Politics & Policy

Transition Complications

Who the Coalition is facing in Iraq.

With Saddam Hussein under arrest, a power struggle has begun within the remnants of his Baathist regime, Iraqi sources report.

At least three rival groups are positioning themselves to fight for the control of what they call “popular resistance” (al-muqawemmah al-shaabaiyah).

The issue is attracting broader Arab interest with some pan-Arabists, Islamists, and other radical groups focusing on the Iraqi insurgency as the vanguard of a broader struggle against the West led by the United States.

What looks like a consensus is emerging in sections of the Arab media that regarded the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a catastrophe for Arab nationalism. The consensus, set by the antiwar daily Al Quds, published in London, is that Saddam’s arrest would enable other “resistants” to come forward and fight “the occupation.”

The paper’s editor-in-chief, Abdul-Bari Attwan, a British citizen of Palestinian origin, believes that many Iraqis did not fight the Coalition because they did not want to be regarded as Saddam’s fedayeen.

“With Saddam out of the picture, the resistance can mobilize all of Iraq’s Arab nationalistic energies,” Attwan says.


Inside Iraq, however, the power struggle within the insurgency is fought around more mundane issues. At stake is some $400 million in cash that Saddam and his entourage took away from the Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad on April 8, only hours before the U.S. Marines arrived. (The original sum taken was over $1 billion of which more than half was later found by the GIs in a cache close to the Tigris River.) The fallen regime is also believed to have stashed away billions of dollars in foreign, mostly Swiss, French, and Austrian, banks. Until 2002, these were managed by Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a half-brother of Saddam who is now believed to be held by the Coalition forces.

The rival groups are also fighting over control of large quantities of weapons that Saddam and his henchmen looted from army depots and barracks last April and May. One of the last orders Saddam gave to his loyalists on April 8 was to “seize and secure” as many weapons as they could. Later, he confirmed the order in an audiotape broadcast by al Jazeera in July. In it he described “all forms of weapons” as “parts of Iraqi national property” and asked his followers to “take as much as you can for safe-keeping.” It is not clear whether any weaponized chemical and/or bacteriological substances were included in what was looted by pro-Saddam elements in the first few weeks after the liberation. According to Iraqi sources, however, there are enough arms in secret locations to supply the needs of the insurgency for months if not years.


The three main groups involved in the power struggle are organized along tribal and clan lines covered by a thin veneer of Baathist ideology.

What is possibly the largest group is led by Colonel Hani Abdul-Latif al-Tilfah al-Tikriti, a former head of the Secret Services Organization (SSO) and a cousin of Saddam. Hani and his younger brother Rafi are reportedly trying to maintain the cohesion of what is left of the Tikriti clan that provided Saddam with his principal support base for 30 years. Although both brothers feature in the deck of cards issued by the U.S.-led Coalition, there are indications that they are still able to operate with some freedom within the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” Their group includes Sabaawi Ibrahim al-Tikriti, a half brother of Saddam, and Lt. General Tahir Dalil Harboush, a Soviet-trained expert in intelligence.

According to Iraqi sources this group includes several hundred former members of the presidential guard and special commando units once led by the late Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s second son.

The nominal head of the second group is Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, who was number-two in Saddam’s Revolutionary Command Council (RCC). This group has absorbed the remnants of the Baath party’s secret military organization, of which Duri was leader since 1986. It is also possible that some members of the Fedayeen Saddam organization, led by the deposed dictator’s eldest son, the late Uday Hussein, have rallied to the group.

The Coalition has identified Duri as the ultimate leader of the current insurgency. But most Iraqi sources reject that hypothesis. Duri has been seriously ill for years. In fact, in the year 2000, he received treatment for leukemia in Austria. What is more probable is that is that one faction is using Duri’s name, and prestige as Saddam’s closest aide for 20 years, to deny the Tikriti faction exclusive control over the remnants of the party and regime.

According to Iraqi and other Arab sources the faction built around Duri is, in fact, led by Major-General Seyfallah Hassan Taha al-Rawi, a former chief of staff of he presidential guard. The Rawi clan has a long history of uneasy relations with Saddam’s Tikriti clan.

In the 1970s one of the al-Rawis, General Abdul-Ghani, defected to Iran, provoking revenge killings ordered by Saddam against the clan. The blood feud ended in 1990 when Saddam promoted several al-Rawi officers in a bid to weaken another rival clan, the Juburis. Two cousins, Muhammad Zamam Abdul-Razzaq al-Saadoun and Abdel-Baqi Abdelkarim Abdallah al-Saadoun are believed to be the group’s major contact men with various Sunni Arab tribes, especially in regions close to the Syrian border.

The third group could be described as the civilian wing of the insurgency and presents itself as “the true Baath.” It is led by Muhsin Khudhair al-Khafji who has just declared himself president of the Iraqi section of the pan-Arab Socialist Baath party.

A former security officer, al-Khafji who spent some time studying in France, is clearly trying to provoke bloody clashes between Iraqi civilians and the occupation forces in Baghdad and some of its Sunni suburbs in the west and north.

The civilian wing of the Baath can count on scores of businesses and associations that acted as facades for its presence in all walks of Iraqi life. The nature of these businesses and those who ran them would be known to very few individuals, including Saddam himself.

Last week al-Khafji succeeded in setting up website, possibly with the help of Baathist elements in Algeria. He also seems to have restored contacts with Baath-party branches created by Iraq in Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Morocco.

Al-Khafji has also maintained contacts with more than a dozen non-Iraqi, mostly Palestinian, terrorists, and guerrilla organizations that Saddam had financed and supported over the years. His contact man with some of those groups is one Khamis Sarhan al-Muhammad, once head of the Baath branch in Karbala, in central Iraq.

The group’s principal contact man with the tribes is believed to be Rashid Maan Kadhim who was last seen in the Mosul area in June.

In a statement published Monday, al-Khafji claimed that Saddam’s capture had been the result of “betrayal by mercenaries.” The statement claimed that Saddam Hussein remained secretary general of the pan-Arab Baath party which has branches in eleven Arab countries. (One rival branch of the Baath is in power in Syria.)

It is not clear who the “mercenaries” mentioned in the statement are. But some Iraqis see a broad hint that the al-Rawi clan is the target of the accusation. This is because it was information provided by one of the al-Rawis, captured by the U.S., that ostensibly led to the discovery of the hole where Saddam was hiding.

The “true Baath” group is trying to patch up relations with Syria, mostly through contacts in Europe. It wants Damascus to agree to a reunification of the Baathist movement throughout the Arab world, and throw its support behind a campaign to end the occupation of Iraq. Syria would love to regain control of the pan-Arab Baath movement, which it lost in the 1970s largely because of Saddam’s rising power in Baghdad. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad still claims to be the nominal leader of all branches of the Baath party in the Arab world, including Iraq. But it is not clear whether he would wish to risk a confrontation with the US by actually taking the remnants of the Iraqi Baath into his tent.


Differences among the three groups over the strategy to pursue have become clearer in the past two weeks.

The so-called “true Baath” group favors a strategy of urban guerrilla by small units plus civil disobedience by groups still loyal to the party. It hopes that, at some point, it would force the coalition, or the transitional government that is to be installed next June, to seek some accommodation with it. This strategy is based on Baath’s experience over more than half a century. On several occasions the Baath was formally banned in Iraq and had to go underground. Each time it managed to re-emerge thanks to a campaign of violence while its political enemies were divided among themselves. Each time the Baath allied itself with whichever faction it deemed necessary in order to strike against others and gain a share of power. The Iraqi Baath party has changed alliances many times, from Communists to Islamists and passing by Nasserists and nationalists.

Al-Khafji and his theoreticians hope that history will repeat itself and that the enemies of the Baathists will soon start fighting one another, enabling the party to rebuild itself and reemerge as a force that could tip the balance one way or another.

For its part, the Tikriti clan appears intent on organizing sporadic attacks on the Coalition in the hope of killing as many American soldiers as possible. It appears to have succeeded in creating several operational units, some consisting of up to 25 men. The clan is in a strong position because it is believed to control the bulk of the money stolen on Saddam’s orders plus secret funds controlled by various security organizations.

The clan rejects the strategy of the “true Baath” as one that is based on an illusion. The U.S.-led Coalition has announced the dissolution of the Iraqi Baath and is unlikely to allow it to re-emerge in any form anytime soon.

Although the remnants of the Iraqi Baath may enjoy some sympathy in Moscow and Paris it is unlikely that demands made by Russia and France for a “broad-based government in Baghdad” would extend to them. Nor could one imagine the new Iraqi transitional government, expected to be sworn in next June, allowing the Baath party to rebuild itself in any form.

The al-Rawi clan is apparently trying to rally some tribal elements, especially within the areas controlled by the Duwailim and the al-Shamar tribal confederations in the Sunni areas. It believes that, by playing the tribal card, it would gain a place at the negotiating table over the shape of the new Iraq.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of half a dozen other groups, some of them consisting almost entirely of non-Iraqi Islamist militants, who have their own agendas and pursue their own strategies.

The largest of these groups is known as Ansar al-Sunnah (Victorious Soldiers of Tradition) and is close to the religious leaders in Fallujah and Baaquba.

Another group is known as Lajnat al-Iman (the Committee of the Faith) which has a presence in Baghdad and Mosul. Both include non-Iraqi militants and have contacts with pan-Islamist movements in other Arab countries, notably Algeria and Saudi Arabia. The use of car bombs, a Lebanese specialty, in the current campaign of violence may indicate a Lebanese presence in one or both of these groups. Some elements of the Ansar al-Islam (Victorious Soldiers of Islam), a group with close ties to al Qaeda, are also present in the Sunni Triangle, although their importance has been widely exaggerated by the Americans.

Also operating in the context of the instability that prevails in the Sunni Triangle are mafia-style groups that once controlled the black market created by United Nations sanctions. These groups have absorbed some of the criminals who Saddam released from prison on the eve of his own downfall. These gangs pursue no particular political agenda and switch alliances from one former Baathist outfit to another.

The Coalition cannot deal with all these groups in exactly the same way. Different tactics and strategies are needed to take into account the specific form of threat each poses. Some groups must be regarded as terrorists and hunted down without mercy. There are also individuals who must be captured and tried for crimes against humanity. But there are also groups and/or individuals who could be treated politically. These include Sunni mullahs, tribal leaders, and even some members of the Baath party who have not been personally involved in criminal activities.

A mixture of patient police work, tough counter-insurgency action, and deft political maneuvering is needed to help Iraq negotiate the dangerous phase of the transition in the next few months.

With Saddam in the can, the situation in Iraq may get more complicated, at least for a while. The idea is to fasten seatbelts for the bumpy road ahead. With the head of the snake chopped off the rest of it will also be destroyed. What is needed is patience and resolve.

Amir Taheri is a NRO contributor, Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.


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