It was a costly overreaction that eroded Iraq's security and talent. Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, recently admitted he had meant to bar no more than 20,000 members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from government jobs. The figure has turned out to be more like 400,000.
Last week Mr. Bremer said that de-Baathification had been applied "unevenly and unjustly." So officials are accelerating reviews of backlogged appeals from Baathists who felt unfairly kept from jobs. Now, for instance, more than 10,000 teachers and professors who were party members will be allowed to work, as will 1,000 to 2,000 military officers.
In the Middle East, governments generally are the main employers, and the vast bureaucracy in Iraq was no exception. When Baathist criminals were ousted, so, too, were engineers, doctors, teachers, and administrators - many of whom joined the party simply to work. But with the government handover less than two months away, Iraq needs strong institutions and experienced hands.
On the security side, Bremer said Iraqis need to stand "shoulder to shoulder with us" if safety is to be guaranteed. Many Iraqis themselves believe security has been compromised by the idling of thousands of men who know how to use weapons.
The modified approach to the Baathists is not without risks, and nowhere is that more visible than in Fallujah. The US has turned to Iraqi forces to help battle insurgents, but they're switching Iraqi military leaders there amid complaints that the first one had been involved in the brutal crushing of the Kurdish uprising under Saddam. This points to the need to improve background checks.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Shiite leaders strongly criticize US use of Saddam's former army in Fallujah. The caution for the US here is not to play the Sunni-dominated former Baathists against their former victims, the majority Shiites.
As the world has learned, it's neither possible nor wise to rebuild countries without the help of the former ruling class - be they the whites of South Africa or the communists of Eastern Europe. The true criminals must be weeded out, but it's no stretch of the imagination that a retooled Baath Party might one day participate in pluralist Iraqi politics.