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Iraqis, U.S. administrators disagree on handling midlevel Baathists

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Jameel Mahmood, a political science professor at Baghdad University for 25 years, wants his job back. He's among tens of thousands of midlevel members of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi Baath Socialist Party who were purged from their jobs in May under orders of L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq.

Mahmood, 56, says he was neither an informer nor a torturer for the old regime. He's appealed twice to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to have his job reinstated, but so far has heard no reply. As each month goes by without work, his resentment against the United States and the council grows.

"I first loved the Americans," he said. "Now I hate them."

Few dispute that some form of "de-Baathification," or purge, is needed for the party's senior leaders, but Iraqis and the Bremer administration differ sharply over how, and how fast, to deal with midlevel Baathists such as Mahmood: professors, army officers and engineers who joined the party only to advance their educations or economic status.

Should they face trial or be removed from their jobs without pensions? Should they be forgiven? The answer has deep ramifications for the new Iraq and any efforts at national reconciliation, especially in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where former Baathists are concentrated and resentment of the United States is greatest.

Senior U.S. military officials are particularly concerned that legions of such disaffected Baathists are joining or supporting the guerrillas.

"Is there a danger for us?" said Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top U.S. military official in Iraq. "It's accounted for. We are very conscious of those possibilities, and that's why across the board we believe reconciliation is essential and would help all elements of society in Iraq."

The Baath Party, founded in Syria in 1947, was created on a populist platform of Arab unity, socialism and freedom. When Saddam rose to power in 1979, he transformed Iraq's Baath Party into a Stalinist instrument to ruthlessly control society, one that stretched to every ministry, hospital, university and school. Today, many of the 1.5 million Iraqi Baathists remain in their jobs.

"The majority of Iraqis have been hurt by Baathists," said Entifadh Qanbar, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress party, which has spearheaded the de-Baathification process for the Governing Council.

"They have to be punished; they have to be expelled from their jobs. They have to face reality. The Baath Party has to be completely defeated in order to have a new Iraq."

Others worry that purging Baathists without investigations or hearings could lead to social upheaval.

"What's happening in the country at the insistence of the Americans is opening the door wide open for civil war, not national reconciliation," said Wamid Nadmi, another political science professor at Baghdad University, who said he wasn't a Baathist.

Mahmood, a father of five, said that if he hadn't joined the Baath Party, he wouldn't have been allowed to travel to Spain for higher studies.

"When you want a Ph.D. or if you wanted to be promoted, you needed to be a member of the party," he said. "But I never wrote any reports on my colleagues. I have never killed or hurt anyone or stole. But I am being punished. Is this fair to my family? What are their sins?"

He said he was fired without explanation and stripped of his pension and other retirement benefits. He's living off his savings from two years of working in Libya when Iraq was under U.N. sanctions, he said.

Sayad Ghassim al Musawi, a Shiite cleric, thinks most midlevel Baathists, such as teachers, should be spared. But he wants the United States and the Governing Council to speed up the de-Baathification process, echoing the thoughts of many other Shiites, Iraq's religious majority, who were heavily persecuted under Saddam.

"They've neglected this process," al Musawi said.

Al Musawi is so fervent that he wants his Baathist uncle punished. He said his uncle, who's in hiding, filed a report to Iraq's secret police on al Musawi's anti-Saddam activities.

The U.S. occupation administration fired an estimated 30,000 teachers, engineers and other professionals in May, all Baathists who held any of the four ranks above regular membership. The coalition also dismantled Iraq's 350,000-man army, since all officers had to be members of the Baath Party.

Bremer called for exemptions on an individual basis, and expelled Baathists can appeal their cases. A few have been able to get back their jobs.

But ever since Bremer handed over the responsibility of de-Baathification to the Governing Council two months ago, the purge and the appeals process have stalled, U.S. military officials and Iraqis said.

"There are tens of thousands of people in limbo," said a U.S. military official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are losing patience, and it's becoming a security issue. The longer they are in limbo without pay, the more they become susceptible to involvement in anti-new-Iraq activities."

Hamid al Kifaey, a spokesman for the Governing Council, said a de-Baathification committee formed in September to vet dismissals and hear appeals through individual ministries. But the council has had more pressing matters, such as security.

"It's not easy to do everything at the same time," Kifaey said.

Said Qanbar, the INC spokesman, "Some say, `I became Baathist because I couldn't get a job.' Well, you sold out yourself then. It's not my problem. Let's stop this illusion that if you put them back in their work, they'll be nice to you."

For now, the days of radical shakeups have given way to a careful pragmatism. The top five ranks of Baathists can't serve in government, Qanbar said. But, Kifaey said, pensions no longer will be revoked for fired Baathists. And low-level Baathists who didn't commit crimes and are willing to renounce Baathism probably won't be affected.

"We cannot keep the same people who were responsible for the killing, torture and mismanagement of Iraq in the name of the Baath Party," Kifaey said. "But there will be no purge. We don't want to alienate anybody, even the Baathists, if they repent."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BAATH