On Tuesday this week, the day that many locals have already nicknamed “Emancipation Day”, some strange posters began to appear around Mosul.
The city had just been taken over by members of the extremist Sunni Muslim group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and while some locals fled their homes to avoid possible violence between the militia and the Iraqi Army, others were celebrating the end of what they saw as their oppression by an army dominated by another sect. Mosul is a mostly Sunni Muslim town; over recent years the Iraqi Army, loyal to the Shiite Muslim led government in Baghdad, has been criticized for being staffed by mostly Shiite Muslims.
The posters that appeared around Mosul on Tuesday showed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim who was heavily biased in support of his own sect. Additionally rumours began to spread around the city and on social media about the imminent arrival of a prominent member of Hussein’s former Baath party, which has been banned in Iraq since 2003. That person was Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. As the New York Times describes him, al-Douri “was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation”.
Some rumours even had it that the victory in Mosul was down to al-Douri and that he would be coming to Ninawa’s provincial government headquarters.
On Wednesday evening, masked gunmen carrying Kalashnikovs roamed the city’s streets telling locals to go to the central square where al-Douri would give a speech to celebrate what the gunmen described as “the victory of the people’s revolution”. Hundreds of Mosul’s people did as they were told and many of them took cameras and mobile phones so they could record the historic event: The return of political actors who had been gone from the scene for over a decade.
After about an hour, a bearded, aged man – nobody knew who he was - climbed onto the platform and began to preach. The crowd was shocked and disappointed: They had been expecting to see al-Douri. But the old man never as much as mentioned al-Douri’s name.
Later on, messages on Facebook and Twitter and even via SMS messages on mobile phones told Iraqis to listen to a televised speech by al-Douri. It was to be similar to a speech he had made a year ago on the Al Arabiya station in which he encouraged a Sunni Muslim uprising. In this speech though, al-Douri looked old; he is 70 years old and he was wearing thick glasses and reading with difficulty from a paper he held in his hands. He was dressed in full military costume, complete with medals, and four uniformed guards stood behind him; their faces were not visible.
Mosul local Walid Mohammed Salam was a member of the Baath Party before 2003 and he believes that the whole thing – putting up pictures of Hussein, making people believe that al-Douri led operations against the Iraqi Army and that he was in Mosul - was simply to revive the memory of the Baath party in supporters’ hearts. Mosul was an important base for the Baath party for four decades.
The Baath party started out as a pan-Arab, nationalistic and secular political party; eventually Saddam Hussein became its leader and over the decades he was in charge, the Baath party became synonymous with Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, who Hussein, a Sunni himself, favoured over the country’s Shiite Muslims. When US-led forces toppled Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Baath party was banned.
Salam told NIQASH that neither al-Douri nor any of the other former Baath party leaders still living, were even in Mosul. In fact, all the information about al-Douri had come from the Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia militia - also known as the Naqshbandi Army or JRTN. This movement – which has strong links to the Baath party - calls for an ongoing resistance against “Safavid” occupation of Iraq and is classified as a terrorist organization by many. And Salam thought that the Naqshbandi Army was spreading these rumours to try and show how popular and powerful it was, as well as to usurp some of ISIS’ power. ISIS and the Naqshbandi Army have not always been on such friendly terms.
The Naqshbandi Army actually wanted to start a revolution like this nine months ago, says Rayan Ahmad, one of the militants in the Naqshbandi Army, told NIQASH; this is not his real name. They wanted to do this when the Iraqi Army violently ended demonstrations being held by Sunni Muslims in Hawija and Mosul.
“But we had to postpone it for purely organisational reasons,” Ahmad said, and added that, “ISIS is not alone on this battlefield. There are other factions and organizations coordinating with it, for the first time since 2003 – and all have the goal of ending the political process brought about by the US occupiers.”
Meanwhile another source inside Mosul told NIQASH that ISIS has most likely given the Baath party affiliates and the tribal factions the spotlight in order to gain popular support and be accepted by the people of the city.
ISIS is not the only group using the Naqshbandi Army and their links to the Baath party. How media outlets in Iraq associated with Shiite Muslim groups portrayed the situation was also interesting: Many focussed on the role of the Baath party in this conflict, some even seemed to be making it seem bigger than it was, as they tried to mobilize supporters to form militias and fight back against ISIS and their partners. After all, the Baath party is an enemy of nearly all players in the Iraqi political arena.
However in Mosul it was still clear who was really in charge: ISIS. The same source in Mosul said that after gaining control of the whole province of Ninawa, ISIS then gave the Naqshbandi Army 24 hours to remove their pictures of Saddam Hussein.
Following this ISIS heads organized a meeting at a mosque in Mosul’s southwest that was to be attended by representatives from all of the different factions fighting in Ninawa. At this meeting ISIS told all the other groups they were not to hoist any flag or emblem other than those belonging to ISIS – that is, the distinctive black flag. ISIS also told the other groups that they were not to do anything with regard to the city’s administration without consulting them first. The laws that ISIS had set in place would be enforced because ISIS was the ultimate leader of the new Ninawa council, they said.
It has become clear that the ordinary people of Ninawa are greeting the various Sunni Muslim militias – including Ansar al-Sunna, the Mujahideen Army, the Naqshbandi Army and ISIS – as a reaction to the errant policies practised by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the years he has been in power, as well as the daily injustices committed by his security forces in cities like Mosul.
But what is also clear is that if the Baath party really does make a comeback – whether in different propaganda campaigns for different motives, or in reality - any gains Iraq has made over the past decade will be lost.