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Anti-Baathist Purge Spreads Across Iraq

Provincial officials come under scrutiny because of alleged Saddam-era past, incensing opposition groups on eve of elections.
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Scores of government officials across Iraq may face punishment over their alleged links to Saddam Hussein’s banned Baath party, in an extension of a purge that has ignited sectarian passions ahead of next month’s elections.



Provinces controlled by Shia parties have asked a powerful committee to investigate regional officials suspected of Baathist sympathies. Those who fall foul of its rules could face demotion, dismissal or the loss of benefits.



The Accountability and Justice Commission, which is charged with eradicating Baathist influence, has been at the centre of a political storm since its decision last month to ban 500 candidates from nationwide parliamentary elections. The blacklist was later whittled down to 145 but still includes several opposition leaders popular with secular-minded Iraqis and the Sunni Arab minority.



This has prompted furious allegations of political bias, as well as fears of renewed sectarian unrest. In its defence, the committee has cited a law restricting the activities of former senior Baathists.



IWPR-trained reporters have revealed a concerted drive to submit for scrutiny to the committee the names provincial officials and civil servants. Though the names have not been made public, most of those listed are thought to be employees of the local administration or security forces, with no obvious electoral ambitions.



The campaign is taking place in ten of Iraq’s 18 provinces: nine in the Shia south, and Baghdad. Its timing and intentions are controversial, and its origins unclear.



Earlier this month, demonstrations against the Baath party took place in several Shia provinces, typically drawing around 1,000 protesters. The largest, in Najaf on February 7, saw 9,000 people take to the streets. At roughly the same time, a campaign was launched against provincial officials suspected of Baathist sympathies.



“The removal of Baathists is an old issue,” said Ruqaia Ahmed al-Ani, a member of the National Dialogue Front, a party popular among Sunni Arab secularists. “Seven years after Saddam’s overthrow, there are no Baathists left. We do not know why these procedures are being carried out now.”



The National Dialogue Front is part of Iraqiya, a prominent opposition coalition that claims it was unfairly targeted by the Accountability and Justice Commission. The body barred the National Dialogue Front’s leader, Saleh al-Mutlaq, from running in the March 7 parliamentary elections, although he announced on February 25 that the party will still contest the ballot.



The head of the committee told IWPR his organisation’s provincial branches had begun receiving confidential lists of officials suspected of Baathist sympathies.



Ali al-Lami, chief of the Accountability and Justice Commission, said its Baghdad headquarters expected a full list from the provinces to be filed within two months. A final verdict on the named individuals would follow soon after.



“We will check if any Baathist, of high or low rank, was involved in crimes against the Iraqi people,” Lami said.



Individuals on the list would also have their “reputation among the people” scrutinised, he said, adding that inquiries would initially focus on those who had occupied relatively senior posts in the banned party.



“The Baathists [on the final list] have no way of avoiding our measures,” he said.



ACCUSATIONS OF INTIMIDATION



Lami said he did not have a final figure for how many provincial officials had so far been suggested for investigation. However, an official from his committee, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the records of roughly 1,000 people would be examined for Baathist sympathies.



The majority of those named would apparently escape sanction. Issa al-Freji, a member of the Baghdad provincial council and of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party, said he expected the committee to take eventual action against around 140 provincial officials.



“The number... will be similar to the number of candidates barred from all elections,” he said.



Government officials in the provinces told IWPR they were waiting for the committee’s decision before moving against suspected Baathists. Several provinces, including Baghdad, have announced they will form smaller committees modelled on the Accountability and Justice Commission to oversee their investigation of Baathists.



Opposition leaders described the campaign against provincial officials as a witch-hunt aimed at boosting the re-election hopes of parties in the Shia-dominated government.



Abdul-Illah Kadhim, an Iraqiya candidate, described the drive to root out alleged Baathists as “a sword for political cleansing, whether on the level of the provinces, offices, parliament or the government.



“It is an attempt to make the people believe there is an enemy, and to link this enemy with certain parties in order to... incite trouble.”



However, Hassan al-Snaid, an official from Maliki’s State of Law coalition, insisted the campaign was not politically motivated.



“We want to implement the law, irrespective of the election campaign,” he said. “In every rally or demonstration, we [call for] implementing the Accountability and Justice Law in a transparent, correct way.” He added that the law would not indiscriminately target ex-Baathists, and would in certain cases, make exceptions.



The body headed by Lami was created under the accountability and justice law, passed by the Iraqi parliament in January 2008.



The legislation maintained the tight curbs, introduced after the United States-led invasion, on onetime senior Baathists and on those known to have sympathised with the party after 2003. At the same time, it allowed former lower-ranking members of the party to re-enter public life.



Iraq’s Arab nationalist, nominally secular Baath movement was dominated for decades by the Sunni Muslim minority – mainly members of cliques with clan ties to Saddam. However, the party’s middle and lower ranks included tens of thousands of people for whom membership was simply a prerequisite for professional advancement.



Among them were many Arabs from the Shia majority, as well as Kurds. Both these communities were violently repressed by the former regime, and now contain the strongest supporters of de-Baathification.



