x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Poll causes new split in Baathist hardliners

As Iraq's parliamentary race goes down to the wire, rebels break away after refusing to toe their party's line on its preferred election candidate.

DAMASCUS // There are signs Iraq's March 7 election has created new splits among hard-core Baathists supporting a violent insurgency. The Baath party, outlawed in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, has been divided into two wings for some time, one led by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, a former chief lieutenant to Saddam Hussein, the other led by Yunis al Ahmad, a senior party member. Mr al Douri, head of a powerful insurgent alliance, remains one of the US military's most wanted men. Mr al Ahmad was accused by the Iraqi authorities of orchestrating a string of atrocities in Baghdad last year that targeted government buildings and that killed and injured hundreds of civilians.

While officially both leaders remain opposed to the political process in Iraq, including the recent elections, Baathists with close links to the two groups say they ordered their followers to vote for Ayad Allawi. Mr Allawi, a secular candidate, has emerged as the main challenger to the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, for the right to lead the country, the pair still polling neck and neck with more than 90 percent of ballots counted. Much of Mr Allawi's support has been drawn from Sunni-dominated areas considered the Baath's heartland, including Anbar, Ninewah, Salahaddin and Diyala.

Baathist involvement in the political process, confirmed to The National by various Iraqi Baath party sources in Damascus and Baghdad, is likely to fuel claims by Mr Maliki and his anti-Baath Shiite allies that Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya list is too closely tied to outlawed political groups and insurgents. Iraqiyya insists it does not court militants with Iraqi blood on their hands, but has stressed the need for national reconciliation with former Baathists, saying it is essential if true stability and peace are to be achieved.

Involvement in the election has also proven highly controversial among Baathists themselves. According to one Baath party member living in exile in Damascus, a slew of disgruntled rejectionists are currently staging a breakaway from the al Douri and al Ahmad wings. "There were two wings of the Baath and now there are three," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We are the real heir to the Baathist legacy, the others have failed to live up to that by taking part in the election while Iraq is still under foreign occupation."

The breakaway Baathists had yet to coalesce into a coherent group, she said but were in the process of getting organised, with meetings likely to be held early next month for sympathisers. A provisional name for the group is "the Baghdad Baathists". A separate source with close links to exiled Iraqi Baath members in Syria, who also spoke on condition his identity not be revealed, confirmed the account and said hard-line rejectionists within the Baath were angry at being told to vote.

"We see is as a tacit acceptance of the new political process and something that will undermine the insurgency against the US occupation," he said. "By voting you give the occupation legitimacy, we must refuse to vote." There is also frustration and dismay among hard-line Baathists that the candidate they were told to back was Mr Allawi. Although himself a former Baath party member, the 65-year-old neurosurgeon worked with US and British intelligence services to help overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Mr Allawi, who spent much of his life living in exile in London and who holds joint British-Iraqi citizenship, also led military campaigns against insurgents during his tenure as interim prime minister of Iraq between 2004 and 2005. Under his stewardship, Iraqi forces fought heavily in Sunni and Shiite areas of Iraq alongside US troops. "It is beyond belief that Baathists are telling their people to vote for a British man to lead Iraq," said the female Baath party member involved in the breakaway group. "Is that what we have been fighting for all these years? For a return to the 1920s?"

Iraq was placed under British administration by the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations, in late 1920 and was subsequently run by London's colonial officers for more than a decade. Even after independence in 1932, the British retained military bases in Iraq and nurtured a pliant monarchy to control the country and ensure British interests were looked after. That kingdom lasted until 1958 when it was overthrown in an army coup, an incident that ushered in Saddam Hussein's rule. Despite the anger of some hard-line Baathists over their election strategy, those supporting the call to vote for Mr Allawi say the gambit has worked.

"We will have between 20 and 30 seats in the new parliament held by Baathists or people dependent on Baathist support for their positions," said Abed Sabar Sahdawi, a former Baath party official in Baghdad. "That is a significant bloc, it is a good power base." While the self-professed involvement of Baathists in the election is certain not to sit well with Shiite parties ? and a large proportion of the electorate, which supported a strict pre-vote purge of alleged Baath party sympathisers ? it may represent a moderating of once powerful insurgent forces and acceptance that the new political system is in Iraq to stay.

Baathists in Syria say the Yunis al Ahmed wing of the party was in tentative talks to return to mainstream politics last summer, before Mr al Maliki accused the group of carrying out attacks in Baghdad. Some analysts saw that as a deliberate ploy by the Iraqi prime minister to undermine reconciliation efforts. The United States has also reportedly been pushing for reconciliation with moderate Baathists, viewing their potential engagement with the political process as a way of pulling them away from a strategy of violence.

* The National. Nizar Latif reported from Baghdad