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Purging Iraqi leaders will happen in `super-heated Islamic caldron'

WASHINGTON—A victory by U.S.-led forces in Iraq will lead to trials or banishment from public life for hundreds, maybe thousands, of members of Iraq's ruling Baath Party and the repressive security services that bolster Saddam Hussein.

The U.S.-led coalition is likely to outlaw the Baath Party and begin purges of some of its 1.4 to 2 million members and affiliates, experts said.

The purges hearken back to de-Nazification in Germany after World War II, and experts say the job won't be easy. Many civil servants in Iraq belong to the party, and an interim government could be hobbled without them.

The Baath Party, which took control in Iraq in 1968, has evolved into the totalitarian political tool of Saddam, experts said. Party cadres keep extensive files on Iraq's 25 million citizens and reward loyalists with valued bureaucratic jobs.

The party began with a pan-Arab, nationalist ideology.

"There isn't much of a Baath Party ideology left. People who join it are mainly opportunistic," said Daniel Byman, an expert on Iraq at Georgetown University.

"It has become an instrument of social elevation," said Michael Knights, a military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan research group.

The party now serves as a bulwark for Saddam and his inner circle, scholars said.

Even as rank-and-file Baath Party cadres lord it over other Iraqis, many of them harbor their own anxieties.

"They live in fear no less than the people they intimidate," said Amatzia Baram, an Iraq expert at the University of Haifa in Israel.

President Bush says Iraqis will chart their own post-war democratic course, giving only sketchy details of plans for provisional U.S. military administration of the country. It is not known what kind of justice may await Baath Party and security service chiefs. Many experts and a number of Iraqi exile jurists expect some sort of tribunals.

Once fighting dies down, several experts said, purges must come quickly, although they differed on the magnitude of how much house cleaning is needed.

"One cannot sweep too broadly. If you start sweeping even minor Baath officials, it's going to start looking like a U.S.-imposed government," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a national security expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington policy group.

Much depends on whether Iraqis attempt to settle scores with violence, how much turmoil roils the Arab world, and whether a post-war government avoids instability.

"It's a very difficult problem. This is going to take place in a super-heated Islamic caldron," said Herman Schwartz, a law professor at American University in Washington and an expert on transition governments.

Amid the travails of rebuilding the nation, Iraqis may not have patience for lengthy trials.

"If there is a democracy, it will be very fragile, and you don't want to test that democracy" by starting many years of trials, said Alexander Boraine, a law professor who is a former deputy chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

After World War II, the Allies established a war crimes tribunal to punish Nazi leaders, at least a dozen of whom were sentenced to death. But by 1948, many Nazi functionaries escaped justice when the trials came to an end.

"It was a failure because the Germans didn't want to do it and the Allies got tired of doing it," Schwartz said. "Many people got just a slap on the wrist, if that."

In more recent times, as Soviet Bloc nations emerged from communism, former communist officials were routinely barred from public service, sometimes even stripped of their pensions.

The Baath (which means "resurrection" or "renaissance" in Arabic) Party is a Stalinist-style organization with cells, sections, branches and national bureaus. It has four levels of affiliation, with only about 25,000 full members.

Experts in democratic transition say a challenge for new leaders is "how you map out the topography of guilt," Knights said, noting that one way is to create concentric rings of culpability.

The innermost ring is for Saddam Hussein and his most trusted collaborators.

"They are absolute figureheads of the regime. They must go," Knights said.

Then come some 200 other party leaders and security chiefs who are likely to face accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity, he said. They could face trials in some sort of internationally sanctioned tribunal.

Next are maybe several thousand others who have committed crimes, such as rape, murder or corruption, punishable under Iraqi law, Knights said.

Abolishing the multitude of overlapping secret security forces is more straightforward, experts said. Members and leaders, for the most part, are seen as gangsters, and their identities are common knowledge on the streets of major cities.

Over the decades, Saddam fostered five competing security services: the Special Security Organization, General Security, General Intelligence (known as the Mukhabarat), Military Intelligence (the Istikhbarat) and Military Security. In total, they're believed to have about 26,000 members.

Saddam encouraged competition among the services, ensuring that none became strong enough to unseat him.

"The security services are far more dangerous, far more abusive, than the Baath Party," said Byman, the Georgetown academic.

Keeping tabs on former intelligence agents is critical, experts said.

"They have to be quarantined and interrogated," Baram said.

After the fall of the Soviet bloc, many security agents formed mafia-style gangs, using contacts and other resources from their old jobs.

The security services are believed to have extensive written files, and tracking down onetime agents through their family and tribal ties is not expected to be a major challenge.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.