The Baath party, which ruled Iraq until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, has forged an unlikely alliance with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The party was secular, but in the 1990s late President Saddam Hussein embarked on the Return to Faith Campaign, which resulted in a more religious school curriculum in schools, to garner more support from conservatives.
After the toppling of Saddam in 2003 and the dismantling of the Baath party, it seemingly fizzled into thin air, with its leftover members targeted by the United States. However, it continued to survive underground.
“Izzat al-Douri was the most high-profile Baathist official to successfully evade capture in 2003,” Dan Gabriel, a former CIA covert action officer, told Al Arabiya News.
“As the leader of the Northern Offensive and commander of the Naqshbandi Army, Douri had some serious bona fides among disaffected Sunnis.”
The Northern Offensive, by ISIS and aligned forces, against the Iraqi government began on June 5, 2014.
It led to the capture of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul on June 10, and Saddam’s home city Tikrit the day after.
Observers say Baathists and Islamists were able to receive support from Sunnis who felt marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government, paving the way for an alliance.
“These aggrieved Sunnis found common ground with ISIS on their shared objective to take down [former Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki’s government, and to end Iranian influence in Iraq,” Gabriel said.
According to senior Iraqi officers on the frontlines against ISIS, its top command is dominated by officers from Saddam’s military and intelligence agencies.
“ISIS’s Czar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has sought to win the support and loyalty of the so-called ‘former regime elements’ since the early days of Operation New Dawn,” Gabriel said.
Operation New Dawn was a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive against the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah city in 2004.
Baghdadi “has been successful,” said Gabriel. “He recruited two top leaders into his movement: Fadel al-Hayali, his top deputy for Iraq who once served Saddam as a lieutenant colonel; and Adnan al-Sweidawi, a former lieutenant colonel who headed ISIS’s military council until his demise in late 2014.”
‘Marriage of convenience’
Under the de-Baathification law of 2003, some 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were stripped from government employment and denied pensions, leaving many disgruntled and angry.
Justin Marozzi, a strategic communications expert at NATO, said the alliance between ISIS and Baath remnants is “entirely opportunist,” and “if it’s a marriage of convenience, the husband and bride are united by their ghastliness.
“Although the Baathists provide much of the brainpower and some of the steel, they’re subordinate within what is a pseudo-religious experiment.”
Baathist ideology not ‘static’
Asked how a formerly secular party could mix with a jihadist group, Gabriel said: “Baathist ideology isn’t a static concept in post-Saddam Iraq.” It is “erratic, wavering, self-serving and amorphous.”
While both sides are taking advantage of each other, changes on ground will later show the real cracks of the “temporary” union.
“Both groups are taking advantage of a perfect combination of failed states, civil wars, sectarian tensions, outside funding from Turkey, Qatar and Kuwait, and costly mistakes by the United States,” Gabriel said.
“But if and when the negotiating begins for new lines to be drawn across Mesopotamia, it will be the Baathists at the table opposite the Iranian surrogates, not ISIS.”
Once in power, Baathists used religion either to counter the growing political opposition of the Islamists, or to promote their own clan in the regime’s structureMathieu Guidere, an academic at the University of Toulouse
What made Baath attractive?
Since its establishment in 1951, when Iraq was still ruled by the monarchy, the Baath party’s ideology stemmed from minority groups.
The party’s main supporters were secular, Western-influenced Arabs and members of religious minorities, including Christians, who feared the “government of the majority,” said Mathieu Guidere, an academic at the University of Toulouse in France.
However, initially the party was “not attractive to average Iraqis, not even to the elite,” said Guidere.
Baathist doctrine at the time was largely secular, recognizing the role of Islam in the rise of Arabs in history, but separating politics from religion.
“But once in power, Baathists used religion either to counter the growing political opposition of the Islamists, or to promote their own clan in the regime’s structure,” Guidere said.
Due to the party’s strong political apparatus and high levels of organization, a 1968 coup resulted in Baathist General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr becoming Iraq’s leader.
A decade later, Saddam took over from the then-weak and aging Bakr. He would rule Iraq until the U.S.-led invasion.
Only six days after he was declared president, Saddam - at a meeting of the Revolutionary Command Council on July 22, 1979 - read a list of “enemies of the state.” He ordered the execution of at least 22 of them within 21 hours of their names being read.
However, besides his ruthlessness, Saddam enacted reforms that lent him some credibility. They included universal free schooling up to the highest education levels, not only for Iraqis but for Arab nationals, making Saddam even more popular regionally.
UNESCO awarded Saddam for creating one of the most modernized public-health systems in the Middle East.
However, soon his war-mongering started to dampen the Baath party’s appeal. The accumulated death toll from wars and sanctions left many Iraqis desperate and angry.
So what still remains from the once-feared Baath party after the last remainder of its big bosses’ death, al-Douri in April this year?
“The Iraqi Baath party still denies his death,” Dan said. “My sense is that he’s dead, but the Baathists won’t acknowledge this until they have a suitably prominent successor to take his place,” for the legacy to live on.
(Additional reporting by Paul Crompton)SHOW MORE