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In policy reversal, Chalabi reaches out to Baathists

January 18, 2007|Said Rifai and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Ahmad Chalabi, a perennial Iraqi insider and political survivor, held out an olive branch to his former enemies Wednesday by publicly welcoming onetime members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into public life.

Chalabi, who heads a commission charged with removing former ranking Baath Party members from public office, told reporters at a Baghdad news conference that the Iraqi government had changed course and was now trying to bring more Baathists back into government.

The draconian de-Baathification laws established by American administrator L. Paul Bremer III after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion rankled Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which served in Hussein's political party in greater proportion than other Iraqi groups. Reforming those laws has been a key demand of the Bush administration as well as the Sunnis, whose alienation from the political process has fueled violence.

Chalabi said more than 2,300 former high-ranking Baath Party members had been or were being reinstated to their government jobs or were being given pensions.

He also said that under new rules, the de-Baathification committee's only role would be to identify former party members and their rank. "Deciding whether they are allowed to participate in the political process or not is up to the Iraqi judicial system," Chalabi said.

However, Chalabi gave assurances that the ongoing reinstatements would not allow those who committed crimes against Iraqis under the former regime to go scot-free. "These exclusions are not to be considered an amnesty," Chalabi said. "Justice will take its course in the event that any of these individuals were to be suspected of implication in crimes against humanity or corruption."

Chalabi is a secular Shiite who was once the darling of Pentagon neoconservatives advocating the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He emerged as a divisive symbol of occupation -- a longtime exile favored by some American officials to help lead a country for which he showed little understanding.

His political party failed to win a single seat in December 2005 elections.

Chalabi was an early advocate of the policy of removing Baath Party members from power, a campaign that fueled the anger of insurgents. But on Wednesday, he said his committee would refer to court any instances where provincial or municipal governments refused to reinstate exonerated former party members.

It was time for Iraqis of all political stripes to make amends, he said.

"All of these modifications to the de-Baathification law are being carried out in the interests of both the political and reconciliation processes in addition to absorbing those individuals with relevant experience which could be utilized by the government to better the current situation," he said.

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daragahi@latimes.com

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