Hot Issue — Crackdown in Iraq: Former Ba’athists Still Pose Lingering Security Challenge

Soldiers holding Iraqi National Flag of 1991-2004

Executive Summary

Hundreds of people have been arrested all around Iraq in an operation launched by the security forces against members of the banned Ba’ath party. The crackdown came a few days after U.S. President Barack Obama announced that U. S. forces will pull out from Iraq by the end of 2011, a deadline assigned by the United States and Iraq two years previously. The operation is one of the biggest of its kind in post—war Iraq.  More significantly Iraqi officials introduced it as a pre-emptive strike against an alleged plan to overthrow the government and the whole Iraqi political order. However, tension over the Iraqi government’s decision to move forward with the operation has created discord at the highest levels. It was reported that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a verbal encounter with one of his Deputy Prime Ministers—Saleh al-Mutlaq [1]—over the issue during a cabinet session. (al-Mada October 26, Asharq al-Awsat October 27). The authorities have depended on a membership list of the old party, and claimed that it had revived it’s old structure. People from both Sunni and Shia areas were arrested but in general the crackdown was welcomed by the Shia parties. Critics, especially from the dominantly Sunni Iraqia party, have vocally opposed the operation claiming that the arrests were politically motivated. The issue of dealing with Iraq’s Ba’athist past has been one of the most divisive factors in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion. With the recent developments, it is clear that it will cause even more tensions in the post-American era. The whole affair came amid a recent surge in violence across Iraq.

Before the Crackdown

Disagreements have been raging over the last few weeks in Iraq over another Ba’ath-related problem. Ali al-Adeeb, the minister of higher education and the second man in Maliki’s Dawa party, started applying an anti-Ba’athist agenda within his department. Al-Adeeb accused the former minister [2], who was a Sunni from Tikrit [3], of being complacent with former Ba’athists by allowing those who should have been expelled, according to the de-Baathification regulations, to stay and flourish. Al-Adeeb’s new policy angered scores of academics, mostly Sunnis from the Salah al-Deen province. The row combined with the crackdown led to the clash between al-Maliki and al-Mutlaq. More widely, this could lead to greater strife within the different communities in Iraq.

The Ba’ath Threat

General Hussein Kamal, the deputy minister of interior for intelligence affairs, announced that the Ba’ath party still forms the most dangerous threat to the national security despite the fact that the Ba’ath regime was toppled 8 years ago: “With its members still active within many departments in the government including the security forces, the Ba’ath party will always try return to power. But we will not let that happen. Time has moved and history will not repeat itself.” Kamal also explained that the arrested Ba’athists were not planning a classic coup d’etat but a large-scale civil disobedience movement aimed at creating instability and toppling the government (al-Sabah, October 26).

In his assessment of the crackdown, Adnan al-Assadi, the deputy minister of interior and a senior member of the Dawa party, pointed out that 75 percent of the wanted Ba’athists had been arrested. According to al-Assadi, the party had formed a new structure similar to its old hierarchy-based tree structure. Such numbers and details are usually not reported by the Iraqi officials and it is impossible to rule out that there might be political motivation behind the details provided by government officials.

Recent weeks have also seen an escalation in violence. The army and police, including traffic police, have been the main targets but there also were considerable civilian casualties (al-Sabah, October 27). Local authorities in the oil-rich southern province of Basrah pointed out that some of those who were arrested are suspected of being involved in attacks on the oil sector earlier this year (Azzaman, October 26).

The Ba’ath and al-Qaeda

As part of their announcement of the recent crackdown, the Iraqi authorities repeated their argument that there is a strong link between the Ba’ath party and al-Qaeda and its Islamic state of Iraq (ISI). Al-Assadi elaborated that the former is planning and taking care of the logistics while the latter is executing the attacks. The Ba’ath party and ISI deny such a bond. While it is reasonable to think of a kind of pragmatic cooperation between the two organizations in the insurgency, a stronger link is very unlikely due to contradicting ideologies, strategies and agendas.


For months the Iraqi parties debated whether it was better to ask U.S. forces to stay after the deadline of the end of the year or not. The Kurds were almost universally for the extension and the followers of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were on the other extreme—opposing such a request. However the two bigger and more influential parties, the Dawlat al-Qanoon (State of Law) coalition led by Prime Minister Maliki and dominated by his Islamic Dawa party and the al-Iraqia party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia and former Ba’athist, which includes the most powerful Sunni factions, were hesitant to declare a stance. Al-Maliki looked at the decision as a trap and wanted a faction-wide agreement while al-Iraqia wanted to hear al-Maliki call for a withdrawal and then maybe decide to get off the fence to the opposite side. For both parties, a request for an extension would be unpopular while a call for withdrawal would affect the balance of local and regional powers. Finally, the factions gave al-Maliki a mandate last summer but did not request an extension for U.S. forces before the deadline. After President Obama’s announcement of the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, the next chapter in Iraq’s history has begun. Different parties have different interpretations of a de-Baathification process as well as national reconciliation, a contradiction that will be a recipe for instability in Iraq for quite some time ahead. The row and conflict over the Ba’ath, its threat and how to deal with its members will be central in the next stage of the Iraqi political process.

Rafid Fadhil Ali is a journalist, writer and reporter. From 2003 to 2007 he covered the Iraq war and followed events from the field. Rafid worked for different pan-Arab and foreign media organizations. He is an expert in Iraqi politics and militant groups in the Middle East.


1. Saleh al-Mutlaq is a former member of the Ba’ath party. He left the organization in 1977 but remained on good terms with the ruling elite. The agriculture technology professor ran a joint business in the farming sector with Saddam Hussein’s wife Sajida for years before the invasion. Although al-Mutlaq was an elected member in the Iraqi parliament between 2005 and 2010, he was blocked from running in the parliamentary election in March 2010 because of his Ba’athist past. Al-Mutlaq became deputy prime minister as part of the deal that enables al-Maliki to keep the premiership at the top of a government including all of the major parties in Iraq.

2. The former minister of higher education is Abed Thiab al-Ajeeli. Such criticism was not heard about him when he was in the office. When the Sunni block ordered its members of al-Maliki’s cabinet to resign in 2007 to show dissatisfaction and weaken al-Maliki, al-Ajeeli rebelled and stayed in the cabinet.

3. Tikrit is 180 kilometers north of Baghdad. It is the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the capital of Salah al-Deen province.