THE BLOG
11/17/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

The Islamic State and Saddam's Phantom Army

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A decade ago, the occupying force in Iraq dissolved that country's army, sending hundreds of thousands of fighting men home. Earlier this year, thousands of them tore through northern Iraq under the flag of the Islamic State (IS). It's time to join the dots. President Obama's air strikes on IS targets are welcome, but in his well-received speech in September, he failed to acknowledge past mistakes that partly account for the group's rise -- not only mistakes made with regard to Syria in recent years, but going back to the conduct of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

After the Iraq War, the occupying forces embarked on a policy of 'de-Baathification,' removing members of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein's Baathist party from positions of power. But the unintended consequence was effectively to disenfranchise millions of soldiers, administrators and public servants, who also mostly happened to be members of the Sunni minority, leaving them alienated from the new government, with no job and no stake in the new Iraq. People in most of the Arab world do not understand democracy in terms of equality for all under the rule of law regardless of religion, ethnic group, sect, and gender, but simply as the majority ruling over everyone else -- a zero-sum game -- so in the absence of any concerted effort to build a genuine democracy, the end of the dictatorship only led to greater sectarian division.

The short-sightedness of de-Baathification became apparent as soon as US troops were withdrawn. Huge numbers of those former soldiers in the north of Iraq joined an insurgency against the government. This is the bigger picture we must grasp in order to understand the recent success of the so-called "Islamic State." Former Iraqi interior minister Falah al-Naqib has estimated that IS makes up no more than 15 percent of the anti-government forces in Iraq. It is the tip of a much bigger spear, with a very different agenda.

Many observers were stunned when IS took the northern city of Mosul, because they failed to recognize the existence of an already-existing insurgency led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top military commander and vice president in the Saddam government, who is the real puppet master controlling IS. Although black IS flags now fly over Mosul, it is actually the Baathists who run the city -- former military officers who already enjoyed the support of many civilians and even police. Meanwhile, sympathetic Iraqi troops simply surrendered and joined the insurgents. This also explains how IS got hold of chemical weapons as was recently reported -- they will have been stockpiled by former Baathists -- as well as experienced pilots to train them to fly fighter jets they captured in Syria after overrunning the Tabqa military airbase and savagely executing hundreds of soldiers.

Al-Douri now leads a militant group called the Naqshbandi, ostensibly a Sufi order, but in essence a Baathist outfit in a more PR-friendly guise, which they hope will make it less embarrassing for the international community to engage with them, having vilified the Baathist regime.

Baathists like those have not only simply 'joined' with Islamist groups like IS to reinforce their insurgency. They actively set them up. The group's original name ISIS or ISIL, meaning 'Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,' refers to the Sunni majority area across Iraq and Syria, which they now control. The Baathists took advantage of the civil war in Syria, and the funding, propaganda and political support available from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and their militant clerics, to establish a terrorist group with the sole aim of scaring the international community. The subtle change of that group's name to simply 'Islamic State' was a not-so-subtle threat to force the West to seek the help of the former Baathists, coinciding with messages of support from the Pakistani Taliban, and raising the threat of global jihad rather than just regional conflict.

The Baathists knew a time would come when the international community would come and seek their help to get rid of these frightening bogeymen, and that would be when they would present their terms and conditions, either a state of their own or to be fully represented in any future government. Former General Muzhir al Qaisi told the BBC in the summer that the Baathists are much stronger than the 'barbarians' of IS, who could never have taken Mosul alone, and they could easily defeat them if they needed to. Clearly, they are waiting for an incentive.

Videos of IS fighters beheading civilians are part of the Baathists' strategy, but their ultimate goal as described by another senior officer is not a caliphate -- the avowed goal of IS -- but 'getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form a Sunni Region.' In fact, the Iraqi government is not sectarian, but its exclusion of former Baathists who happen to be mostly Sunni certainly makes it less than representative.

In July, Al-Douri's group even issued a statement condemning sectarianism and the persecution of Christians and Yazidis. Having shown the world the most terrifying face of militant Islamism in the form of the Islamic State, the Baathists in a new guise seek to present themselves as the moderate alternative. If they are now ready to turn on their erstwhile allies, so much the better, but we must have no illusions about their role in setting them up in the first place.

Meanwhile, the answer to their disenfranchisement is not partition, which would mean redrawing the map of the whole region. We must hope that it is not too late to avoid this terrible scenario, which is sadly where the region is heading. The alternative is the integration of all into the Iraqi state on a peaceful, non-sectarian and fully inclusive and democratic basis. There is also a lesson here for Syria, where any eventual peace settlement must also be fully inclusive and democratic.

It is vital that the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria are defeated, but that in itself is not enough. While the de-Baathification policy was misguided, it is not the only factor in the rise of groups like IS. Militant Islamism is fueled by supposed Western allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have channeled billions of dollars and arms to the militants now tearing the Middle East apart, and billions more to groups who share their ideology throughout the world. Extremist clerics throughout the Muslim world use their mosques to preach hatred whilst spreading their poisonous ideology worldwide through TV stations and the internet. They must be stopped and brought to justice, and the governments who tolerate and even condone their activities must be brought into line with an international effort to put an end to Islamic extremism.

The most important thing the international community can do to stop the likes of the Islamic State is to hit them hard and then hold fast to its own values of freedom and democracy -- and hold to account supposed allies who do not.