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Iraqi Governing Council appears to soften stance on Baathists

BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a move that may signal a more measured attitude toward some members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council said on Sunday it that would allow some senior Baathists to appeal their dismissals from government jobs or retire and receive pensions.

At an afternoon news conference, Council member Ahmad Chalabi, a committed anti-Baathist and a favorite of civilian officials in the Pentagon, described how the coalition will distinguish hardcore Baathists from those who joined the party out of necessity. He called for an end to revenge killings of Baathists and described a two-judge appeals process that will reinstate some of the roughly 32,000 senior members of the party.

Chalabi denied that the move was a turnaround by the coalition, saying the council's intention has always been not to exact revenge but "to cleanse Iraqi society and Iraqi state from the scourge of the Baath party."

Critics of the Bush administration's handling of postwar Iraq argue that the decisions to disband the 400,000-strong Iraqi Army and purge all senior Baathists in the government, done partly at the urging of Chalabi and other anti-Saddam Iraqis, fueled much of the anti-American insurgency.

The moves last May, among the first official acts by L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, stripped more than 500,000 Iraqi soldiers and bureaucrats, most of them Sunni Muslims, of their jobs and incomes. The purges also deprived Iraq of many of the technocrats needed to restore security and rebuild the economy, and left Iraqis in the "Sunni Triangle" at the heart of the country with little say in how to govern postwar Iraq, the critics say.

A senior coalition official characterized Chalabi's announcement Sunday as the final step in transferring "de-Baathification authority" from the coalition to the council, adding that the council's policy would be much more focused on reconciliation and forgiveness.

"We always knew as non-Iraqis that we did not have sufficient information to make subjective judgments about specific Baath party members' commitment to the party regardless of rank," the official said. "Rank was our only factor that we could consider in making our determinations and so we were pretty clean cut about it—you were either a certain rank member from the Baath Party or you were not. And while there were opportunities to apply for exceptions, we tended to be pretty strict."

Prisoners of war from the Iran-Iraq war, for example, were often assigned the party's fourth rank of furkah, out of honor.

Under the new criteria, former Baathists will be considered for reinstatement if they denounce the Baath party, and depending on reviews of the circumstances that led them to join the party, their qualifications and their job histories, according to a written decree by the Governing Council that appeared Sunday in the coalition-funded al Sabah newspaper.

"The policy tends to distinguish between nominal Baathists and criminal Baathists, with the focus on re-integrating some Baathists back into society," the senior coalition official said. "The policy tends to restore a sense of dignity and ease the poverty and desperation experienced by some of the nominal Baathists."

"We are not calling for violence against the Baathists, we are after uprooting the ideas and the conduct of the Baath party and to ensure that those senior Baathists will no longer dominate the posts and positions of the Iraqi government," said Chalabi.

When Chalabi was asked whether de-Baathification stood in the way of reconciliation, he made a distinction between forgiving the Baath party versus forgiving individuals. "The Baath Party was responsible for these mass graves, that's why there cannot be reconciliation with the Baath Party. The Iraqi people can only speak of tolerance and forgiveness," he said.

The debate over how to treat the estimated 1.5 million former members of Saddam's political party is the latest reminder of the difficulties the U.S.-led coalition is facing as it treads a fine line between seeking justice for Saddam's atrocities and fueling the longstanding hostilities among Iraq's Sunnis, Shiite Muslims, Kurds, tribal leaders and others.

On Sunday, the most important Shiite cleric in Iraq repeated his previous demand for direct elections, insisting that fair elections could be held by next summer, when coalition forces plan to hand sovereignty over to Iraqis.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al Sistani's insistence on direct elections raises the possibility that violence could spread to the mostly Shiite southern Iraq amid growing frustration with an unwanted foreign occupying force. Unrest continued Sunday in the southern city of Amarah, as protesters threw rocks at British troops the day after clashes there killed six demonstrators and wounded at least 11 people.

A senior military official said Sunday that allowing lower-level Baathists back to work will help encircle the insurgency, in the same way as a decision to release from custody some 500 Iraqis who had only a minor role in fighting.

" (T)he battle really is for the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people," the official said. "Are they going to have trust and confidence in the coalition or in the small number of former regime elements and foreign fighters? We're trying to bring them over to our side."

While Chalabi vowed to continue the de-Baathification process, former Baathists viewed Sunday's announcement as remarkable.

"It is significant because it's a new chapter in the history of Iraq. It's a new start," said Sabah al Khalaf, 60, a former Army brigadier and a full member of the Baath Party who now owns an antique shop. "It's a recognition on the part of the authorities about the mistake they made in kicking out the Baathists, and they're trying to correct it."

"I think they feel this was a mistake to fire all the Baathists," said former Baathist Abdul Rahman, who hasn't lost his job as a university language professor. "In the past, being a member in the Baath Party for us is something normal. We are forced to do this. It is not a matter of political belief."

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(Fan reports for the San Jose Mercury News, Lasseter for the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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