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US revs up reversal of Iraq's Baath purge

Members of Saddam Hussein's party were ousted from Iraq's ministries and military in 2003. Now the US wants to reintegrate many disenfranchised former Baathists.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2007



BAGHDAD

After the invasion, they were Iraqi pariahs, seen by Americans as remaining too loyal to Saddam Hussein to be trusted.

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Members of the ruling Baath party, many of them Sunni Arabs, were purged from the country's ministries and military in an aggressive de-Baathification program initiated by then US administrator Paul Bremer and, later, misconstrued by the new Shiite political elite to serve their ambitions.

But now the Americans are trying to reverse much of the impact of the de-Baathification policies. Analysts and the US itself say that that approach – along with disbanding the former army – polarized Iraqi society and helped fuel the violent Sunni-led insurgency.

Reintegrating many former Baath Party members, as a way to weaken support for the insurgency, has become one of Washington's top priorities and a cornerstone of its new strategy here.

In fact, US zeal for reversing de-Baathification has been so intense that a source close to the process told the Monitor that Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi was summoned to Washington in mid-March to discuss the issue. Upon his return to Baghdad, the source says, he met with former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to draft a bill to reform anti-Baath policies.

Before leaving Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad lobbied hard for the bill, the Iraqi source says, wanting President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sign it ahead of a recent Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, a gesture of goodwill to Sunnis in Iraq and to those in the region critical of the Shiite government's perceived treatment of their Iraqi coreligionists.

"The prime minister was fuming because of the pressure, and how such an issue was being used by the White House for its argument with Congress on funding for the war," said the source, who added that Mr. Maliki's only solace was that his Shiite allies in parliament, who include partisans of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, would realize "how pro-Baath the bill is and would change it."

Indeed, the US continues to face much opposition from Shiite leaders in Iraq.

Several Iraqi officials say that the Shiite-dominated parliament has already decided to water down a de-Baathification reform bill sent to it last month by Mr. Talabani and Maliki to render it meaningless. Others say that even if lawmakers were to pass it as is, it would, contrary to claims by the Bush administration, have little impact on promoting reconciliation because it's too late.

"It looks to be a little late. It has become very tough," says Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian close to Talabani. "Even after the hanging of Saddam [Hussein], there are those who have become tougher and say 'nothing Baathist will come back.' "

On his visit to Iraq last week, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Maliki during a meeting Friday that Iraqi lawmakers should not take their summer recess until they passed a series of laws, including the one dealing with de-Baathification reform titled The Reconciliation and Accountability Law.

"It's clear to me from the beginning that an enormous priority for Iraq, and for all of us, is a national reconciliation process that brings all Iraqis together in a single nation working for common purposes," Ryan Crocker, the new US ambassador in Baghdad, told state-owned Iraqiya TV last week. "I see this whole process of de-Baathification reform as leading to that end … we need to push forward."

The Monitor has obtained an English-language draft of the bill, identical to the one sent to parliament in Arabic, with the following headline: "Mahdi Debaath version 3, March 21, 2007."

The US denies that it wrote the draft law, but says it "facilitated dialogue and briefed key leaders on US government goals for reform."

WHO ARE THE BAATHISTS?

1950: Baath party forms branch in Iraq.

1968: Party solidifies power. Baathists enjoy better access to work and school. Over time 1.5 million Iraqis join.

2003: Coalition Provisional Authority bars senior Baathists from government, which helps fuel Sunni insurgency.

March 2007: Under US pressure Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki helps draft de-Baathification legislation, to meet June 2007 benchmarks to keep UStroops in Iraq. Key Shiite MPs oppose the move.

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