Fears of a Baathist resurgence

Officials who worked for Saddam are hoping to win seats in elections in March and rewrite the constitution.

Iraqi rescue workers and firemen gather at the site of a bomb blast outside a criminal court building in west Baghdad's Mansur district on December 8, 2009. Five powerful car bombs rocked Baghdad, killing 112 people, including women and students, and wounding 207 in the third co-ordinated massacre to devastate the capital since August. AFP PHOTO/ALI AL-SAADI
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DAMASCUS // Baathist officials who worked for Saddam Hussein and who for years vehemently opposed the new democratic political process in Iraq are now hoping to win parliamentary seats at the next election.

Having boycotted the last national ballot, in 2005, the former Baathists say they have lost ground to their opponents and effectively handed control of the country to an alliance of Kurd and Shiite sectarianists. By taking part in the election, scheduled for early March, they want to win enough influence in parliament to rewrite the constitution, a document they claim has weakened Iraq by giving wildly disproportionate power to Iranian-backed religious parties and separatist Kurds in the north of the country.

It is a controversial agenda being carried out by controversial figures, and is fuelling fears that the Baathists have reorganised and are planning to rebuild their old authority. Jawhar al Harki, who said he was an adviser to Saddam, has registered to contest the March election as an independent within the Unity Alliance of Iraq coalition, one of the major competing blocs. "Our participation in the election does not mean that we recognise or accept the American occupation," he said in an interview at his Damascus office. "But we looked at the situation and looked at our previous decision to boycott the elections and we decided that, on balance, the positive aspects of taking part this time outweighed the negatives."

Mr al Harki, who continues to support the right of insurgents to fight the US military in Iraq, said the current circumstances made political action a more effective tool than armed insurgency. "Political action, today, can move more people than military action, " he said. "It is important that Iraqi nationalists - true nationalists, not people with a sectarian agenda - are represented in parliament and are able to enact the real wishes of the Iraqi people."

Under Iraqi law, high-ranking Baathists who were complicit in crimes are prohibited from holding government jobs or standing for election. Former Baathists are also required to confirm they are no longer affiliated to the party, which is banned in Iraq. Mr al Harki, who did not confirm he had renounced his membership and who, as a Kurdish Baathist, is reviled by many Kurds, said he was not involved in any wrongdoing under the old regime and that he had no problems registering his participation in the election, something that requires passing background checks.

Many Iraqis, including the Dawa Party of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, have warned that the Baath Party is trying to return by stealth, its members hiding under a different name but adhering to the same ideologies, and using the democratic process to capture enough power from which to re-establish a dictatorship. That concern is apparently not entirely unfounded. Fadhil al Rubaie, an independent Iraqi political analyst, with close connections to exiled Baathists in Syria, said a resurrection of the Baath might be underway.

"The Baathists have many groups and figures that are taking part in the election," he said. "The big question is whether they are going to participate under-the-table and then show their true colours after they have been elected. "Baathists are excluded from taking part under the constitution, but if they can get elected they would have a chance to amend the constitution, and then to effectively declare themselves [as Baathists]."

A string of devastating recent bombings have been blamed on Iraqi Baathists - with exiles in Syria accused of playing a role - allegations they deny. Their opponents say the bombings prove the Baathists have not committed themselves to peaceful politics. That the former Baathists have made it clear they want to rewrite the constitution has added to the alarm about their possible return, despite the fact that Mr al Maliki has said there are constitutional clauses that merit revision.

After years of nakedly sectarian politics since 2003, which helped plunge Iraq into a bloody civil war, nationalist sentiments are again on the rise, with all parties cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of authentic Iraqi identity. Former Baathists insist they are the true Iraqi nationalists and their optimistic widespread nationalist fervour will restore them to positions of influence. "The election will not be totally free or fair with the country still under occupation, but the Iraqi people will have a say in deciding their new leader and I do not think it will be Mr Maliki," Mr al Harki said. "Now the Iraqi people are enthusiastic about change after years of failure and they want their nationalist figures back."

Yahya al Jaf, another former Baathist who was a senior provincial official under Saddam in Wasit, Erbil and Dohuk, is standing in the March election, also under the Unity Alliance of Iraqi coalition. "Today the parliament has a significant role in making political decisions in Iraq," he said, also during an interview in Syria. "It was a big mistake for us to boycott the last elections because we basically gave power to the wrong people and they were able to design the constitution and seize the government.

"Now the only option we have is to engage in the political process and ensure that Iraqi nationalists have a role in the running of the country. We want to win parliamentary seats and we want to rewrite the constitution. At the moment it is a sectarian constitution full of time bombs and we need to defuse them." Mr al Jaf, who retired from government service in 1991, said he did not want to turn back the clock and dismantle Iraqi democracy. But, he said, Baghdad's authority needed to be reinforced in the face of pressure from Iran, the US and Iraqi Kurds, who aspired to more than federal autonomy.

"We may not be able to rewrite the constitution immediately, but if we can win seats at the March election - and I think we will - then we will have taken a step in the right direction." The involvement of reconstituted Baathists in the coming ballot has been welcomed by some of those who are most anti-Baath. Mohammad al Gharawi, the influential director of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's office in Syria, said it should be taken as a sign that a vital national reconciliation was happening.

"Our constitution says that not all Baath members are criminals," he said. "We agree, no dialogue with anyone who has Iraqi blood on his hands. "But in the end, Baathists are Iraqis so there must be dialogue with them. I say again, full contacts with Baathists who are not involved in crimes are essential to achieve a national settlement." psands@thenational.ae