Small Wars Journal

The Ghosts of Baa’thists Past

To most Iraqis who suffered for three decades under Saddam Hussein, the Baa’th Party apparatus is viewed in much the same way as the Nazi Party is now viewed in Germany—a repressive, inhumane, crony-ridden power structure that dominated the state’s entire political apparatus and stunted societal growth.  Similar to Germans in the 1930’s, Iraqis who hoped to secure a decent paying job were forced to register with the Baa’th Party, even if they truly did not believe in the organization’s outdated pan-Arab socialist agenda.  Those who refused ran the risk of being fired from their careers, imprisoned, tortured, or tracked down by Saddam’s security services and executed for disloyalty.

The US and coalition invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and the quick collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Baa’thist regime, put that entire system out of business in less than three weeks.  After American and British forces entered the capital city of Baghdad in early April, the last remnants of Saddam’s Government either fell apart in the face of military pressure or melted away—its members chucking their uniforms and blending into the civilian population.  The disintegration of the Baa’th Party system was a blessing for millions of Iraqi Shia, the sect that comprises around 60 percent of the Iraqi population yet the one that experienced the sharpest reprisals from Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government. 

But to millions of Iraq’s Sunnis who decided to join the Baa’thists for the sake of survival, their personal lives and careers were suddenly compromised by the removal of what they knew and depended upon.

Close to nine years later, the Baa’thist issue is still one of the most controversial and explosive in Iraqi politics, cutting across social, economic, and sectarian lines.  Men and women who were suspected by coalition forces and the Shia-led Iraqi Government of belonging to the group in the past—which was not uncommon—were either demoted, tossed aside for new candidates, or forced to resign from jobs which many of them had held for decades.   Thousands of Baa’th Party suspects have been arrested and thrown into prison by the Iraqi Security Forces during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s two-terms.  And far worse from a humanitarian perspective, the wives, husbands, and children of some of the detained are left foundering about where their loved ones are, or whether they are even alive.

None of this would be a problem if each and every Baa’th Party member (or suspected Baa’th Party member) were ideologically connected to the former Iraqi dictator in some way or complicit in the Saddam regime’s most inhumane crimes.  Indeed, the average Sunni in Iraq today is hard pressed to oppose the arrest and trial of one of Saddam’s henchmen, particularly if the accused worked in Saddam’s presidential guard or in the elite Republican Guard fighting unit—two branches of the security forces that were responsible for most of the torture and killing of Iraqi civilians. 

The problem, however, is far more complicated than that.  There is never an absolute guarantee that every Baa’th member swept up in a security raid is a morbid torturer or an unrepentant killer.  Rather, what is often the case—at least in the minds of many Sunni Iraqi political leaders—is that the men and women ushered into prison cells are more likely technocrats, school teachers, construction workers, or in some cases, public servants can could be utilized to build a better and brighter post-war Iraq. 

It is this reality why the recent arrest of 140 employees at the University of Tikrit in late October is so troubling from a post-war reconciliation standpoint.  The latest batch of arrests over the past few weeks are nominally associated with the Iraqi Government’s anti-Baa’thist security campaign, concentrated in central and southern Iraq, where at least 615 people have been taken into custody.  The campaign has provoked a harsh response from Sunni communities in Salahuddin Province, where provincial officials symbolically declared autonomy from the central Iraqi Government.  Officially, the declaration of autonomy will not effect the Iraqi Government in any significant way—only a public referendum in the province, supported by a majority of the province’s voters, can grant autonomy.  Yet Salahuddin’s gesture nonetheless exemplifies the seriousness to which the province’s Sunni leaders are feeling increasingly disenfranchised from Iraq’s political institutions.  It is not Baa’thists that Baghdad cares about, but rather sidelining its opponents and strengthening the position of its sectarian constituents. 

With Iraq in 2011 still very much a violent place, the last thing the country needs right now is another episode of Sunni-Shia turbulence—let alone one that is perpetrated by the Iraqi Government.  This statement rings especially loud now that US soldiers are packing up their gear and heading home—removing the insurance card that Iraqi political leaders have grown accustomed too.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Maliki’s rhetoric suggests that the university case is only the starting point in a deeper set of arrests.  In a November speech in the city of Basra, Maliki ordered all Baa’th Party sympathizers to go to their closest police station and sign a document spelling out their total disassociation from the Saddam-era organization.  The appeal is likely viewed by Maliki as a soft-handed approach to weed out more Baa’thists in Iraqi society—an alternative to the hard-nosed law enforcement operations he has relied upon for the past few years.  Sunnis, however, are not taking the bait.  

As is expected, Maliki and his allies in the Shia-led Muslim National Alliance are defending the anti-Baa’thist campaign as a program necessary for national security—all the while arguing that the Iraqi Security Forces are simply enforcing a decree that is spelled out in the Accountability and Justice Law (legislation that permits the removal of former Baa’thists from positions of influence).  The Iraqiya bloc in the Iraqi Parliament, headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi—a party supported by Iraq’s Sunni population—has derided this argument as nonsense.  In their minds, the latest crackdown is not a national security operation at all, but instead a sneaky way for Maliki to strengthen his sectarian credentials ahead of the US military withdrawal. 

No one knows for sure whether the employees from the university were in fact ideological supporters of Saddam, despite statements from the Prime Minister’s office to the contrary.  But for outsiders concerned about Iraq’s future course, it is hard to believe that a bunch of professors and teaching aids at a single university would be powerful enough to usher in some sort of Saddam-rejuvenation that would pose an existential threat to the Iraqi Government.

This, of course, is an assumption.  The University of Tikrit may in fact hold some Saddam sympathizers in prestigious positions.  Tikrit was, after all, Saddam Hussein’s hometown. 

Yet with sectarianism in Iraq still at an extremely high level—and with the disease constantly affecting the Iraqi Parliament from electoral campaigning to debates over legislation—the Iraqi Government cannot merely use assumptions as the main basis for its anti-Baa’th security operations.  In order to alleviate any concerns that the Sunni community may have over the recent arrests, Prime Minister Maliki should authorize his colleagues in the Interior and Justice Ministries to publicly release the criteria it uses to go forward with an arrest and an eventual imprisonment, as well as why those conditions hold up in each of these specific 140 cases.  Call it an exercise in transparency and public justice, the essence of a democratic system of governance.

Over the longer term, the Prime Minister must show courage and leadership by relinquishing his powers as the interim Interior and Defense Minister, nominating competent and consensus individuals as replacements.  Choosing a candidate that is truly independent, without overt sectarian loyalties, would be the quickest and surest way to alleviate many of the worries that the Sunni community has with respect to Maliki and his allies.  The good-faith gesture could also serve as the spark plug for a new era of cooperation in Iraqi politics, bringing in Iraqiya from the cold and allowing the movement to have a greater say in the nation’s decisionmaking.  Such a transformation from Maliki will be difficult, particularly when all of Iraq’s political factions are zero-sum in their calculations.  But it is a decision that Maliki needs to make if he is genuinely interested in promoting a peaceful, democratic, and functional Iraq.

During the height of Iraq’s insurgency, Al’Qaeda capitalized on the resentment that millions of Iraqi Sunnis had towards the Shia-dominated national government.  The strategy proved remarkably successful in attracting nationalistic Iraqis who were pushed to the outer fringes of Iraq’s domestic politics.  The United States and a newly sovereign Iraq cannot afford to let a bloodied Al’Qaeda exploit the same mistake again.