London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When the term Baath Party is mentioned in official Iraqi media today it is always preceded by the adjective ‘dissolved’, however Iraqi political writers and thinkers, and leaders within the party see matters differently. They claim that, “internally, Baathist party organizations are the strongest among all parties in the Iraqi political arena.” They follow this by saying that, “the armed ‘factions’ are amongst the most prominent secular Iraqi resistance factions,” adding that “a party that is over 60 years old that governed Iraq for approximately 40 years cannot be dissolved by former US governor and presidential envoy to Iraq, Paul Bremer’s, stroke of a pen, neither can the Baath party be dissolved by the debaathification law, a party that alone once ruled Iraq.
But the matter seems to be more complicated because of the disappearance of the party’s leadership and the party resorting to operating underground. Moreover, the structure and organization of the party is no longer clear after decades of commanding the course of political, economic, social and cultural life throughout Iraq. Millions of Iraqis were affiliated with the Baath party, but today, simply being associated with it, formerly or presently, has become a charge and a crime under the debaathification law – some might perhaps be even liable to death – after Baathist members had been closely associated with the leadership; the late Iraqi Saddam Hussein’s presidency, through which they enjoyed huge privileges. In some cases and for some leaders these privileges were absolute but despite all that, the security and political circumstances in Iraq have made Iraqi politicians, who once opposed the Baath, fighting against it for many years, warn that if the situation continues as it is without any consensus amongst politicians, many will wish for the return of the Baath.
Meanwhile, others have been calling for the rehabilitation of the former ‘Baathists’, upholding that the decision to implement the debaathification policy to uproot the Baath will drive many to into the margins, isolating them, since in most cases Iraqis were forced to join the party, and that the majority was not implicated in illegal practices, which would therefore isolate those people now and make them sympathize with or support the Baath.
But where is the Baath today? Is the party present as an organization, or has it simply become dispersed secret cells dreaming of the difficult ¬– if not impossible – return to power?
Asharq Al-Awsat approached this thorny issue in an attempt to understand how the Baathists think, directing questions to members of the ‘dissolved’ leadership who reside in different cities worldwide, in addition to consulting the opinions of independent researchers, writers and politicians. In the process of getting the different views, some discussed the story of the Baath party’s split, which they stated took place less that two weeks during a conference held in Syria in which Mohammed Younis al Ahmed [al Muwali] dismissed Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, [now former] General-Secretary of the armed forces because he had once dismissed al Ahmed from the party’s armed forces.
Iraqi researcher and writer Fadel al Rubaie said of the Baath party, “They have re-organized 80 percent of their ranks and have restored their organizational networks and that it [al Baath] is present everywhere in Iraq,” he expressed his belief that, “when the security problem subsides, the Baath party will be the strongest and the most organized in Iraq.”
In a phone interview with Asarq Al-Awsat, al Rubaie said, “The reason is very simple; the Baath party, over the span of the past 35 years, has destroyed the Iraqi national movement so that no political parties remained in the Iraqi arena, the most prominent [of the political parties affected] is the Iraqi Shia party and the Islamic parties that were formed abroad, while the Baath absorbed all the nationalistic expressions, leaving no room for any national organization whether loyal or disloyal.” He added, “The Islamic parties and movements have been re-organized, both the Sunni and the Shia, but they have become trapped in a narrow doctrinal framework. Even now, there has been no evidence of the presence of a broad popular base. All that exists is embodied in clergymen, who are capable of moving the masses, which is not proof of assimilating these masses on a partisan level. It can thus be described as a mass Islamic wave, rather than being a planned partisan experience [project].” Al Rubaie considers these parties and movements, “to have reached a deadlock because of decreasing popularity with the collapse of the occupation, and that they have failed to attract the masses because the government had failed in resolving the security, political and economic problems.”
Al Rubaie indicated that if Iraqi politicians were able to reach a state of agreement, and the coalition forces were to withdraw that the Baath will be one of the major forces in the country, “which would require of it [the Baath party] a new method, the adoption of a new political discourse and the answers to a multitude of questions that generate from that direction,” he said. Al Rubaie believes that, “important ideological shifts have taken place in Baathist thought, at the forefront of which is abandoning the idea of an autocratic ruling leadership or party, as opposed to being part of a broad national framework that is composed of the Iraqi national spectrum, including leftists and secularists. These are all signs of the party’s development on that level, which comes after over 35 years whereby it has made the transition from state to revolution, rather than from revolution to state.” According to him, “The Baath party is one of the key resistance factions and as such will design its own vision, as a partner with other allies for a united Iraq for all. It is now ready for negotiations on the basis of supreme national interests.”
According to Independent Iraqi political writer, Walid al Zubeidi, “there is a large percentage of Baathists who have rebuilt their organizations both inside- and outside- of Iraq and that most of the leaders have either been detained internally or have disappeared in one way or another, or have left Iraq. There are Baathists, from various specializations, who have worked with the governments in Iraq since 2003 just to earn a living for their families.” The author of the book ‘Baghdad Walls: A Daily Witness to the Iraqi Invasion’ [only Arabic title available] affirms that “a significant proportion of Baathist cadres still remain inside Iraq, which creates great fear and concern for all the parties operating in the Iraqi political arena.”