Purging Iraq of the party’s influence has been justified as a means of righting historic injustices. The current government has also argued it is necessary for security, after a spate of spectacular bombings in Baghdad that were blamed on Baath loyalists.



The Iraqiya list accuses the government of using the crackdown on terrorism as a pretext for intimidating its activists. It cites as an example the arrest earlier this month of 20 people in Salahaddin, a province north of Baghdad which backed Iraqiya in last year’s provincial elections.



Security officials said the arrests had targeted Baath party loyalists involved in terrorism. However, Maysun al-Damaloji, an Iraqiya spokeswoman, said the detentions had been carried out to frighten the list’s supporters.



An Iraqiya leader from the National Dialogue Front, Haidar al-Mullah, told IWPR the governing parties were pursuing the purge of alleged Baathists in order to resurrect the sectarian and ethnic divisions that helped them win power in the last election in 2005.



“Today, they are trying to divide people along the same lines by using the Baathist and non-Baathist labels,” he said.



ORIGINS OF PURGE UNCLEAR



The Iraqiya coalition is led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi. His list has presented itself as a nationalist, secular alternative to the Shia Islamist parties that lead the current government. Allawi’s government was replaced by the Shia parties after the 2005 election, as the sectarian conflict gathered momentum.



Shia officials have rejected Iraqiya’s claim that the purge of alleged Baathists is an attempt to undermine election rivals, insisting their actions are necessary and lawful.



“Baathists are working with terrorists at night and with politicians in the morning,” said Ahmed al-Saleti, the deputy head of Basra’s provincial council and a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, one of the largest Shia parties.



“If national reconciliation means reconciliation with Baathists, then the Iraqi people refuse it. The Baathists’ hands are stained with blood,” he said.



IWPR uncovered conflicting accounts as to whether the impetus for the planned purge of local officials came from the central government or from the provinces.



An official from the Accountability and Justice Commission said the move was initiated by the cabinet in Baghdad, roughly a month ago.



“The council of ministers issued and sent a letter to all Iraqi provincial councils... except Kurdistan, ordering them to activate de-Baathification measures, according to the Accountability and Justice law,” the official told IWPR, asking not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media.



Iraqiya officials also insisted the move was done at the behest of Baghdad.



“The State of Law gave direct orders to the provincial council members to carry out de-Baathification procedures,” said Abed Muslim Dawood, an Iraqiya member from the provincial council in Diwaniya. He said the plans were formulated in early January and gathered momentum as the elections grew nearer.



Another Iraqiya member from the Diwaniya provincial council, Baqir al-Shaalan, backed this up.



“[The] De-Baathification order was a central order, it came from Baghdad to other southern and central provinces,” he said. “The order was issued two months ago but was not activated until about a month later.”



However, senior leaders in Maliki’s Dawa party in Baghdad have denied they prompted the provinces to take action against suspected Baathists.



“It’s an independent decision from the provinces themselves,” said Ali Adeeb, a Dawa leader. “The cabinet cannot interfere in such issues because the Accountability and Justice Commission is independent.”



He added that his party supported the idea of de-Baathification in the provinces but did not want it to be implemented until the election was over.



Ali al-Mosawi, an adviser to Maliki, also said the action being taken in the provinces was approved under the accountability and justice law – and could not have been ordered by the cabinet. “This is a constitutional issue and there is no room for interpretation,” he said.



APPEAL TO JUDICIARY



On the streets of Shia cities, many supported the crackdown on alleged Baathists.



“We want to punish those involved in killing innocent Iraqis,” said Hani Khedair, a computer seller in his early twenties in Najaf. “We all want law and justice.”



Qasim Hannon, a teacher in his late fifties in Basra, said a local politician had demanded suspected Baathists be kept away from government jobs.



“Baathists are everywhere, in the government jobs and the security forces,” he said. “No one has been fired yet but people are against Baath, not only in Basra but in all the southern provinces.”



In the Sunni Arab province of Salahaddin, locals were less supportive of the purge.



“Why talk about Baath now? It is a form of revenge. Those who carry out such measures are trying to get rid of their rivals,” said Hatef Mohammed Hassan, a shopkeeper in his twenties in the town of Samarra.



Ani, the Iraqiya leader from Salahaddin, said the majority of the electorate in the province rejected de-Baathification because the term was too vague.



“Until now, we do not have a definition of who is a Baathist and what criteria make one subject to de-Baathification measures,” he said.



Officials close to Maliki defended the accountability and justice law and downplayed its impact.



Sami al-Askari, a senior aide to the prime minister, said the de-Baathification process had “mechanisms and limits”.



“It does not mean all those who were in the Baath party should leave government offices,” he told IWPR.



Meanwhile, Faayid al-Shemmari, a Dawa member who heads Najaf council, said the possible dismissal of Baathists would not harm the work of the provincial government.



“Baathists are not the only qualified Iraqis,” he said. “There are a lot of Iraqis who have the experience and ability to replace them.”



IWPR-trained reporters in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Karbala and Samarra contributed to this report. The reporters’ identities have been withheld because of security concerns.