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AFTER THE WAR

U.S. Advisor Weeds Out Baathists From Health Ministry

May 11, 2003|Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. officials shepherding in an interim government in Iraq started purging the ranks of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party on Saturday, requiring Health Ministry officials and Iraqi doctors to formally resign from the party and denounce it to qualify for top jobs with the ministry.

Stephen Browning, the ministry's senior U.S. advisor, distributed party-resignation letters and denunciations to several hundred senior ministry staffers from throughout the country at the first such ministerial session in postwar Iraq.

Browning, a civil engineer from San Francisco, later told reporters that signing the documents was voluntary, but that it was a requirement for any Iraqis seeking key jobs in the interim ministry now taking shape.

He and other top U.S. advisors here said the Health Ministry is much further along than the other 23 former government departments that are rebuilding themselves with Americans at the helm. It is a model for the future shape of the Iraqi government, and Browning later told reporters that "I trust" the party declarations will become "common practice" in the other ministries as well.

Non-party members were asked to sign a "denunciation" drafted in English and Arabic by the U.S.-led forces here. It declares: "I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party of Iraq (Baath Party). I understand that the Baath Party is disestablished and abolished. I expressly reject and denounce the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein and his regime."

Browning urged Baath Party members to sign a separate document stating: "I hereby disavow and renounce my membership" in the party. Signatories to both documents pledged "to cooperate fully with the Coalition Provisional Authority" and obey its orders.

Most Iraqis who attended the closed-door session in the Health Ministry auditorium readily complied, several witnesses said. But a few later complained that the process reminded them of the regime that the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq to destroy.

"This is just another kind of dictatorship," said one Iraqi doctor who asked not to named for fear he would not get his old job back. "The document does not suit the image of the coalition."

In the still-lawless nation, it was unclear whether the documents have any legal weight.

Browning and the Iraqi exile whom the Pentagon selected to help create a new Health Ministry defended the declarations at a news conference following Saturday's session.

"I was responsible for asking that these documents be signed," Browning said. "If they're not prepared to sign that, then we don't want them to serve."

The agency the Pentagon created to rebuild Iraq and its institutions has banned the Baath Party. But the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, known as ORHA, is including former Baathist officials in each ministry of the Interim Iraqi Authority, a new government that ORHA is creating to run Iraq.

Each ministry has a senior U.S. advisor such as Browning, at least one former ministry official and an Iraqi exile hand-picked by the Pentagon to help advise it.

Sayeed Hakki, the Florida urologist selected to serve in the interim Health Ministry in his native land, explained that the former Baathists are needed to prevent a paralyzing power vacuum. In the Health Ministry alone, he said, "there are 100,000 employees, and if you dismantle the top three [officials], the whole institution will collapse."

Hakki indicated that the ministry's new top official, Ali Shnan Janabi, may serve in his position for only a week or two, long enough to fill the power vacuum.

Janabi, an optometrist and the ministry's former third-ranking official, was tapped this month to serve as acting chief administrator. And he was the first to resign his party membership at Saturday's session.

But at the news conference after the doctors and administrators had left, Janabi faced tough questions about his track record under the regime and, at one point, almost found himself defending the party.

Janabi was asked to respond to allegations by Iraqi doctors and other professionals who have said he was corrupt, doling out medicines and vital care to favored institutions and patients during a decade of international sanctions that left Iraq with a Third World health-care system.

"I didn't commit any criminal acts against humanity or the children of Iraq," he said. "My appointment in the future will be based solely on my credentials. I was not happy getting this position three years ago, and I would not be sad to lose it tomorrow. But my country needs me."

Browning also defended Janabi as "honest" and a man of "great courage," adding that he was recommended by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international health agencies that vouched for his integrity.

With Janabi by his side, Browning said the ministry has made "great progress" in re-creating itself as a transparent, democratic institution dedicated to rebuilding a quality health-care system in Iraq.

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