In a phone interview al Zubeidi asserted that, “the labeling of some in one of the Baath sections as ‘Saddameen’ [followers of Saddam] and efforts to frame them on terrorist charges are all attempts aimed at splitting the party from one side, but are also aimed to drive the Baathists to join other parties today who are operating in the political arena to establish a mass ‘presence’, as the number of Baathists internally is sizeable. Their affiliation to any party counts as its [the party’s] gain.” He views that the Baathists comprise an effective part of the so-called Iraqi resistance factions, and said, “The Baath form an incubatory environment for many of the resistance factions, which is comprised of three categories: the militant Islamic resistance, the secular resistance as represented by the Baath party, and the al Qaeda organization.
However, the Baathists today are not a homogenous and cohesive unit as some would like to imagine. According to some sources, over two weeks ago, in the Syrian city of Homs to be exact [city also known as Hims], the first Baath party conference was held since the American invasion of Iraq in April 2003. The conference was promoted and organized by Mohammed Younis al Ahmed, the general director of the department of political guidance of the former Iraqi army during the first few years of the war. He was also a member of the general leadership of the armed forces, in addition to being a member of the Baath party’s military office – today; he is wanted by US authorities.
Bearing the title, ‘the Conference of the Martyr Saddam Hussein’, it was attended by 220 Baathist members, and in its duration, Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, [now former] general-secretary of the armed forces was dismissed to be replaced by al Ahmed.
Dr Khudair al Murshidi, the political spokesman of the Baath party, told Asharq Al Awsat of this conference that, “It was more of a meeting than a conference. The Baath party, which has an old tradition, has an internal system that is responsible for determining the rules of the procedures and for defining the party’s conferences and their objectives. Al Ahmed dubbed his conference as ‘exceptional’, and in accordance with the internal system, the ‘exceptional’ regional conference is held by a request that is presented to the national or regional leadership, and by a request or order issued by the general-secretary of the armed forces, or at the request of one-third of the present members at the conference that preceded it, only if they were to clarify the reasons behind the call for holding a conference. It is the general-secretary of the armed forces’ decision to be made in the duration of one month after consulting the conference’s agenda in the presence of two-thirds members from the conference preceding it and that none of these conditions materialized in al Ahmed’s conference.
Al Murshidi added, “What happened was that a figure who had been dismissed from the Baath party as a member of the regional leadership since the 1990s but had remained a regular member until the occupation,” was the one to call for the conference. He elaborated, “Before the arrest of the comrade, Saddam Hussein, al Ahmed had met with him [Saddam] and he had assigned him a number of responsibilities of which some were related to re-organizing the party. His mission was to convey messages to- and from- the comrade and the general-secretary of the armed forces and organizations. After the President’s arrest, al Ahmed disappeared and remained missing for a year.” Al Murshidi pointed out that al Ahmed, “reappeared and started to act as though he were in charge of the party, despite the [former] general-secretary of the armed forces, comrade Izzat al Douri, being present after having met with the comrade Saddam Hussein directly after the occupation and placed a detailed plan of action to re-organize the party.” He added, “After al Ahmed started to act as though he were the one in charge, al Douri sent for him and told him that this work was outside his legitimate duty and is considered rebellion. An internal leadership meeting concluded with the decision to suspend al Ahmed, which is what drove him [al Ahmed] to form a bloc comprised of some Baathists, who were not of the leadership and who were present abroad, one of whom was a member of the armed forces but who was dismissed for his illiteracy. During one of the conferences Saddam said to him, ‘you must read, even if only one book, so you can develop yourself.’”
The political spokesman of the dissolved Baath party revealed, “Al Ahmed held a meeting at the same day in which Saddam’s execution took place, which also coincided with al Maliki’s [Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki] call to a group of Baathists, urging them to join the political process, and our information indicates that there is coordination between some groups and the US forces.” He added that, “Al Ahmed and his group are no longer with the party and most of those who attended the conference apologized to us, saying that they had been misled and that this was the result of it. Today, the party is led by the comrade Izzat al Douri, which is our legitimate leadership.”
Al Murshidi said, “The Baath party has taken on a resistance feature over what had formerly been organizational, and that the Iraqis have witnessed killings in the wars they have been through starting with the Iraqi-Iranian war,” confirming that, “all our operations as a resistance are directed at the occupier and not against the sons of the same nation who are subjected to daily killings at the hands of the militias.”
He divided the Baathist organization “into two categories; the first is political organization that is not related to the resistance factions of the party, while the second is an resistance organizations that is in charge of the military wing of the party,” clarifying that, “there are no political organizations for the party outside of Iraq and all our organizations are inside Iraq.” Furthermore, he said, “the party absolutely refuses to deal or negotiate with the occupational forces, or with the government or any party working with it, moreover it refuses to deal with or recognize [the government] and its parliament or view its constitution as legitimate, considering them invalid and decreed by the occupier. It is necessary to end the occupation and the current political process so that a nationalistic political process that is shared by all Iraqis can emerge.”
