BASRA, Iraq—For much of his adult life, Dr. Yaseen Taher served Saddam Hussein. As an Iraqi military general and a high-ranking official in Saddam's Baath party, Taher was in charge of the doctors who patched up Iraqi soldiers fighting against U.S. and British forces.
That all changed Tuesday. Taher joined the enemy and launched a new life helping to rebuild a postwar Iraq. He came out of hiding after British military commanders spread the word that Iraqi military doctors would be spared from prosecution under the Geneva Convention.
As British forces tighten their control over Basra, attention is turning toward the postwar phase. Technocrats of the old Saddam regime are becoming valuable assets for the U.S.-led coalition's goals of rebuilding poorly equipped hospitals and other run-down infrastructure projects to win the confidence of ordinary Iraqis.
"The coalition forces control most of Iraq," said Taher, a heavy-set, Scotland-educated surgeon who's gone back to his old job heading Basra Military Hospital. "Should we stay in our house? Or should we try and rebuild our hospital?"
There's no doubt that Taher and other civil servants have the education and knowledge to run Iraq's institutions. But the question on many minds is: Will they simply perpetuate Saddam's regime? Or will they help usher in a new Iraq?
British military commanders say it's important to distinguish between Baathists in powerful political and military positions and those who were in Saddam's civil administration.
For now, they say, people such as Taher are the best chance to quickly get Iraq running again at a time when local governments have crumbled and coalition forces are focused on war.
"You have to draw the line at what were his ideas in the past and the benefit he can provide in the future. That's the immediate priority," said Major Tim Brown of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards A Squadron.
"If he committed heinous crimes, it will come out," said Flight Lt. Darryl Finch of the Royal Air Force, who was guarding the Basra Military Hospital. "People will talk about it. So we're not actively investigating."
Many Iraqis were forced to join Saddam's Baath Party. It was often the only way of acquiring a graduate education—or a medical degree. And under Saddam's authoritarian rule, any dissent was equivalent to a death sentence.
"We don't know what kind of guy he was," said Capt. Hugo Guthrie, a British doctor with the Black Watch regiment. "If it turns out that he was more a part of the Baath regime than a doctor then that's someone else's job.
"Meanwhile, we need to get the medical infrastructure in place," he said.
In Basra, the British forces have made it a priority to secure hospitals. But several were looted before they could post guards and tanks at the gate.
Taher and several other Iraqi military doctors came back to work at a radically disfigured Basra Military Hospital on Tuesday. Three ambulances were stolen. The intensive care unit and heart-treatment facilities were trashed. Drugs and other medical supplies were stolen.
It was apparent that Taher had veiled contempt for Saddam. He traced the looting sprees in Basra to Saddam's decision to release thousands of prison inmates late last year after giving them a general amnesty.
"They were killers and thieves, and they were freed into the streets," said Taher, who has worked at the hospital since 1983. "They are the people who are doing the looting."
But Taher is not ready to sound the death knell on the Saddam regime. Many of Saddam's supporters have melted into Basra's population but still pose a threat to Iraqis who appear to be working with the coalition forces.
"Talk to me in seven days," said Taher, referring to when Baghdad is expected to fall. "You know the situation in Iraq. We can't talk about that. We fear being captured or killed."
Another former Iraqi military doctor, Ahmed Aboud, said he feared for his family in Baghdad.
"This is not cooperation with the British," he insisted. "This is about us rebuilding our hospital. What else can we do?"
As Taher walked through run-down rooms in the hospital, he pointed out aging equipment: an old X-ray machine and a centrifuge from the 1960s.
"We are working with the same equipment since the first (Persian) Gulf War," Taher said. "We have very poor facilities."
In a new Iraq, he hopes he will have the resources to rebuild his hospital properly, he said, adding that every Iraqi has a responsibility to rebuild the country.
"They are proud people," Guthrie said. "That they can do for themselves, we should let them. We have to go into these places with an open mind and let them prove what kind of people they are."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.