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Middle East threatens to bubble over

Iraqi Shiite fighters with a captured Islamic State flag.
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The cauldron of the Middle East continues to grow more dangerous by the day, as new details emerge of an old enemy’s presence within the ranks of the so-called Islamic State.

This week a disillusioned defector leaked the identity of 22,000 Islamic State (IS) supporters in more than 50 countries, including Australia.

He cited as one of his motives the growing influence of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party inside Islamic State. He believed they were corrupting the purity of the group’s Islamic beliefs.

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Following the revelations, terror experts have lined up to point out that Islamic State would be nowhere near as powerful as it is today without the many former military offices of Saddam Hussein who have joined the group.

And they point the finger of blame firmly at the American invasion of Iraq.

The 2003 de-Baathification law promulgated by Administrator of Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Paul Bremer, barred 400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi Army from government employment and pensions.

Unemployed and with families to feed, they were a large pool of disenfranchised men with significant military experience.

The spectre of Saddam Hussein, and his Baath party, looms large over the current conflict. Photo: Getty
The spectre of Saddam Hussein, and his Baath party, looms large over the current conflict. Photo: Getty

Author of Australian Jihad and one of the world’s foremost experts on Islamic State, Beirut-based journalist Martin Chulov, told The New Daily Bremer’s decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army was one of the the most decisive factors in the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis.

“The officer class was largely Sunni and lost a great deal; careers, status, pensions – and dignity,” Mr Chulov said.

“This was one of the the most significant factors in the rise of IS over the next decade, eventually uniting highly organised, efficient and vengeful Baathists with driven ideologues.

“The Baathists and the jihadists were operating in unison by 2007 and, during the latest incarnation of ISIS, have been central to their growth.”

Leader of Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, while not a Baathist himself, built his organisation by actively recruiting former Baathists, who have now taken many of the group’s senior leadership positions.

They have been pivotal in the group’s ability to take and hold territory.

Terror expert Professor Clive Williams of the Australian Defence Force Academy told The New Daily the American incarceration of hundreds of extremists and by then unemployed and severely disillusioned former Baath Party members in the notorious prison known as Camp Bucca had thrown together extremists and government functionaries.

The Americans essentially gifted some of Saddam Hussein’s most brutal, and most capable generals and administrators to Islamic State.

“Imprisoning Baath party members along with extremists was a mistake by the Americans,” Mr Williams said.

“They are better organisers than the extremists. With those two working together they got the best administrators and best generals from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which has made them formidable.”

A recent investigation by the Reuters News Agency also concluded that former Saddam Hussein military officers had strengthened the group’s spy networks and battlefield tactics and were instrumental in the survival of its self-proclaimed Caliphate.

An anti-Baath party demonstration in Basra, 2013. Photo: Getty
An anti-Baath party demonstration in Basra, 2013. Photo: Getty

Former Baathist intelligence and army officers officers oversee a network of informers across the country and have been a critical factor in their military successes.

The old saying from the Saddam era, “the walls have ears”, can once more be heard across Iraq.

Iraq’s Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Reuters: “They know who is who, family by family, name by name.”

The investigation revealed that of Islamic State’s 23 portfolios, former Saddam regime officers run three of the most crucial, security, military and finance.

Former Australian army officer and Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, Associate Professor Rodger Shanahan, told The New Daily that once a group is disempowered they are going to look at ways to regain power.

The existence of so many Baathists within IS had enabled them to seize and hold territory.

“This is a consequence of cutting them out,” he said. “The 2003 invasion, an absolutely horrendous foreign policy mistake, wasn’t well thought out in second-order effects and this is one of those.

“We have seen the effect the Baathists have had already. They are adaptive, they think in longer terms of campaign planning, not just individual operations.

“They have shown the kind of military capabilities that professional military officers understand and practice.

“It takes a long time to get those professional skills. It’s the competent ones IS want, those who understand planning and military planning processes and how to construct campaigns.”

John Stapleton has worked as a general news reporter for both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. His book Hunting the Famous, which includes details of encounters with Anthony Burgess, Joseph Heller, Gore Vidal and Dirk Bogarde, will be available in paperback mid-year.

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