Baathist Loyalist Scoffs at Petraeus' View of Iraq
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's been almost four and a half years since Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was ousted from power in Iraq, after a brutal reign of nearly four decades. Party leaders operating more or less in secret in Iraq and in neighboring states insist their supporters are a key component of the ongoing insurgency.
Iraqi Baathist leaders rarely speak with Western reporters these days, but NPR's Deborah Amos sat down with the party spokesman in Syria and filed this report.
DEBORAH AMOS: He calls himself Abu Mohammed(ph) - a medical doctor, a high-ranking member of Saddam's Baath Party before the war. These days, he says he moves easily between Syria, Jordan and Iraq, in contact with underground Baath Party members and fighters on the ground. He's the spokesman for a group led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, once Saddam's second in command for the U.S. government, an outlaw with a $10 million price on his head for leading a faction of insurgents fighting American soldiers.
Abu Mohammed wanted to talk about Iraq, and he criticized the testimony of General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to Congress this month.
Dr. ABU MUHAMMAD (Spokesman, Baath Party): It is a lie after a lie, because the actual facts on the ground, there is no electricity, there's no water, there's no business, there is massive destruction, there is fighting everywhere.
AMOS: He was particularly dismissive of the security gains cited by General Petraeus in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad. Beginning just over a year ago, Sunni tribesman in Anbar revolted against the extremists of al-Qaida in Iraq. The revolt has since spread to other provinces and the Sunni strongholds in Baghdad, where former insurgents are now helping U.S. forces in the fight against al-Qaida. Abu Mohammed insists these gains are short term.
Dr. MUHAMMAD: The tribes of Iraq fighting the al-Qaida and looks to be cooperating with the Americans, this is not because they are friends of Americans. No.
AMOS: His assessment wouldn't surprise U.S. commanders in Iraq. Many acknowledge the alliance with the Sunni tribes is a friendship of convenience. But Abu Mohammed acknowledges that the Sunni tribe's turn against al-Qaida has spit the insurgency. And for him, that's a problem.
Dr. MUHAMMAD: From our point of view, that the priority should be directed against the occupation first.
AMOS: He dismisses charges that the insurgency is a fight to re-impose Sunni supremacy and reverse political gains for the Shiites of Iraq.
Dr. MUHAMMAD: I am Shia, and I am from Babylon. As you know, that I am a doctor. I have many, many friends, so I know the thinking of the people now.
AMOS: What Iraqis want, says Abu Mohammed, is an end to the present government, an end to American and Iranian influence in Iraq, an end to al-Qaida, which he believes appeared in Iraq as a direct result of the American occupation. What Iraqis want, he says, is a secular leader who can unite the country.
Dr. MUHAMMAD: Iraq cannot be governed without a strong man. So the Iraqis and their history like the powerful man, the strong man.
AMOS: Insurgent leaders want a dialogue with the U.S., he says, but there are conditions: a timetable for troop withdrawal, but not an immediate withdrawal.
Dr. MUHAMMAD: The good advice for the Americans are to sit with the leaders of the resistance and the Baath, to regulate the borders of Iraq, to regulate the security of Iraq, and then put (unintelligible) program with the leaders of Baath and the resistance, and go out and then we will make with them good relationships according to international law.
AMOS: Reports of secret meetings between U.S. officials and insurgents loyal to Izzat al Douri have been circulating in the region for weeks. Iyad Allawi, once Iraq's interim prime minister and himself a former Baathist, said he had arranged a meeting. But insurgent leaders deny that any talks have begun.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.