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Coalition Revisits Purge of Baathists

Low-level members who were not involved in crimes will be able to appeal their dismissals.

January 15, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The former teachers huddled in small groups outside an Education Ministry building, their shoulders hunched against the damp winter wind as they resentfully looked at the place where they once were insiders.

Instructors of high school biology and Arabic, social studies and mathematics, they abruptly lost their jobs last fall because they had been members of Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath Party. They gathered here this week because of a rumor that they might be able to collect their salaries for September, the last month in which they worked.

"They don't understand we joined the party just so that we could get a small extra payment and feed our families," said Ahmad Yassim, 41, a high school social studies teacher and father of four, who, like thousands of others, appealed his dismissal but has heard nothing about the status of his case.

"They said they wanted to make sure our hands were not soaked with blood. We are educators -- the only thing we were guilty of is that we were Baathists."

After months of confusion about the controversial policy to remove members of the Baath Party from government jobs, an overhaul is underway.

In May, "de-Baathification" was first announced by L. Paul Bremer III, the civilian administrator for Iraq, as a way to remove the influence of Hussein's corrupt single-party system. Subsequently, Bremer handed responsibility to a de-Baathification committee made up of members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

The new policy is designed to streamline and rationalize a tangled system, making it possible for the vast majority of former low-level Baathists -- who, like these teachers, had not participated in political or criminal acts -- to appeal their dismissals or take a pension.


Two Chances for Appeal

The first appeal will be made to a committee within the ministry in which the party member was employed. If rejected there, the appeal could be made to a national committee. Baathists from the bottom four levels of the party will be able forgo an appeal and take a state pension.

The new policy, however, will probably also lead to more purges of those Baathists still in government jobs -- and potentially more resentment among anti-American sections of society -- since hand in hand with appeals will come a more thorough vetting of government employees, according to members of the Governing Council.

The teachers waiting in the winter wind worried because there was no information yet on whether the new policy will help those like them who fear they may be caught in a no man's land: eligible neither for the new appeal system nor able to get an answer to their original petition to Bremer or the Governing Council.

A coalition official who has tracked the process said there had been no decision yet on how to handle the cases of those who had already appealed.

Overall, however, coalition officials believe the new plan will do much to reintegrate low-level former Baathists into society and begin mending Iraq's torn social fabric.

"This is a step toward drawing a distinction between nominal Baathists and those who were criminal and corrupt and abusive, and that in itself is a step toward reconciliation," a senior coalition official said.

Ahmad Chalabi, the Governing Council member who heads the de-Baathification committee, described the new process as "civilized and humanitarian" rather than vengeful, with a formal system of appeals based on written evidentiary documents rather than hearsay.

Under the new policy, ministries in each of Iraq's 18 governorates will vet their employees, and appeals will come to committees within each ministry.

Still unclear is how many more former Baathists remaining in government stand to lose their jobs. Some Governing Council members involved in crafting the new policy said they expected it to be a relatively small number compared with those already ousted.

But Chalabi, who has been a staunch proponent of dismissing Baathists throughout the government, left little doubt of his continued animosity to anyone with party connections, who he said could number thousands.

"This party is a criminal party," he said at a news conference announcing the new policy, adding that the difficulties now faced by those Baathists who have lost their jobs was minor compared with the wide-scale suffering under Hussein's regime.

"If people are so worried about the fate of former Baathists, why aren't they worried about the victims, the thousands in the mass graves?" he said.

The numbers are murky, but Iraqi and coalition officials estimate that between 15,000 and 30,000 Iraqis were dismissed from government jobs as a result of Bremer's order in May. But the order was applied with varying rigor depending on the ministry, with some shedding thousands of employees and others far fewer.

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