The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq not only toppled Saddam Hussein, but it also put an end to three and a half decades of political domination by the Ba’ath party over Iraq. Despite a proliferation of political parties and militant organizations eager to take or at least share power in a new Iraq, the Ba’athists, who once held a monopoly on power and remain convinced they are the only legitimate government in Iraq, are still active and reorganizing. The Iraqi Ba’athists, however, have split into two factions, one based in Iraq and the other in Syria. The latter group is led by General Muhamad Yunis al-Ahmad, a once relatively obscure member of Saddam’s general staff who has emerged as a claimant to the leadership of the Iraqi Ba’ath party.
From Pan-Arabism to Regional Rivalry
The Arab al-Ba’ath Socialist Party was founded in Syria in the mid-1940s as a pan-Arab nationalist organization with the aim of unifying all the Arabic-speaking countries. The party first ruled Iraq in 1963 after a successful coup attempt against Prime Minister General Abdul Karim Kassim. A few months later the Ba’athists were overthrown and suppressed by General Abdul Salim Arif. The party returned to power in 1968 after another coup. Saddam became the second man of the regime, which crushed all of its political rivals. In 1979 Saddam became president until the 2003 U.S. invasion ended the second Ba’athist reign in Iraq. Although Saddam was not popular in Iraq, hundred of thousands of Iraqis were members of his party. Many were sincere party members, but others had to join the organization to pursue their education or keep their jobs as government employees.
Since the late 1960s, Iraq and Syria were ruled by two rival wings of al-Ba’ath. The personal and political animosity between Syria’s President Hafiz al-Assad and President Saddam Hussein dominated regional politics for decades. The pan-Arab party command was split in two, with Ba’athists around the Arab world having to choose between the Iraqi or Syrian faction. The Syrians were unable to welcome the fall of Saddam as it put them under direct American pressure. As a result, Syria became a gateway for foreign fighters on their way to Iraq.
Al-Baath was outlawed after the war. The members of the top four levels of the party were excluded from public life by order of U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Saddam and most of the leading figures of his regime were captured one by one. Some Ba’athists, however, did not accept the defeat easily and formed underground organizations. One of those is led by Syrian-based General Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad, a senior member of al-Ba’ath under Saddam.
Reviving the Party in Syria
General al-Ahmad’s highest post under Saddam was his membership in the supreme command of al-Baath party. The general seems to have an ideal resume for someone who would want to build a Ba’athist paramilitary organization, having worked in the so-called Political Guidance Directorate of the former Iraq Army. That department was in charge of ensuring the complete control of al-Ba’ath over the Iraqi armed forces through a network of loyal officers in every unit. After that, General al-Ahmad occupied a senior post in the military bureau of the party. 
Al-Ahmad was not one of the 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials depicted in the famous set of playing cards distributed by the U.S. Army during the invasion. A few months later the Coalition acknowledged their oversight by issuing a million dollar reward for information leading to his arrest (Middle East Online, February 18, 2004).
General al-Ahmad was mentioned when Moyayad Yaseen Ahmad, the leader of the Jaysh Muhammad (The Army of [the Prophet] Muhammad) insurgent group, was arrested. The government said the captured insurgent had visited Syria, where he met with General al-Ahmad to coordinate joint efforts in the insurgency (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 17, 2004). On December 6, 2004 the Iraqi government-owned al-Sabah newspaper reported:
A group of fugitive members of al-Ba’ath held a conference in the Syrian city of al-Hasaka lately. They elected the (criminal) Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmad as secretary-general of the party in Iraq. The attendees offered to stop the insurgency in six hours if the Iraqi government allowed them to participate in the political process. It was not clear how serious the offer was. But the Iraqi government continues its effort to capture al-Ahmad, labeling him as a terrorist who leads and funds insurgent groups.
Al-Ba’ath after Saddam
Saddam Hussein was the secretary-general of the Arab Ba’ath socialist party since 1979. Even after his capture in 2003 he was still recognized by the Iraqi Ba’athists as the supreme leader. Following Saddam’s execution in December 30, 2006, General al-Ahmad made his most serious attempt to succeed the late party leader by calling for a general conference of the party in Syria to elect a new leadership. The move was condemned by the followers of former vice-president Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who had already claimed Saddam’s succession. Unlike the conference of 2004, this meeting ignited a huge controversy among the Ba’athists. Al-Douri criticized Syria for supporting an American conspiracy against the Iraqi Ba’ath, though shortly afterwards his spokesman played down those remarks (al-Arabiya, January 22, 2007).
The conference was held without any direct media coverage; no pictures were available from the event. General al-Ahmad ordered the expulsion of al-Douri from the party, but al-Douri had already ordered the dismissal of al-Ahmad and 150 other members. The Iraqi Ba’ath party has since split into rival wings (Almalafpress.net, April 25, 2007).
