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IRAQ: Debaathification

Author: Sharon Otterman
April 7, 2005
This publication is now archived.

How much influence will ex-Baathists have in the new Iraqi government?

That remains to be seen. Prominent Shiite and Kurdish leaders whose coalitions control some 75 percent of the transitional National Assembly elected January 30 say they plan to purge thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the Iraqi security services. Jobs and preferences in the new Iraq, these leaders say, should go to the former regime's victims, not its officials. But some experts and Iraqis say national unity is more important than a purge, which would further alienate the Arab Sunnis who generally backed--and benefited from--the former system and who now form the heart of the insurgency.

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Why are there senior ex-Baathists in the current government?

In the early months of the U.S.-led occupation, authorities banned the Baath Party and removed all senior Baathists from the government and security forces. But U.S. officials began to shift their strategy in April 2004 and, in a bid to strengthen the officer corps, allowed some senior ex-Baathists to return to the security forces. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi continued this policy.

What were the original debaathification orders?

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, issued two sweeping orders in May 2003: one outlawed the Baath Party and dismissed all senior members from their government posts; the other dissolved Iraq's 500,000-member military and intelligence services. In November 2003, Bremer established a Supreme National Debaathification Commission to root out senior Baathists from Iraqi ministries and hear appeals from Baathists who were in the lowest ranks of the party's senior leadership. The party's foremost leaders--some 5,000 to 10,000 individuals--were not permitted to appeal their dismissals.

How many Baathists were dismissed?

Bremer's first order led to the firing of about 30,000 ex-Baathists from various ministries. Some 15,000 were eventually permitted to return to work after they won their appeals, says Nibras Kazimi, a former adviser to the debaathification commission and currently a visiting Iraq scholar at the Hudson Institute. All military officers above the rank of colonel were barred from returning to work, as were all 100,000 members of Iraq's various intelligence services.

What changed?

In April 2004, Bremer announced that debaathification had been "poorly implemented" and applied "unevenly and unjustly," and said he supported a plan to allow "vetted senior officers from the former regime" back into the military services. At the time, the Iraqi insurgency was picking up speed, and some argued that a blanket purge of Baathists and the dismissal of the Iraqi army were at least partially to blame. Baathists "who do not have blood on their hands," and who were "innocent and competent" could play a role in Iraq's reconstruction, then-coalition spokesman Dan Senor announced on April 24, 2004. Two months later, Bremer dissolved the Supreme National Debaathification Commission, but the panel, with support from some members of the interim government, continues to operate. Interim Prime Minister Allawi backed the return of vetted ex-Baathists to the security services after his appointment in June 2004.

How many ex-Baathists were brought back into the government?

It's unclear. Kazimi estimates that some 9,000 ex-Baathists who would have been disqualified by Bremer's original orders now work in the defense ministry, interior ministry, and intelligence services.

Why were ex-Baathists allowed back into the government?

One key reason was to further national unity and reconciliation. Bremer's debaathification policy excluded thousands of experienced government workers--some of whom may not have committed crimes under the former regime--from playing a role in the new Iraq. Softening the interim government's stance on ex-Baathists was seen as a way to bring moderate Sunnis back into the fold.

Another key reason: rebaathification would accelerate the formation of Iraq's security forces. By April 2004, it had become evident that Iraq's fledgling police and military were largely unable to stand up to the increasingly aggressive insurgents. The U.S. military calculated that experienced former officers of Saddam Hussein's military would fortify the command structure of the new forces, says Kenneth Katzman, a senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. In addition, debaathification itself appeared to be causing a security threat. "Every time you purge a commander, you add a potential commander to the insurgency," Katzman says.

What are the arguments against having ex-Baathists in the security services?

Opponents of rebaathification argue it has been counterproductive because some of the former commanders sympathize with or aid the insurgents. Violence has increased steadily since the policy was implemented, and insurgents appear to have successfully infiltrated the security forces. Ex-Baathist commanders, opponents argue, cannot be trusted.

Another issue is ensuring justice for victims of Saddam Hussein's regime. Purge supporters argue that a stable Iraq cannot be built unless high-ranking Baathists are held accountable for the oppression of millions of Iraqis. Returning former officials to the government, they argue, will poison Iraqis' view of their new state. "Allawi used the concept of reconciliation badly to bring bad Baathists into the Iraqi government. He has tainted the concept in the eyes of the Iraqi people," says Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for Ahmad Chalabi, a prominent Iraqi politician and the chairman of the Supreme National Debaathification Commission since its founding.

Who would replace the senior Baathist commanders if they were purged?

It's unclear. Some Shiite and Kurdish politicians said senior officers from their sectarian militias could take up leadership positions in the military. These include leaders of the Badr Brigades of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters. It is not clear how the U.S. military would view the addition of these fighters to the Iraqi officer corps.

What exactly is the Baath Party?

