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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.

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The bill makes it easier for senior members of the party who committed no crimes to obtain pensions. It also offers those who worked in Mr. Hussein's myriad security agencies the chance to either get a job in the present Army or police or receive a pension. It also clips the wings of the controversial de-Baathification Commission, a special government agency, by vesting more powers in independent judges and would fold the commission altogether in six months.

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But the executive director of the de-Baathification Commission, Ali al-Lami, calls "unconstitutional" elements of the reform bill, such as dissolving the commission and setting a three-month statute of limitation for all claims against former Baathists.

Waiting to be de-Baathified

Nawal Abed-Ali Hmoud has been waiting in vain for close to four years to be de-Baathified, the term for ex-Baath members who have gone through a reeducation program administered by the de-Baathification Commission. Until this occurs, she cannot regain her $300-a-month job as a typist at the state-owned Rashid Bank.

The commission has de-Baathified some 16,500 Iraqis. After Bremer first enacted the policy, about 140,000 former Baath members were kicked out of jobs. Just over 100,000 low-level Baathists were later returned to their jobs.

Ms. Hmoud was fired from her job in September 2003. She, like millions of her compatriots, had simply joined the Baath Party out of economic expediency. But, she says, she is losing hope that she will be de-Baathified soon. In the meantime, to make ends meet, she has set up a candy shop in an abandoned store in northern Baghdad where she had come with her family to flee sectarian violence in their own neighborhood.

"I am utterly convinced now that this commission is a sham and that the only Baathists that are returned to work are the ones that pay bribes or have someone to back them," she says.

The irony is that more than 20 years ago Ms. Hmoud and her sister helped a neighbor escape Hussein's henchmen. He was wanted for membership in Maliki's then banned Shiite political party.

The Baathist threat

In an interview at his Baghdad office, Mr. Lami says that while the work of his commission is now focused on the fate of just 21,500 former Baathists – out of 12 million Iraqis who ranged from sympathizers to active members – the body must continue to exist to make sure all government institutions are cleansed of the Baath Party's "totalitarian" ways.

"Baath, not Al-Qaeda, is Iraq's biggest enemy," he says.

The party has not given up its ambition to return to power, he says, through both armed and political means.

Lami says that he has lists that prove that all the heads of the main Sunni Arab insurgency groups are senior Baathists.

While most lawmakers backed the commission's work, he says, some Iraqi politicians were "misguided" in their effort to link reconciliation to the commission's work and that the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) parliamentary bloc, to which Maliki belongs, must remember that it was only able to sweep into power because of an anti-Baath platform.

"If they appear to be retreating from their campaign promises, then they would be committing treason toward the people that voted for them," Lami says.

He nonetheless admits that his commission is helpless when it comes to reining in provincial authorities, mainly Shiite ones, and making sure they pursued a more balanced approach to de-Baathification.

He recounts how his commission, which is chaired by former Washington favorite Ahmed Chalabi, recently recommended that a group of former school teachers be returned to their jobs in Karbala after it was proven that they committed no crimes and after they had been de-Baathified.

But the province refused after leaflets were circulated on the city's streets warning that the teachers would be killed if they came back.

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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