TIME: Iraq's Turn for the Worse Brings U.S. and Baathists Closer

TIME Baghdad Bureau Chief Michael Ware reflects on the changes he sees in Iraq after a two month furlough.
I've spent the last three years immersed in this conflict, but after only two months away I'm amazed at how quickly this war has mutated into something even worse than it was before. We're now seeing a sectarian element nothing like we've previously seen. Even ordinary families, people who are in no way combatants are suddenly talking about fellow Iraqis in terms of "us" and "them."

On Civil War Danger

A senior Baathist commander of the insurgency told me that while they're maintaining their own focus on fighting Coalition forces and trying to stay out of the sectarian dynamic, they fear that Iraq is on course toward civil war, which they view as being fueled by Islamist extremists on both sides -- the imported al-Qaeda fighters and their Iraqi acolytes on the Sunni side, and the militias of Moqtada Sadr and the Iran-backed Badr organization among the Shi'ites. And curiously enough, the assessment of the Baathists seems to be shared by U.S. military intelligence. A senior U.S. officer told me that they see Iraq as still one step away from civil war, because the sectarian violence is not yet self-sustaining, and you're not seeing wholesale "ethnic cleansing" of neighborhoods by militias: It's still hit-and-run stuff, and it still requires prodding and provocation by the likes of Zarqawi and the most sectarian elements on the Shiite street.

U.S. intelligence believes there are enough incentives for the major parties to restrain their followers so that a civil war can be avoided. The nationalist and Baathist insurgents don't want or need it; the Shi'ite religious parties have won so much power at the ballot box that it's not in their interests to jeopardize that; it's not in the Kurds' interests to see Iraq go up in flames and possibly give Turkey a pretext to come in and seize Kirkuk on the grounds that they're protecting the city's Turkmen. It's only really the Zarqawi element that wants a civil war. And if the Shi'ite leadership were to lose control of the highly emotive Shi'ite street, the al-Qaeda element may just get the war it wants.

On the Meeting of Minds Between the Baathists and the U.S.

The U.S. is hoping the Iraqi security forces will do the heavy lifting in terms of quelling the sectarian violence, and in many instances they've done a very good job. There is some concern about the sectarian flavor of some substantial parts of the security apparatus, such as the commando forces maintained by the Interior Ministry, one of the most effective units among the Iraqi security forces but also closely tied with the Iran-trained Badr militia. Although the ranks of the new army are predominantly Shi'ite, there's still a strong mix, particularly in the officer corps, where there are a lot of Sunnis. And the U.S. has been actively reaching out to Sunni officers from the former army, many of them Baathists, looking to bring them back in from the cold.

The ongoing dialogue between the U.S. and the Sunni insurgency is based on a shared wariness about the influence of Iran and its supporters in Iraq. U.S. officials are now saying bluntly that it's time to bring back the Baath Party, excluding only those that are guilty of specific crimes. That reflects a growing acceptance among U.S. officials that the military and bureaucratic know-how in the Sunni community is badly needed, even to help run the security forces that the U.S. is standing up.

Senior Baathist insurgent commanders are responding positively to the U.S. outreach on the political and military level. One senior commander I spoke to praised the U.S. for the release of some key Baathist officers who had been imprisoned, and later, when I asked a senior U.S. intelligence officer about the releases, he said the men had been freed as part of a calculated effort to demonstrate good faith in dealing with the insurgents. Of course, both sides share the objective of avoiding a civil war.

One senior Baathist talking about the Americans said to me, recently, "In the 1980s we were allies, how did we end up on opposite sides?" The Baathists are secular nationalists, they never allied with al-Qaeda or hardline Islamists when they were in power, and they've always been the sworn enemy of the soon-to-be-nuclear-armed regime in Iran. They share two of America's main enemies, al-Qaeda and Iran. The Baathists and al-Qaeda elements who have worked together in the insurgency have always been uncomfortable bedfellows. And they've left little doubt in each other's minds that once the Americans leave, they'll have to fight each other.

On the Trial of Saddam Hussein

Saddam's trial is nothing but a distraction. To the Iraqis, there's no question of Saddam's guilt, or of the final outcome of the judicial process -- Saddam will die. The question for them is, why is it taking so long and why is he being given a platform? For whose benefit is this trial being run? For Western domestic consumption; it's for the international community. It's not the healing or reconciliation process for Iraqis some might like to make it out to be. Saddam has been the dominant figure in the courtroom and the political winner.