Iraqis struggle over Baath purge

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to assessing the US campaign to cleanse Iraq of Saddam Hussein loyalists, one need look no further than an assistant's desk at Baghdad University.

Piled two feet high are petitions from students and faculty alike, appealing to US officials for favorite professors to be exempt from a decree that fires all ranking Baath Party members.

This heavy pile is bursting the sides of a thick plastic shopping bag; the handles have ripped under the weight. And these are just a few of the hundreds of petitions that have been submitted - from universities only - that illustrate the difficulties of scrubbing Iraq clean of the old regime.

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While the surge of guerrilla attacks against coalition forces grab headlines - including the death of six British military policemen in southern Iraq on Tuesday - real change in Iraq is being engineered here, at government institutions.

The result so far is a tension among Iraqis about a Draconian decree, that paints the problem of de-Baathification in black and white - while in fact, many Iraqis say, it should be shades of gray.

"It's not a witch hunt. It's a very careful process - as careful as we can make it in this demanding situation," says Andrew Erdmann, a US State Department policymaker who is the top American appointed to the higher education ministry of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

He is swamped with issues emerging at university campuses across Iraq, and trying to focus on meeting emergency needs to complete an extended school year by the end of July. That means fans, air conditioners - US troops delivered a consignment to the Technical College Wednesday - and even printing examination booklets.

Jubilant scenes as students sit for class portraits, Mr. Erdmann says, are "tangible symbols that students feel that their life is progressing, that there is something beyond."

But de-Baathification is complicating the picture. According to his own proclamation on May 16, only the American chief of the occupation authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, can approve individual exemptions. The decree purges the top four ranks of the Baath Party. Party apparatchiks with critical skills, who "demonstrated" that they were not committed to the Baath Party under Mr. Hussein would be most likely candidates.

"Some people stepped forward to protect people. Some did not. Those things matter," says Erdmann. There are exceptions, though "the idea that you became a senior party member by accident - it usually doesn't happen."

But some say it did happen to Hussam al-Rawi, a former ranking Baath Party member and British-educated former head of the architecture department, who now must "volunteer" to finish the year, until his status is resolved. At least one fellow professor says Mr. Rawi came to her aid in the past, against an unscrupulous Baathist who deliberately misinterpreted her work, to get her into trouble.

"They did this [de-Baathification] without considering who were good people, and who were bad people," says Janon Kadhim, an architecture professor who says that Rawi "protected" her reputation.

"This is not an American way of working," says Rawi, who lived in Britian for 16 years and was elected as a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects. "A lot of skilled workers are out of jobs now," Rawi says. Mr. Bremer has "made enemies of millions of people."

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.

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."

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