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In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's old guard remains on fringes

Washington contends that allowing ex-Baathists back into the fold is key to undercutting the insurgency.

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That draft law, to which US Embassy officials contributed significant advice, offered pensions to high-ranking Baathist government employees. It gave lower-ranking members, like Azzawi, the chance to return to their jobs. All employees of the myriad security agencies during Mr. Hussein's era were covered by this. A whole section detailed reconciliation-promoting measures. The controversial de-Baathification commission, headed by one-time close Washington ally Ahmed Chalabi, was to be dissolved.

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But in sharp contrast, the new law keeps the commission in place indefinitely and simply changes its name.

• It also bans all those who worked in what it terms "oppressive agencies," such as the general security – to which Azzawi belonged – from ever getting jobs in the security forces. Instead, it offers them pensions if they apply within 60 days of the law's enactment. Members of an elite corps are deprived of pensions.

• It bans many mid-level Baathists from holding jobs in the judiciary and the Ministries of Defense, Interior, and Finance.

• It speaks of insuring "that the Baath Party ideology, politics, and practices will never again return to power and public life in Iraq."

• It calls for "the complete cleansing of all public, semipublic, and civil society institutions as well as Iraqi society as a whole from the influence of the Baath Party."

There is concern that the law will trigger a fresh Baathist purge. Baathists in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, who may have been in the past exempted from the policies of de-Baathification for the sake of fighting the insurgency, may be squeezed out.

"The new law means that automatically 7,000 in the Ministry of the Interior will have to retire and a considerable number in the Defense Ministry could loose their jobs," says Mr. Chalabi. He says Washington is misguided in its efforts to "legislate reconciliation," and should focus instead on promoting private enterprise to create jobs.

A US Embassy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the hope now is that the government would not implement the law in a way that would "alienate and embitter," while suggesting that US officials would intervene if this happens. "If we feel that some action they are going to do with the implementation of this law is going to set the government of Iraq back in some sense or endanger our troops by fueling a larger insurgency, we are going to step in."

Warning of a possible clash between Iraq and the US over the law's implementation, Chalabi says Washington has no right to impose its will on the majority Shiites who still want retribution for past injustices. He says his commission was actively involved in lobbying against the first US-backed draft law.

Bahaa al-Araji, head of parliament's judicial committee and a partisan of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, says, "We in the Sadrist movement worked effortlessly to completely change the essence of the law as it was presented. Our goal is justice."

However, says Azzawi, some of the most committed Baathists, often portrayed as only Sunnis, were Shiites. "[Southern Iraqi Shiites] were the most principled and organized among the party's cadre. They made up its backbone," says the ex-colonel, himself a Shiite.