DAMASCUS // Exiled supporters of Saddam Hussein joined a meeting of anti-Saddamist Shiites from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) in Damascus on Monday, with members of the two rival factions apparently united - at least for the time being - by their opposition to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki.
Three pro-Baathist Iraqis, including a one-time adviser to Saddam, attended the unlikely gathering, which was arranged by the ISCI in the Saida Zeynab suburb of the Syrian capital. Iraq's Baath Party and the ISCI have long been the bitterest of enemies. ISCI, a sectarian Shiite group, was formed to overthrow Saddam, a goal it finally achieved with US help in 2003. It has since been a major player in the new Iraq, forming a key part of the post-Saddam administration and advocating de-Baathification of the country.
In stark contrast, the Baath Party has been banned by Baghdad and Baathists, including the three men who took part in the meeting, have either fled to Syria or joined the anti-government insurgency, fighting against ISCI and its ruling allies. The Baath Party has been blamed for orchestrating numerous attacks against Iraqi government forces and, crucially, were accused of involvement in the assassination of Muhammad Baqir al Hakim, ISCI's influential former leader. He was murdered in Najaf in August 2003.
If that history makes contact between Baathist supporters and ISCI unexpected, the existence of such links seems all the more incongruous given that, following Iraq's March elections, ISCI joined a broad Shiite alliance alongside the State of Law coalition, led by Mr al Maliki, also bitterly anti-Baathist. However, the new Shiite grouping, known as the National Alliance, is divided, primarily over who should be nominated as the new prime minister. Mr al Maliki insists it should be him, but ISCI has pointedly not supported his bid to lead the country again and, on the contrary, has been manoeuvring to install an alternative.
That desire to see Mr al Maliki blocked from another term is, according to one of the pro-Baathists who attended the meeting, the area of common ground between his ideals and ISCI. "We have been assured by senior ISCI people that they will stand firm against Maliki being prime minister again," he said, on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be publicly associated with the ISCI. "They have promised Maliki will not be prime minister; the exact words they used were, 'no way'."
The pro-Baathist, who still keeps a photo of Saddam on his office wall and advocates armed resistance against US forces in Iraq, stressed that he still profoundly disagreed with ISCI on many issues, but that they were united over Mr al Maliki. Another pro-Baath party figure at the meeting was Yahya al Jaf, a former provincial governor under Saddam. He advocates engagement in Iraq's new democratic process, arguing that is the only way to bring about changes to the constitution. At the same time, he retains extensive contacts with exiled Baathists.
Jawhar al Harki, a Kurd who worked in the presidential offices under Saddam and who maintains it was an "honour" to have met the former dictator, was also present. None of the three are members of the hardline Baath Party wing led by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, still believed to be heavily involved in the insurgency. However, all three men took part in a pro-resistance conference held in Damascus in April, which called for continued support for the insurgency and the overthrow of the current Iraqi government.
ISCI's frustration with Mr al Maliki was underlined in a speech at the Saida Zeynab meeting by Mohammad al Gharawi, ISCI's influential envoy to Syria, in which he said Iraq remained in a state of "crisis". He insisted that Iraqi's parliament be allowed to choose the next prime minister, an allusion to the plan floated by ISCI that the National Alliance offer up a number of prime ministerial candidates, one of whom would be selected by MPs. That is seen as a way of undermining Mr al Maliki's claim for leadership.
Mr al Gharawi pointedly said that the next prime minister had to be "away from the mentality of revenge, not someone who marginalises everyone who disagrees with him", an allegation often labelled against Mr al Maliki by his opponents. An ISCI official at the meeting did not discuss the presence of men who continued to support Saddam, but he did confirm that his party saw "no way" for Mr al Maliki to retain the post of prime minister.