Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Is The U.S. Negotiating With Baathists?

In early January 2011 the Paris based Intelligence Online site said that the CIA was meeting with Baathists in Yemen and Syria to try to work out a cease-fire with them to re-integrate them into the new Iraq. After the overthrow of Saddam many Baathists fled to Syria where they set up offices, and helped fund the insurgency. The President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh also recruited many former Iraqi army and intelligence officers that had lost their job when the U.S. invaded 2003 into his own forces. Intelligence Online claimed that these talks began in the summer of 2009 with the help of Jordanian intelligence. The strategy is to try to reach out to these former regime elements, and get them involved with Iraqi politics before the U.S. withdraws. For their part, the Baathists and army officers want jobs in the government and military, and an end to the constitutional ban on the Baath party. This was just the latest evidence that the U.S. has been negotiating with insurgents and former regime elements to try to bring about reconciliation in Iraq, but ironically, none of these efforts have included the Iraqi government.

In 2009 there were scattered stories about the U.S. talking with militants. In February 2009, a Saudi newspaper said that an American delegation met with former army officers in Jordan, hoping to convince them to return to Iraq. In April, Newsweek reported that the U.S. had tried to talk with Baathists, and was pushing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to offer them a fig leaf. On August 29, The National paper from Abu Dhabi ran a story that said that the U.S. had met with insurgents in Turkey at the beginning of 2009, and that a U.S. military delegation to Syria in August had also talked with Baathists there. Finally, on January 5, 2010 Azzaman claimed that Baathists and insurgents inside Iraq were having discussions with the U.S.

These American overtures have led to a mix response by Baghdad. In April 2009, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he would welcome back Baathists if they accepted the new political order in the country. However, later in the year he rejected any U.S. brokered talks with them. In August 2009 after the bombing of government buildings in Baghdad, Maliki began a concerted campaign to blame Syrian Baathists to defer blame away from himself for the security failure. In December, the Prime Minister noted that if Washington were to meet with Baathists in the future, that would be a violation of the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries. With Maliki focusing the public on the threat of Baathist terrorist acts and the recent banning of candidates in the March 2010 elections due to their alleged Baathist sympathies, the negative reaction by Maliki to the U.S. talking with former regime members could be expected.

In the middle of all the Baathist baiting going on in Iraq, it was ironic to read on January 21 a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that members of the Iraqi government were carrying out their own secret negotiations with Baathists. A spokesman for the cabinet’s reconciliation committee was quoted as saying that the Ministry of National Dialogue held talks with insurgents in Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria recently. He went on to say that the reconciliation committee’s chairman had met with Baathists in Syria who were willing to renounce violence and try politics.

Reconciliation in Iraq has gone in spurts and spats, and the U.S. has led much of this effort with mixed results. The Anbar Awakening that was made up of former tribes and militants who had cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq was largely accepted by Baghdad because of their indigenous origins, and residence in a Sunni dominated province. The Sons of Iraq, which was a successful attempt by the Americans to divide and conquer the insurgency on the other hand, has met plenty of opposition by Iraqi officials since it was a U.S. creation. Their integration into the government has been dragged along as a result. U.S. attempts at working out deals with Baathists and insurgents would probably create a similar reaction as the Iraqi government is not involved in the policy at all. The willingness of Iraqi officials to accept militants back into Iraq is also divided. The boogey man of a Baathist return is still quite useful amongst Shiite political parties for example, as is currently playing out in the 2010 elections. Reconciliation would deprive them of this tool. When Iraqi politicians will be mature and secure enough in their positions to accept the return of Baathists exiles that are really no threat to the new Iraq is unknown, but probably won’t happen anytime soon. That means the U.S. has plenty of time to talk with them, or their work may be futile.

SOURCES

Azzaman, “US talking to former Baathists in Iraq,” 1/5/10

Dawlat Al-Qanon Network, “Al-Maliki Answers Reporters’ Questions Online,” MEMRI Blog, 12/8/09

Kaplow, Larry, “The Return of the Baathists,” Newsweek, 4/6/09

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Iraqi Officials Confirm Talks Held Abroad With Ba’athists, Insurgents,” 1/21/10

Roads To Iraq Blog, “American delegation met with former Iraqi army officers,” 2/20/09

Sands, Phil, “A safe haven in Damascus,” The National, 8/29/09

UPI, “CIA ‘seeks truce with Iraqi Baathists,’” 1/11/10

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