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Baath party split by power struggle

WASHINGTON – The Iraqi Baath Party, the machine of Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule which now plays a key role in the country’s civil war, has been divided by an internal power struggle pitting one of Saddam’s top aides against a former general, U.S. and Iraqi government officials say.

U.S. military and intelligence officials are still debating whether to welcome the power struggle or fear it. But they agree the outcome could strongly influence the course of the Sunni-led insurgency against Iraq’s U.S.-backed government.

On one side of the power struggle is Izzat Ibrahim, also known by the name Izzat Ibrahim Al-Durri. He is the highest-ranking member of Saddam’s inner circle who was never killed or captured by U.S.-led forces. The king of clubs in the Bush administration’s “deck of cards” that depicted the most-wanted members of Saddam’s regime, Ibrahim was Saddam’s chief deputy and has long been viewed as a ringleader in the post-war insurgency.

The forces apparently seeking to oust Ibrahim from his leadership of the Baath movement are led by a former general in Saddam’s army, Muhammad Yunis al-Ahmed.

The battle between the two first came to the attention of U.S. officials after a meeting in the Syrian town of Halab, north of Damascus, which involved Baath party leaders, military and intelligence officials believe.

The meeting in January, shortly after Saddam’s hanging, led to an apparent split in the movement. Some U.S. commanders in Iraq believe that was a welcome development. They see Ibrahim and his followers as intransigent elements of the Saddam regime who are trying to get regain control of Iraq. Yunis’ faction may be more willing to seek peace with the country’s U.S.-backed government, the U.S. commanders hope.

Others, including U.S. intelligence officials and some Iraqi officials, are more wary, viewing the internal battle as an attempt to put a new face on a Baath movement that remains a threat.

“These guys, number one, are very capable. They know how to lead, they know how to control, they know how to dominate, and they know how to execute a coup,” said a U.S. military official, explaining why Iraq’s Shiite majority remains fearful of a Baath resurgence.

According to Iraqi officials, the government in Baghdad is considering reaching out to Yunis as part of its effort to revise the sweeping policy which forbids most former Baathists from participating in government activities.

One Iraqi government official said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has authorized initial overtures to Yunis, while contact with Ibrahim remains taboo.