Baath Party leaders divided
Iraq’s Baath Party, once the machine of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule and now a key player in the country’s civil war, has been divided by an internal power struggle pitting one of Hussein’s top aides against a former general, U.S. and Iraqi government officials say.
U.S. military and intelligence officials are still debating whether to welcome the power struggle or fear it. But they agree the outcome could strongly influence the course of the Sunni-led insurgency against Iraq’s U.S.-backed government.
On one side of the power struggle is Izzat Ibrahim, the highest-ranking member of Hussein’s inner circle to evade capture. The king of clubs in the Bush administration’s “deck of cards” that depicted the most wanted members of Hussein’s regime, Ibrahim was Hussein’s chief deputy and has been viewed as a ringleader in the insurgency.
The forces apparently seeking to oust Ibrahim from his leadership of the Baath movement are led by a former general in Hussein’s army, Mohammed Yunis Ahmad.
U.S. officials learned of the infighting after a meeting in the northwestern Syrian town of Halab that military and intelligence officials believe involved Baath Party leaders.
The meeting in January, shortly after Hussein’s hanging, led to an apparent split in the movement. Some U.S. commanders in Iraq believe that was a welcome development. They see Ibrahim and his followers as intransigent elements of the Hussein regime who are trying to regain control of Iraq. The American commanders hope that Yunis’ faction is more willing to seek peace with the country’s U.S.-backed government.
Others, including U.S. intelligence officials and some Iraqi officials, are more wary, viewing the internal battle as an attempt to put a new face on a Baath movement that remains a threat.
“These guys, No. 1, are very capable. They know how to lead, they know how to control, they know how to dominate, and they know how to execute a coup,” said a U.S. military official, explaining why Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority remains fearful of a Baath resurgence. The official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments.
Iraqi officials say the government in Baghdad is considering reaching out to Yunis as part of its effort to revise the sweeping policy that forbids most former Baathists to participate in government activities.
One Iraqi government official said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has authorized initial overtures to Yunis, while contact with Ibrahim remains taboo. The official noted, however, that the outreach might not go far. Maliki’s overall efforts at softening the de-Baathification policy have consistently been blocked by opposition from other elements of his Shiite-dominated government.
“We are waiting to see if they [Yunis’ group] would offer anything that will be of benefit,” said the Iraqi official. “If they can prove they are not Saddamist groups, I think there is a legal precedent for opening a dialogue with them, provided that talking to them proves beneficial.”
Ibrahim has kept such a low profile that U.S. officials say they have frequently suspected he is dead. But he has emerged as at least the titular leader of the Baath movement, which American officials believe controls significant amounts of money -- assets of the former regime and new resources gained through current activities in Iraq.
Ibrahim “probably commanded great respect, especially from the very most senior political elites that were still left from Saddam’s regime,” the U.S. military official said.
Although accounts of the meeting in Halab vary, U.S. military and intelligence officials said partisans loyal to Yunis “hijacked” the session and expelled Ibrahim and others affiliated with him, declaring the ex-general the new party head.
The U.S. military official said Ibrahim, who was not at the meeting, quickly responded by issuing a communique denouncing Yunis and declaring that he was no longer a member of the party.
“Yunis orchestrated this meeting and did so without what appears to be the consent of Ibrahim,” the military official said. “There was a walkout at the meeting, and clearly Ibrahim’s camp and his followers, or those who thought that the meeting was going to do harm to Ibrahim and their interests, walked away from it. Hence you have the split.”
The officials declined to provide details on how they learned of the meeting and its aftermath, citing the need to safeguard intelligence methods.
Those U.S. officials who see the divisions within the Baath Party as a positive development believe the split reflects a recognition by Baathists that the current Iraqi government would never reconcile with Ibrahim, given his close ties to Hussein, said a Pentagon consultant who was briefed by military intelligence officers during a recent trip to Baghdad.
“It is the Baath Party’s realization that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government would never make a deal with the former Saddamists, who have so much Shia blood on their hands,” said the consultant.
But the U.S. military official expressed the views of others in the intelligence community and the Pentagon who are more skeptical about Yunis.
These officials worry that Yunis’ group could be plotting an effort by the Baath Party to regain power.
“Why do the Shia have such problems with this? They don’t want the Baath Party anywhere close to them because they’ve seen what happened in 1963, and 1968, and 1979,” the official said, referring to coups orchestrated by Iraqi Baathists.
Ibrahim has headed what U.S. officials believe is the “political arm” of the Baath movement. Yunis’ role is less clear. Some U.S. officials believe he has headed the party’s military arm and has been an active player in the Sunni insurgency. But some Iraqi officials and insurgent spokesmen dispute that, although many of them remain wary of Yunis.
As early as February 2004, U.S. commanders put Yunis at the top of their list of 32 insurgent leaders.
They offered $1 million for his capture and described him as a main organizer of guerrilla cells in Iraq.
A year later, the Treasury Department moved to block his assets, calling him a “financial facilitator and operational leader” of the Baath Party.
That move was backed by other international organizations, including the European Union.
“He is instrumental in providing guidance, financial support and coordination of insurgent attacks throughout Iraq,” the Treasury Department said in a statement at the time.
Ties to Syria
Iraqi officials also are concerned about Yunis’ ties to Syria. He has long been based in Syria, and Iraqis believe he operates there with the tacit approval of the Syrian government, which also influences his actions.
The Iraqi government official said Ibrahim was less dependent on Syria than Yunis was because he had access to Baath Party financial assets while Yunis lacked an independent financial base. Intermediaries have told Iraqi officials that they must meet certain Syrian demands before they can open talks with Yunis’ group, the government official said.
“The Syrians want returns,” the Iraqi official said. Among the demands are changes in hard-line U.S. policies toward Syria. “They want concessions from the State Department. They want concessions we cannot give,” the Iraqi official said.
Ties to Syria have also made Yunis suspect in the eyes of some Sunni insurgents who are driven partially by nationalistic sentiments and are therefore skeptical of influence from Damascus. Former Hussein loyalists have shunned Yunis, said Abu Marwan, a spokesman for the General Command of the Iraqi Armed Forces, a group of former Iraqi army officers who served under Hussein.
“The Mohammed Yunis wing is ready to be involved in the political game in Iraq, but the important thing is they have not got too many members,” Abu Marwan said. Most Baath Party members support Ibrahim, he said.
More recently, supporters of Ibrahim have used Internet sites linked to Baath Party loyalists to criticize Yunis.
One site noted that the meeting at which the ex-general attempted to seize power occurred around the time Hussein was executed and Maliki launched an effort to revise de-Baathification laws -- an apparent attempt to link Yunis’ moves to the Shiite government.
Spiegel reported from Washington and Parker from Baghdad. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.