Pro-ISIL demonstrators chant and wave flags in front of the provincial government headquarters building in Mosul, on June 16, 2014.

Pro-ISIL demonstrators chant and wave flags in front of the provincial government headquarters building in Mosul, on June 16, 2014. AP Photo

How Iraq's Insurgency Could Mean the Return of Iraq's Baathists

A possible resurgence of former Saddam Hussein loyalists could translate to a diminished role for ISIL extremists than their violent land grabs would have you believe. By Steve LeVine

A prominent Iraqi pollster says the nation may be moving toward rule not by the militant Islamic fighters who have swept up territory the last two weeks, but by their allies-of-convenience—a coalition led by former Ba’athist forces ousted by US troops 11 years ago.

Munqith Dagher, who conducts Iraqi polls for Gallup International and his own firm , told Quartz that he based his conclusions on interviews with tribal leaders in Sunni areas of the country and a telephone survey conducted June 19-21 in the city of Mosul, which fell to the insurgents on June 10.

If accurate, Dagher’s findings coincide with the direction of events in Afghanistan , where the Taliban are resurgent, and suggest that the groups overthrown in both Baghdad and Kabul following 9/11 may be headed toward positions of prominent political influence.

Numerous reports from Iraq— such as this one (paywall)—have detailed the role of former loyalists of Saddam Hussein alongside tribal groupings in the uprising that is tearing apart the country. The thrust of the reports is that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL) has been so successful not principally because of its own prowess, but because of its alliance with seasoned officers and troops from Saddam’s disbanded army, in addition to profound Sunni discontent with Baghdad (both the Ba’athists and the militants are predominantly Sunni).

The Ba’athist influence could come to the fore if prime minister Nuri al-Maliki is pushed out of power or elects to share it. The US has recently been expressing its growing discontent with Maliki, who has favored fellow Shias and shut Sunnis out of government. Speaking on a visit to Washington, Dagher said that the Ba’athists would be extremely well-placed politically in an Iraqi government reconfigured (paywall) to be more balanced and halt the country’s apparent hurtle toward partition into three sectarian states.

The reason is the militants’ composition as a coalition force. While ISIL is the most prominent and feared member of the coalition, in a final battle for power it would have to attain dominance or defeat partners with sharply different , largely secular ideologies and superior fighting skills. Dagher says five such armed groups are most important in the coalition, including two Ba’athist groups called Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (the Army of Men of the Naqshbandi Order) and Jaish al-Mujahideen (the Mujahideen Army). These two groups, Dagher says, command the support of a broad swath of the Sunni public. Non-Ba’athist tribal leaders would go along with renewed Ba’athist rule, he said.

Dagher’s poll found that in Mosul, the perceived power is not ISIL but tribal leaders.

IIACSS/Munqith Dagher

The poll also found that people in Mosul feel fairly secure.

IIACSS/Munqith Dagher

Finally, the survey found support not for partition into a separate Sunni state, but a continued Iraqi nation with robust autonomy. However, the poll also suggests that Mosul residents perceive ISIL as leverage to obtain greater local political control.

IIACSS/Munqith Dagher