With turmoil in Iraq, some yearn for Ba’athist stability

Friday 18/03/2016
File picture shows US Marines cargo helicopter flying over Ba’ath party headquarters in 2003

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.