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Iraq's Ba'athists rebound on 2 fronts

Battle new leaders with force, politics

BAGHDAD -- Veterans of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Ba'ath Party have begun openly waging a two-pronged battle against the newly elected, US-backed government. Some Ba'athists are publicly working to recover their rights and regain political power. Others, according to former Ba'athists and Iraqi officials, are now leading the bloody guerrilla war against Iraqi and American troops.

Increasingly bold and confident, these Ba'athist leaders say that the slow pace of democratic politics, coupled with continuing violence and instability, has played into their hands, bringing them wider popularity than even they expected.

Iraqi democrats and US officials view renascent Ba'athists as one of the greatest threats to democracy. Even if the Ba'ath Party takes a new name and abandons its allegiance to Hussein, they warn, the party still stands for totalitarian rule and has no respect for minorities, human rights or religious or civil freedom. And unlike Sunni Islamist extremists, who pursue a vague and hard-to-achieve aim of pure religious rule, the secular Ba'athists have a clear and, some say, achievable aim: to seize power whenever America reduces its military presence in Iraq.

''The absence of the former regime and former authority created a vacuum, a big vacuum," said Tayeh Abdulkerim, who served Hussein as defense and then oil minister until 1982.

Ostracized for the first year after the fall of Hussein's regime, Abdulkerim is now running for office as head of his own party, which has unabashedly adopted the Ba'ath Party's traditional platform of central government control, socialist economics, and Arab nationalism.

''After what Iraqis have seen of chaos and insecurity, of random killing and destruction at the hands of the occupation forces, now they are nostalgic and hoping for a return of the Ba'ath Party," Abdulkerim said.

He is among the most unrepentant of a half-dozen senior Ba'athists who say they speak for the resistance and who believe that millions of Iraqis who are Ba'athists or lean in favor of the party are longing for an alternative to the ethnic and religious parties that dominate Iraq's Transitional National Assembly.

But Iraqi and Western officials, alarmed by the increasingly visible role of Ba'athists, have pledged to beat back the party's bid for power. ''We didn't come over here and spend tens of billions of dollars and lose 1,500 American dead, plus God knows how many injured, just to see another Saddam Hussein rise up out of the ashes," a Western diplomat, who has met many former Ba'athist leaders, said on condition of anonymity.

Immediately after US forces toppled Hussein's government in April 2003, the occupation authority outlawed the Ba'ath Party, disbanded the military, and purged senior Ba'athists from government jobs and the security forces.

This year, however, former Ba'ath members have returned to politics, expressing an open fondness for the old regime that was unthinkable a year ago, when even those closely linked to Hussein's rule shied away from public praise of the former dictator.

''This is not a secret: Without the Ba'athists you cannot unite the country," said Saleh Mutlak, a leader of the newest union of Sunni Arab nationalist parties to storm onto the political scene in the past two months.

Articulate and politically aggressive leaders, foremost among them Mutlak and former general Hassan Zeydan al-Lehibi, are trying to expand their support base.

''The Ba'athists are the only ones who can stand against Islamic extremism," Mutlak said.

Since January's elections, Sunni Arab leaders have insisted, so far without success, on nominating former senior Ba'athists for government posts. All their nominees, including Mutlak and Lehibi, were rejected by Shi'ites and Kurds for their histories during Hussein's time.

Lehibi, who has unflinchingly campaigned for restoration of the former army and the withdrawal of US troops, was arrested last Sunday and released six days later. American officials said they were not behind the arrest, and it's unclear who detained him.

Like many Ba'athists returning to the political stage, Lehibi says that he had a falling-out with Hussein that denied him a promotion to four-star general. But he never criticized the regime or resigned from the Ba'ath Party.

In an interview last month, Lehibi said that US forces must withdraw to their bases and set a timetable to leave Iraq if they want an end to the insurgency.

''As long as there is occupation, there is resistance," he said. ''For each action, there is a reaction."

Iraqi officials estimate there were 1.4 to 2 million Ba'ath Party members; along with their families, they may number 10 million, or more than one-third of Iraq's population of about 26 million.

