Nearly 15 years after the ouster of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, his loyalists are showing signs that they are abandoning their endeavours to topple the country’s Shia-led government and are following a softly-softly approach to get involved once more in the country’s politics.
The United Nations, which is pushing to break the political stalemate in Iraq and end the turmoil that followed the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, is believed to be seeking to marshal support for the new approach by Saddam’s former ruling Baath Party apparatus.
However, whether Iraq’s most notorious political party could indeed make a comeback after 15 years of banishment, or if conditions are ripe for its re-emergence, is a matter of doubt.
The party’s rule, lasting from 1968 to 2003, saw it instituting one of, if not the most, brutal regimes in Iraq’s modern history. It attracted some evil characters who, given unprecedented power, made horrific human rights abuses into state policy.
Since the US-led invasion, the former Baath Party has been divided into several factions over positions on Iraq’s Shia-led government, but die-hard leaders such as Saddam’s deputy Ezzat Ibrahim Al-Douri have taken on prominent roles in the anti-government Sunni insurgency.
Al-Douri’s offshoot joined an alliance with the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq, helping the terrorist group through the party’s deep social networks to take control of many of the country’s major Sunni cities in 2014.
With the military campaign to drive IS militants from their last main strongholds now over, attention in Iraq is turning to post-IS stabilisation and putting an end to the country’s communal divisions.
A series of media reports has recently suggested that at least one faction of the Baath Party is even thinking of participating in the country’s forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for May.
On Sunday, Al-Douri’s faction said it was now envisaging “an independent, democratic, pluralistic and strong Iraq.” In a statement marking Iraqi Army Day, the party faction made no mention of its long-standing aim of restoring its rule to Iraq and ridding the country of the Iran-backed Shia-led government.
“Our party is in the forefront of the ranks of those wanting to achieve a comprehensive solution to Iraq’s crisis that will ensure the freedom of the people, security and stability, the protection of the dignity of citizens and an end to corruption,” the faction said.
However, the statement also said the party still sought to expel the “criminal Iranian occupation” of Iraq, a remark seemed to be designed to show the Baathists traditional anti-Iran stance.
Iraqi media have reported that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) has drafted a new reconciliation plan that proposes easing restrictions on the former loyalists, including ending the de-Baathification laws imposed on the party after the US-led invasion.
The measures meet one of the main benchmarks that Iraqi Sunnis have demanded of the Shia-dominated government, with the aim of providing places in it for the Saddam-era ruling elite and former army officers.
Other demands include the release of Sunni prisoners in government jails and resuming the paying of pensions to senior officials and army and security officers from the Saddam era.
Under Iraq’s de-Baathification laws of 2003, thousands of party members from the defeated Iraqi army and government bureaucracy were stripped of employment and denied pensions, leaving many disgruntled and angry.
The UN plan also reportedly calls on the Iraqi government to ensure that Sunni grievances of marginalisation and exclusion are addressed and a way is found for the country’s various groups to live together in order to achieve reconciliation at both the community and national level.
UNAMI has not divulged details of the plan, but its head, Slovakian diplomat Ján Kubiš, told the UN Security Council on 9 November that the Iraqi government’s undertakings in the post-IS era should include building a peaceful and united Iraq.
The Baath Party’s new and conciliatory tone has also been manifested in public statements by its leaders and discussions they have joined in recent meetings abroad.
The discussions in France, Spain, Qatar, Tunisia, Turkey and Switzerland sponsored by NGOs or government agencies were meant to display a moderate image of the party.
Instead of trumpeting “national resistance to liberate” Iraq, the party’s declared goal since the US-led invasion in 2003, Baath Party officials have now been telling these meetings that the party is ready to be engaged once again in national Iraqi politics.
In November, party spokesman in exile Khudair Al-Murshidi proposed a plan to launch a new political process in Iraq and draft a new constitution that he said should guarantee a democratic and multi-party system and respect human rights.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbours are believed to be backing efforts to rehabilitate the Baathists who share with them an animosity to Iran and the ruling Shia groups in Baghdad.
Al-Douri and many other Baath Party leaders in exile are reportedly receiving financial, logistical and political backing from some of the regional Sunni powerhouses.
It is not clear, however, how Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who met Kubiš last month, has responded to the UN proposals. But the London-based Al-Arabi Al-Jadid newspaper reported on Sunday that Al-Abadi plans to propose a national reconciliation plan soon that he hopes will end communal problems in Iraq.
However, the discussions with the Baathists have come under fire from the ruling Shia bloc in Iraq, and many of the country’s Shia groups have expressed reservations about the rehabilitation of the Baath Party which could resurface as a potential Sunni force that could threaten their power.
Iraqi victims of the Baath Party also do not seem ready to forgive or forget either the party’s atrocities under Saddam or its support and collaboration with Al-Qaeda and IS terrorists after 2003.
Many Iraqis who are still battling with Saddam’s legacy and IS brutality do not see a dramatic shift in the party’s attitude, and they want to see the Baathists make a sincere apology for their dark era and their participation in post-invasion bloodshed.
In October 2016, Al-Douri apologised to Kuwait for Saddam’s 1990 invasion of the emirate, calling it “a great moral and strategic sin,” but he and other Baath Party leaders have refrained from denouncing IS. Al-Douri hailed the IS capture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in summer 2014 as a turning point in the “nation’s march of jihad.”
For 15 years, Saddam remnants have publicly attacked the post US-led invasion Shia elites as stooges brought to power by the United States and backed by Iran, vowing to overthrow their regime.
A closer look at the party’s new softer approach shows especially stark juxtapositions between its posture in public and in private. Its new narrative appears simplistic and naïve, especially when it refuses to take a revisionist approach to its role in Iraq’s current dilemmas.
The Baath Party leaders in exile seem to be far from the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities where drastic political and social changes have taken shape, rendering them out of place and out of time and the party’s ideology and politics obsolete.
Frustration with the present Iraqi ruling elite’s failure, incompetence, corruption and sectarianism is high, but the Baathists will be mistaken if they think they can make a comeback in Iraq by riding on public sentiments.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly