Iraqi Officials Blame Al-Qaeda/Ba'ath Alliance for Recent Attacks

The Associated Press writes that U.S. military officials believe al-Qaeda was behind recent attacks in Iraq, while many Iraqi officials are blaming a joint al-Qaeda/Ba’ath alliance:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, added a twist, blaming an alliance of al-Qaeda and supporters of Saddam's Ba'ath party for the attacks.

The allegation is not new among Shiites, but it was for al-Maliki. Hard-line Shiite politicians with an eye on the January election have been increasingly mentioning the Ba'athists as partners with al-Qaeda.

The Baathist link is politically explosive; the question of what to do with Saddam-era officials in the civil service, army, and police has been at the heart of the Sunni-Shiite divide since the overthrow of Saddam's Sunni-led regime in 2003. It has also been a major hurdle to national reconciliation efforts.

Iraq expert Michael W. Hanna said Ba'athists have a new incentive to strike harder at the government since Syria -- where many of their exiled leaders live -- has shown a willingness to crack down on their activity and tighten border controls as part of an effort to improve relations with Baghdad and Washington.

In addition to numerous Shiite politicians blaming an al-Qaeda/Ba'ath alliance, Hussein Ali Kamal, a Kurd, is also blaming an al-Qaeda/Ba'ath alliance for recent attacks. Kamal is deputy interior minister of Iraq and has been described as an extremely reliable source by Matthew Degn, who worked with Kamal at Iraq's Ministry of Interior.

Though media accounts have offered little if any proof of a continued al-Qaeda/Ba’ath alliance thus far, Baghdad security officials are reporting that both al-Qaeda followers and Ba'ath loyalists were arrested in connection with the attacks and are alleging that Ba'ath elements controlled the operation.

While prominent Iraqi officials seem to be pointing the finger towards loyalists of the former regime of Saddam Hussein combined with al-Qaeda, U.S. officials have thus far seen more of the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Major John Redfield, speaking on behalf of U.S. Central Command, told this site that though information was still being evaluated by the U.S., “the attacks bore the marks of al-Qaeda.”

For more information on recent attacks, Jane Arraf's, Hamza Hendawi's, and Nancy Youssef's accounts are worth reading.

In a related story, Agence France Presse is reporting that former loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime are using Islamic language and Islamic groups as cover for their aims:

Fugitive henchmen of Saddam Hussein have adopted the cover of influential Muslim mystic groups to pose a real threat to stability in ethnically divided northern Iraq, Iraqi and U.S. commanders say.

The so-called Sufi orders have a large historical following in the disputed oil-rich region, and commanders say that the exploitation by Saddam loyalists of the orders’ extensive network of lodges holds more dangers than al-Qaeda.

“They have a pretty significant long-term potential to be a threat to the powers that be,” said Major Chuck Assadourian, the intelligence chief of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, who is based outside the oil city of Kirkuk.

Known as the Army of the Followers of the Naqshbandiya Order, or JRTN from its Arabic acronym, the insurgent group operates under the cover of the order’s many lodges across Kirkuk and neighbouring provinces, and counts Saddam’s fugitive number two Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri among its leaders.

In the coming weeks there will be greater Iraqi and U.S. understanding of the status of Ba'ath party loyalists, their possible involvement in recent attacks, and the status of their reportedly decreasing presence in Syria and Iraq.

Whether or not recent attacks can be blamed on an al-Qaeda/Ba'ath alliance, which is at this point certainly debatable, it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to provide evidence of such cooperation, as false allegations of al-Qaeda cooperation with former Ba'athists undermines credible evidence of such cooperation and damages a fragile public trust in government officials.