BAGHDAD, Iraq—In another reversal of Bush administration policy, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said Friday that former rank-and-file members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party and ex-senior military officials would be allowed to hold jobs in the Iraqi government and military.
As the coalition prepares for the June 30 return of sovereignty to Iraqis, Bremer is seeking to solve the security crisis, which has led to delays in reconstruction projects, and crushing levels of unemployment, which are partly the result of ostracizing former Baath Party members, many of whom are skilled technocrats.
Bremer's policy shift added to the sense that the Bush administration is heading toward the June 30 restoration of sovereignty to Iraqis without a strong compass.
At a series of congressional hearings in Washington this week, administration officials suggested that plans for the transition remain embryonic nine weeks before the hand-over but that the sovereignty returned to Iraqis would be limited so the U.S. military would retain a free hand in the country. The interim government, for example, would lack the authority to enact legislation before full elections that are envisioned by early 2005, nor would it have the authority to block American military decisions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Dutch broadcaster Friday that the administration would push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize peacekeeping forces in Iraq after U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan approved a plan for an interim government. It was unclear, however, whether council members would sign off on a plan that restored such limited sovereignty and left the United States in control of the country.
Two coalition soldiers were killed Friday, raising the number of coalition fatalities in April to 109—including 106 American troops. It's been the worst month for coalition deaths since the beginning of the war, and U.S. officials fear that a resumption of fighting in the Sunni Muslim stronghold of Fallujah would produce more American and Iraqi casualties and turn more Iraqis against the coalition.
In Karbala, an attack on a military convoy launched by militiamen loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr killed a Bulgarian soldier, officials said. Near Samarra, an American soldier was killed by an improvised bomb.
The continuing violence leaves little scope for the United States to curtail its military presence in Iraq.
In Kufa on Friday, al-Sadr told worshipers at Friday prayers that negotiations to defuse the standoff between his Mahdi Army militia and American troops camped on the outskirts of this city and neighboring Najaf had failed. American authorities are seeking to disband his guerrilla force and arrest him in connection with the brutal slaying of a pro-U.S. cleric in Najaf last April.
"The Americans set impossible conditions, and I can't accept them. If I say yes, then that means we've lost everything," he said at the Kufa Mosque.
A battle is inevitable, he warned, urging his supporters to strike at the troops with every means at their disposal, possibly even suicide attacks.
"We'll all be time bombs for the enemy," he said.
While the United States would like to get rid of al-Sadr and his militia, it would pay an enormous political price if it rolled into the holy city of Najaf or nearby Kufa to arrest him.
Some of the recent violence is being blamed on loyalists to Saddam's regime, particularly in minority Sunni strongholds such as Fallujah that were favored by the former regime. Those areas have been subject to the punitive "de-Baathification" process, which resulted in an estimated 400,000 Iraqis losing their jobs.
Bremer, in taped remarks broadcast on U.S.-funded al Iraqiya television, defended his earlier decision to ban the Baath Party and strip party members of their jobs, but said the appeals process that allowed Iraqis who were members in name only to return to work was "poorly implemented."
"Many Iraqis have complained to me that de-Baathification policy has been applied unevenly and unjustly," Bremer said. "I have looked into these complaints, and they are legitimate."
While rehabilitating some members of Saddam's regime might ease tension with the Sunni minority, which dominated the Baath Party, some Shiites objected to the decision. Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite Governing Council member who's backed by officials in the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, said allowing Baathists into the government would be akin to letting Nazis join a German government.
Bremer announced that thousands of teachers whose appeals had been approved but who weren't allowed to return to work would get their jobs back. The appeals procedure also would be accelerated for hundreds of professors, but they still would need to be vetted of any past transgressions, Bremer said.
"Professors who did not use their posts to intimidate others or commit crimes should be allowed to return to work promptly," he said.
Thousands of other former Baath Party members will begin to receive pensions under the new policy, Bremer said.
He said the reformation of Iraq's military would include increasing numbers of senior officers from Iraq's disbanded armed force. He noted that more than 70 percent of the men who now are in the Iraqi army and Civil Defense Corps served in the army under the old regime.
Coalition officials said it was expected throughout the occupation that the new military would need the experience and knowledge of former generals and colonels who served under Saddam.
"You can't pull generals out of thin air," coalition spokesman Dan Senor said.
But he said former Baath Party members and military officers would be reintegrated only if they didn't have "Baathist blood on their hands." Senor said the prohibition against top party and government officials from the former regime would remain.
Bremer acknowledged the security crisis—the country is plagued by kidnappings, convoy ambushes and the violent clashes in Fallujah and Najaf—and issued a stark rallying call.
"These anti-democratic forces will not disappear by themselves, but working together we can defeat them," Bremer said. "We in the coalition will do our part to restore security. But you must do your part, too.
"If you do not defend your beloved country it will not be saved."
(Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this story from Kufa, Iraq.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Bremer