BAGHDAD — The Baath Party that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein is re-emerging, but it's no longer the totalitarian machine that the former dictator used to reward sycophants and remove rivals.
The Baath Party that's surfaced in the aftermath of Iraq's Jan. 31 provincial elections is composed of secular Sunni Muslims — who dominated Saddam's party — and a few Shiites. Some Iraqis welcome its return as an alternative to religious politics, but others dread it, especially Shiites and Kurds, who were on the receiving end of Saddam's despotism.
Despite the success of the provincial elections, it remains to be seen whether they've put Iraq on a path to unity after five years of sectarian strife, or whether the divisions among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and within those groups between Islamists and secularists, will prove to be more powerful than Iraqi nationalism is.
The return of secular Baathists comes after years of rule by Shiite leaders and nearly six years after the Bush administration purged party members from the government and military in 2003. Many Sunnis responded to de-Baathification, to the U.S.-led occupation and to attacks by Shiite militias by allying themselves with al Qaida in Iraq and other militant Sunni groups, but many have since rejected Islamic fundamentalism.
The Baathists' return "is indicative of a larger rethinking of de-Baathification," said Michael Wahid Hanna, a program officer at The Century Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit public policy research group.
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government recently invited exiled former Iraqi Army officers — almost all of them Baathists — to return to Iraq and apply for jobs, an olive branch aimed at building national unity.
Nevertheless, many Iraqis, Sunnis included, are wary of a Baathist revival.
Haider al Abadi, a lawmaker from Maliki's own Shiite Dawa party, responded by reviving accusations that the Baathists had ties to the al Qaida in Iraq insurgency. No dialogue would happen with Baath Party members, he added.
"They allowed al Qaida to enter the country, and they were involved in the killing of hundreds of Iraqis," Abadi said in a local paper. "How could such a party return to the political process?"
The new face of the Baath Party is Salih al Mutlaq, the head of the Iraqi National Project. Mutlaq said he hasn't been a card-carrying member of the party since 1977, but he doesn't mind being viewed as one.
"I'm not connected to the Baath Party and I'm not part of the Baath Party," said Mutlaq, a prominent Sunni parliamentarian. "But if I want to be part of the Baath Party, I'm not ashamed . . . because the existing parties are not much better."
In early results released last week, Mutlaq's party enjoyed a relatively high percentage of votes in Baghdad, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces. In the western province of Anbar, where the Sunni insurgency was once at its most violent, the party inched ahead with the highest percentage, outperforming the Sunni incumbents, the religious Iraqi Islamic Party.
Mutlaq's strong showing points to a larger trend in the recent elections: Iraqis' desire for a strong ruler. In the poll's preliminary results, Maliki's State of Law coalition won a plurality of the votes in nine of 14 provinces — more than any other party.
Maliki has reinvented himself as a pragmatic, non-sectarian leader. He was the bold figure who crushed both Sunni and Shiite militias, although his opponents charge that he's becoming a dictator.
Similarly, Mutlaq is pitching the Iraqi National Project as a strong secular party — an alternative to the religious Sunni and Shiite incumbents whom many Iraqis deem corrupt. Also like Maliki, Mutlaq wants a robust central government.
One of their main rivals, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, advocates a semi-autonomous Shiite region in the oil-rich south, not unlike Kurdistan to the north, and is believed to have ties to Iran. Early tallying indicates that the Supreme Council got trounced in the provincial elections.
Mutlaq, like many other apparent victors, has started building coalitions, teaming up with Anbar's tribal leaders. Until the victors take their posts, some of his party members, including one who's a former assistant to Saddam's notorious son Uday, are avoiding the province because of threats they've received. The ex-assistant is staying in a Green Zone hotel.
One party leader was gunned down Thursday in Mosul, a still-volatile city in the north that's divided between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds.
In one of the election's more surprising outcomes, a former Baathist got the plurality of votes in Karbala, a majority Shiite area known for its Shiite shrines where a secular Shiite, Yousef Majid al Habboubi, won the highest percentage of votes.
Habboubi's well known, though his whereabouts aren't. The former mayor of Karbala has a reputation as a doer, and unlike other candidates, he ran alone and avoided blanket campaigning.
"When he worked in the city in the former regime, he worked to serve and develop the city," said Ali Arbawi, 28, a government employee. "Today we are in need of the right man to develop the city from all sectors. Yousef is the right man."
Hanna, of The Century Foundation, cites Habboubi as an example of how de-Baathification went wrong. Even competent officials who were Baathists in name only got axed. "This guy was a technocrat," Hanna said by phone. "He got things done."
(Daniel reports for The Miami Herald. McClatchy special correspondents Qassim Zein in Najaf and Mahdi al Dulaimi in Anbar contributed to this article.)
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