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