Al Murshidi claimed, “our party believes in a pluralistic, nationalistic and democratic political process to form a democratic government under a constitution that is written by the Iraqis themselves, and the cultivation of the optimum relationships with the Arab and international states,” adding that, “the party’s organization is strong internally, as it is an mature party, over 60 years old and one that is accustomed to secret and armed action, in addition to leading the state and the masses for approximately 40 years and it cannot be eradicated by a law or by Bremer’s stroke of a pen.”
Regarding the financial backing of the party, al Murshidi said, “Our funding and that of Baathist resistance comes through generous Iraqis, we do not receive assistance from any non-Iraqi figures, governments, and organizations, or from outside of Iraq. The party has its capabilities and its known ties,” negating that there is, “any organizational relationship between the Baath party in Syria, save for intellectual convergence and the larger goals of unity, freedom and socialism.”
In an interview with Baathist political writer and former Editor-in-Chief of ‘al Jumhuriya’ newspaper, the mouthpiece for the former Iraqi government, Salah al Mukhtar told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “the Baath party was bloated in the number of members before the occupation, now it has trimmed down ridding itself of the opportunists who had joined to achieve their personal interests,” adding that, “the number of Baathist loyalists was 6 million, whereas now, internally, there are half a million real Baathists, which is a healthy sign in terms of the party.” He claimed that, “there are 200,000 Baathists of the armed resistance factions and 300,000 Baathists in political organizations who are steadfast reserves for the resistance,” and that; “there is no political organization in Iraq that unites all the segments within the Iraqi masses, covering all of Iraq in its entirety except for the Baath party. There are sectarian parties that are supported by Iran and the two leading Kurdish parties [the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)]”
In his view, al Mukhtar sees that, “engaging in the political process in Iraq means recognizing the occupation and what ensues of procedures, and also legitimizing it.” He mentioned that there were parties hostile to the Baath who have repeatedly tried to contact and engage in dialogue with the Baath. We have made our stance clear, stipulating that these parties do not recognize the occupation and those they withdraw from the political process.” He added that “there is an illusion that the Baath party believed in its sole system, whereas in reality, our policy believed in the leading party, which is a prevalent political principle in all the world’s states, and all parties wish to have unilateral power through a pluralistic system and ballot boxes.”
As opposed to what al Murshidi upheld that al Ahmed is presently outside of Baathist legitimacy, Mazhar Muani Awad, who was elected as a member of the armed leadership during the conference that took place two weeks ago in Syria and which was considered as a sign of a fracture within the party, said that, “what happened was not a split within the party, but rather the tragic situation in which the party is in has necessitated the gathering of the charitable parties that seek to build a party and help the Iraqis heal of their wounds. There are no discrepancies in the opinions or ideology of the party.”
Awad said that, “the exceptional conference that was recently held has resulted in an armed force that temporarily leads the party until there can be a broad conference under better circumstances,” indicating that the conference, “Unanimously voted for al Ahmed as the general-secretary of the Iraqi armed forces.
Regarding Izzat al Douri, Awad said, “he has been dismissed from the party because of his negligence in organization, which has resulted in the party reaching the present tragic state and we want rectify the mistakes. Awad described the aforementioned conference as, “vengeful and one that goes against our principals and dignity and the Baathist that have been unjustly displace and killed – it is a vengeful conference,” he said.
Awad admitted to have been dismissed as a member of the party’s armed forces in 1996, “because I was not elected as a regional leadership member, the same goes for the comrade Mohammed Younis al Ahmed, which was when I was transferred to the Munazamit al Munadeleen [intra-Baathist rebel organization], whereas al Ahmed worked in the reserve circle, which follows the comrade, Saddam Hussein.
Awad explained, “four weeks have gone by that the party has lost its legitimacy, leadership and location,” commenting on the decision of his suspension issued by al Douri’s wing, “I do not separate between those who left the party at the hands of opportunists so that we have come to this stage.”
He added, “I have not met with Izzat al Douri, where is he? Where is he located? I know that he is still alive; some say he is in Syria, others say Yemen, but I know that he is still in Iraq and that their financial situation is good because they owned the state and the party. They have their [bank] accounts abroad… It all belongs to Izzat al Douri.”
But despite all that is being said about the ‘dissolved’ Baath party, it is evident that after the party fell from power and had its leader executed, along with other figures, in addition to the detention of the leadership and the tracking down of its cadres, the Baath party suffers problems and discord. The chances of its return to power appear nonexistent at the present time and the most Baathists can hope for is to be included in the political process as part of a political accord process that may or may not happen. The current feelings of frustration over the political and security situations are not enough to say that the Baathists will return to the political arena as an effective power, as was the case with the communist parties in Eastern Europe, for example – at least in the foreseeable future.