The political revival of the Ba'athists accompanies an apparent shift in momentum inside the insurgency, in which Ba'athist military officers appear to have eclipsed Islamist and tribal leaders, say those who have followed its evolving tactics and financing.

Since October, Ba'athists with havens in Iraq's Sunni Triangle and in Syria have taken control of training and arming insurgents and directing operations, including suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks, said a pair of US officials and five Iraqi politicians who say they have links to the insurgency. Their assessment is endorsed by two Kurdish intelligence officials and two Iraqi government officials who have seen intelligence from captured insurgents.

Sadiq al-Mossawi -- a secular politician not tied to the Ba'athists who tried unsuccessfully to persuade resistance groups to band together under a restored monarchy -- said that Ba'athists who are committed to the old party ideology now dominate the insurgency. Ba'athists have money they sequestered before Hussein fled and can draw on legions of former intelligence and military officers with tactical expertise, as well as immense weapons caches.

But he said that former Ba'athists and Sunni Arab resistance leaders have told him that Ba'athists are split between those who want to take power by force and those who think they can regain it through electoral politics.

Sunni tribal sheiks have told Mossawi that they saw top Ba'athist militants -- including Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, once Hussein's top lieutenant, and a wanted Ba'athist commander, Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmad -- meeting with Iraqi tribal leaders in Syria to plan the insurgency during the fall and winter.

The Iraqi and Syrian Ba'ath parties waged a vicious feud with each other for three decades. But with the fall of Hussein, at least one branch of the old Ba'athists has gained the support of Damascus, according to the Kurdish intelligence officials, in an account corroborated by an American official and an Iraqi government official, who have seen informant reports and documents linking this Ba'athist faction to Syria.

Some insurgent Ba'athists are working with Syrians, while others who want a political rebirth for the party are hostile to Syrian influence, according to Mossawi and Abdulkerim, the Hussein-era oil minister.

Five US Embassy officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have expressed doubt that any single political group such as the former Ba'athists has widespread influence over an insurgency they describe as fractious.

But the Iraqi politicians and officials who have met with Ba'athists and have seen captured documents said that such a view misses the mark. These people say that although the Ba'athists aren't united, they share fundamental political goals and beliefs and have decades of experience working together, despite internal disputes.

Rival branches of the Ba'ath Party have met to elect clandestine command structures. The political group met in Baqubah in June 2004, according to Mossawi. A more militant, pro-Syrian group met in October 2004 in the Syrian town of Hasaka, according to a Kurdish official who cited informant reports. Thataccount was confirmed by a senior US official.

In the heartland of the insurgency, stretching from Fallujah and Mosul to the Syrian border, Ba'ath Party operatives are recruiting new followers and distributing party handbills signed by Douri, the former Iraqi vice president and the most senior Hussein-era official still at large.

Fighters and documents captured in Fallujah last November showed that Ba'athists and former officers with Hussein's intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat, ran many insurgent cells, said Sami al-Askary, a parliamentarian and member of the Supreme Commission for de-Ba'athification. The Ba'athists have infiltrated the new Iraqi police and military, leaking inside information to plan ambushes and bombings.

The Ba'ath Party ran a totalitarian, centralized state that controlled all aspects of life. It adopted a form of pan-Arab nationalism that called for a union of all Arab countries under a single government and throughout its history stripped ethnic and religious minorities of rights.

Some Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, have hotly contested the de-Ba'athification law. Under the interim leadership of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, himself a former Ba'athist, 8,000 Ba'athists were given exemptions and allowed to return to work.

But since the election of a Shi'ite-Kurdish government in January with staunch anti-Ba'athist credentials, the dormant de-Ba'athification Commission has returned to work with zest.

''Even under a new name, it is illegal for them to come back," Askary said. ''We must deal with the Ba'ath Party as Europe dealt with the Nazis. It's a party that doesn't believe in political pluralism, that believes in the superiority of Arabs over others, and which fights with violence everyone of a different ideology. It presents a real threat to democracy."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

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