The Magazine

Throwing Out the Baath Water

Saddam's henchmen gotta go.

May 26, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 36 • By RICHARD W. CARLSON
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THE OTHER DAY, General Tommy Franks made a pleasing announcement: The ruling Baath Socialist party of Iraq was dead, its carcass hung upside down on a fence. After more than 30 years of torture, repression, and self-dealing, the party that had controlled every element of life in Iraq was officially banned.

Some socialists. Like British Labour member of parliament George Galloway, for whom Saddam was a secret Santa, the Baathists prattled on about helping the poor but only helped themselves, building palaces, porn collections, and private zoos, while doling out government jobs on every level without regard to merit.

But are the Baathists really gone, no longer governmental players? Not yet. They numbered about 1.5 million out of a population of 24 million, and there is reason to fear that they--like Rasputin, after being shot, bludgeoned, stuffed with cyanide, and thrown in the icy river--will continue to pop back up, refusing to die.

Late Friday, Iraqis received assurance from U.S. authorities in Baghdad that between 15,000 and 30,000 Arab Socialist Baath party members will be banned from government at any level, and that all Baathists will face scrutiny for past crimes. Basma Fakri of Women for a Free Iraq, which helped galvanize U.S. public opinion in support of the liberation of Iraq, was thrilled by the news. She said, "Not everyone in the Bush administration was equally committed to de-Baathification, or to the president's vision of a free, democratic Iraq. We needed a clear, public policy. We owe this to [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz, who have never faltered."

Exactly what will be done with Baathists, beyond the attempt to exclude them from top leadership roles, is not yet clear. Nuremberg-like trials will be held for the worst of the offenders, but how far down the list should prosecutors go? Experiences with the fall of totalitarian governments from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, Romania, and South Africa offer varying methods of punishing wrongdoers and seeking truth and reconciliation--from the gallows to an Oprah-esque hug. Says one Defense official who asked not to be named, "We have a database in Washington for vetting [former members of the Baath party]. But the best database is the Iraqi people. They know who repressed them."

Kanan Makiya, author of a definitive work on Baathist Iraq, "Republic of Fear," argues in the New Republic Online that the "most insidious presence" of the Baath party is in schools and universities, unions and women's groups, not in government ministries, with the exceptions of Interior, Education, and Defense, where their number and influence were prime. Makiya says that "seniority in the Baath party does not always translate into a position of power in the government, and conversely, not all officials who are guilty of crimes are high up in the Baath party hierarchy." Party membership was required of all police officers, mailmen, and schoolteachers.

The first order of business is the staffing of Iraq's ministries. The Pentagon has hired and given some training to a hundred or more Iraqi exiles, many from America, to work in reconstruction efforts both in ministries in Baghdad and in their own home provinces. The Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council is now on the ground in Baghdad, organized and run by an Iraqi American from Michigan named Emad Dhia. The council is working to select qualified Iraqis for important bureaucratic posts. It aims to keep out the bad Baathists, while allowing those party members with benign or tenuous involvement with the past regime to be rehired. Estimates are that up to 50,000 Baath party members are among the fascist hard core, involved in repression and human rights abuses.

Timothy Carney, a former U.S. ambassador to Sudan (where the local Baath Socialist party was a running dog of Saddam's), is now in Baghdad and responsible for restarting the Industry Ministry. He was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Iraqis, not Americans, must finally be the ones to push Baathists away from government jobs. The "ultimate triage is going to be with the future Iraqi authority," he said. For now, a number of mid to higher level Baathists of the reviled variety have remained in power or slipped back into the executive washroom.

Carney played a role in appointing former deputy minister Ahmed Rashid Gailini to lead the Ministry of Industry, until Iraqi colleagues raised such a clamor about the man's Baath connections that Carney removed him and put Gailini's leadership to a vote of subordinate managers. Gailini lost in a landslide to another man, Mohammed Abdul Mujib, a finance expert from another ministry and a less offensive Baathist.