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Former Baathists eye change after U.S. decision to ease restrictions

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Until last May, Miklif al Dulimi was vice president of Baghdad University. He was also a longtime member of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party.

Al Dulimi lost his prestigious post when the U.S.-led coalition ordered a purge of thousands of former party members in an attempt to sweep away the remnants of Baath influence on Iraqi society.

Now al Dulimi, 53, spends his days "just sitting home," he said.

That may soon change as a result of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer's April 23 order to ease restrictions on former Baathists.

Al Dulimi, a scholar of Hebrew literature, hopes he will soon get official word that he can go back to work. He doesn't want to be vice president again, he said this week. "I just want to be a professor to teach students."

When Bremer took charge of the coalition nearly a year ago, one of his first decisions was to implement a "de-Baathification" policy to ban up to 30,000 former Baath Party members from public office. He also dissolved the old Iraqi army, putting another 400,000 out of work.

Critics have said the policy has ostracized many skilled technocrats who could have made the postwar transition much smoother. Some argue that de-Baathification has contributed to the hostility fueling the anti-coalition attacks, which recently have intensified.

Bremer defended his earlier decision to ban the Baath Party and strip party members of their jobs, but he said the appeals process, which allowed Iraqis who were members in "name only" to return to work, was "poorly implemented."

Bremer told Iraqis on national television 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 cleared of any past transgressions.

Coalition spokesmen have insisted that the change is only procedural and that Bremer's original policy hasn't changed. But many others, including American proponents of de-Baathification, see it as a significant rollback.

"Bremer's decision will backfire," said Michael Rubin, who was a political consultant to the coalition and is now a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "We may win the hearts and minds of 20,000 high-level Baathists, but at the cost of antagonizing more than half the country."

A spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, dominated by Shiites who were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, reacted cautiously to Bremer's announcement.

It's acceptable for low-level, uninvolved Baathists to get their jobs again, said Waleed al Shahib Hilli, manager of the Dawa Party headquarters in Baghdad. But "criminal members" must be "tried for the crimes committed against the Iraqi people," he said.

The pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party predates the rule of Saddam, who joined at age 20 in 1956, but it became an instrument of control in his brutal regime.

In the days after the fall of Baghdad a year ago, a strong anti-Baath sentiment prevailed, and demonstrations were held to call for the ouster of former party members from key positions.

"All the voices in the newspapers were asking for this," recalled Raya al Nakshabandi, a professor of English literature at Baghdad University.

Some university students remain opposed to having former Baath members return.

"I don't want them to come back," said Rabee Jobiar, 30, who's studying political science. "Their role in the community is finished."

Al Nakshabandi, 51, was a Baath Party member but was allowed to keep her job as head of the English department. She doesn't know why her job was spared while others lost theirs. On behalf of her fired colleagues, she gathered signatures for petitions and participated in a demonstration.

"Not only have we lost the best, but we have lost the innocent," al Nakshabandi said. "All of a sudden, they decided to banish them all from their jobs without knowing if they did anything wrong, committed a crime or anything."

One of her petitions, written in English, pleaded: "We want Prof. Tariq al Ani return back to teaching."

Al Ani was an English literature professor until last May, when he was told he was suspended from work because of his Baath Party membership. He submitted an appeal last summer but never heard anything back, he said.

"I think it is very clear that people who have done nothing wrong have the right to return to their position," al Ani said.

In the meantime, he's worked as a translator but is making only half of what he did as a professor. With Bremer's latest announcement, al Ani, 62, is hopeful he'll get his job back.

"Now I think things will be good," he said.

Al Dulimi, however, has become bitter and disillusioned by the occupation.

"I was respecting the American government and I was liking the American government, but these days I do not," he said.

Al Nakshabandi quit her post as department head in January and is now only a professor. She said she stepped down not because of her old ties to the party, but because the general mood at the university has turned ugly—with brawls and people carrying guns—reflecting Iraq's broader problems.

"Now that there are troubles," she said, "I prefer to be in the shadows."

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(Moran reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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

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

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