BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Up to 30,000 top members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party will be banned from any future Iraqi government, a senior U.S official said Friday as part of a sweeping decree aimed at putting "a stake in the heart" of the long-entrenched organization.
The order, the latest salvo in what is becoming an increasingly high-profile battle by American occupying forces against remnants of Saddam's regime, will not be easy to carry out. The talent pool of the Iraqi civil service is brimming with bureaucrats whose livelihoods depended on Baath Party affiliation.
On Friday, U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer released the decree barring Baathists from the party's top four echelons from any public position -- whether in universities, hospitals or minor government posts.
An even stricter vetting process will be used in appointing officials to Iraqi ministries dealing with security, such as the defense and interior ministries. In addition, all members of a future Iraqi government will be required to renounce Baathism, said an official from the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
"The Baath Party in Iraq is finished," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity at a background briefing inside the marble confines of Saddam's Republican Palace. "We mean to be sure that by this process, we will put a stake in its heart."
The reconstruction team's purging efforts will begin within days and target 15,000 to 30,000 party members, the official said.
But officials trying to restart the country's ministries and civil service face a major challenge: how to purge Saddam sympathizers without gutting the entire bureaucracy.
Under the decree, some of Iraq's most able administrators would be barred from helping rebuild the country.
"That's the price we're willing to pay," the official said, adding that lower-level functionaries and former Iraqi exiles will replace party members.
Some could slip through
The official acknowledged some former Baathists are bound to slip through while innocents could be denounced by co-workers seeking revenge.
As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam. But only about 25,000 to 50,000 were full-fledged members -- the elite targeted by U.S. officials.
Many of the upper-level figures in Saddam's regime -- the most-wanted, including the Iraqi leader himself -- are already being pursued, depicted on a deck of cards designed to familiarize U.S. forces with their faces.
The reconstruction official said all but about 2,000 of the tens of thousands of top-level Baathists in question appeared to have melted away and were not angling for new government jobs.
The official said Americans would comb through the deposed regime's records, interview co-workers and seek testimony to make sure the government is free of the party's influence.
The pervasive public signs and displays of Saddam's face have also been banned, the official said, speaking under a roof topped by four 20-foot-tall statues of Saddam's head.
The order does not specifically ban gatherings of former Baathists.
The Baath Party was founded in neighboring Syria in 1943 and spread across the Arab world, promoting Arab unity with a repressive, Soviet-style party structure.
Iraq's Baath Party, dominated by Sunni Muslims in a country that has a Shiite majority, took power briefly in the early 1960s, then ruled Iraq continuously from 1968 until last month -- most of that time under Saddam. Neighboring Syria is ruled by a Baath faction headed by President Bashar Assad.
As Iraq's version of it is shoved into history, some of its people prescribe caution to those who would purge its ranks indiscriminately.
"The Baath Party itself isn't bad -- the ideology isn't bad -- but the administration of the party was bad," said Shukur Mahmoud, 42, a shopkeeper. "There are still good people in the Baath Party."
But Abbas Abu Mustafa, walking down a Baghdad street Friday afternoon, disagreed.
"The Baath Party is of no use to Iraq now or in the future," he said. "There are many good people in Iraq that can lead this country."