Skip to comments.Hussein's Baath Party remains strong
Posted on 09/09/2004 9:14:02 AM PDT by MegaSilver
Even with former leader Saddam Hussein detained, Iraq's Baath Party is back in business, staging attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops and recruiting disenchanted Sunni Muslims.
BAGHDAD - By day, Iraqis loyal to Saddam's Hussein's much-feared Baath Party recite their oath in clandestine meetings, solicit donations from former members and talk politics over sugary tea at a Baghdad cafe known as simply ``The Party.''
By night, cells of these same men stage attacks on American and Iraqi forces, host soirees for Hussein's birthday and other former regime holidays and debrief informants still dressed in suits and ties from their jobs in the new, U.S.-backed Iraqi government.
Even with Hussein under lock and key, the Baath Party is back in business.
The pan-Arab socialist movement is going strong with sophisticated computer technology, high-level infiltration of the new government and plenty of recruits in thousands of disenchanted, impoverished Sunni Muslim Iraqis, according to interviews with current and former members, Iraqi government officials and groups trying to root out former Baathists.
The political party has morphed into a catchall resistance movement that poses a serious challenge to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Baathist-turned-opposition leader.
Allawi has acknowledged he's holding talks with members of the former regime in hopes of gaining a handle on the violence and political disarray. But he's up against a force with deep pockets, allies in neighboring countries and an excuse to fight as long as 135,000 American troops remain on Iraqi soil.
''There are two governments in Iraq,'' said Mithal al Alusi, director general of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification, a group overseen by Iraqi politician and former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi. ``[The Baathists] are like thieves, stealing the power of the new government. Their work is organized and strong.''
Ostensibly banned since Hussein's ouster, the Baath Party has rebuilt itself by sending top members of the former regime to safe houses in Jordan and Syria, Iraqi government officials said. The foot soldiers -- mainly from the vast ranks of mid-level members -- remain in Iraq, where they've started websites and formed independent cells and communicate outside the radar of U.S. forces through a word-of-mouth network known as ``the thread.''
No one can say with certainty how big the latest Baathist incarnation is. The secrecy of the organization is evident even on one of its main websites, where a pop-up feature tells users how to erase the Web address from the computer's memory.
In the Hussein stronghold north and west of the capital, a sprawling area known as the Sunni Triangle, Baathists freely distribute price lists to unemployed young men. Burning a U.S. Humvee or detonating a homemade bomb can earn them a few hundred dollars. Killing an American soldiers brings at least $1,000.
The U.S. military and the U.S. State Department declined to comment on the Baathist resurgence.
A 52-year-old Baghdad University professor, a former Baathist, said his American colleagues mistakenly believed that Hussein's capture in December was the end of the Baathist movement in Iraq. Instead, he continued, that's just when party members in Iraq started reconciling with powerful Baathists in Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan.
The result was the return to Iraq of a handful of prominent exiled Iraqi members, who created a shadowy, neo-Baathist organization called ''Al Islah,'' Arabic for ''The Reform.'' The group even held a conference in London in early spring.
''This conference . . . stressed one thing: that there is no difference between the Baath Party and the resistance,'' the professor said. ``They are equal.''
Within a year after the fall of the former regime, the Baath Party was restructured as an umbrella organization for opposition groups that run the gamut from anti-occupation nationalists to Islamic extremists, said Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
Kadhim said there is no doubt that Baathists remain active in Iraq, numbering in ''the thousands.'' The Iraqi government is struggling to track their activities, he said, because of the U.S.-led dismantling of the old intelligence apparatus and the fact that former Baathists are much better trained and organized than the Allawi government's fledgling agents.
''[The Baathists] have their weapons and they have their money and they are still in Iraq,'' Kadhim said.
The most brazen announcement of the Baathist resurgence came April 7, the 67th anniversary of the party. A statement posted on the Internet lamented that the holiday would be celebrated under occupation. It also made clear members' plans to take back western Iraq's Anbar province, home of the flash point Sunni towns of Fallujah and Ramadi.
''The Baath Party and resistance are to implement a series of military operations against the U.S. Marines newly situated in western Iraq,'' the announcement read.
The same week, the hostility between Fallujah fighters and U.S.-led forces erupted into a full-scale uprising and a bloody, monthlong siege on the city by the Marines. By the time it was over, the Marines had effectively ceded control of Fallujah to a loosely connected band of Islamic extremists and former Baathists. The entire province is now a no-go zone for foreigners, particularly Americans.
Several former members who've now distanced themselves from the party told Knight Ridder they've received late-night visits from their former comrades, asking for donations or reminding them of the privileges they enjoyed under Hussein.
Seems to me that this Baghdad cafe and the people within it fall into the category of "target of opportunity".
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