With turmoil in Iraq, some yearn for Ba’athist stability
LONDON - One of the widely acknowledged follies of the administrative regime imposed on Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion was the decision to purge anyone associated with the defeated Ba’ath Party.
Thousands of Ba’athist officials, most of them Sunnis, were ousted from government jobs and deprived of their pensions, regardless of whether they were personally implicated in the crimes of the Saddam Hussein regime.
The purge sowed seeds of a sense of victimisation among the minority Sunnis. In the face of repressive measures against the community by subsequent Shia-dominated governments and their militia allies, some former Ba’athists allied themselves first with al-Qaeda and then with the Islamic State (ISIS).
In a memoir to be published on March 22nd, a former senior US official reveals that the post-war plans were secretly discussed with Iran before and after the 2003 invasion.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, said US officials met in Geneva with Mohammad Javad Zarif, then Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations and now foreign minister.
Zarif wanted to see power quickly transferred to Iraqi exiles, along with a widespread purge of Ba’athists, which Khalilzad said he opposed. His strategy was for an interim government that would include those who had remained in Saddam’s Iraq.
The arguments for a purge prevailed but, in the years since the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s continuing political turmoil has prompted moves to revive and reintegrate the Ba’ath as a means of healing sectarian rifts.
As early as 2007, Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, and Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish president of Iraq from 2005 to 2013, approved a draft law allowing many former Ba’athists to return to their government jobs. The move was actively promoted by the United States, reversing its support for the initial, short-sighted purge that so alienated the Sunnis who had kept Saddam in power.
In 2009, provincial elections produced a strong showing in Sunni regions for the Iraqi National Project of Saleh al-Mutlaq, a former Ba’athist expelled from the party in 1977. The poll outcome was seen as a reflection of a growing Ba’athist revival. Mutlaq, who had opposed a constitutional provision banning former Ba’athists, was himself barred from standing for election in 2010 because of his political ties.
The Maliki government had previously invited exiled former Ba’athist army officers to return and take up jobs as part of reconstructing national unity. Not everyone was convinced.
Maliki’s successor and current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, rejected any engagement with the Ba’athists. “They allowed al-Qaeda to enter the country, and they were involved in the killing of hundreds of Iraqis,” he said at the time. “How could such a party return to the political process?”
Such visceral opposition to a revival of the hated Ba’ath has not, however, dimmed speculation that it might have some role to play. In a recent analysis, Dani Tahrawi, editor-in-chief of the Iraq Monitor, questioned whether one of Iraq’s most notorious political parties could make a comeback after 13 years in exile.
Tahrawi said the Ba’athist argument was that their party’s platform of supporting pan-Arabism defused sectarianism and united Iraqis around nationalistic themes. He also noted their assertion that their brand of secularism “distanced mainstream Shias from radical Iranian political currents and helped integrate Iraq’s many minorities into the private and public sectors”.
He acknowledged that history belies this narrative and even members of the reorganised Ba’ath Party admit that Saddam went off track. “While the Iraqi Ba’ath Party’s role in implementing the crimes of Saddam is undeniable,” Tahrawi observed, “the Ba’ath Party’s nationalist sentiment still resonates with many Iraqis frustrated by foreign meddling and internal corruption.”
Writing on the Fikra Forum website, Tahrawi said: “The unrelenting and adamant insistence on a ban of any iteration of the Ba’ath Party makes little sense when the rest of the country is in shambles.”
He concluded: “If brought back into the political process, a new Ba’athist Party might once again be used to crush radical political and religious ideologies and movements in Iraq, this time avoiding the pitfalls of Saddam’s regime and returning as an ally to the West.”
His thesis relies on the logic that Ba’athist ideology was basically sound but was abused by those, such as Saddam, who implemented it and made it synonymous with his brutal regime. That may prove a hard argument to swallow for those who suffered the depredations of Ba’athist regimes in Iraq and Syria. It also raises the question of whether a pan-Arab movement can truly serve a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society. It may be that nostalgia for the Ba’ath is more of a symptom of the depths of Iraq’s disorder than it is a solution.