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Interplay Between Baathism and ISIS

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin had a typically excellent column published Thursday noting growing concern within the Obama administration and among military analysts that U.S. weapons provided to the Iraqi military are ending up in the hands of the Iranian-backed militias. They also accurately described current U.S. discussion with regard to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi:

Two administration officials told us that there is roiling debate inside the Obama national security team about whether Abadi is willing or able unite his nation’s religious groups. Some inside the administration are advocating for a tougher approach toward Abadi that uses more sticks and fewer carrots. Yet there is concern that pushing away from Abadi will only lead to less influence in Baghdad for Washington, and more for Tehran.

They also mention:

A big question for the administration is whether Abadi is really doing all he can to rein in the Shiite militias and reach out to the Sunni leaders. During a meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month, Abadi both asked for huge new weapons transfers and also expressed doubt that a long-term reconciliation with the Sunnis is even possible.

Frankly, Abadi is correct when it comes to the difficulties of reconciliation between the central government and Sunni Arabs. Too often, American analysts, diplomats, and the press depict Abadi and other Shi‘ite leaders as hopelessly sectarian, while the Iraqi Sunni community by omission is implied to be guiltless and willing to reconcile. There may be more than an iota of truth behind Abadi’s frustration. Simply put, the majority of Iraq’s Arab Sunni community simply has not reconciled to the fact that Iraqi Shi‘ites—long depicted as second-class citizens within the country—are the majority.

From the very beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraqi Sunnis have been reticent about cooperating with the broader Shi‘ite community. Most visitors walk right past them without noticing, but it is quite telling that the guards at the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad are Kurdish peshmerga, simply because the Arab Shi‘ites and Arab Sunnis don’t trust each other enough to have the other help guard the seat of government.

There has been a tendency—unfortunately encouraged by the likes of Gen. David Petraeus when based in Mosul with the 101st Airborne and continued against the backdrop of the surge—to respond to respond to Sunni violence with concession and political empowerment. This may have won short-term quiet, and the surge may have been a wise military strategy, but it did have a major drawback: it convinced many Sunni leaders that they could win through violence what they could not necessarily win at the ballot box. Petraeus, for example, sought to buy off Baathists and Islamists rather than confront them. In 2004, he enunciated this as a cornerstone of his strategy during a speech at a Washington think tank, declaring, “The coalition must reconcile with a number of the thousands of former Ba’ath officials … giving them a direct stake in the success of the new Iraq.” He put his theory into practice, placing former Baathist General Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris in charge of the Iraqi Border Police units along the Syrian border. Maris’s handpicked allies facilitated smuggling and insurgent traffic along an already porous border. The 2007 capture of a laptop computer containing a database of foreign fighters showed most transited through Syria. Petraeus allowed another former Baathist, General Muhammad Kha’iri Barhawi, to be Mosul’s police chief. When Petraeus left and the money dried up, Barhawi turned over the keys of the city to the insurgents.

The simple fact of the matter is that former Baathists are today Islamists. Long before Saddam’s ouster, Baathism had stopped being an ideology and had instead become a vessel for power. It’s not too much of a leap for yesterday’s Baathists to become today’s Islamists. Indeed, Saddam Hussein himself found religion after his 1991 military defeat. That’s when “God is Great” appeared in Arabic on the Iraqi flag, and in the years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Fedayeen Saddam roamed Baghdad acting as morality police as stringent as those of ISIS today. Dozens of women, for example, were beheaded for alleged morality crimes.

In an interview with the Japanese news service NHK, former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, a staunch Sunni Islamist convicted of terrorism charges under Prime Minister Maliki (but in a court with many Sunni justices), reported that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a former Baathist.

When I met with a former Baathist general as well as a member of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service this past summer after Mosul’s fall, they were quite open that they cooperated with ISIS, even if they did not fully subordinate themselves to them.

Were Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and is his successor Haider al-Abbadi paranoid about Baathists and many in the Sunni Arab community? You betcha. Is that paranoia without justification? Absolutely not.

To force Abbadi to make concessions to the Iraqi Sunni Arab community sounds great from 6,000 miles away, but until the West understands that the root of the problem may not be in Baghdad—or solely in Baghdad—but rather is in the farms of al-Anbar, the villages of Salahuddin, and the city of Mosul, then there can be no peace.

The solution? Not more Sunni empowerment in Baghdad—that will lead only to greater strife and reinforce once again that violence brings power—but rather administrative federalism so that Sunnis can run their lives as part of Iraq but without the interference of Baghdad in their daily lives.

This does not mean, by the way, that Shi’ite sectarianism in general and Iran in particular are not problems. Indeed, by tacitly if not overtly approving of Iranian interference in Iraq, the United States is laying the groundwork for a far more difficult problem down the road since Iranian involvement is not altruistic, but rather involves a permanent erosion of Iraqi sovereignty. And Shi‘ite volunteers answering Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s calls might be genuinely popular in Iraq (or, at least, southern Iraq) but should they succeed in defeating ISIS, there is no plan in place for their decommissioning.

The point? Playing hardball with Abadi isn’t going to work unless the United States is going to step into the field to enable the Iraqi prime minister to play the United States and Iran off each other. And forcing greater concessions toward Iraqi Sunnis—and whoever their leadership might be—isn’t a solution at all, but a tried and true action to bring more violence. When Abadi complains that reconciliation with the Sunnis might not be possible, he isn’t reflecting his own sectarianism as much as the real problem of Sunni chauvinism and irredentism in Iraq.

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