Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Friday, 5 March 2010

Iraqi Baathist resentment simmers in Syria

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Damascus

Khudeir Rashidi in Damascus
Rashidi says the Baath party is building bombs to fight the US "occupiers"

Saddam Hussein's Baath party is banned in Iraq, but the doors of its office in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus, are wide open.

"That's our hero," says Khudeir Rashidi, the party spokesman, pointing at Saddam Hussein who looks down from portraits on the walls.

Iraq's dictator may be dead, but his supporters in Damascus insist that his party lives on.

"We have millions of members in Iraq who are working for the cause," Mr Rashidi says.

The cause, he says, is the liberation of Iraq from the American occupiers through military resistance.

"We have many weapons, we manufacture bombs, we are working very effectively underground," he says.

Baath 'threat'

The true extent of the involvement of the Baath party in the armed insurgency back in Iraq is very difficult to measure.

I go on TV and tell my people: 'Anyone who wants money or weapons to fight the Americans, call me'
Mishaan al-Jabouri,
owner, Al Rai television

There is little doubt that the party has a wide and powerful network of former members, if only because virtually everyone had to join its ranks under Saddam Hussein.

Sceptics argue that despite its outreach, the Baath party is politically decapitated, morally bankrupt and ideologically irrelevant - in other words very much a thing of the past.

But the Iraqi government says Baathists pose a real threat.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki accuses them of working closely with al-Qaeda, and says that the Baath leadership in Damascus is behind a series of recent major bombings on government buildings in Baghdad that killed hundreds of civilians.

"It's a lie," says Mr Rashidi. "We don't work with al-Qaeda and we never target civilians. Our armed struggle is only against the occupation forces in Iraq," he says.

Iraqi 'resistance'

On the other side of the Syrian capital, in the slick TV studios of Al Rai satellite station, the staff are working hard to spread a similar message.

Iraqi election posters in Damascus
Syria is home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees

"If I saw you in an American army uniform I would kill you," roars the owner Mishaan al-Jabouri.

The TV screen behind him proves that he is not joking.

"I go on TV and tell my people: 'Anyone who wants money or weapons to fight the Americans, call me'," he says.

Mr Jabouri's biography is as colourful as his loud persona. Once a close ally of Saddam Hussein, he fell out with the late dictator, worked with the Americans and became an MP after the US-led invasion.

Today he is fully dedicated to fighting the US troops.

Mr Jabouri says he will finance and arm anyone involved in the insurgency, including the Baathists, although he believes the group is only a small part of what he calls the "resistance".

'Policy of exclusion'

Washington and Baghdad are furious that the Syrian government is allowing people like Khudeir Rashidi or Mishaan al-Jabouri to operate out of Damascus.

The Iraqi government needs to solve their own problem with their people, their policy is alienating a whole sect
Samir Taqi, Syrian analyst

For its part, Syria likes to remind the US and the Iraqi governments that it bears the huge burden of continuing to provide a home to more than a million Iraqi refugees.

"There are hundreds of thousands of supporters of the former regime among these refugees. What should we do... jail them all?" asks Samir al-Taqi, an analyst with a pro-government Syrian think tank.

Mr Taqi argues that what is radicalising many Baathists further is the failure of the Iraqi government to involve them in the political process.

One of the most controversial issues on the eve of Iraq's Sunday parliamentary election has been the exclusion of the candidates believed to be affiliated with Saddam Hussein.

Most of them were Sunnis and opposed Mr Maliki, a Shia.

Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group, says not only the Iraqi government but also the United States have done very little to promote the much needed reconciliation.

"I think there has been a temptation among the US officials and officials in Iraq to export responsibility for all their own failures on others, to claim that violence is externally driven. But I think indeed the lack of any progress in terms of reconciliations has been one of the key factors behind the violence," Mr Harling says.

Brutal attack

"The Iraqi government needs to solve their own problem with their people, their policy is alienating a whole sect of the society," says Samir Taqi.

Umm Amir and Zeinab, Damascus
For three days we were locked up in the house, too afraid to go out to bury him... to bury his pieces
Umm Amir (left), Iraqi refugee

Discontent bred by what many in Damascus call Mr Maliki's policy of exclusion is everywhere in Syria, including Umm Amir's tiny cramped flat on the outskirts of Damascus.

As an accountant at a railway station in Baghdad, Umm Amir had to be a Baath party member. But because of it she lost her job after Saddam was gone.

Then, on 25 January 2007, Shia militiamen knocked on her door. They made her and her daughters watch as they first killed her 18-year-old first born, Mohammad, and chopped his body into pieces.

"For three days we were locked up in the house, too afraid to go out to bury him, to bury his pieces," she sobs.

Mohammad's picture sits on top of the TV - the only thing of value in their flat.

As a refugee, Umm Amir says her 10-year-old daughter Zeinab has no future in Syria, but she can't take her back to Iraq because she is a Sunni and a former member of the Baath party.

Thousands of Iraqis in Syria feel the same.

Only a few of them may be actively involved in the insurgency, but some believe their number will grow unless politicians in Baghdad make a greater effort to move beyond the sectarian and political divisions of the past.

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