A stepped-up campaign by Iraq's prime minister against Saddam Hussein loyalists is alienating Sunni Muslims and stoking tensions between them and the majority Shiites ahead of key national elections.
In its latest anti-Baathist attack, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government put three men on state television Sunday to confess their alleged role in planning homicide attacks in Baghdad last month. The three, all in detention and dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, said the bombings were ordered by Saddam's Baath Party.
Al-Maliki's intensified rhetoric worsens one of Iraq's most dangerous sectarian fault lines — one which the United States has long struggled to calm.
Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites has been an elusive goal, seen as critical for Iraqi's stability — and it takes on added urgency with American forces now scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Many fear that without U.S. troops, sectarian and ethnic rifts could re-ignite into violence.
Al-Maliki and his fellow Shiite politicians have repeatedly warned in recent weeks against what they contend is a plot by members of the Baath Party to return to power, with what some suggest is the help of Sunni-ruled Arab nations.
He has vowed to do everything in his power to stop Baath Party loyalists from running in the upcoming parliamentary election. He has also insisted that Baathists, a term widely taken to mean Sunni Arabs, worked with Al Qaeda to carry out massive homicide bombings targeting government buildings in Baghdad that killed at least 255 people in August and October.
The Baath Party and Saddam's regime were dominated by Sunnis, who have lost their political prominence to the majority Shiites since Saddam's 2003 fall. Election law bars Iraqis who held senior Baath Party positions or were involved in past crimes from running for office. But Sunnis fear the ban could be expanded to others.
The talk against Baathists raises alarm bells among Sunnis, who fear it hints at a broader move to force their candidates out of the election. The election for a new, 223-seat parliament is slated for January, but may be delayed by a dispute over the country's election law and a Kurdish threat to boycott the vote.
"I think the law and the judiciary, not political agendas, should decide the issue of the Baathists," said Sunni lawmaker Hashem al-Taie. "If there is no transparency and fairness, the criterion will be used selectively against candidates."
But such rifts also make useful political tools in an election campaign, and al-Maliki may be pressing on Baathists in an attempt to shore up his Shiite base.
Al-Maliki has become more vulnerable since he was dumped by some of his Shiite allies, who formed a separate coalition to run in the election. He has failed to persuade significant Sunni groups to join his "State of Law" alliance, losing much of his claim to cross-sectarian leadership.
The recent bombings also hurt his credentials as the leader who oversaw a vast improvement in security over the past two years. Al-Maliki is also trying to counter charges by his Shiite rivals that his three-year-old administration allowed hard-core Saddam loyalists to "infiltrate" security services, the armed forces and the civil service, said Dhafer al-Ani, a prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker.
Mustapha al-Ani, a Dubai-based Iraq analyst, said fears of a return to power by the Baath are groundless.
"This is a carefully planned campaign to scare Shiites away from voting for anyone but traditional religious Shiite parties," he said.
Shiites and Kurds despise the Baathists because of the atrocities carried out against their communities during the party's 35 years in power. The top figures under Saddam were all party members. But also, millions of Iraqis, including many Shiites, joined the party during its rule because it was the only way to get ahead.
The Baath party's ideology is steeped in Arab nationalism and secularism. Party loyalists argue that Baathist thought is progressive and bemoan what they see as the bad name given to the party by Saddam's policies.
A "de-Baathification" policy set up under direct U.S. rule in 2003 and 2004 stripped senior Baathists with professional experience of their jobs, plunging much of the state machinery into disarray that's still felt today.
Sanctions against Baathists were relaxed last year, opening the door for thousands who are not involved in past crimes to fill posts in the Shiite-dominated government, civil service and security forces. But that conciliatory climate has vanished in recent months. Some Sunni politicians have fueled Shiite fears by speculating that a large number of Baathists will win seats in the new legislature.
"The problem with some, especially in the Shiite Islamic parties, is that they accuse every rival of being a Baathist," Hamid al-Kafaai, an Iraqi analyst, wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat on Friday. "I cannot see where the problem is in belonging to the Baath. ... The Baathists are normal people, loyal and patriotic."
Al-Maliki has accused Baathists and Al Qaeda of being jointly behind the bombings on Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 that targeted government offices in the heavily guarded central part of Baghdad. He, however, has not produced evidence of the Baathist involvement except for Sunday's televised confessions, which are impossible to verify.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told a news conference last week that he believed a number of insurgent groups, including Baathists and Al Qaeda in Iraq, were behind the bombings.
"This is a very complex issue. It's not black and white," he said.