BAGHDAD, April 17 -- The Shiite Muslim bloc leading the new Iraqi government will demand the removal of all top officials left over from the era of former president Saddam Hussein, a top official said. The move would be part of a purge that U.S. officials fear could oust thousands of the most capable Iraqis from military and intelligence forces the United States has spent more than $5 billion rebuilding.
The Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance also will insist on trials for every former official, soldier or worker suspected of wrongdoing during that time, Hussain Shahristani, who helped form the Shiite alliance, said in an interview that outlined plans for handling members of Hussein's Baath Party in the armed forces and intelligence services.
Abdel Aziz Hakim, left, and the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance will demand that all top officials from the Saddam Hussein era be removed.
(Wathiq Khuzaie -- AP)
Shahristani said the alliance would also seek prosecution of what he said were the few thousand leaders of the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency.
For the alliance and the long-persecuted Shiite community it represents, Shahristani said, "justice prevails" over everything else.
Concerns about the purge have drawn a sharp U.S. response. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, flying unannounced to Iraq last week, warned the Shiite-led government not to "come in and clean house" in the security forces.
The Shiite alliance's plan also runs counter to efforts by other Iraqi politicians who say they hope to defuse the insurgency by drawing the disgruntled Sunni minority, routed from power with Hussein, back into the political process. The new president, Jalal Talabani, whose Kurdish bloc is in the governing coalition with the Shiite alliance, has called for an amnesty and government negotiations with some insurgents.
But Shahristani said the Shiite-led alliance believes weapons, not appeasement, will end the insurgency.
"I don't think the insurgency can be beaten by negotiations," said Shahristani, who is close to Iraq's most politically influential religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. "For us in the alliance, we don't think it's serious. We think it's surrender, and the Iraqi people will not accept surrender."
How the purge is handled stands as one of the most potentially divisive and dangerous tasks facing the Shiite-Kurdish coalition brought to power by the Jan. 30 national elections. Adnan Ali Kadhimi, an aide to the incoming prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, said Sunday that he was working to announce Jafari's new cabinet by early next week. Jafari is the country's first Shiite premier in a half-century.
Under Hussein, registration in the Baath Party was a requirement for jobs on almost all levels, from army general to teacher. Hussein's armed forces and his nearly two dozen intelligence agencies were responsible for mass killings, imprisonment, uprooting and torture. Members of the Shiite and Kurdish opposition made up hundreds of thousands of the victims.
Politicians say that people responsible for some of those abuses and Baathist die-hards have made their way into the new security forces and should be removed.
But too broad and deep a purge threatens to worsen one of the biggest legacies of Hussein's overthrow and the U.S. occupation: the growing sectarian and ethnic cast to the country's politics.
The perception of Shiite-dominated security forces and intelligence would heighten the sense of siege among some Sunni communities. Kurds and other Shiite groups also might be less willing to disband their militias, seeing them as a last defense to Shiite Islamic ambitions.
Wamidh Nadhmi, the leader of the Arab Nationalist Trend and a spokesman for a coalition of Sunni and Shiite groups that had boycotted the elections, said an aggressive purge of Iraq's security forces would end up riddling them with partisan loyalties, a frequent theme in Iraq's history, as parties vied for power.
"These people are threatening us with a warlord system that will destroy the country," Nadhmi said.
U.S. and many Iraqi leaders say throwing Baath-era officials and officers out of work could encourage them to join the insurgency.
A top U.S. concern is that the purge will go too far in military terms alone, decimating the new forces as they battle the insurgency across the country, a U.S. official in Baghdad said.
If the Shiite-led bloc "is going to do a very hard purge of everybody who ever carried a Baathist registration card, you're going to get rid of people who really have the experience and have proved themselves," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We're really convinced that they're the key," he said of the Baath-era veterans, citing the performance of mid-level former Baath officers in important battles -- and the American lives and dollars invested in rebuilding Iraq's military.
And in a climate where sectarian and ethnic divisions are sharp, mistakes could gain a momentum of their own, a senior U.S. military official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Parties that come to the table don't come to the table with a great deal of trust for each other," he said. "And so any perceived missteps, any perceived overuse of power or underuse of power, depending on where you sit, I think, is going to be magnified. And so there is a danger just going down this entire process."
He said he saw a risk and a benefit in a purge.
"If you're talking about a purge, you have the very simple fact that you have a force that is gutted so you have a less capable force," he said. "If you don't have a purge, you've got some group that will sit on the side that looks at the members of the security forces and say some number of those should have been purged and that feeds the level of mistrust."
Shahristani pointed to the intelligence services as one of the main battlegrounds, as the Shiite alliance vies with Baath-era holdovers for control of the agencies and files.
Postwar intelligence services are staffed by many Baath officials and agents called back to duty by the CIA, in its search for solid intelligence against insurgents, U.S. and Iraqi officials have said.
"We know that most senior officials in the department are from the previous intelligence department who've been oppressing the Iraqi people," Shahristani said.
Lawmakers of the governing coalition say the Shiite alliance has agreed not to disband the key intelligence services. The question will be who directs and staffs them, they say. Any bloc that holds unchallenged control of national security agencies and their files would have the means, and information, to identify its political enemies.
If Sunni intelligence officials are purged, Shiite hard-liners would be ready to move in intelligence units of Shiite militias including the Badr Brigade, a group formed by Iraqi Shiite leaders when they were in exile in Iran while Hussein was in power.
"You have to assume -- Allawi assumes -- that the Badr Brigade would want to infiltrate security," a top Kurdish official in the coalition with the alliance said, referring to Ayad Allawi, prime minister in the interim government and one of the main officials now working to counter Shiite sectarianism in the new government.
Shahristani said the alliance's take on the purge was only slightly tougher than Allawi's. For the alliance, he said, "de-Baathification does not mean de-Sunnification, nor does it mean every single member of the Baath Party is guilty until proven innocent."
With only 17 Sunni lawmakers in the new 275-member assembly as a result of the Sunni boycott of elections, Sunnis largely have to look to others to represent their interests in the upcoming purge.
Nadhmi said he suspected that the United States would serve as a check.
"I cannot see that the Americans would allow the total dissolution of a system which they helped and which they initiated," he said. "They will be forced into a lot of compromises."