No one in Iraq wants to miss a ride on the election bandwagon – even the most hard-bitten Sunni guerrillas and bombers.
Unless America stops them, an ingathering of Iraqi guerrilla leaders in Baghdad is scheduled for November 8 to launch preparatory discussions on the creation of a political arm for Iraq’s first general election in January 2005. This group hopes to run as a major player and lay claim to a key share of elected government. It will appeal for the support of prominent opponents of the US-backed Iyad Allawi government with the slogan: We oppose terror – but also the occupation.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terrorism sources, former Baath party officials who are behind the initiative are planning to launch their political party with a public founding conference in Baghdad.
Later in November or early December, they will organize a powwow outside Iraq to draw ex-Baathist guerrilla chiefs in exile into the new party. Their number is estimated at 12,000, concentrated mostly in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Damascus or Beirut would therefore be a convenient venue for their get-together, except that both Syria and Lebanon are none to keen to host the event.
Washington is waiting on events before deciding which to adopt of two conflicting recommendations from US intelligence officials on the ground.
One class of thought estimates that the new direction is all to the good and should be encouraged. Its proponents foresee the politicization of the various Iraqi insurgent and terrorist factions having a moderating effect and deflecting them from their assaults on American troops. The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr‘s turn away from revolt to mainstream politics has had a salutary influence all round – not only in the Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad, where his Medhi Army militiamen lined up to trade their arms for cash, but also – up to a point – in the Sunni Triangle hotbeds of Fallujah, Samarra and Ramadi.
The new trend offers the hope of a new Sunni Muslim leadership emerging, one that would be politically influential – even if it chose not to participate in the January election. This top group would be radical in the same sense as Sadr, who has formally ordered his loyalists not to directly cast their votes in the national ballot, but at the same time to cooperate with the followers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is assembling a large Shiite bloc to sweep the election and gain a majority in the Iraqi national assembly.
(For Sadr’s no-but-yes formula, see separate article.)
Would Boosting Baath Political Aspirations Backfire?
These same US intelligence officials are advising the Bush administration to favorably consider letting a Baathist-backed Sunni bloc run for office in the coming election, arguing it would fill a still blank square in Iraq’s political fabric. So far, the negotiators acting for the Americans and Allawi have not managed to shape a Sunni political alliance, despite the long talks underway since early 2004, mediated both by prominent Iraqis and Arab personalities from abroad.
The transformation of guerrilla groups dedicated to violence and terror into political organizations is integral to President George W. Bush's doctrine for bringing democracy to the Middle East. Washington has had no success in reinventing Lebanon's Hizballah terrorists as a political grouping by dismantling its militias and terrorist and intelligence arms. And Yasser Arafat has resisted all efforts to reform the Palestinian Authority.
Another argument in favor is that the creation of political wings inside Iraqi guerrilla groups would make it easier for US and Iraqi intelligence to study their command structure and modes of operation and keep track of their activities.
US intelligence officials holding the opposite view advise prohibiting the Baghdad founding conference and its follow-up meetings in Damascus and Baghdad, for a number of reasons.
A. The Baathist insurgents in the guise of registered political factions will quickly dominate the mainstream Sunni Muslim parties running in the January election. Furthermore, it is much too early to judge the politicization of Sadr’s following a success and precedent for a wider strategy because the internal dynamic inside his camp is still very fluid.
B. A Sunni political bloc established by anti-American Iraqi insurgents would have the option of branching out into Europe or the Arab world and multiplying its sources of assistance. New supply pipelines would become available for arms and money in addition to the conduit going through Syria. The less than successful US efforts to seal the Iraqi-Syrian border would then become a complete waste of time. (See DNW, 178, Oct 17, “Mortar Fire from Syria against US-Iraqi Troops).
However, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources, some of the calculations behind the arguments of the two US intelligence schools of thought suddenly became moot this week. Before Washington could choose between them, Damascus stepped in.
Acting on information from Syrian agents in Iraq and Iraqi ex-Baath officials in Syria, president Bashar Assad ordered his intelligence services to secretly shut down the Damascus offices of the Pan Arab Command of the Arab Baath Party. The PAC is the main coordination center for the Arab Baath Party in Sudan, Jordan, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and Iraq.
To cool some of the American heat trained on him for allowing the movement of men and weapons into Iraq and his policy in Lebanon, Assad has made the gesture of closing the door on Iraqi Baathist would-be politicians and denying them a headquarters in Damascus.