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Iraqis struggle over Baath purge

A US campaign to eliminate Baath Party influence in Iraq is being criticized for inflexibility.

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During a brief interview on campus, two separate groups of concerned students, with folders and books tucked under their arms, came to Rawi to inquire, "Are you back with us?" and to wish him luck. Students and other faculty have signed a petition for an exemption for Rawi - adding to the pile of thousands awaiting Bremer's review.

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Upon noticing the presence of a Western reporter, one student, unbidden and within minutes, collected five others, to vouch for their professor.

"Of course we don't accept what [the CPA] decides," says student Mohamed Jassim. "He studied abroad and we will lose him. Whoever comes after can't be as good."

"Dr. Hussam is a good professor and teacher, who helped us a lot," says another student, Haidar Faleh. "We want him to stay."

"In my case, if I were to leave the party, I would have had to flee the country, or would have been questioned," says Rawi, whose portrait hangs with those of a string of other past department heads, in the faculty room.

"They shouldn't draw a parallel between the Baath and Nazism, but between Saddam and Stalin. Look at [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. He was a former KGB agent."

That doesn't mean that all Iraqi professors share Rawi's apparent popularity. Before the de-Baathification decree, students protested against the university president, who was known to be the personal physician of the Iraqi dictator.

Erdmann says that several university presidents came to him privately, begging him not to reinstate them, because they "recognized that they did not have the legitimacy to continue, with students or with faculty."

Likewise, students and faculty have made their wishes clear of who should be forced to leave, as well as - demonstrating almost daily for certain professors that have lost their jobs - those they want back in the classroom.

Despite the upheavals, Erdmann notes that his meetings with university chiefs from around the country show that the lowest postwar attendance rates are 75 percent, with most campuses showing 80 and 90 percent or higher. Such figures in the aftermath of war, he says, are "incredibly encouraging."

And few Iraqis question the need to weed out Baath figures who helped make their lives miserable for a generation. But few, also, think a blanket decree was the best way to do it.

"The truth is that 80 percent of the party were members for fear or their interests, and have no belief whatsoever in Baath ideology," says Saad Jawad, a political scientist at Baghdad University.

And the fruits of membership were palpable. Students whose parents were Baathists automatically received extra points on exam scores. Admission forms had a spot marked "Friends of Saddam," a bonus based on the family's position in the party hierarchy. It could determine entry into a good school.

"When they consider every Baath member an enemy, the Americans are putting all of them on the other side of the fence," Mr. Jawad says. "These people are ready to cooperate with the Americans, to work with them. But when you shut them out, they will meet and make an armed cell to fight back."