The Baathist Link to ISIS in Syria and Iraq

Rome—(Adds link to interesting Spiegel piece on Baathist planning that created ISIS)With the reported death of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was once Saddam Hussein’s No. 2, it’s time to put to rest a convenient myth about the current  civil war in Iraq: that it is mainly an Islamic State affair.

Al-Douri before Saddam’s fall and as the King of Clubs.

Journalists have performed acrobatics to explain how, after months of identifying ISIS as the key to the Iraqi insurgency, al-Douri is now singled out as an important player. A former high official of Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime, he has been identified as everything from mastermind behind ISIS to an ally of ISIS to  ISIS’ servant.

The confusion results from the falsehood that ISIS is the main enemy in Iraq, an idea fed by the Obama Administration and repeated by the news media. It is reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld’s old description of post-Saddam violence in Iraq as simply the work of “dead-enders.”

In fact the insurgency, which began shortly after Saddam’s fall and has continued ever since, is based on the dissatisfaction among 20 per cent of Iraq’s population, Sunni Muslims, with their exclusion from the new Iraq– first by the Americans and then by the sectarian, Shiite-led governments in Baghdad. ISIS is a symptom of Sunni unhappiness, not the cause. And the “dead-enders” are still  a factor and may be in the vanguard.

On April 14, President Obama met with Iraq’s president Haider al-Abadi in Washington. As usual, Obama described the war as a fight against ISIS. In a gentle reference to the real problem, he praised al-Abadi for creating an “inclusive” government in which all Iraqis will be heard. Whether that has actually happened is open to question, but it does confirm the underlying problem: Iraq’s government has been anything but inclusive. In fact, it has been aggressively dismissive of the Sunni population, its tribes and political leadership.

Al-Douri, a cruel operative for Saddam Hussein, was vice-chairman of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council. He led bloody crackdowns on Shiites and Kurds alike when they rebelled. He injected religion into the nominally secular, pan-Arab Baath Party regime when it was necessary to gain domestic support against UN oil sanctions of the 1990s. In 1993, he spearheaded what was called The Return to the Faith campaign by hosting religious meetings, overseeing the construction of lavish mosques and sending Baathist officials to religious schools. The latter project provided an unintended byproduct: the introduction of radical jihad Salafi ideology into the governing echelon.

Al-Douri endeared himself to Sunni tribes through operation of a smuggling network which, along with jobs for anyone who joined the Baath party, was a major source of income. I remember back during a visit to Fallujah in 2004, locals told me that Saddam’s deal with them was straightforward: I’ll let you smuggle, you don’t cause me any problems. In one of the sillier visual aids used by Americans in the euphoric early days of the occupation, al-Douri was listed at the King of Clubs in an illustrated deck of cards representing dangerous and wanted Baathists.

Relevant to today’s conflict, al-Douri organized anti-US insurgent activities from eastern Syria into Iraq and provided money and tactical support to Islamist rebel groups. Among them were Ansar al-Sunnah and al-Qaeda in Iraq, a forerunner of ISIS. In addition, Al-Douri formed the Army Soldiers of the Naqshbandi, a unit of Sunni fighters from the Sufi sect, Iraq’s mainstream Muslim persuasion. It initially had access to arms stashed in the central Iraq Sunni heartland by Saddam in case of an revolt.

Al-Douri’s Baathist forces were prominent in last June’s takeover by Sunni insurgents of Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Refugees in Kurdistan reported the presence of men dressed in Saddam-era army uniforms among the hodgepodge of bearded ISIS members.

Just because the Baathists don’t appear on Internet beheading people doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And despite al-Douri’s apparent death, the rebellion will live on until real power-sharing takes place in Baghdad.

Here’s a bio.

Comments from Obama and al-Abadi.

Here is Spiegel‘s piece.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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