- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

BAQOUBA, Iraq | Former officials and military officers of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime are helping facilitate attacks by disparate insurgent groups in Diyala province and tapping both nationalist sentiments and public discontent to destabilize the country’s central government, U.S. military officers say.

The Ba’athists are members of the Jaish Rajal al-Tariqah al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) insurgency group, which is linked to a faction of the New Ba’ath Party, thought to be led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, vice president under the Saddam regime.

Al-Douri is a member of the Naqshbandia sect of Sufism, a mystical form of Sunni Islam that officials think he is using to add a religious veneer to the group’s terrorist activities.

Formation of the JRTN was announced on Dec. 30, 2006, the day Saddam was executed by the Shi’ite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“This group has [increasing] popular support, whether they advertise themselves as JRTN or as an umbrella organization to justify their cause,” a U.S. Army intelligence officer said on the condition of anonymity. “We believe now that JRTN’s intent is to coalesce as many insurgent groups … under a common theme of removing the occupiers from Iraq and, second, to overthrow the government of Iraq for a Ba’athist regime or something similar.”

JRTN, the officer said, is doing so through a calculated information campaign that includes the Internet and satellite television as well as word of mouth.

From hiding, al-Douri continues to taunt U.S. authorities, claiming he will never be taken alive.

“The Americans will only have me as a martyr,” Saddam’s former deputy told the Algerian Arabic-language daily Ennahar, according to Agence France-Presse.

Al-Douri also boasted that the Ba’athists would retake power: “We will invite [President] Obama to negotiations soon.”

“Iraqi resistance is causing the American Army human and material losses that terrify the American administration itself,” he reportedly said.

In return for access to funding, weapons and other support from JRTN facilitators, disparate insurgent cells must videotape their attacks, U.S. officers said. Those videos are then posted on the Internet and appear on al-Ra’y satellite television, a broadcasting entity thought to be based in Syria and with ties to al-Douri’s wing of the New Ba’ath Party.

That channel’s programming — through the videos, interviews with jihadist leaders and commentaries — nurture and propel the idea of unity of effort and that violence against American forces in Iraq is heroic and patriotic, that continued violence will force coalition forces to leave Iraq sooner than the 2011 date stipulated in last January’s Strategic Framework accord between Washington and Baghdad.

“Al-Ra’y [crosses the Sunni-Shi’ite divide] to appeal to all insurgent organizations with the common theme of removing the coalition forces,” the U.S. officer said. He asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Since its announced inception, JRTN has claimed responsibility for a number of bombings around the country.

It’s reportedly active in Ninevah province and its major city of Mosul, where al Qaeda — as well as nationalist groups such as Ansar al Sunna, 1920s Revolutionary Brigade, Hamas-Iraq and ISI (Islamic State of Iraq) — remain a serious challenge to government and coalition force security efforts.

Its presence in Diyala province came to light in early February, when a series of grenade attacks was made on U.S. troops in the capital of Baqouba.

Hamas-Iraq claimed credit and video of the attacks appeared on the Internet. When the Hamas cell eventually was rolled up, it was learned JRTN had facilitated the violence.

Diyala is fertile ground for JRTN and the groups it is attempting to bring together. Diyala, an agrarian region of Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and other ethnic groups, is often referred to as Iraq in microcosm.

All the country’s fault lines, it is said, can be found here. There is the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide, an explosive ethnic divide in its north between Arabs and Kurds, tribal and political rivalries, widespread poverty and growing discontent with the central government’s slow pace of job-producing reconstruction.

Added to the volatile mix are the Sons of Iraq guards — both Sunni and Shi’ite — which earlier had helped coalition forces degrade al Qaeda.

They were transferred from U.S. to Iraqi control earlier this year with the promise that many of those not eventually absorbed into the regular Iraqi Security Forces would obtain government jobs or helped to find other employment.

Some, especially Sunni-dominated guards that are also known as Awakening Councils, now complain they have not been paid in months and/or promised work never materialized as the central government struggles with a budget hamstrung by falling oil revenues.

Insurgent groups in the past, as well as now, pay nonmembers to carry out tasks for them.

“The biggest danger now from JRTN is the potential threat it poses, not the current threat. They are steadily getting their doctrine turned into dogma, reaching out to see what’s possible, looking at conditions, trying to create an environment favorable to them and the return of a Ba’athist government,” said Col. Burt Thompson, commander of the 1st Stryker Combat Brigade, of the 25th Infantry Division in Diyala province.

“They know coalition forces aren’t going to be here much longer, they know there are certain challenges the central and local governments face and they can exploit. They’ve got their pulse on the situation. They’ve got a strategy and are waiting us out,” Col. Thompson said.

Under the Strategic Framework agreement that now governs U.S. presence in the country, U.S. forces can no longer detain a suspected terrorist just on the basis of intelligence. A warrant issued by an Iraqi court — which means witnesses willing to risk their lives coming forward — must first be obtained. What’s more, the Strategic Framework in effect means the Iraqis ultimately decide who is to be detained and when.

“The problem we have right now is that there are influential people out there associated with these groups,” said the brigade-level U.S. intelligence officer. “They are very respected within the local government or central government or very influential within their native communities and don’t necessarily display their acts of terror on the streets.”

The actual number of hard-core insurgents operating or transiting the province at any given time is a matter of speculation given the cell-type nature of the groups and their use of nonmembers to carry out terrorism-related actions. U.S. authorities say it could be as high as 100, maybe more, maybe less.

In an effort to clean out — or at least degrade — insurgents in Diyala, Iraqi Security Forces on May 1 launched Operation Glad Tidings of Benevolence II. About 22,000 Iraqi soldiers and police — with U.S. forces in support roles — fanned out to roll up suspects and unearth weapons caches.

According to figures from the 25th Infantry Division, more than 300 people have been detained by Iraqi Security Forces, about a third of that number specifically for terrorism offenses. About 60 gunmen have been killed and more than 100 weapons and explosives hide-outs discovered and destroyed.

Overall, significant terrorism incidents dropped 58 percent in April throughout Iraq from the previous month. In Diyala, the number has dropped to two to three a week from about double that number since the launch of Glad Tidings of Benevolence II, U.S. authorities said.

• Richard Tomkins can be reached at .

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