Sectarian Divisions Plague Iraqi Baath Party

A man is seen through the shattered windshield of a car as he walks by blood and glass on the pavement after a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded near a group of day labourers waiting to pick up work, on 5 January 2012 in Sadr City, north of Baghdad. (Photo: AFP - Ahmad al-Rubaye)

By: Alaa al-Lami

Published Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Leadership rows, including those based on a statement by one top official suggests that sectarianism has found its way into the top echelons of Iraq’s embattled Baath party, a body which has always claimed to be a radically secular movement.

Sectarian conflict has escalated recently within the banned Iraqi Baath Party and may have reached its peak following the release of a statement that was issued on January 2, and signed by the “Organizations of Central Euphrates and the South.”

There are unconfirmed claims that Baathist leader Hamed Manfi al-Karafi is most likely behind the statement. It contains accusations and warnings of what it described as “the prevalence of a sectarian course in the leadership of the Baath, [specifically the] Izzat al-Douri faction.” Al-Douri was vice president under Saddam Hussein.

These accusations begin with the statement’s headline, which reads: “Baath organizations in Euphrates and the South condemn and reject appointing a primary Sunni leadership and a reserve Shia leadership.”

The statement suggests that the leadership of al-Douri’s faction might have held a small-scale organizational meeting with a limited number of members of the “Iraqi branch leadership” before the end of last year.

Its also suggests that the goal of the meeting was to “resolve errors and policies of marginalization and exclusion” that some Baath organizations, which are active in governorates with a Shia Arab majority, have complained about in several statements.

The statement maintained that the decisions of the leadership meeting were misguided and thus the Baath organizations in Euphrates and the South “condemns and rejects them and considers the said meeting illegitimate.” The stated reasons for issuing this condemnation were that the decisions made at the meeting included “forming a primary leadership of exclusively Sunni comrades and a reserve leadership of exclusively Shia comrades.”

The meeting concluded by insisting that “the failure to implement [its] decisions is considered a rebellion against legitimate authority.” The statement considers this “a conscious and explicit threat, and an attempt to impose a bitter reality through decisions that are tainted by sectarian and regional motivations.”

Al-Karafi has implied in press statements that the al-Douri leadership might go so far as to report those who oppose the leadership’s decisions to “certain groups” as a punishment.

The statement ends with a pledge to cut off “any connection or link with any member of the Iraqi branch leadership locally or abroad, while continuing organizational activities according to the Organizations of Central Euphrates and the South leadership’s decisions that were reached last year based on prior understandings with the national leadership.”

Iraqi analysts point out that even though these organizations have moved to protect themselves following their split from al-Douri’s faction, they have not joined its rival faction known as Iraqi Branch Leadership – Emergency Congress.

The Iraqi Baath has split into two factions. The first is the Iraqi Branch Leadership and the second is the Iraqi ‘Branch Leadership – Emergency Congress’, the latter named after the emergency congress that Mohammad Younis Ahmad’s group held. It was this body that expelled al-Douri from the party because he “betrayed” the executed president Saddam Hussein after Baathists connected to al-Douri reported Saddam’s hideout to the occupation forces in 2003.

Analysts were surprised that al-Karafi’s group did not join the Baath’s third faction, which was created after a group of Baathist organizations merged and formed an alliance named the Resurrection and Renewal Movement. One of its major leaders is Abdel Khalek al-Shaher, a former political science professor at a military college affiliated with the Baathist regime.

Conflicts and disagreements of a sectarian nature in the Baath are not new. Baath leaders who split off from the party have criticized or referred to the presence of “Sunni” sectarian tendencies in al-Douri’s faction’s leadership.

Following the emergency congress of Mohammad Younis al-Ahmad and the decision to expel al-Douri, the latter’s faction leadership made references to al-Ahmad as being “of Shia origins and coming from Shia areas in Nineveh governorate.”

Baathists who support al-Ahmad believe that al-Douri “and his group are reluctant to let go of the party’s leadership. They have left media and administrative positions that [they see as lacking] importance to the Shia comrades.” They point out that “al-Douri insisted on appointing Khodeir al-Murshidi, a Shia from al-Hillah, as his official spokesperson. Rumors about his replacement indicated that he is also a Shia from Thi-Qar governorate.”

One of the first Baathists who spoke frankly about this issue is Abdel Khalek al-Shahir, leader of the Monotheism and Review group, which later joined the Resurrection and Renewal movement. Al-Shahir accused al-Douri of “inflaming sectarian sensibilities in his Salafi speech, unlike Saddam Hussein, who used to avoid that in order to preserve Baath Party secularism.”

However, al-Shahir stated that the conflict between al-Douri and al-Ahmad stems from competition over the leadership of the party and not due to purely sectarian motives.

Reactions to the Organizations’ statement and its implications, particularly among Iraqi Baathists and on their websites and social media pages, reflects conflicts that are ongoing within the party. They vary between directing accusations at the statement and those behind it, on the one hand, and defending its contents, on the other.

Al-Karafi himself interjected by listing what he claimed to be documented names and facts on the “sectarian” course the Baath is taking.

For instance, in response to complaints about not circulating the decision to appoint “a Sunni primary leadership and a Shiite reserve leadership” on the party’s official websites, including Albasrah Net and Al-Mansour, al-Karafi commented that it is unreasonable that those websites would publish this “terrible” decision. Moreover, publicly publishing organizational decisions on the party’s websites “is uncommon.”

Al-Karafi listed the names of some known party cadres, including Radi Hassan Salman and Qaid al-Awadi, implying that they are Shia. He explained that they were elected as reserve members in the party leadership during Saddam Hussein’s rule. They remained in that position until Saddam himself noticed that it was an unusual situation and thus created some “balance, even if limited, in the leadership,” according to al-Karafi.

The Al-Rasheed electronic newspaper, which has Baathist orientations and is often sympathetic to the party’s factions and groups, started publishing a series of old and new documents titled Baath Wikileaks in the past few months.

It also published another al-Karafi response, in which he tackled the al-Douri leadership’s latest decisions and listed some, in order to document the Organizations of Euphrates and the South’s accusations. Al-Karafi notes that “the party and its real ranks, on the one hand, and those who control the fate of the party, on the other, are on two separate tracks.”

Al-Karafi also revealed information about some organizational decisions that were not mentioned in the statement. They include appointing the Baathist cadre Sabar al-Mashhadani, “who is a Sunni,” as supervisor of the organizations of Basra, Thi-Qar, Waseet, Babel, Kerbala, Najaf, Qadisiyah, Maysan, and Muthanna governorates.

Al-Douri’s leadership refused to promote “comrades responsible for the organizations of those governorates to leadership positions on the pretext that they need a training and testing period,” al-Karafi said, describing these decisions as “disastrous and having undesirable consequences.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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