that any single political group such as the former
Ba'athists has widespread influence over an insurgency they describe as

But the Iraqi politicians and officials who have met with Ba'athists and
have seen captured documents said that such a view misses the mark. These
people say that although the Ba'athists aren't united, they share
fundamental political goals and beliefs and have decades of experience
working together, despite internal disputes.

Rival branches of the Ba'ath Party have met to elect clandestine command
structures. The political group met in Baqubah in June 2004, according to
Mossawi. A more militant, pro-Syrian group met in October 2004 in the Syrian
town of Hasaka, according to a Kurdish official who cited informant reports.
Thataccount was confirmed by a senior US official.

In the heartland of the insurgency, stretching from Fallujah and Mosul to
the Syrian border, Ba'ath Party operatives are recruiting new followers and
distributing party handbills signed by Douri, the former Iraqi vice
president and the most senior Hussein-era official still at large.

Fighters and documents captured in Fallujah last November showed that
Ba'athists and former officers with Hussein's intelligence agency, the
Mukhabarat, ran many insurgent cells, said Sami al-Askary, a parliamentarian
and member of the Supreme Commission for de-Ba'athification. The Ba'athists
have infiltrated the new Iraqi police and military, leaking inside
information to plan ambushes and bombings.

The Ba'ath Party ran a totalitarian, centralized state that controlled all
aspects of life. It adopted a form of pan-Arab nationalism that called for a
union of all Arab countries under a single government and throughout its
history stripped ethnic and religious minorities of rights.

Some Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, have hotly contested the de-Ba'athification law.
Under the interim leadership of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, himself a
former Ba'athist, 8,000 Ba'athists were given exemptions and allowed to
return to work.

But since the election of a Shi'ite-Kurdish government in January with
staunch anti-Ba'athist credentials, the dormant de-Ba'athification
Commission has returned to work with zest.

''Even under a new name, it is illegal for them to come back," Askary said.
''We must deal with the Ba'ath Party as Europe dealt with the Nazis. It's a
party that doesn't believe in political pluralism, that believes in the
superiority of Arabs over others, and which fights with violence everyone of
a different ideology. It presents a real threat to democracy."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at [EMAIL PROTECTED]

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