Iraq’s al-Awda party first emerged in the weeks following the demise of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2003. Al-Awda means “the return” in Arabic, in this case the “return” of the Ba’athists. In those days, pro-Ba’athist graffiti appeared in some areas in Iraq, with slogans like “Saddam will be back,” and “Al-Awda party is coming.”
Though no clear identity emerged for this organization in Iraq’s post-war insurgency, the name “al-Awda” has been in the headlines lately, as the Iraqi government confirmed the arrest of 23 Iraqi officers from the Interior and Defense Ministries on suspicion of being members of the Ba’athist party (Al-Arabiya [Dubai], December 18, 2008; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 19). The officers were said to be members of al-Awda and were conspiring to overthrow the Iraqi government. Two days later the men were freed because of a lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki denied the existence of any coup attempt (Radio Sawa, December 21, 2008). The arrests took place while Minister of the Interior Jawad al-Bolani was out of Iraq. When he returned to the country, al-Bolani condemned the accusations against the arrested officers and denied any plot: “Some of the political parties did not like the success that the Ministry has achieved in minimizing their influence over the Ministry. The whole operation was due to political purposes. It was not about security” (al-Manar.com, December 20, 2008).
Al-Ba’ath is believed to have split into several different wings. The most active among those is led by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the former Iraqi vice-president and one of Saddam’s most trusted aides (this organization will be referred to as al-Ba’ath in this article). Oddly, the name al-Awda has not appeared on the pro-Ba’ath websites. Al-Awda has also not been listed among the many insurgent groups that formed the Jihad and Liberation Front formed by al-Baath in 2007.
A spokesman of al-Ba’ath denied any involvement in the recent plot:
The alleged plot in the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior was the biggest accusation against al-Awda but it was not the first. Over the last two years Iraqi security forces reported several raids on groups affiliated with al-Awda. In December 2006, the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior revealed it had discovered offers to join al-Awda had been extended to a number of senior Iraqi officials. The ministry said the party’s agenda was to spread terror and destabilize the country (Kuwait News Agency, December 5, 2006).
A year later the Sunni tribal fighters of the Awakening (“al-Sahwa”) councils of the al-Anbar province captured a group of al-Awda members. The group was reported to be linked to the smaller and lesser-known wing of al-Ba’ath led by Muhammad Younis al-Ahmad. Shaykh Khattab Ali Sulayman, the head of the local council of the city of al-Rumadi, told the Baghdad-based al-Sabaah newspaper:
Unlike the main Ba’ath organization led by al-Douri, which issues statements frequently on the internet and has a spokesman, al-Ahmad’s faction avoids the media. An Iraqi government source told al-Arabiya.net that “Al-Awda organization is a kind of al-Ba’ath formation under a new name. The group is active in southern Iraq, with new networking tactics such as individual contacts and clusters” (Al-Arabiya.net, January 22, 2008).
In his recent statement on the anniversary of the formation of the Iraqi Army (al-Basrah.net; January 8), al-Douri described a new initiative aimed at gaining more power and influence. Al-Douri called for the following:
• The insurgent groups must unite.
• Exiled Ba’athists must return to Iraq and join the struggle of their party.
• The members of Saddam’s army who joined the new Iraqi army must return to al-Ba’ath. Al-Douri said his party would take the initiative and contact them.
• The members of the Iraqi parliament who voted against the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States should join al-Ba’ath.
• The members of the Sahwa movement should re-join the insurgency.
The setback of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the hands of the Sunni tribal fighters in the Sahwa movement has not affected al-Ba’ath. The party’s new approach is to entice more groups and individuals to join the movement. Defying Iranian influence in Iraq will always be an attractive propaganda theme al-Ba’ath will use, especially among the minority Sunnis. The main concern of Sunni society in Iraq (and even in the broader Arab region) is how to face the perceived Iranian influence over Iraq.
Surprisingly, the Ba’athists also appear to have been trying to gain some support among the Shi’a. Al-Douri’s Jihad and Liberation Front, comprising nearly two dozen militias and insurgent groups, claims to have loyal members in Shiite southern Iraq. Followers of Muhammad Younis al-Ahmad are also believed to be active in that area. In August 2006, Iraqi police in the Shiite southern city of al-Omara announced that they had arrested three senior members of al-Ba’ath party on charges of re-organizing the party. According to the police, “The leader of the group had visited Syria and coordinated with members of al-Ba’ath to re-organize the party under the name of al-Awda” (elaph.com, August 16, 2006).
Iraqi government sources tend to link al-Awda organization to Mohammed Younis al-Ahmad’s branch of al-Ba’ath. This branch is based in Syria and sponsored by the Syrian government. Although al-Douri’s group has denied using the name of al-Awda, the concept of the return and the propaganda behind it are obviously welcomed by them. The denial came only lately and was specifically in response to charges of involvement in the recent alleged plot in the Ministry of the Interior. The Ba’athists’ dream of a return to power is alive and they will continue working to achieve it. An article in the constitution banning al-Ba’ath and criminalizing its members will not stop them. The Iraqi government has a limited amount of time to prove to its people that post-war Iraq has become or will soon be better than Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. More must be done to integrate former Ba’athists who denounce violence – otherwise it will not be easy to rule out the threat of the Ba’athists and their dream of a return.