IRBIL, Iraq — Meeting with the U.S. ambassador some years ago in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki detailed what he believed was the latest threat of a coup orchestrated by former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
“Don’t waste your time on this coup by the Baathists,” Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad chided him, dismissing his conspiracy theories as fantasy.
Now, though, with Iraq facing its gravest crisis in years, as Sunni insurgents have swept through northern and central Iraq, Mr. Maliki’s claims about Baathist plots have been at least partly vindicated. While fighters for the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, once an offshoot of al-Qaida, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein.
The involvement of the Baathists helps explain why just a few thousand ISIS fighters, many of them fresh off the battlefields of Syria, have been able to capture so much territory so quickly. It sheds light on the complexity of the forces aligned against Baghdad in the conflict — not just the foreign-influenced group, but many homegrown groups, too. And with the Baathists’ deep social and cultural ties to many areas now under insurgent control, it stands as a warning of how hard it might be for the government to regain territory and restore order.
Many of the former regime loyalists, including intelligence officers and Republican Guard soldiers — commonly referred to as the “deep state” in the Arab world — belong to a group called the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order, often referred to as JRTN, the initials of its Arabic name. The group announced its establishment in 2007, not long after the execution of Saddam, and its putative leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was one of Saddam’s most trusted deputies and the highest-ranking figure of the old regime who avoided capture by the Americans.
Referring to ISIS fighters, Michael Knights, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has researched the Naqshbandia group, said, “They couldn’t have seized a fraction of what they did without coordinated alliances with other Sunni groups.” In some areas under militant control, including areas around Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, he said, “there are definitely pockets where the Naqshbandias are wearing the pants.”
Mr. Al-Douri, the king of clubs in decks of cards given to U.S. forces in 2003 to identify the most-wanted regime leaders, is a mysterious figure, so furtive that he was even declared dead in 2005. It is believed that he is still alive today — he would be in his early 70s — although even that is uncertain. After the U.S. invasion, he was said to have fled to Syria, where he reportedly worked with Syrian intelligence to restore the Baath Party within Iraq and led an insurgency from there that mainly targeted U.S. interests.
“He’s a great totem of the old regime,” Mr. Knights said. “You need that kind of individual to keep the flame going.”
The role the Baathists are playing in the current uprising justifies not only Mr. Maliki’s suspicions, but also the long-standing concerns of U.S. intelligence officers. As U.S. forces were winding down operations in Iraq, they frequently predicted that the Baathists were well-positioned to exploit Sunni grievances and mount a violent challenge to the central government.
Analysts say the former regime figures, whose group combines strands of Islamic thought with notions of Arab nationalism typical of Baath ideology, are bedfellows with the Islamist extremists in one respect: Both sides are determined to restore Sunni rule to Iraq and rid the country of what they see as the pernicious influence of Iran, which, like Iraq, has a Shiite majority. Like the extremists, the former regime figures have won sympathy from ordinary Sunnis alienated by Mr. Maliki’s sectarian policies.
“Our problem is with Maliki, and we will take him down and anyone that stands next to him,” Abu Abid al-Rahman, a Naqshbandia leader in northern Iraq, said in an interview. He added: “We want to control the land all the way to Baghdad to take down Maliki’s government and to end the Iranian influence in Iraq. What is happening in Iraq today is a result of Maliki’s sectarian policy in Iraq.”
While ISIS counts many foreign fighters among its ranks, the Naqshbandias are a homegrown organization. Hassan Hassan, an expert on Sunni insurgent groups who is based in Abu Dhabi, recently wrote that the Naqshbandia group consists of thousands of fighters and “is a strong rival to ISIS and has strong social roots in the community.”
While they may be allies today in the interest of fighting a common enemy — the Shiite-dominated government of Mr. Maliki — the two sides are unlikely to coexist if they should attain power in some areas. The Baathists, being more secular and more nationalist, have no interest in living under the harsh Islamic law that ISIS has already started to put in place in Mosul.
“We are fighting now [along] with ISIS, but we are protecting Iraq from their religious ideas,” said Abu Tulayha al-Obaidi, a Naqshbandia fighter in northern Iraq, who said the group gets most of its weapons from smugglers coming from Syria, Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region in the north. “We will not kill innocent people, or soldiers who put down their weapons. We are like the new brain of ISIS.”
Already, there have been reports that the two sides have skirmished inside Mosul, but the Naqshbandias denied that. Mr. Knights said: “For the moment, they need each other. But they are going to fight each other eventually.”syria - United States - North America - Middle East - Iraq - Saddam Hussein - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - Zalmay Khalilzad - Izzat Ibrahim