Former Baathists are backing out of their dalliance with the terrorist militia
On June 6, 2014, when militants of the terrorist group Daesh attacked Mosul, the second-largest Iraqi city, they numbered no more than a few hundred. The militants seized control over five neighborhoods in the western part of the city, easily defeating local and federal security forces, many of whom had deserted their positions. Three days later, Daesh became even more formidable after thousands of Iraq’s former Baath Party members and former Iraqi army officers who served under Saddam Hussein joined the militant group, along with local Sunni Muslims angry over the exclusionary policies widely adopted by then-Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.
With the Baathists’ help, Daesh seized Mosul and advanced to control vast areas of the neighboring provinces of Salahuddin and Kirkuk. Most of the former Baath leaders and officials from Saddam’s era had sought refuge in Sunni-dominated provinces in western and northern Iraq, including Mosul, Salahuddin and Anbar. Though they did not share Daesh’s ideology, the former Baathists and military officers, who were familiar with working for a regime with brutal tactics, hoped that the new alliance would help them regain the power they lost when Saddam was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and his party was banned.
That newfound optimism faded very soon after the fall of Mosul. According to Iraqi and U.S. intelligence reports, lawmakers from Mosul and Iraqi federal officials, Daesh and Baathists struck a deal that would have the Baathists run Mosul’s city government while Daesh would control other cities. This way, the two parties would work together to take power away from the Shiites. But just two months after the capture of Mosul, six senior Baathist leaders, including Saif Al Deen Al Mishhadani, one of the top officials during Saddam’s era, were captured and executed in Riqa after Daesh accused them of plotting a coup against it.
Disgruntled Baathists and Iraqi military officers helped bolster Daesh strongholds in Iraq, but now their common foe, the United States, is working with the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, who replaced Maliki in September 2014. They’re also working with United Nations experts to recruit Saddam-era officials to dismantle the militant group from the inside.
“The officers who joined Daesh are remorseful,” Abu Karam, previously a senior Baathist leader and former Iraqi army general, told Newsweek Middle East. Karam is now based in Irbil and is working with the Americans to bring back Saddam-era military officers to side with the Iraqi government. “They joined it because the government treated them as terrorists just because they opposed the new system.” But leaving the terrorist group is difficult because Daesh kills people who are planning to defect, he said.
A successful effort to draw Baathists out of Daesh could do more than just help the Iraqi government retake Mosul, Karam said. “The core of the [Daesh] is formed from the former Iraqi army officers and Baathists in Sunni-dominated areas. The information that our people and the former Iraqi army officers have would end Daesh in a few days,” he said.
The Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a Baathist group that was headed by Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, a top aide to Saddam, turned against Daesh early, fighting them in Diyala province. But hundreds of special operations and intelligence officers, who used to work with the security forces linked to Saddam, still provide vital military support to Daesh. Disrupting the alliance between the two sides requires a political solution, one that can only be reached through cooperation from long-feuding Iraqi parties.
An eight-month government investigation into the fall of Mosul, which was made public by the Iraqi Parliament in August, found that the Baathists and former Iraqi army officers in the city fomented an atmosphere of discrimination and overlooked corruption by security commanders and local officials, thus undermining the confidence between Mosul’s Sunni majority on one side and the army and the central government on the other side.
“Daesh took advantage of the popular mobilization practiced by these factions [Baathists and former Iraqi army officers] for more than two years against the army that was deployed inside the city,” Abdulrahamn Al Luaizi, a prominent Sunni lawmaker from Mosul and a member of the parliamentary committee that investigated the fall of the city, told Newsweek Middle East. “These factions have enjoyed the sympathy of people in Mosul as they were seen as marginalized and excluded by the government,” Al Luaizi said. “Unfortunately, they negatively used their influence on people to serve Daesh.”
At the end of January 2014, a meeting of top Baathists was held in the house of a well-known Sunni tribal leader in the Palestine neighborhood of Mosul, according to a military intelligence document a lawmaker who investigated the fall of Mosul showed to Newsweek Middle East. The attendees formed a military council and nominated one member to be the coordinator between their armed groups and Daesh. The document revealed that participants at the meeting discussed the details of Daesh’s planned attack on Mosul and the factions that could potentially join the fighting.