The party, whose name means "rebirth," was founded in Syria in 1947 and supported a platform of secular pan-Arab nationalism, socialist economics, and opposition to European influence in the region. It solidified its power in a 1968 coup. Under Saddam Hussein's leadership, the Baath Party became highly militarized. The party functioned somewhat clandestinely, recruiting members for small organizational cells in towns, villages, and cities. These cells would report to regional party committees that, in turn, would report to Saddam Hussein. In exchange for providing information to and otherwise assisting the party, members were rewarded with jobs in state-run companies or institutions, the opportunity to study in a university, housing preferences, or increased pay. Teachers, for example, would receive a bonus equal to 10 times their monthly salary of $5 for becoming full members, according to news reports. Although, theoretically, any Iraqi could join the party, its membership in the final years of the regime was mostly Arab Sunni, as were the party's top ranks.

How large was party membership under Saddam Hussein?

About 2 million out of a total population of some 24 million, experts estimate. The exact number is unknown, in part because tens of thousands of pages of party records have not yet been reviewed. The U.S. military controls most of the files, though Iraqi politicians seized some just after the fall of Baghdad. Chalabi holds some 10 percent of the old files, Kazimi estimates.

Is the debaathification commission still functioning?

To an extent. Despite Bremer's order to disband the commission, Chalabi led a successful effort in mid-2004 to keep it running. He argued that, because the commission is enshrined in Iraq's interim constitution, Bremer did not have the authority to shut it down. The commission presented its case to the Iraqi National Council, the interim government's 100-member advisory body. Allawi, meanwhile, has taken steps to weaken the commission and has reportedly ignored many of its recommendations. He limited the number of commission personnel permitted to enter the so-called Green Zone, the U.S.-protected area in the center of Baghdad where the commission has its offices. He issued a warrant for the arrest of the commission's director, Mithal al-Alusi, because he visited Israel, a crime under Saddam Hussein's regime, The New York Times reported in October 2004. (Alusi's two sons died February 8 in an assassination attempt aimed at their father.) The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and border patrol, fired 500 of 900 employees the commission deemed suspect, Ali Faisal al-Lami, another commission member, told theTimes.

What will the new government do about debaathification?

It depends on many factors: the coalitions that develop in the new transitional assembly, the new prime minister, the course of the insurgency, and the opinion of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most important Shiite cleric in Iraq. Sistani helped to organize the largely-Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition that won some 48 percent of the January vote. Experts say any of the following steps are possible:

  • Enforce the debaathification commission's rules and remove all senior ex-Baathists from security services and other organizations. This appears to be the preferred position of many Iraqis in the powerful UIA coalition. "Giving ex-Baathists responsibility and putting them on the front lines, I think, is a big mistake," coalition member Ibrahim Bahr Uloum told The Washington Post February 2, adding that one of the first missions of the new government should be to "clean up the security forces" by ousting former Baathists. Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a newly elected UIA delegate, said February 13 that the new government's top priority should be to protect and provide for former victims of Saddam Hussein. "The issue is not about appeasement policy, appeasing the old Baathists or old criminals who have committed crimes against our own people," he told CNN's Late Edition. "The government is going to stick to the rules [Iraqis] have agreed upon for the debaathification commission," Kazimi says.
  • Expand the purges. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says some Shiite and Kurdish politicians are eyeing plans to ban all 2 million Baath Party members from high-ranking positions in the new government. In a January 28 columnfor National Review Online, he wrote that former Baathists "might continue to receive their pensions, and they might also still work in government, but they will not be able to assume positions of command authority--colonel or above in the Iraqi military, or director-general or above in civilian service. Former Baathists like the defense minister, interior minister, and intelligence director would lose their positions."
  • Find a new way to ensure loyalty in the new government. Rather than blanket purges, some experts argue that debaathification procedures should judge each individual separately for his role and crimes in the former regime. Vetting procedures for former officers and bureaucrats could be improved, or a truth commission or special court could hear cases to judge if former officials were guilty of crimes. The only former regime members currently scheduled to stand trial are Saddam Hussein and a dozen top lieutenants.
  • Take a pragmatic approach. Despite the desire for justice for victims of Saddam Hussein's regime, the political situation in Iraq may be too delicate now to pursue the goal of debaathification full-force. At the top of the new government's agenda, some experts say, must be an effort to include Arab Sunnis, who generally did not vote on January 30 and are underrepresented in the new government. In 2003 Sunnis, some 15 percent to 20 percent of the population, comprised about 75 percent of the Baath Party, Katzman estimates. "Extensive debaathification will be viewed by Sunnis as de-Sunnization, and they will take exception to it," he says. In a compromise, some ex-Baathists may remain in their current posts. "The new government will have to be just as pragmatic as the old government," says Noah Feldman, associate professor at New York University Law School and a former adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. "The name of the game is pragmatism, compromise, and coalition-building," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Debaathification has to be handled carefully, or it could backfire."

--by Sharon Otterman, staff writer, cfr.org

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