It's one of the US military's most innovative efforts to deal with Iraq's postwar insurgency.
Last Monday, after weeks of talks, the 12 senior Baathists in the Talafar region, about 210 miles northwest of Baghdad, met with US officers. They denounced the Baath Party in a ceremony broadcast on radio and arranged to hand over of more than 522 AK-47s, dozens of rocket-propelled grenades, and nearly 100 mortar rounds and the tools to fire them.
About 200 more Baath Party members from the next level down in the hierarchy are scheduled to follow their lead Monday.
The dramatic gestures are the fruit of a "parole program" - a broad effort to aggressively go after Baathists who have access to weapons handed out by the regime just before its fall. The rules are simple: Beyond turning in weapons, local Baath leaders agree to report periodically to US forces, inform them if they're moving out of the area, and provide assistance in tracking down insurgents.
What's in it for these leaders is the prospect of reducing the threat of arrest - as well as eventual rehabilitation in their communities and a chance at getting back jobs they lost after the invasion.
US officials in charge of the program, for their part, have high hopes for its ability to stem the ongoing attacks on their forces.
"Up front, I'll tell you that I think this is an approach that could be adopted nationally,'' says Capt. Basel "Bo" Mixon, who has spearheaded the program for the 101st Airborne Division's 187th Infantry Regiment in Talafar.
The 101st is planning on extending the program to other areas under its control in and around the Mosul area. Captain Mixon has also received e-mails from other units across Iraq about how the approach was structured.
Both Mixon and Lt. Col. Christopher Pease, Mixon's boss, say they're aware that Iraq is a diverse, almost endlessly complicated nation where what works in one area may not be easy to replicate elsewhere. But, says Colonel Pease, "In this society [in this area], the attitude was ripe to make this work. I can imagine in some other areas it will be a lot tougher."
Pease and Mixon say a key to their success was the effort's coincidence with Saddam Hussein's capture near Tikrit in early December. "It was a long conversation. Initially they were very defensive and said they didn't know where the weapons were," says Mixon, who hails from Nashville, Tenn. "As long as Saddam was out there, it was in the back of their minds that he could come back and he'd hold them accountable."
After his fall, the first senior Baathist showed up at their compound with weapons, and set off a domino effect within the local hierarchy. "I think a lot of them were actually relieved," says Mixon.
Sheikh Hussein Ali Yunos is the top Baath leader in Talafar and the surrounding area, and probably one of the dozen most senior people in the party's national hierarchy. "They came to us and asked for our cooperation," he says. "I was actually surprised that they waited so long. We weren't bad guys. We never stole from the people or did anything to hurt them. I think the people will accept us again now."
Though the US plans to issue letters acknowledging Baath officials' cooperation, it is up to the emerging local and national leadership as to whether they'll ever get their jobs and positions back in their communities. The US-appointed Governing Council has said that no
senior Baath members, which means all of the men who have signed on so far, can work for the government ever again.
What's to be done with them and their subordinates is a crucial question across Iraq. There were over 3 million members of the party, and most Iraqis joined as a requirement for going to college or getting promotions in the civil service. As Iraq moves forward, some method will have to be found to remove the stain of their pasts, since as outsiders they remain as major potential sources of disruption. "You'd be a fool to ignore 3 million people,'' says Pease.
To be sure, none of five senior Baath leaders from Talafar interviewed by the Monitor were contrite about their own pasts, and all of them said they were given little choice about joining the Baath Party. Sheikh Yunos said he joined in 1975, when he was told he'd lose his job at the state electricity company if he didn't sign up. He says he did what he could to help the local people, and didn't benefit from his involvement. "The people of Talafar know we are good people."
Some residents might disagree. Yunos is wealthy by local standards, owns a car, and received a monthly stipend of $800 for his party position. As in every Iraqi city, dozens of political activists were dragged away and never seen again during the Hussein years. The wounds are still fresh.
"These guys, they may not have been in the top 50 or top 100 list nationally, but these are the guys that the local community wants to see being dealt with,'' says Mixon. "These are the guys who filed reports on their neighbors and climbed on their backs to get ahead."
Talafar is an ethnically mixed city, filled with both Shiites and ethnic Turkmen, groups that suffered heavily during the Hussein regime. "The Baathists used to write a lot of reports on us. I was a teacher and was constantly harassed and under surveillance,'' says Samir Abdel Kadir, who is Turkmen. "Now men like Yunos want to clear their names, and say they're good people. The Americans shouldn't be too naive."
Another Turkmen, Hamid Hamza, says he worries the Baathists are hoping to seize power in town again. "They must never be allowed to get the upper hand again. They want sympathy, but under Saddam, Iraq was like a prison and the Baath officials were the wardens for the rest of us."
Abid Khalaf, one of the town's senior Baathists, says neither he nor his friends were really staunch supporters of Hussein. He says their vast arsenal of weapons, including the mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, were for fighting crime in the area, not to be used against local citizens. "We were just providing security."
Most of the weapons were handed out shortly before the US invasion; Hussein's war plan counted on igniting dozens of local insurgencies after his regime fell. The plan has been partly successful, with senior Baathists implicated in dozens of attacks on coalition forces in and around Talafar.
Yunos spent 90 days in jail after multiple local sources warned US troops that he was involved in anticoalition activity, and for crimes committed under the old regime. Now that he's out, Yunos says all he wants is to resume a quiet life.
"Please write this down. We just want our jobs back,'' he says.