Iraq’s Baath Party Looks to a Final Showdown with the Baghdad Government

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

The Baathist Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation (SCJL) has announced that it is preparing to launch the “Battle of Baghdad.” The SCJL is a coalition of at least twenty-two insurgent groups headed by Izzat al-Douri, the leader of the banned Iraqi Baath Party (Al-Quds al-Arabi [London], October 4, 2007;, October 7, 2007). The August 9 statement is the third in a series since July from the group’s “Sharia fatwa-issuing commission.” In these documents, the SCJL looks beyond a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and promises a final showdown with the Iraqi government that will lead to the “liberation” of Iraq and the establishment of a new political system.

The Shift to Conventional Warfare

The recent SCJL statement is concise and to the point: “We have accomplished great achievements that require, in this period, that we change our fighting strategy and establish an army made up of our heroic fighters in order to make this army similar to the regular armies… Regrettably, we cannot explain in greater detail, but the important thing is that we are preparing our ranks to launch the battle of Baghdad against the Quislings of the occupation soon.” [1]

With this brief statement, the SCJL announced changes in both tactics and targeting. While the insurgency has relied on guerrilla tactics using small-arms in hit-and-run attacks, the SCJL proposes to shift to a more conventional approach with a regular army capable of launching a large-scale attack for a final “liberation” of Baghdad that will rid Iraq of the current regime and political system. It is not that the SCJL disparages the guerrilla tactics adopted by the resistance; on the contrary, it states that those tactics have proved very effective, resulting in “great achievements, negligible losses and limited security breaches.” However, it argues that as dynamics on the battlefield have changed, the “time is now right” for a new military approach.

The SCJL also announces it will target the “Quislings of the occupation,” a reference to the Norwegian Prime Minister installed by the Nazis in 1942 whose name has become synonymous with collaboration. The reference to Quisling implies that the SCJL’s target is no longer the “occupation” but those who collaborate with it and carry out its policies, namely the Iraqi Government and the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). The SCJL’s declared ambition is to overthrow the current regime and install a new one, free of ties to the United States. This new statement suggests that the SCJL is looking beyond a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and already relishing the time when it will face a stand-alone Iraqi government, striving to be in a position to send the current regime into oblivion.

Throughout its history, the Baath Party has been accustomed to issuing emphatic statements and using grandiose rhetoric about its capabilities and achievements. Everyone still remembers Saddam Hussein’s 1991 promise to wage a bloody “mother of all battles” against the U.S.-led Coalition to dispirit and crush it.[2] To an extent, the current promise might again just be built on rhetoric and empty threats. The performance of Saddam’s military during the conventional part of the war (March-April 2003) and the multiple divisions and fractures within the insurgency demonstrate that it is unlikely that the SCJL will be in a position to raise an actual effective conventional army.

A Question of Legitimacy

The declared intention of overthrowing the current regime, on the other hand, should not necessarily be discounted as mere gratuitous gesticulation, as the SCJL promises to take on a government much despised by Sunnis and install what they view as a legitimate governing body instead. This ambition is widely shared by many of the insurgent groups operating in Iraq. Major groups such the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Iraqi Front for the Islamic Resistance, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Mujahideen Army, among others, have declared the current government illegitimate because it stems from the occupation. Accordingly, all of the government’s acts are considered “null and void.”[3] These groups also view the Iraqi government as having engaged in sectarian political and physical warfare to the detriment of the Sunnis. Although no group has called for a boycott of the next round of provincial elections (scheduled for this coming fall), several groups have issued strong condemnations of the Western style of democratic governance, describing it as being incompatible with Islamic values.

Meanwhile, current efforts to steer insurgents away from violence and into the post-Saddam political system have yet to satisfy the Sunnis. Their strategy in the past year was predicated upon a quid pro quo arrangement. Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and helped the Coalition and the ISF drive it out of Anbar and Baghdad Provinces. In return, the Sunni community would get significant political rewards: the Awakening (Sahwah) councils that guard Sunni neighborhoods from al-Qaeda for a modest stipend would be incorporated into the ISF; Sunnis would be granted more political clout and some of the Iraqi constitution’s dispositions could be renegotiated to address Sunni concerns. The Shia-dominated Baghdad government has shown it is in no hurry to meet any of these conditions. On the contrary, the central government has hardened its stance against the Awakening councils, strongly hinting that it prefers to see them disbanded.

