Jihadists vs. Baathists: The Amman Bombing and the Iraqi Insurgency

Saddam and King Abdallah compete for
pride of place in an Amman storefront

The alliance between the global jihadists of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the various Baathist and other national Islamist and nationalist forces who make up the vast bulk of the Iraqi insurgency has always been a marriage of convenience between entities with very different agendas and longterm interests. And the signs of strain are beginning to show.

The Baathists don’t like the random slaughter of civilians, not because they hold much sympathy for the Shiites they kept at heel for so many decades, but because it’s bad politics in terms of holding on to their constituency. Compare it, if you like, to the old South Africa — the Sunnis, were also a ruling class that comprised around 15 percent of the population — the apartheid regime could win the consent of the white minority to kill ANC militants, but if they’d simply started bombing black churches and broadcasting the fact on television, they’d have lost the support of their own people. (The grievances of the Sunni community that gives either tacit or active support to the insurgency are primarily political in nature; the vicious Salafist hatred for Shiites as “apostates” expressed by Zarqawi is not widely shared.)

Many Baathist commanders also encouraged Sunnis to vote No in last month’s constitutional referendum, putting them at odds with Zarqawi’s crowd. And like nationalist elements everywhere that have come into contact with al Qaeda — Palestine and Chechnya are two obvious examples — the mainstream insurgents are not inclined squander resources and risk isolation and the wrath of potential allies or neutrals by acting out a global “jihad” that requires them to attack targets other than their immediate, national foe.

These conflicts of interest wouldn’t necessarily affect many of the day to day operations of the insurgency. But many commanders have spoken increasingly frankly in recent months of the inevitability of a showdown. The Baathist commanders who have negotiated with U.S. officials in secret have made clear that they see the potential for a compact with the U.S. in the future, in which the two sides work together to limit Iranian influence in Baghdad, and the Baathists round up and eliminate the foreign fighters who have come to wage their global jihad on Iraqi soil. (And let’s be frank, no matter what the Cheney gang and the Pentagon neocons said in the course of campaigning for the war, U.S. intel professionals know well that the Baathists never harbored al Qaeda back when they ran things.)

Already there are signs of open warfare, as the agendas of the two sides begin to bump into one another. Knight-Ridder reports on violent clashes between Qaeda and local nationalist insurgents in Ramadi, and the scale of the clash seems to suggest the rift won’t easily be healed. Chris Allbritton noted earlier this week that in Huseybah, the U.S. was fighting alongside a local Sunni tribal faction that had fought against U.S. forces last year, but had since fallen out with a rival tribe that had allied with the foreign jihadis. These may be isolated incidents of a phenomenon that cleary varies from region to region. But they may be the first signs of a widening schism.

If so, the Amman hotel bombings are likely to hasten that schism.

The move to turn Iraq into an exporter of global jihad certainly accords with interests of one side of a reported debate in al Qaeda over the question of reestablishing a geographic base of operations. But if it suits the Qaeda agenda, it works directly against the interests of the Baathists. Jordan has long been considered a relatively friendly entity as far as the Baathists are concerned — Saddam’s daughters took refuge there after the war, and remember, the late King Hussein refused to join the coalition in the 1991 Gulf War even though such key Arab states as Egypt and Syria actually sent troops to fight alongside the U.S. Jordan’s Palestinian majority, and its long-established economic ties with Iraq made it difficult for the Hashemite monarchy to side too openly with the U.S. in the invasion. Saddam has historically been very popular among Jordanians. And, it’s a relatively safe bet that the Baathists are taking full advantage of that history, and more importantly, of the growing misgivings in Amman over the fact that the U.S. has essentially authored a takeover in Baghdad by pro-Iranian Shiites.

And there’s no doubting that Jordanians are enfuriated by the latest attacks, directed randomly against whomever from the local middle class happened to be partying at those hotels.

It’s quite conceivable that they’re running all sorts of clandestine financial and other logistical and support operations from Jordan. Antagonizing Jordanians and their government — and the wider Arab world — by sending suicide bombers into their capitals is anathema to the Baathist agenda, because it weakens the regional support that will be all-important to their ability to sustain the insurgency. The Baathists, if anything, will be looking to amplify the sympathy in Arab capitals for the plight of the Sunnis, because this will strengthen their position, both in the future political process (when the U.S. has to begin negotiating a new compact with the region) and also, their ability to raise funds and support in Arab capitals.

By bombing the hotels in Amman, the Zarqawi group are antagonizing not only the regimes in Amman and elsewhere, but also their Baathist allies in Iraq. The Baathists are unlikely to stand by and watch their own interests imperiled by those who would seek to make Iraq a new headquarters for terror attacks across the Middle East. Their objective, after all, is to restore some version of a regime detested by al Qaeda.

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12 Responses to Jihadists vs. Baathists: The Amman Bombing and the Iraqi Insurgency

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