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Iraq announces details of uprooting Baathists

Monday, January 12, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq explained Sunday how it will weed out members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party from government jobs, with the senior politician in charge of the purge saying 28,000 have already been ousted and a similar number was expected to follow.

Setting the tone for what may be in store, Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi dismissed talk of reconciliation.

"How can you reconcile those lying dead in mass graves with those who killed them?" asked Chalabi, known for his close ties to the Pentagon.

He insisted that purging senior Baathists from public posts was not an act of revenge and would not be guided by rumors. He also said the new Iraqi leadership was prepared to sacrifice expertise if necessary to rid the nation of Baathist influence.

"It is a civilized operation to cleanse the nation of the ideology of the Baath and its effect on state organs," he told reporters. "The price we Iraqis must pay for excluding experienced Baathists is a reasonable price to pay. We cannot lead a normal life in Iraq if the Baath continues to exist."

At the same time, Chalabi has sought to counter criticism that Iraq's leadership was giving priority to going after Baathists when it should be paying more attention to security and economic issues. He said documents found on Saddam when captured Dec. 13 indicated that senior Baathists were behind attacks against the U.S.-led occupation forces as well as Iraqis. He did not elaborate.

The selection of Chalabi as chairman of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification is likely to stir controversy among many Iraqis, who consider the urbane, Westernized Shiite Muslim an outsider because of his long years spent outside the country. Many Iraqis resent the prominent role played by returning exiles, believing those who endured decades of Saddam's tyranny had a right to rule the country.

Chalabi, a former banker, also was convicted of fraud in absentia in Jordan in 1992 in a banking scandal and sentenced to 22 years in jail. He has repeatedly denied the charges.

The United States dissolved and banned the Baath party in May, a month after U.S. forces swept into Baghdad, ousted Saddam from power and ended 35 years of the party's rule. Iraqi Baathists took power briefly after a 1963 coup and returned to power in 1968, when Saddam became the power-behind-the-throne for 11 years before he took office as president.

An estimated 1.5 million of Iraq's 25 million people belonged to the party on the eve of Saddam's ouster. But much fewer -- perhaps 50,000 or more -- were full members.

Membership in the Baath, formally known as the Baath Arab Socialist Party, had for more than a generation been necessary for career advancement in Iraq. Members could secure promotion in government departments ahead of more qualified peers, win places in prestigious colleges or receive superior medical care in specialized hospitals.

Those who advanced in the party were expected to spy on fellow Iraqis, report any hint of dissent and join the party's various militia.

The party's doctrine advocated a Socialist-style economy, social justice and Arab unity. It also promoted a Soviet-style structure in which each military unit, security agency, government department and even theater group had to have a senior Baathist with far reaching powers.

Founded in 1943 in Syria, where a rival Baath faction rules, the party began to make inroads in Iraq from as early as the 1950s. Saddam began his career in the party then, first as an assassin targeting enemies of the Baath and later as one of its chief clandestine organizers.

The downfall of Saddam's regime has unleashed a wave of revenge killings of Baathists in areas that are mainly inhabited by Shiite Muslims, a majority in Iraq that had long been oppressed by the Sunni Arab minority of which Saddam was part.

Baathist militias are believed to have played a major role in the ruthless suppression of Shiite and Kurdish revolts after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War and in mass killings of the two communities.

Chalabi condemned the wave of revenge killings of Baathists, saying the culprits would be treated as criminals when caught. "De-Baathification must be confined to the procedures we agreed on," he said.

To that end, Chalabi said his committee will target Iraqis who held positions in the four most senior grades in the party's hierarchy as well as those who held any of the three top jobs in any government department or Cabinet ministry. Top officials who are purged will have no appeal.

Any Baathist known to have abused other Iraqis would be dismissed regardless of rank in the party, Chalabi said.

Those dismissed from lower posts will be entitled to a pension. Unlike those in top jobs, lower-ranking officials can appeal for reinstatement, but they would lose their pensions if the appeal fails.

Chalabi said seized Baath party documents and bank record tracking bonus payments to senior members would be used to target wanted Baathists. The judiciary, he added, would be involved in the settlement of appeals.


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