Global Policy Forum

Neo-Baath v. the Shiites


By Juan Cole

Informed Comment
October 15, 2004

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, the head of the Iraqi secret police, has charged 27 employees in the Iranian embassy in Baghdad with espionage and sabotage. He blames them for the assassination of over a dozen members of the Iraqi secret police in the past month. He claims to have seized from "safehouses" Persian documents that show that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its militia, the Badr Corps, served as Iranian agents in helping with the assassinations.

SCIRI is represented in the caretaker government by Adil Abdul Mahdi, the Defense Minister, and the party has been an ally of convenience of the US against the Sadr Movement. The party was formed in Tehran by Iraqi exiles in 1982 and was close to Iranian hardliners. SCIRI officials vigorously denied Shahwani's charges on Thursday. They said that the neo-Baath network in the Allawi government is seeking to discredit Iraqis who fought against Saddam from Iran in the 1980s.

SCIRI is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and there is some danger that if the neo-Baathists attack this Shiite party they will push Sistani into opposition to the government. Indeed, insofar as most of the neo-Baath are Sunnis, this sort of campaign could finally produce the kind of Sunni-Shiite violence many feared before the war, but which has largely so far been avoided.

Shahwani's allegations are disturbing, coming when they do, because they may be an attempt to damage SCIRI's prospects in the January elections. If the secret police are manipulating documents to tie a major Iraqi party to foreign intrigue and domestic assassination, this move would bode badly for Iraq's development as a democracy.

Personally, I find Shahwani's allegations fantastic. It was clear as soon as Allawi and the neo-Baath faction was put in power by the US in late June that they wanted to target Iran. Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan decried Iran publicly as Iraq's number one enemy this summer.

Shahwani is an old-time Baath officer. In 1990 he broke with Saddam, who is said to have killed three of Shahwani's children in revenge. Shahwani came out of Iraq and to join US efforts to overthrow the dictator. This summer, he was appointed head of the Mukhabarat or Iraqi secret police, which the US Central Intelligence Agency is rebuilding with $3 billion. Shahwani is alleged to be a long-time CIA asset who is being groomed as a replacement for caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi should the latter be assassinated.

Shahwani is part of a network of ex-Baathists (or perhaps neo-Baathists) around Iyad Allawi, including Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan. As Ed Wong and Erik Eckholm of the New York Times recently reported, the Allawi government has been bringing large numbers of former Baathists into the government. This step reverses the extreme de-Baathification measures implemented at the behest of Ahmad Chalabi begining in June of 2003.

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