Iraqi Baathists in Syria Are Running Out of Friends

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Former Iraqi Baath party leaders from the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein have been living in Damascus for years. Nidal al-Laithi writes that with the fighting taking place there, several want to leave but are having trouble finding a country that will host them. Yemen is no longer an option, and Lebanon is off limits due to the presence of Hezbollah. 

Damascus-based Iraqi Baath Party leaders and senior officers of the disbanded Iraqi army are looking for a safe haven in another country after fighting erupted in Damascus between the Syrian army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Due to schisms within the party two separate Iraqi Baath leaderships live in Damascus. The first is led by Mohammed Yunus Ahmed and is sponsored by Syrian intelligence. The second is led by Izzat al-Duri and most of its members are not in Damascus, except for its official spokesman Khodair al-Morshedi. Sources said that those leaders and officers have requested asylum from the Jordanian government but are still waiting for a reply. They cannot go to Yemen because the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had provided them protection, has fallen; nor can they go to Lebanon because of the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence there.

A former senior officer in the disbanded Iraqi army said that he no longer trusts Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s clemency after MP Ali al-Shallah, who belongs to Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, declared that Maliki’s call for the exiles to return to Iraq does not mean reconciling with the Baathists. The former officer said that he fears arrest and trial by the Iraqi authorities if he returns.

A Damascus-based former brigadier in the disbanded Iraqi army has disclosed that elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah gunmen fighting in Damascus alongside the regular Syrian army are pursuing Syria-based leaders of the Iraqi Baath party, its senior cadres, former senior officers in the disbanded Iraqi army, and Iraqi pilots. The former brigadier, who calls himself Abou Ali, said that Iraqi Baath Party leaders in Damascus saw their homes stormed, were stabbed and taken to the hospital. The attackers also looted the homes.

Sources said that the pursuit of Iraqi Baath Party senior officers and leaders has forced them to hide, to move to smaller, relatively quiet, Syrian towns, or to seek the protection of Syrian tribal leaders. The sources told Al-Zaman that Ramadi tribal leaders and al-Qaim inhabitants in Iraq who have relatives and strong relations with Syria’s al-Bukamal — a border town that has fallen into FSA hands and is being bombed from the air — are angry with the Iraqi government’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees.

The sources added that after the Syrian army had regained control of al-Yaarabiya border crossing, which is adjacent to Iraq’s Nineveh province, in the evening of Saturday July 21, the FSA once again regained control of that crossing on the morning of July 22.

Sources told Al-Zaman that there is still fighting between the Syrian Army and the FSA at the border areas, where residents on the Iraqi side can hear the sound of explosions. However, the sources said, the border crossings of al-Walid and al-Tanf, which are adjacent to the Iraqi al-Anbar province, are still under FSA control.

The sources said that al-Qaim residents are receiving distress calls from al-Bukamal residents requesting medical supplies, food, and baby milk. The Iraqi army notified the al-Bukamal residents who went to al-Walid crossing asking for food and medicine that the Iraqi government has ordered them to prevent any Syrian from approaching the border, even if they were requesting humanitarian supplies. Sources told Al-Zaman that al-Anbar tribes are angry with the Iraqi government’s refusal to accept Syrian refugees. The chairman of al-Anbar’s provincial council Sadoun al-Shaalan has requested that a small camp for Syrian refugees be set up, but al-Shaalan told the Syrians that Baghdad categorically refused his request even if the camp was under the supervision of al-Anbar province. [Editor's Note: Since the printing of this piece, the Iraqi government has reversed its stance on allowing in Syrian refugees.]

According to Agence France Presse, an FSA officer described the Iraqi government’s position as siding with the Syrian regime.

Sources told Al-Zaman that Iraqi refugees in Syria are going back to Iraq through the al-Walid and al-Tanf border crossings, while Iraqi authorities are preventing any Iraqis from going to Syria.

The sources said that returning Iraqi refugees are being received in a small camp that has cold water, first-aid treatment, and food supplies before the refugees continue on to Baghdad.

The sources said that a number of returning Iraqi refugees, including women, children, and elderly, have arrived at the border crossing in an appalling state after being forced to travel long distances on foot from Damascus for fear of being targeted by helicopters fighting the FSA.

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Found in: syrian crisis, syrian, syria, saddam hussein, refugees, nouri al-maliki, iraq, hezbollah, bashar al-assad, baathists
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