The Re-Baathification of Iraq

The Islamic State has conquered much of Iraq with the help of Saddam’s cronies. Now the men America once discarded could help win the country back.

Salah Malkawi / Getty Images News
Salah Malkawi / Getty Images News

The Islamic State has conquered broad swaths of Iraq thanks to a surprising alliance with secular veterans of Saddam Hussein’s military. But now that partnership is fraying — giving Washington its first real opportunity to blunt the terrorist group’s advance without relying solely on American airstrikes or ground troops.

The group of ex-Hussein loyalists, known alternatively as the Naqshbandi Army or by the acronym JRTN — the initials of its Arabic name — helped the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, win some of its most important military victories, including its conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. It has also given the terrorist army, which is composed largely of foreign fighters, a valuable dose of local political credibility in Iraq. JRTN, which was formed as a resistance group in 2006, is made up of former Baathist officials and retired military generals, and is led by the former vice president of Hussein’s revolutionary council, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who was once one of the most-wanted men in the country during the U.S. occupation.

ISIS and JRTN aren’t natural allies. The former wants to erase Iraq’s current borders and establish a caliphate, while the latter has been a largely secular movement that seeks to regain the official power and influence it held before the U.S. invasion in 2003. But they are aligned in their opposition to, and hatred of, outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government. Each side wants him to go, and JRTN recognizes that ISIS stands the best chance of violently overthrowing the Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad.

"The Baathists and ISIS had a marriage of convenience at the start of the takeover of Mosul," said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch and a former journalist, who has reported extensively from Iraq on ISIS’s human rights abuses and persecution of Shiites and religious minorities. "Baathists got muscle from ISIS, and ISIS got local legitimacy through the Baathists."

But now that marriage may be fraying, to the possible benefit of Washington and Baghdad. Signs of late are pointing to a growing divide between the top leadership of JRTN and the Islamic State, whose brutal terror campaign has brought down the wrath of the U.S. military. If JRTN were to break with the Islamic State and help the Iraqi government and U.S. forces fight the terrorists, it would go a long way towards stabilizing the country and perhaps lead to a broader political reconciliation in which Sunnis who once helped run the country might be given powerful posts in a more inclusive Shiite-run government.

That would present a palpable, if not painful, irony for the United States, which went to war 11 years ago to depose the Iraqi dictator and then implemented a far-reaching "de-Baathification" campaign that rid the Iraqi government and armed forces of hundreds of thousands of experienced Sunni technocrats and military commanders.

U.S. officials have been closely tracking the Islamist-Baathist alliance for months. Almost as soon as Mosul fell, on June 10, it was obvious that JRTN forces had been waiting for their arrival. Reports from the scene said ISIS fighters quickly disappeared and were replaced with armed men loyal to the Baathists and former generals. The group already held sway in key Iraqi cities, including in Tikrit, which fell on June 11. But Mosul was the real prize, and a key strategic point because it’s a historic seat of power for the ruling Sunni elites who want Maliki gone.

After taking the city, the Islamic State, then known as ISIS, installed a Baathist and former Iraqi army general, Azhar al-Obeidi, as the new governor. And another former general, Ahmed Abdul Rashid, was named governor of Tikrit, where he has been credited with leading an ISIS-Baathist defense against the Iraqi Army, analysts said. ISIS’s new allies were an ideal political face for their occupation. JRTN’s leaders "have a long history of running Iraq, so it just feels right and natural to the people that they should be in charge," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

But the match seemed destined to be short-lived. Just a few days after the Islamic State conquered Mosul, its fighters were involved in a shootout with ex-Baathists near Kirkuk that left 17 dead, the New York Times reported. Then, in early July, ISIS fighters were spotted driving around Mosul and abducting retired Iraqi generals, taking them from their homes draped in the Islamist black and white flag, and putting them into the backs of SUVs with tinted windows, according to Reuters. The generals’ families and local residents said that ISIS took away as many as 60 ex-officers and Baathists whom they deemed opposed to their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamist caliphate and erasing Iraq’s current borders.

More recently, the ideological fissures in the alliance have become pronounced. In late July, JRTN put out a statement condemning sectarianism and the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, who would ultimately run for their lives from ISIS marauders in Sinjar, prompting President Barack Obama to launch airstrikes to stop a possible genocide. While the JRTN statement didn’t signal out its Islamic State allies — they never do — analysts said it showed that the Baathists and former ruling elites are distancing themselves from the terrorist group and are indirectly condemning its tactics. "It’s very roundabout, but it’s clear what they’re talking about," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Both sides must know that their marriage of convenience is now heading for a divorce. "Baathists want the ouster of Maliki, to regain some of the stature and political participation that they’ve been denied since the fall of Saddam Hussein. And that’s a very different goal from setting up a caliphate," Tayler said. "Many Baathists see ISIS as puritanical terrorists, and one can understand why. And ISIS certainly sees the Baathists as smoking, drinking ne’er do wells…. I think the Baathists are starting to get it that this potentially is a gross miscalculation" to think the two sides could work together, Tayler said.

"It’s unequivocally a good thing" if the two sides have a falling out, said Daniel Byman, the director of research and a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. An even better outcome, he said, would be for a new Iraqi government to bring less fanatical Sunnis — which the Baathists arguably represent — into a new government.

But that won’t be easy, because JRTN includes more than just technocrats and erstwhile generals. The group also is composed of Sunni nationalists, who fought a bloody campaign against U.S. forces, and tribal militias. "JRTN is a nasty group of people," Pollack said, and includes elements so violent and sectarian that U.S. military commanders dubbed them "the irreconcilables," during the 2007 American-led surge.

The good news is that whatever deal JRTN thought it could make with its terrorist muscle, it appears to be going south. "It absolutely has not held," Gartenstein-Ross said of the tenuous alliance. "They had mutual interests. But JRTN has completely underestimated how dangerous ISIS is."

The group’s tactics are so brutal that it was expelled from al Qaeda and split off from opposition fighters in Syria, who wanted to focus their efforts on overthrowing strongman Bashar al-Assad, not creating a new Muslim state. The question now is how JRTN would separate from the Islamic State without igniting an all-out war, which it could it very well lose. "ISIS is stronger than JRTN overall," Gartenstein-Ross said.

But there’s a rift now that the United States could exploit. It would almost certainly require making some political alliances with ex-Hussein loyalists. Yet that may be the least bad option, and the one that could keep the United States from drifting deeper into a new war in Iraq. "It’s great news if Baathists and other Sunni elites disentangle themselves from a repugnant alliance," Tayler said. "It’s great news not just politically, but in stopping the scourge of ISIS taking over vast portions of Iraq and terrorizing the population."

 Twitter: @shaneharris