When Daesh fighters entered Mosul the following June, the Naqshbandi Army joined in, along with the Islamic Salafist Mujahedeen Army, most of whom were former Iraqi army officers. Later, most of the other Baathist and former army commanders in the city either joined them or left for Kurdistan to avoid any possible confrontation with their fellow soldiers and political allies. The United States has been initiating efforts to include the very people it banned from participating in the political and professional life in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam. The Americans have been pressing their regional Arab allies—specifically the Saudis, Qataris, Jordanians, Egyptians and Turks—whose countries have been hosting Baathist leaders and former Iraqi military commanders to encourage them to participate in the Iraqi government’s efforts to combat Daesh. Many international reconciliation conferences were held in Jordan, Qatar, Egypt, Tanzania and Turkey since last year, but little progress has been made so far.
A former Baathist official, who is familiar with the reconciliation talks with the Sunni armed groups operating in Mosul, told Newsweek Middle East on the condition of anonymity that the Americans have contacted many former Iraqi military commanders, officers of the former Republican Guard, Saddam’s elite force, and the commanders of several armed factions. The Americans have offered them positions, jobs and even constitutional amendments that would lift the ban on their organizations and allow them a political role in Iraq. The official also said commanders from the Army of Naqshbandi, Al Mustafa Army, the Mohammed Army and Al Fateheen (the Conquerors)—former and current Daesh allies—were among those who were contacted by U.S. intelligence agents.
As an incentive to turn against Daesh, the United States and the Iraqi government have offered former Iraqi army officers and Baathists posts within the proposed National Guard, whose establishment is pending parliament’s approval. The National Guard, an initiative proposed by the United States in June 2014, would send local regular army troops to secure Sunni areas that have been hostile to the federal Shiite-dominated security forces. Both the Iraqi government and U.S. officials have suggested that the National Guard include all anti-Daesh paramilitary groups.
“More than 5,000 to 7,000 well-trained fighters who used to be former Iraqi army officers and were excluded by the Accountability and Justice Law procedures are ready now to liberate Mosul and waiting for the green light,” said the former Baathist official. “Abadi promised to offer them posts within the National Guard troops and their criminal records will be cleared.”
Baathists who have been negotiating since late last year on behalf of the former Iraqi officers have put forward many demands. The government and Shiite political parties were relatively open to modifying the constitution to lift the ban on some Baathists, rebuild the security institutions to include more Sunnis and gain more influence among the security forces, and revise the Justice and Accountability Law, which currently bars former Baathists from politics and restricts them to minor posts. But they rejected demands to grant blanket amnesty to members of Saddam’s regime and to dissolve the current government while Iraq prepares for new national elections with the participation of the Baath Party.
“We cannot simply say, ‘Let bygones be bygones’ and issue an amnesty law—this would mean we would be going against the public’s will, and most political blocs will reject it,” Husham Al Suhail, the head of the Reconciliation and Justice and Accountability Parliamentary Committee, said in an interview. “Also, there is no way to dissolve this government as it is an elected government, so these demands are not accepted.”
Daesh has taken note of the efforts to recruit Baathists and former Iraqi military officers. “Daesh now sees the Baathists and the former Iraqi army officers who did not join its groups as the biggest threat in Mosul,” an Iraqi senior intelligence official said, asking to remain anonymous. “They are seen by Daesh as cooperating with the U.S. and the government.”
The U.S. and Iraqi negotiations with Saddam-era officials have also created divisions among the groups who were oppressed under Baath Party rule, such as Shiite Muslims and Kurds. On October 27, a joint elite Kurdish force, backed by U.S. special units, conducted a raid to free 70 Iraqi hostages held in a prison run by Daesh militants near the city of Hawija, 230 kilometers north of Baghdad. The military operation resulted in the first death of a U.S. soldier in Iraq since 2011. The Pentagon said the raid was intended to rescue Kurdish hostages, but Kurdish authorities said no Kurds were among the hostages. A week later, on November 3, the Kurdish intelligence chief, Lahur Talabani, said at a forum of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that the hostages were actually Arab members of the Naqshbandi Army.
The raid brought to the forefront the efforts of the Americans and the government of Abadi to bring back the Baathists, which had been done in secret as the Iraqi prime minister tried to avoid angering his Shiite partners. The government is working toward reconciliation, said Al Suhail, but it needs to work “slowly and secretively.”
“The journey is still long,” he said. “We have to be pragmatic or we will fail and will not get anything,” he added.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article described Iraq’s Baath Party as Iran’s. The error is regretted