BAGHDAD -- Sihama Khalaf, who bore six children and shepherded hundreds more through her neighborhood elementary school over the course of 25 years, was fired when the Americans came to Iraq. Her husband had a heart attack. Her eldest son quit school to feed the family but died when he touched a live wire on a machine that makes shampoo bottles.
Khalaf, 51, is desperate. She cannot return to her job as principal of the small government-run school because, like almost all civil servants during the rule of Saddam Hussein, she was a member of the Baath Party.
A student writes on a blackboard during class at a school in Baghdad.
(Dana Smillie For The Washington Post)
"My hands are not stained with blood. They are stained with chalk," she said as she cried during an interview.
Khalaf is caught in Iraq's lengthy but still-fierce debate over who among the ranks of the once-ubiquitous, now-outlawed party should be given back the jobs they lost after the fall of Hussein. The question poses a major challenge for the transitional government elected Sunday.
In May 2003, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer ordered the firing of tens of thousands of Baath Party members and dismissed the army.
In an act that many saw as the original sin that led to Iraq's current turmoil, Bremer crippled Iraq's institutions of governance and security and created half a million angry and jobless people in the process. He has since said that there were legitimate grievances about the order but that it was necessary to bring oppressed Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds into the government.
"Dealing with all Baathists the same way is wrong," said Iraq's current justice minister, Malik Douhan Hasan.
Bremer's order affected 400,000 members of the armed forces and all civil servants and officials above the Baath Party's lowest rank-and-file level, a number estimated at 32,000 to 85,000.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has gradually returned Baath Party members to work. Restoring members of the "X regime," as his office calls it, is popular among Iraqis who say Baath membership was an unavoidable fact of life under Hussein. It was required for most civil service jobs, and almost everyone who wanted to go to college had to join. Membership was estimated at 1 million to 2.5 million.
Supporters of Allawi's actions -- including, implicitly and quietly, the United States -- believe that the Baathist military and intelligence officers, trained in the ways of control, are Iraq's best hope of successfully combating the violent insurgency.
But Allawi's campaign has infuriated some Iraqis, particularly ethnic Kurds and Shiite Arabs, groups systematically oppressed by Hussein and the Sunni-dominated Baath government. The results of Sunday's elections are expected to give both groups significant political power in the next government. The main Shiite-backed list, likely to be the largest group in the transitional National Assembly, has vowed to reverse Allawi's program and throw out former Baathists who have returned to their jobs.
Ibrahim Bahr Uloom, a ranking member of that list, predicted that the issue would prevent Allawi from retaining his job.
"The issue he will face is de-Baathification," Uloom said in a recent interview at his home in Najaf. "Giving ex-Baathists responsibility and putting them on the front lines, I think, is a big mistake." He said one of the first missions of the new government should be to "clean up the security forces" by ousting former Baathists.
At Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification, the halls are lined with photos of atrocities committed by Hussein's government. The commission's deputy president, Jawad Maliki, belongs to the Dawa party, a leading Shiite political group whose members -- and their families -- were imprisoned, tortured or killed during Hussein's rule, along with thousands merely suspected of Dawa membership.