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Iraq Passes Bill on Baathists

When the U.S. military overthrew Hussein in 2003, the first order of business for the Coalition Provisional Authority was to disband the Baath Party that Hussein had fashioned into his personal empire over more than three decades in power.

CPA Order 1, or the "De-Baathification of Iraqi Society," ordered members of the Baath Party's top four echelons "removed from their positions and banned from future employment in the public sector." The number of Baathists purged is in dispute, but Ali al-Lami, spokesman for the current de-Baathification commission, said 150,000 people were removed between May and September 2003.

Since early 2004, when the de-Baathification commission began its work overseeing who could come back, about 102,000 former Baathists have returned to their jobs, Lami said. Existing rules prohibit members from the top three levels from government work but allowed people on the fourth level to return in some circumstances, he said.

It remains unclear how many former Baath Party members would be eligible to return under the new legislation. Lami estimated that 3,500 people from the third-highest Baathist rank, or Shubah members, would be allowed to apply for pension payments but would still be kept from their jobs. About 13,000 people from the fourth rank, known as Firqa members, would be eligible to return, but he expected that many would not.

"Most of them are either working outside the country and they don't want to go back to Iraq, or they're afraid somebody will take revenge on them or they got involved with the militant groups," Lami said. "Because for two years, we have been demanding that they come to the de-Baathification commission, but there was no response."

The new measure would also prohibit Baathists who worked in Hussein's security services from returning to jobs, as well as ban their return to some of the most influential agencies, such as the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry, Shanshal said.

"There is potential with most laws in Iraq right now for sectarian abuse, and certainly that potential would be there as well, which is why the implementation is going to be important," a U.S. official in Baghdad said this month on condition of anonymity.

The new measure could lead to a new purge of members of the current Iraqi government, Lami said, including about 7,000 officers in the Interior Ministry. Even influential Iraqi security force officials who used to be Baathists could face removal.

"The commander of the Baghdad security plan and his assistants, according to the new law, they should retire," he said.

Many Iraqis say the concept of de-Baathification is hampered by the prevailing assumption that anyone who achieved a high rank in the party was by definition complicit in crimes during the Hussein era.

"There's no question that the original de-Baathification program basically looked at the entire senior leadership of the Baath Party and made a collective judgment. The intent of this law is to roll back part of that but not all of it," said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the topic.

"So you know, is it making a collective judgment about people who were higher up in the Baath Party? Yeah, it is. I still don't think that that means it doesn't represent political progress. Because it does represent political progress. This is certainly one of those cases where we shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," the official said.

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