Grinning with vindication, Saleh al-Mutlaq says he knew this day would come. For years the amiable, disheveled parliamentarian, now 61, has been the foremost defender of Iraqis with ties to Saddam Hussein's old party. In return, Mutlaq and his allies have been called just about everything from opportunists to terrorists. Nevertheless, he claims, he told Nuri al- Maliki four years ago that someday Maliki would beg the Baathists to come back.
Now Iraq's fiercely anti-Baathist prime minister has come close to fulfilling Mutlaq's implausible prediction—though on his own terms. Without naming the party, Maliki announced that Iraq would welcome the return of "those who at one time were obligated to be on the side of the former regime," as long as they accept Iraq's new order. Sami al-Askari, a confidant of the prime minister's, puts it this way: "He's trying to say, 'Look, our door is open if you're willing to participate in the political process and willing to stop the violence'." The call has set off a national debate on the Baathists, with Mutlaq in the thick of it.
After six years, Iraq's ostracism of old Baathists is easing. Mutlaq's party did well enough in January's local elections to make him a contender for the political leadership of Iraq's Sunni minority. The Shiite leadership as well is quietly reaching out to Sunni Baathists living in neighboring countries. Iraqi officials say the Americans are encouraging that reconciliation while trying to develop U.S. channels to Baathists; the efforts could reduce the risk of violence as American troops withdraw. In a Green Zone restaurant NEWSWEEK recently overheard a U.S. diplomat asking Iraqi officials to help set up a meeting with one of the most extreme elements of Saddam's old regime. The diplomat suggested Amman or another "neutral" city. A U.S. Embassy official, asking not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity, had no knowledge of this conversation but added, "It's for the Iraqis to decide how far and how fast they want to go. We want to try to help any way we can."
Most Iraqis are tired of a government that clearly has trouble turning on the lights and keeping the water flowing. The people who used to do that—and who rebuilt the place after massive U.S. airstrikes in 1991—had mostly joined the Baath Party on their way to graduate educations and top jobs. During the years of chaos that followed the U.S. invasion, many of the best-educated and most skilled party members fled the country to seek jobs and safety for their families elsewhere, and a lot of them have stayed away.
That's the heart of Mutlaq's case. "Maliki realized now he cannot run a state without the technocrats, the professional people that built this country for 35 years," says Mutlaq. "Most of those are Baathists." At American urging, the Iraqi Army has already brought thousands of former officers—all nominally Baathists—back into the ranks. Most, though, are Shiites. Sunnis still feel left out.
Under Saddam, the party became a despised and feared network for informants and patronage. Much of its ideology is deservedly dead—the glorification of Arabism at the expense of ethnic Kurds, the hidebound socialism, the nationalism that fueled Saddam's horrific wars. But the party's whisky-drinking secularism is attractive to Iraqis tired of Islamist rule, and its emphasis on strong central government and opposition to Iran are gaining ground in a country plagued with feuds and intrusive neighbors.
Mutlaq, defiant but disarmingly candid, is a walking emblem of the country's compromised past. He belonged to the party himself until 1977, when he opposed the execution of five Shiites for allegedly plotting against the government. The story is well known in Iraq: Mutlaq insisted that the men deserved a fair trial at least. The men were killed anyway, and Mutlaq was thrown out of the party.
He went into farming as the partner of another ex-Baathist, a Shiite who had once been Saddam's superior in the party before being forced out by a power struggle in the 1960s. Mutlaq grows animated as he recalls the old days, when he slept in an onion-seed-storage room and woke to start work at dawn. He had a Ph.D. in agronomy, and like many educated Iraqis he stayed at arm's length from the regime but was ready to take advantage when it came calling. One day in the mid-'80s, Saddam arrived by helicopter at a farm that was rented by the two Baathist renegades. He admired the fertile land so much, he decided to appropriate it for the government and offered acreage elsewhere in compensation.
Mutlaq started over and prospered, acquiring (always by competitive bids, he says) a chain of farms and greenhouses. His giant irrigation pumps fed water to land run by Uday, Saddam's violent oldest son, and Mutlaq later took over the place from him. (He says they never met.) Eventually, Mutlaq says, his agribusiness supplied a third of Iraq's cucumbers, eggplant and tomatoes, and he had become one of the biggest farmers in the country by the time of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
After that, his long-ago expulsion from the party was a positive advantage. He was named to the committee to help draft the new Iraqi Constitution. Had he ever been a ranking Baathist, he probably would never have been allowed into post-invasion politics. When the new Constitution was put to a national referendum in 2005, he opposed it, in part because it outlaws the Baathists. Even so, he refused to join the massive Sunni boycott of parliamentary elections that same year, instead leading his National Dialogue Front to win 11 seats in the 275-seat, Shiite-dominated Parliament.
As one of the few Sunnis who defied the violent insurgency by participating in the political process, Mutlaq paid an awful price. His brother was kidnapped and killed after the 2005 elections, and several of his bodyguards have died in bombings. Mutlaq now lives and works in the security of a Green Zone hotel; his wife (a Shiite) and their son stay in Amman. Just before the recent local elections, his party's deputy leader, another ex-Baathist, died in a bombing that was attributed to Qaeda militants.
Hard-line Baathists are some of Mutlaq's harshest critics. They probably see him as a threat, draining their pool of alienated followers, suggests Iraqi political analyst Wamidh Nadhmi. Mutlaq demands the elimination of laws excluding senior Baathists from their old jobs and pensions and wants the ban on the party removed from Iraq's Constitution. He says he believes in democracy and calls Saddam a "big dictator" but adds, "To be honest, I've started to think we Iraqis cannot be led easily without a hard person."
The January elections found public support for his ideas. Mutlaq put together a coalition of secular Sunnis who had all stayed in Iraq throughout Saddam's era. For Mutlaq that's a point of pride, a contrast with the rival Iraqi Islamic Party, led by Sunni exiles who came back after the war. Although the religious party's slate outdrew Mutlaq's, he counts it as a triumph—and with reason. The Islamic Party was far better organized and funded, and Mutlaq readily admits he made some stupid mistakes—such as confusing voters by renaming his coalition before the vote. Maliki evidently agrees that Mutlaq has become a force to reckon with in Iraqi politics: last week the prime minister met with the former Baathist to discuss local coalitions. Mutlaq hopes his goal is in sight at last. "We did well," he says. "We are there." Not yet. But he's on his way.