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Baathist Appointees Stir Suspicion in Iraq

The U.S. is filling many key postwar jobs with former members of Saddam Hussein's party, causing conflict and hurting credibility.

May 07, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When this was Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Qazi Faisal Mohammed was a member of the president's Baath Party, one of the deposed leader's primary sources of power.

Today, Mohammed is patrolling the streets of Baghdad as a police officer, working beside U.S. and British forces. That strikes some Iraqis, especially those who suffered under the former regime, as unfair, even maddening.

"If Bush is supporting the Iraqi people, he should arrest all the Baathists and kill them," said Mohammed Ibrahim, 35, of Al Kut, a city southeast of Baghdad. "America allows the Baathists to hide."

Under Hussein, the Baathists were everywhere. Much like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, the party had an insidious network of spies and informers that infiltrated every layer of society. Its members enjoyed tremendous perks by virtue of their party status.

The future of former Baathists may be one of the most painful and difficult issues this country will have to face. How will the people judge -- or forgive -- each other? And how will people rationalize their own cooperation with the regime?

But the question of the Baathists has proved a more immediate dilemma for U.S. administrators, who are increasingly turning to former party members to occupy the highest ranks of reconstructed government ministries.

The U.S. has faced a crisis of confidence in Iraq in recent days, having failed to restore order, stability and basic services in the month since it took over. And the United States' apparent partnership with former Baathists is not improving its credibility on the street.

"Who was a member of the Baath Party? I think you will find the list is extensive," said former U.S. Ambassador Tim Carney, now serving as senior advisor to Iraq's Ministry of Industry, Minerals and State-Owned Enterprises. "That is not a disqualifier. The disqualifier is, were you involved in producing weapons of mass destruction, torture and human rights violations?"

By giving the benefit of the doubt to former party members, the U.S. approach, some critics argue, has empowered the former Baathists and sent the wrong message to those who sacrificed their quality of life and more to maintain their principles.

"It is a disgraceful policy for Iraq and the U.S. that they are using Baathists in the interest of expediency," said Zaab Sethna, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, an exile umbrella group supported by the United States. "In the short run, they think it will get essential services running. In the long term, you put the U.S. in the position of protecting Baathists. It's a disaster for the U.S."

Some observers believe that if the U.S. wants to hold off the religious leaders who have rushed to fill the country's power vacuum since the collapse of the Hussein regime, and to keep Iraq a secular nation, it has only two choices: the expatriate community and the former Baathists.

"Who is going to stand against this [religious] trend?" said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "The Kurds are more or less secular, but they are a minority. I see, in two years, the American administration will bring the ex-repressive regime to power, the ex-Baathists, to stop the fundamentalists."

The issue of the Baathists' continued prominence has already caused conflict between the American bureaucrats and ordinary Iraqis. Carney recently hosted a news briefing to discuss efforts to get the Industry Ministry and its 100,000 workers back in business. He said that in some of the industries, employees have staged protest demonstrations against the reappointment of party bosses in the factories.

For the moment, Ahmed Rashid Mohammed Gailini will play a key role in arbitrating these disputes. Until April 9 -- the day the regime fell -- Gailini was a deputy minister in the ministry and a party member. He is now the ministry's top man, selected by the Americans.

That means the longtime Baath Party member will be judging his former subordinates, his fellow party members.

Like almost everyone else who has had to face questions about his or her past, Gailini insists he was a deputy minister because of his technical skills and that joining the party was necessary. He also said that in some cases, employees are busy labeling their bosses as key party members simply because they don't like them.

"It is important to have people responsible to keep the companies running," said Gailini, indicating that his sympathies lie with his former colleagues. "Now it is very important to have directors-general who are capable."

Americans are working with former Baathists in many other places.

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