The Baathists might seek to take advantage of this disgruntlement by putting themselves in a position to exploit the growing Sunni disenchantment. To achieve this, the SCJL will need to convince other insurgents that it does not intend to reinstate its lost preeminence at the expense of other groups. In this regard, the Baathist message is mixed at best. In its latest announcement, the SCJL defines itself as the leading insurgent faction, the one around which all other insurgent groups should coalesce. Since its inception, the SCJL has repeatedly called for unity among all insurgent groups. However, in this statement, the SCJL goes beyond calls for unity and aggressively claims a prominent, some might even say domineering, position for itself. The group declares that “the Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation… is now leading the jihadist brigades and running the faithful battalions in order to liberate the last span of our beloved Iraq.” It further claims that the SCJL is “the only legitimate authority” entitled to deal with “the invading infidels” and asserts, “Nobody else can negotiate with the enemy.”

The Danger in Asserting Leadership

The SCJL’s denial that it is seeking superiority over other groups will do little to assuage its rivals’ fears. Last year, the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) and the Mujahideen Army openly quarreled with the Baath Party over what they perceive as the party’s tendency to inflate its role in the resistance (See Terrorism Monitor, April 12, 2007). Indeed, the SCJL’s rationale for claiming the insurgency’s pole position lies with the Baath Party’s historic role in Iraq: “Our brothers, we do not give ourselves superiority over you; yet, we were the legitimate authority before the occupation. We are still the sole legitimate authority after the occupation.” [4] Most other insurgents are likely to object to the SCJL’s characterization and goals. Since the inception of the war, the insurgents have consistently distanced themselves from the Baath Party and the old regime. In fact, the most common attack used to tarnish another group’s reputation is to label it “Baathist.” Invariably, such attacks prompt public and emphatic denials from the accused party. Further Baath promises to nominate a shura council to organize free and fair elections after the overthrow of the current political system may not be enough to alleviate the apprehensions of other insurgents. In this context, claiming any kind of continuity in legitimacy with the former regime will by itself be unlikely yield the expected results. In fact, it might even backfire, making other groups wary of cooperating with the SCJL.


Despite the emphatic rhetoric, it remains to be seen whether the party has the operational capability to spearhead and lead a unified resistance. The Baath Party is thought to constitute a significant block of the Iraqi insurgency; according to Al-Sharq al-Awsat, the resistance factions are “comprised of three categories: the militant Islamic resistance, the secular resistance as represented by the Baath Party and the al-Qaeda organization.” However, the overall strength of the Baath military organization remains difficult to determine. Although the Baath Party likes to boast of 200,000 members within the armed resistance factions and 300,000 more invested in various social and political organizations, these numbers cannot be independently verified (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 13, 2007). Moreover, disputes between the two branches of the movement led by former Iraqi vice-president Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri and former presidential aide Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad might affect the group’s cohesion and effectiveness. The movement’s strength might, however, reside elsewhere. The party’s strength derives from its ability to embody Iraq’s national identity, a quality that no other party, whether Sunni or Shia, has managed to achieve. Some of the barriers that have prevented other groups from joining the SCJL in the past will in all likelihood continue to hamper current efforts to rally other groups under the SCJL’s banner. Despite this shortcoming, the warning could hardly be any clearer: The Baath Party is looking forward to taking on an Iraqi government deprived of U.S. military support for control of “the new Iraq.”


1. Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, Sharia fatwa-issuing commission, “The Third Study: The Religious Ruling of Dealing with Infidels Who Have Declared War on Muslims,” August 9.

2. Saddam Hussein coined this memorable quote in a motivational speech he delivered to Baghdad state radio on the eve of the first Gulf War (17 January 1991). See Kevin C. Woods, The Mother of All Battles: Saddam Hussein’s Strategic Plan for the Persian Gulf War, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 2008.

3. See, for example, the interview with Dr Ibrahim al-Shemmari, official spokesman of the Islamic Army in Iraq, on the program “Without Borders,” Al-Jazeera, April 9, 2008. See also the Islamic Front of the Iraqi Resistance’s weekly messages, available at: Finally, see Ayad al-Dulaymi, Interview with Nasir-al-Din al-Husayni, spokesman for the Jihad and Change Front (JACF), Al-Arab Qatari Newspaper, March 5.

4. Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation, “The Third Study.”