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Iraqi Government Slow to Reintegrate Baathists

The Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made little progress on reversing the U.S. initiated policy of de-Baathification, which ousted Baath members from government positions. Congress and the Bush administration have set the reversal as one of the benchmarks set for the Iraqi government to correct one of the highly criticized missteps of the war.

Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, has called de-Baathification and dissolution of Iraq’s army two of the most significant mistakes made by the United States in Iraq.

Under Saddam’s rule, almost anyone who wanted a job or an education had to sign Baath party papers.

In 2003, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, outlawed the Baath party and disbanded the Iraqi military. Hundreds of thousands of Baath party members were removed from their jobs at all levels of the government, including the foreign service, civil service, military and various ministries. The process sapped the government of some of its most knowledgeable and experienced civil servants who did not support Baathist ideas, but had joined the party to keep their livelihood. Some were able to appeal their dismissals and return to their jobs, but roughly 30,000 are still barred, according to the De-Baathification Commission.

A bill emerged this spring in Iraq that would have opened government jobs to thousands of additional former party members, as well as allowed them to collect pensions. Former Bush administration ally Ahmed Chalabi, who now sits on Iraq’s De-Baathification Commission, helped to block the legislation following a meeting with the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, according to media reports.

“Even after the hanging of Saddam [Hussein], there are those who have become tougher and say ‘nothing Baathist will come back,'” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian with close ties to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told the Christian Science Monitor in April.

American and Iraqi officials hope reversing de-Baathification will mitigate violence by giving Sunnis more security and a substantial stake in the government. When the Iraqi army was dissolved, its former members took to the streets of Baghdad in search for new ways to provide for themselves and their families.

Louay Bahry, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former professor at the University of Baghdad, said that only those former Baathists “who had their hands tarnished with blood” should be kept out of the government. Bahry said Shiites should not be wary that a larger number of Sunnis in government and the army could stage a coup or upset the political structure, as Baathist loyalties and power have faded.

“These are different times, it’s a different era we’re living in now,” he said.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institute, said even reaching an initial decision on how to reform de-Baathification would be a big step, even if implementation takes longer to achieve.

The hope is that in time the more integrated government would prove its worth to the Iraqi people, particularly in Sunni enclaves. Current skepticism about the central government’s ability to provide services and resources for its people has paved the way for factionalized, local control of certain areas of Iraq.

Former Baath party members have a strong sense of maintaining a central government, Bahry said. As opposed to the Shiite conception of a weaker central government, the newly integrated Sunnis would focus on keeping Iraq together, he added.

“If you do get progress on reversing de-Baathification, what you can then say is maybe the surge has a chance,” O’Hanlon said.

The U.S. military has begun to partner with former Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaida in the western province of Anbar and officials hope that opening the government to more Sunnis will move the tribal sheikhs further away from anti-American extremism.

Bahry also touted the importance of maintaining Iraq’s identity as an Arab country. Iraq has a history as a founding member of the Arab league, and abandoning those roots could alienate other Arab countries, Bahry said.