Although the supporters of al-Douri accused al-Ahmad’s group of being keen to contact the Iraqi government, this has not yet been proved. Former Iraqi presidential advisor General Wafiq al-Samarai was reported to have met with al-Ahmad’s aides in Jordan in 2007 (alnazaha.org, April 28, 2007), but denied ever meeting with any of al-Ahmad’s representatives in an interview with Jamestown. Al-Samarai said that he believed al-Ahmad’s organization would remain a secret armed group and its leading figures would stay in Syria.
Al-Ahmad’s Role in the Insurgency
In two TV interviews in 2007, General Gazwan al-Kubaisi, the second man in al-Ahmad’s group, portrayed the strategy of his party in the insurgency:
We asked our supporters in Iraq to join other groups as our abilities are still weak… We do not care who is leading the insurgency, whether the Islamists or the Ba’athists, [so long as] the Islamist armed groups are filled with Ba’athists… We are open to cooperation with any armed group that targets the occupier enemy [the Coalition forces] and the collaborating government but not the Iraqi people.
Al-Kubaisi also called for the Americans to withdraw their troops from Iraq and claimed his party could help in securing such a withdrawal:
They should leave and not stay for years – we could help them to withdraw without losing face. Our conditions are: They should release all the Iraqi prisoners from their jails and from [those of] the collaborating government. They have to hand over the collaborating government to be tried by Iraqis. They must rebuild everything that was damaged in Iraq. They must apologize to the Iraqi people, to the Arab nation, to all Muslims and to humanity for the crime of letting Safavids execute Saddam Hussein (al-Arabiya, August 29, 2007; Al-Baghdadiyah TV [Cairo], December 9, 2007). 
In addition to General al-Ahmad and General al-Kubaisi, the Syrian-based Ba’ath faction is believed to include most of the remaining leading figures of the party, including Mezher Motni Awad, To’ma Di’aiyef Getan, Jabbar Haddoosh, Sajer Zubair, and Nihad al-Dulaimi.
Aside from the military representation in al-Ahmad’s group, the organization is also believed to have made some inroads among the majority Shi’a. Although al-Ahmad and his senior aides are Sunnis, his organization has many Shiites in the middle level. Al-Douri has held to conservative Islamic policies based on his Sunni faith. Al-Ahmad, however, took the opportunity of returning to the party’s original pan-Arab nationalist secular ideology. This has proved attractive to some former Ba’athist Shiites from southern Iraq, especially those who have not been integrated into post-war Iraq as a result of their party membership (Almalafpress.net, April 25, 2007; see also Terrorism Focus, January 21).
Still, al-Ahmad seems to have failed to overthrow al-Douri. Al-Douri’s followers are more active on the internet and most of the pro-Ba’athist websites recognize al-Douri as the head of the party. Al-Ahmad does not even have exclusive support from the Syrian government and his group is susceptible to Syrian interference in Iraqi Ba’athist affairs. Also, Syrian support is not necessarily an advantage for the Iraqi Ba’thists. In addition to the historical animosity between the Ba’ath membership in the two countries, the Iraqis could not ignore that Syria is the main ally of their rival, Iran.
Despite their differences, both factions of the Ba’ath party have the same ideology and goals. Al-Ahmad will have to work hard to gain the support of what is left of the Ba’athist base. The image of being under the influence of the Syrian government will not help him in this context. Al-Ahmad probably will focus on the military side where his experience and contacts lay. The strategy used against al-Qaeda in Iraq will not automatically work against al-Ba’ath. Iraq and Syria have recently ended a 24-year break in diplomatic relations, which should encourage the two countries to raise the level of security coordination between them. This will deny General al-Ahmad and his group the safe haven they have been enjoying for years. The Iraqi government efforts to integrate more former al-Ba’ath loyalists will make it harder for al-Ahmad or any other Ba’athists to re-structure an influential organization by recruiting segregated former comrades.
1. Information on al-Ahmad from an interview with General Wafiq al-Samarai, head of Iraqi military intelligence in early 1990s. General al-Samarai fled the country and joined the opposition, eventually becoming the top military advisor to current Iraqi president Jalal al-Talibani. Al-Samarai points out that the main area of al-Ahmad’s activities is in and around the northern city of Mosul, with a presence in al-Anbar, Kirkuk, and Diyala.
2. “Safavids” refers to the Safavid Dynasty that ruled Iran and large areas in west Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Iraqi Ba’athists use the term to refer to the Iranians and their allies in the Iraqi Shiite parties. As secularists, the Ba’athists do not deny Shiite Islam, but by using the term Safavid they show their disrespect for the Iranian interpretation of Shiite Islam. The Ba’athists believe that the origin of Shiite Islam is Arab, not Persian.