x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Baathists say they only attack Americans

Exiles dismiss televised confession of suspect in bombings who said he took his orders from Baath Party officials in Syria.

DAMASCUS // Iraqi Baathists based in Syria insist they played no role in the massive bombings last week that killed 95 people in Iraq's capital and sparked a political crisis between Baghdad and Damascus. Iraq's government has accused Syria of sheltering the insurgents behind the blasts that devastated the finance ministry and ministry of foreign affairs. Iraq on Tuesday recalled its recently appointed ambassador to Damascus in protest. The Syrians responded in kind, pulling their own leading diplomat out of Baghdad. The claims against Syria arose out of a televised confession by a former police officer who Iraq's security services say took part in the attack. According to the suspect, identified as Wissam Ali Kadhim Ibrahi, he received telephone orders from Iraqi Baathists currently exiled in Syria. "Any statement that the Iraqi Baathists here were behind the explosions is nonsense," said Fadhil al Rubaiee, a member of the anti-government alliance that includes the Baath Party and other nationalist insurgent groups. Mr al Rubaiee, an Iraqi, is based in Damascus. "There is no evidence that the Baathists were involved in the attack," he said. "I certainly would not take that so-called confession as proof. I will say it again, the Iraqi Baathists were not involved." Iraqi television routinely airs confessions by alleged terrorists, none of which are independently verifiable. On previous occasions the Baghdad authorities have boasted of catching senior insurgents, claims later proven wrong. The strength of the case against the Syria-based Baathists has also been questioned given the speed with which the suspects were caught. According to Baghdad's security spokesman, the group, including Mr Ibrahi, were detained on August 19, the day of the bombings - a remarkable and unusual show of efficiency by Iraq's security forces. Further doubt was cast over the involvement of the Iraqi Baath Party when, almost a week after the bombs, the Islamic State of Iraq, a group linked to al Qa'eda, claimed responsibility. In laying the blame on Syrian-based Iraqi Baathists, the Iraqi authorities referred to "Baathists and Takfiris", the latter a reference to al Qa'eda style Sunni militants. Although the US military and Iraqi government believe al Qa'eda-inspired groups have co-operated with Baathists, the Iraqi Baath party itself says there is no such alliance. "The Baathists are secular and for a united, free Iraq," said Mr al Rubaiee. "They are the enemies of al Qa'eda and labelling them as the same is just a way for the Iraqi government to say they are all terrorists. The Baathists are a legitimate political party." In an interview carried out before the bombings, an Iraqi Baathist official in Syria said the group was still carrying out insurgent operations but that it was limiting attacks to American forces in Iraq. "Our strategy forbids us from fighting Iraqi security forces or the Sahwa [Awakening Councils], except in self -defence," he said. "We do not kill Iraqi civilians. Iraqi blood is off limits, it is a red line for us. "We are not involved in the blasts that have been killing so many innocent Iraqis. Our role is to protect Iraqis, not harm them." Since the blasts there has been varied speculation as to who carried them out. Some analysts believe the Baathists may have been responsible, while others say the attacks show the hallmarks of al Qa'eda type extremists. Various other layers of speculation have also built up - without evidence - that Shiite militants, the CIA or the Iraqi government actually planted the bombs. For its part, the Syrian government forcefully condemned the bombers and denied hosting what the Iraqi authorities called "terrorist organisations". "If the Iraqi security forces have evidence against anyone in Syria, that is something Syria would properly investigate," said Umran Zaubie, a lawyer and member of the ruling Syrian Baath party, a separate entity from the Iraqi party with which it shares a name. "What surprised us is that rather than the Iraqi interior minister phoning the Syrian interior minister and settling up a proper investigation, such direct contacts would be normal under the circumstances, the Iraqis just began making unsupported media statements. "It's not the way to carry out diplomacy and it is not the way to catch anyone who planted those terrorist bombs." The timing of the attacks has also caused some consternation in Syria. The bombs exploded the day after the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, held talks in Damascus with the Syrian president Bashar Assad. The two leaders had agreed to set up a joint strategic council covering security issues, as well as economic ties, apparently paving the way for a new era of co-operation. "A close relationship between Syria and Iraq is in both of our interests," said Mr Zaubie. "We considered the establishment of a strategic council to be a real achievement. Iraq's Black Wednesday [August 19] has undermined that." Syria has previously been accused by the US and Iraqi authorities of supporting insurgent groups fighting in Iraq, claims Damascus rejects, insisting it does all it can to secure a long and difficult-to-police border. Syria's relationship with the US, deeply hostile under the administration of George W Bush, has improved since the election of Barack Obama. An American military delegation was in Damascus six days before the Baghdad bombs for talks on stabilising Iraq. Syria is believed to have said it would sponsor a negotiation process aimed at rehabilitating disaffected Iraqi Baathists as part of a plan for national reconciliation. The move angered Baghdad, which has said it will not negotiate with rejectionist groups, including the Baath party, which is outlawed in Iraq. Baathists, headed by Saddam Hussein, brutally ruled Iraq for decades before being overthrown by US-led forces in 2003. "There is a political agenda at work behind the bombings," said Mr al Rubaiee, the Iraqi opposition member allied to the Baathists. "There are two wings inside the [Iraqi] Baath and the moderate one has been looking to return to mainstream politics. By making the allegations against the Baath party, Maliki just wants to cut the path of reconciliation." psands@thenational.ae