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Plan to Reinstate Baathists Stirs Controversy

Proposed legislation would allow many former Ba’athists to take up old jobs.
By Hazim al-Sharaa
Abdul Kareem al-Asadi folds the newspaper in which he’s just read about a new draft law that proposes allowing many ex-members of the Baath party to get back their former civil service posts.

Al-Asadi, a 61-year-old Shia, adjusts his thick glasses and points at the newspaper. “Can this law solve the security and economic problems our country suffers from?” he asked. “Or it is just a new political game to keep the parliament and the people busy for a while?”

The draft legislation - which has yet to be officially presented to parliament - was announced by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani at the end of March.

The bill - dubbed The Law of Questioning and Justice - is intended to herald an era of “progress, recovery and prosperity” in Iraq.

If passed, it would allow thousands of former low and mid-level members of the now defunct party, who lost their civil service jobs during the de-Baathification purge after the fall of Saddam, to work for the new Iraqi authorities.

Only former high-ranking officials and those with criminal convictions would be excluded, and those who couldn’t find jobs would be eligible for a state pension.

It would also give a special judicial board three months to press charges against former Baathists - after which they would be immune from prosecution for offenses committed under the former regime.

Al-Asadi touches the furrows time has mined into his face.

“Baathists have buried our youth,” he said. “Now this law tells us the violence engulfing the country is because of them and that returning them to their posts will open a new page of stability and security. Why didn’t they forgive them from the beginning if this is the only solution to stability?”

And this proposal does appear to be a dramatic reversal of policy in Iraq.

A de-Baathification process, set up to eliminate all Baathist ideology from the Iraqi state and society, was established by head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, L Paul Bremer in 2003.

As part of this process, the De-Baathification Committee was charged with removing party officials from administrative, military and government posts.

Ahmed Chalabi, chairman of the Iraqi National Congress, heads the committee that has since sacked several thousand former party members.

The publication of the draft law that would reinstate many of them coincided with the last Arab Summit - held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on March 28.

Some observers took this timing as an indication that it was drafted under pressure from neighbouring countries, who want to see former Baathists engaged in the political process in Iraq.

The proposal has received a mixed response so far.

Parliamentary members of the Sunni party the Iraqi Accord Front welcome the pressure from other Arab states to reinstate the Baathists.

“These states have the right to save us from our problems,” said Harith al-Obeidi, one of their members of parliament.

He notes that Saudi Arabia was instrumental in ending the civil war in Lebanon, when it hosted the 1989 Taif conference.

Osama al-Nujafi, deputy for the Iraqi List, also supports the proposal. “The previous four years proved that it is of no use to exclude those who differ in their political doctrine,” he said.

Kurdish politicians are reluctant to comment on the proposed law so far, fearing it might contribute to sectarianism. Khalid Shwani, deputy of the Kurdish bloc, said the Kurdish alliance had not yet debated, or come to a “unified opinion” on the bill.

But Falah Hassan Shansal, a senior official in the Sadrist bloc that withdrew from government earlier this month to press for a timetable for a US troop withdrawal, opposes the planned legislation, as well as the demands from Arab nations to include former Baathists in the political process.

“Arabs have no right to impose their opinion on the Iraqi people. The only right they have is to stop the terrorism that comes to Iraq from their countries,” said Shansal, who also heads the parliamentary De-Baathification Committee.

Chalabi has also spoken out against the legislation – that would authorise the government to replace the highly criticised institution he heads with a rehabilitation programme for former Baath party members.

He says the proposal ignores the feelings of millions of the Baathists' victims, and that it could hinder reconciliation and even spur people to seek retribution. In a public statement, he also claimed that passing the new law would violate the Iraqi constitution.

But Iraqi Accord Front deputy Ezzul Deen al-Hayani dismisses this argument. “The constitution is no obstacle for the new law,” he said. “The interests of the people are above the constitution. But we will try to make some amendments to comply with the constitution.”

Even some of the supporters of the proposed law are demanding certain details be changed.

Most contentious is article 4, which states that personnel from the dissolved security forces and the Fedayeen – the militia run by Saddam's elder son Uday – can take up posts equivalent to their former ranks in the army, police and civil service.

Many victims of the former regime are up in arms at this part of the draft - which also states that former intelligence personnel are exempt from questioning by the special judicial board because their work was supposedly aimed at protecting Iraq against foreign aggression, rather than from enemies within.

Survivors of the regime say this would let their former torturers and oppressors off the hook.

Ridha Jawad Taqi, deputy for the United Iraqi Alliance and member of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, isn’t opposed to a softening in attitude towards Baathists, but he argues that this legislation is not a top priority right now.

“Not every Baathist is a criminal, but we will not agree on the new project before agreeing on the martyrs’ law. It would be unfair to equate those who were oppressed and still suffer and have not yet got their rights and the ones we plan to pardon,” said Taqi.

The martyr’s law, which has been drafted and waiting to be debated in parliament, sets rules for the compensation of victims of the former regime, as well as their entitlement to a state pension.

Taqi doesn’t object to giving pensions to former Baath officials, but is opposed to reinstating them in their former roles.

He has also threatened to reject the proposed law, unless amendments are made to prevent the exemption of former intelligence staff from questioning.

Nonetheless, some Shia politicians have taken a pragmatic approach to the re-integration of former Baath officials.

Ezra al-Shahbander, a deputy and member of the De-Baathification Committee, is convinced that “integrating them is much better than pushing them to join the insurgents”.

The state, he said, could also benefit from their experience in security to tackle the deteriorating situation in Iraq – which many Iraqis feel is now worse than it was under the Baathist regime.

Ahmed al-Ani, 29, a civil servant at the ministry of higher education in Baghdad, points from his office window at the concrete barriers blocking the street leading to the ministry.

“There were many movements hostile to Saddam. Yet there was not a single concrete block in Baghdad,” he said.

“The Baathists were capable of establishing security without the need to block the street. They were statesmen - unlike the new [government] which lacks experience and cares only for sectarian issues.”

Hazim al-Sharaa is an IWPR reporter in Baghdad.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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