Army Pvt. Jason Avalos of 2nd Platoon, C Troop, 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment patrols in the Kirkuk province town of Daquq.
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Former Saddam loyalists work to return Baath Party to power
By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 3, 2009
KIRKUK, Iraq — Former Saddam Hussein loyalists are working to re-establish themselves in northern Iraq, planning for a time when U.S. troops depart and will no longer play a direct role in Iraq’s power struggles.
Among the insurgent groups working in southern Kirkuk province is Jaysh Rajal al-Tariqah al-Nakshbandia, or JRTN, a Sunni Arab organization led by former Baath Party leaders that was formed on Dec. 30, 2006, the day Saddam Hussein was hanged, according to military officials here with the 2nd Brigade, 1st U.S. Cavalry Division.
The group, numbering 2,000 to 3,000 members in Kirkuk province alone, is led by Izzat Ibrahim al-Durri, one of Saddam’s closest aides and a face on the U.S. military’s 52 most-wanted decks of cards from the war’s opening days.
JRTN is largely comprised of those who most benefited from Saddam’s regime, namely top Baathist Party leaders and Sunnis from in and around Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, according to Lt. Col. Andy Shoffner, commander of the 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment.
Often, it is unemployed locals who are actively recruited by nationalist groups like JRTN, according to Iraqi police Col. Nawzad Waly, who oversees the town of Daquq in the northern province.
Waly, a policeman for 16 years who leads a force in the northern town of Daquq, said the town is peaceful but that there is insurgent activity in the surrounding villages.
"Don’t forget there are a lot of Iraqis who lost their ranks" after the invasion, he said through a translator. "They cannot rule as they were before."
Former regime loyalists like JRTN’s leaders kept a presence in Iraq throughout the war, Shoffner said. But as sectarian killing ebbed and Islamist groups like al-Qaida in Iraq were increasingly rejected by Iraqis in the past few years, JRTN is "the last man standing," said Shoffner, a veteran of the so-called "Anbar Awakening" that turned Sunni Arab allegiances away from Islamist groups in Anbar province.
Brigade spokesman Maj. James Rawlinson said the overarching goal of most insurgents here is to return the Baath Party to power.
Shoffner said Al-Durri appears to lead the JRTN from neighboring Syria, where other wealthy benefactors also live and who fund the group, although leaders tend to move between Syria and Iraq.
The group’s provincial operations stem from the city of Hawijah in southern Kirkuk province and are dominated by members of the Obeidi and Jubari tribes, according to Sgt. 1st Class Steve Wheeler of the 4-9.
The group’s main base of operations appears to be south of Mosul, with southern Kirkuk province used as a launchpad for attacks there and in neighboring Diyala to the south.
In addition, JRTN members are located south along the Tigris River to at least the Balad area, according to Maj. Ian Palmer of the 4-9. Elements of the group are also operating in Baghdad, he said.
JRTN members adhere to an anti-occupier ideology and as such only attack U.S. forces, Shoffner said.
Military officials here say the JRTN is planning for a day when U.S. boots are no longer on the ground. This increases the urgency for U.S. and Iraqi forces to stamp this threat out now, Palmer said.
At the minimum, JRTN is setting itself up to be a player in any future power struggles, Shoffner said.
There have been about 180 "significant acts" in the province since Jan. 1, according to Rawlinson. That can include roadside bombs, indirect and small-arms fire and weapons cache discoveries. There have been about 30 incidents involving roadside bombs either going off or being found before they detonated.
Insurgent groups here plan and operate mainly in the Arab-dominated, sparsely populated and widely decrepit southern areas that Shoffner calls "a moonscape dotted with little towns."
In Kirkuk province, JRTN relies on the tribal loyalties of Sunni Arabs, many of whom relocated here from Tikrit during Saddam’s arabization of the province in the 70s, Shoffner said.
"These guys have always been there and it appears they rise to the surface," he said. "It’s almost like the last remaining insurgent group."
Groups here appear to share resources, so finding one weapons
cache, often via local informants, affects insurgent operations as a whole, U.S. military officials say.
It is unclear how closely the JRTN is tied to the Nakshabandia order of Sufi Islam. Shoffner likened the JRTN–Nakshabandia relationship to that of the IRA and Sinn Fein, while brigade spokesman Maj. James Rawlinson said the JRTN basically usurped the Nakshabandia name.
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Selling to the locals
Countering the JRTN message to poverty stricken Sunni Arabs is not like turning Sunnis away from Islamist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq, Shoffner said.
Tribal allegiances and an anti-occupier ideology hold greater sway with locals here than Islamist ideology, he said.
"If the townspeople say ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ that’s what everyone’s going to do," Shoffner said.
While this insurgency may carry different motivations, Shoffner said the same practices can apply.
"There are three elements regarding insurgency: supply, support and sanctuary," he said.
To disrupt supplies, U.S. forces are increasingly leaning on Iraqi police and their informants to discover weapons caches.
In terms of support and sanctuary, Shoffner said his troops are trying to force locals to ask themselves if they benefit more from groups like JRTN or the U.S. military and Iraqi government.
Kurdish-Arab tension is high throughout the province, with both sides carrying long lists of grievances against the other. Water is one concern, Shoffner said.
Arabs in the south believe that Kurds in the north are preventing water from getting to them. Shoffner said it’s a matter of blocked canals, so U.S. and Iraqi forces are engaging in projects to revitalize the waterways, in turn showing locals tangible benefits to siding with them.
But with U.S. troops set to exit Iraq by 2011, the clock is ticking.
"The U.S. military is the biggest tribe in Iraq," Shoffner said. "And we’re leaving."