(Wall Street Journal) BAGHDAD — Islamic State started up as part of Iraq’s Sunni Arab insurgency against Shiite majority rule. At first, that was an insurgency launched by loyalist officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, suddenly made jobless after the U.S. disbanded both the party and the Iraqi army in 2003.
But what role do these Baathist networks play now in Iraq’s Sunni belt, an area that largely remains under Islamic State’s sway? Is Islamic State just a new incarnation of the hated Baath, as many Iraqi Shiite politicians claim?
Or, as Iraq’s Sunni leaders and some Western diplomats say, Iraq’s former Baathists can be reclaimed as valuable allies against Islamic State’s murderous cult.
The questions are important as the U.S. and allies struggle to set up friendly Sunni Arab forces that, one day, would march on to liberate Islamic State-controlled cities of Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah.
The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has so far resisted pressure to ease the ban on former Baathists returning to public life or participating in running such forces. Iraq’s leading Shiite politicians continue to depict the two groups as a single foe.
“We are fighting the old Saddam army that just has a new ideology,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite parliament member who served as Iraq’s national security adviser from 2004-2009.
It is true that some former Baath officers, especially from Saddam’s intelligence services, enabled Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and belong to its cadres. In the years before the 2003 U.S. invasion, Saddam’s once-secular regime acquired an increasingly Islamic bent, narrowing the ideological chasm between the two groups and luring foreign “fedayeen” volunteers.
But the role that was played by these Baathist networks over the past two years was far more complex. In a way, the Baathists today are more of a victim than an ally of Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“The plan of the former Baathists was to use ISIS as a Trojan horse to derail the political process and to take over,” said Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Asal, a senior Interior Ministry officer and the former police chief for overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah. “But in the end, it is ISIS that used them instead.”
The latest wave of Sunni agitation in Iraq began in late 2013, as tent cities sprang up across the country’s Sunni areas to protest against the sectarianism of the then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Baath loyalists played a major role in organizing these protests—and knowingly invited Islamic State militants to take part and share the stage, said Saadoun Saddag, an elder from Ramadi.
“At the beginning, there was coordination between Baath and ISIS—it was a dream of the Baathists to ally with anyone in order to regain power in Iraq,” said Mr. Saddag, whose brother was Anbar police chief at the time and was killed by ISIS last year.
The same Baathist networks prepared the ground in Mosul, facilitating Islamic State’s stunningly quick seizure of the giant city in June last year, said Atheel al-Nujaifi, until recently the governor of the Nineveh province where Mosul is located.
“They thought that ISIS is weak, that it cannot govern the area, and so they could have a chance and maybe after one month, ISIS would collapse and they would govern,” said Mr. Nujaifi, who still oversees efforts to train Sunni Arab forces in parts of Nineveh outside Islamic State’s control.
That strategy, however, didn’t quite work out. Islamic State didn’t tolerate dissent, demanding that everyone pledge allegiance to its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Because of the history of fighting alongside other insurgent groups against the U.S. and Baghdad, Islamic State also knew exactly who was who in the Baathist underground, and where to find them, Mr. Nujaifi said.
Soon, Islamic State began arresting and executing Baathist leaders who wouldn’t cooperate, such as Saif-al-Din Mashhadani, the three of clubs in America’s most-wanted deck, according to Iraqi officials.
The same pattern repeated in Ramadi and Fallujah in recent months, said Sabah Karhout, head of the provincial council of Anbar.
“ISIS killed most Baath leaders and dumped their bodies in the Euphrates,” he said.
As a result, the main Baath-affiliated insurgency group, the Naqshabandi Army led by Saddam’s former senior aide Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, has begun to openly criticize Islamic State and to seek out alliances with Sunni Arab governments in the region. One of its recent news releases condemned the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot captured by Islamic State. Another congratulated Saudi Arabia’s King Salman on his accession to the throne.
While these Baathist networks pose no serious military risk to Islamic State for now, they do carry a political weight. And, to some of Iraq’s Sunni politicians, finding an accommodation with what they call the “good Baathists” is indispensable if the country’s Sunni belt is ever to be pacified.
“The aims of Baath today are the exact opposite of ISIS,” said Talal al-Zobeaie, a prominent Sunni member of parliament.
Gen. Asal, who rattled off a list of former fellow officers now in Islamic State’s ranks, isn’t so sure.
“The Baathists have an ambition to return, to win, and to lead the country again,” he said. “They will have that ambition until they die.”