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As the Islamic State group continues to wreak havoc across Syria and Iraq, the group has become synonymous with extreme religious zealotry. Yet the militant group ironically has strong alliances with members of former dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath regime and its highest ranks are filled with former Saddam loyalists.
"Baathism is fundamentally a secular, pan-Arab movement, which the pan-Islamist movements have been at odds with for decades. This is not a natural alliance," Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation, told The WorldPost.
While the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS or ISIL, wants to create a religious regime across national borders, the Baathists want to reassert the power they had before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But they both claim to champion Sunni interests in opposition to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's autocratic and sectarian leadership.
The pragmatic alliance has been a major force in helping the Islamic State achieve its goals. When the group seized a string of cities in Iraq earlier this year, it was the former generals of Saddam's army who provided much of the military expertise.
The Islamic State's extremism, however, is now causing rifts in the alliance, with Baathist and Islamic State fighters competing for dominance. In July, a group of former Saddam followers released a statement denouncing the persecution of minorities, which served to distance the group from the Islamic State's tactics, analysts told Foreign Policy. And in late August, the news site Niqash reported that Sunni militia and tribal leaders were plotting to wrest control of the city of Fallujah from their Islamic State allies and roll back the group's extremist mandates.
"The Baathists have a lot of blood on their hands -- they are no shrinking violets," Fishman said. "The difference is that their goals are more secular and nationalist. They will certainly torture and kill, but they want support from minority groups and tribal groups."
"The Baathist camp wants political engagement, while the Islamic State wants war," he added.
The rift between former Saddam cronies and the religious insurgents may be America's best chance to weaken the Islamic State, Foreign Policy notes.
"It's great news not just politically, but in stopping the scourge of ISIS taking over vast portions of Iraq and terrorizing the population," a Human Rights Watch senior researcher told the site.
Yet the outcome also depends on whether militias can actually overpower Islamic State fighters.
"It doesn’t seem likely that the rest of the Sunni military opposition will be able to turn against ISIS successfully," jihadist expert Aymenn al-Tamimi recently told the London Review of Books. "If they do, they will have to act as quickly as possible before ISIS gets too strong."