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Baathist Appointees Stir Suspicion in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

When this was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Qazi Faisal Mohammed was a member of the president’s Baath Party, one of the deposed leader’s primary sources of power.

Today, Mohammed is patrolling the streets of Baghdad as a police officer, working beside U.S. and British forces. That strikes some Iraqis, especially those who suffered under the former regime, as unfair, even maddening.

“If Bush is supporting the Iraqi people, he should arrest all the Baathists and kill them,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, 35, of Al Kut, a city southeast of Baghdad. “America allows the Baathists to hide.”

Under Hussein, the Baathists were everywhere. Much like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, the party had an insidious network of spies and informers that infiltrated every layer of society. Its members enjoyed tremendous perks by virtue of their party status.

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The future of former Baathists may be one of the most painful and difficult issues this country will have to face. How will the people judge -- or forgive -- each other? And how will people rationalize their own cooperation with the regime?

But the question of the Baathists has proved a more immediate dilemma for U.S. administrators, who are increasingly turning to former party members to occupy the highest ranks of reconstructed government ministries.

The U.S. has faced a crisis of confidence in Iraq in recent days, having failed to restore order, stability and basic services in the month since it took over. And the United States’ apparent partnership with former Baathists is not improving its credibility on the street.

“Who was a member of the Baath Party? I think you will find the list is extensive,” said former U.S. Ambassador Tim Carney, now serving as senior advisor to Iraq’s Ministry of Industry, Minerals and State-Owned Enterprises. “That is not a disqualifier. The disqualifier is, were you involved in producing weapons of mass destruction, torture and human rights violations?”

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By giving the benefit of the doubt to former party members, the U.S. approach, some critics argue, has empowered the former Baathists and sent the wrong message to those who sacrificed their quality of life and more to maintain their principles.

“It is a disgraceful policy for Iraq and the U.S. that they are using Baathists in the interest of expediency,” said Zaab Sethna, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, an exile umbrella group supported by the United States. “In the short run, they think it will get essential services running. In the long term, you put the U.S. in the position of protecting Baathists. It’s a disaster for the U.S.”

Some observers believe that if the U.S. wants to hold off the religious leaders who have rushed to fill the country’s power vacuum since the collapse of the Hussein regime, and to keep Iraq a secular nation, it has only two choices: the expatriate community and the former Baathists.

“Who is going to stand against this [religious] trend?” said Wamid Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. “The Kurds are more or less secular, but they are a minority. I see, in two years, the American administration will bring the ex-repressive regime to power, the ex-Baathists, to stop the fundamentalists.”

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The issue of the Baathists’ continued prominence has already caused conflict between the American bureaucrats and ordinary Iraqis. Carney recently hosted a news briefing to discuss efforts to get the Industry Ministry and its 100,000 workers back in business. He said that in some of the industries, employees have staged protest demonstrations against the reappointment of party bosses in the factories.

For the moment, Ahmed Rashid Mohammed Gailini will play a key role in arbitrating these disputes. Until April 9 -- the day the regime fell -- Gailini was a deputy minister in the ministry and a party member. He is now the ministry’s top man, selected by the Americans.

That means the longtime Baath Party member will be judging his former subordinates, his fellow party members.

Like almost everyone else who has had to face questions about his or her past, Gailini insists he was a deputy minister because of his technical skills and that joining the party was necessary. He also said that in some cases, employees are busy labeling their bosses as key party members simply because they don’t like them.

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“It is important to have people responsible to keep the companies running,” said Gailini, indicating that his sympathies lie with his former colleagues. “Now it is very important to have directors-general who are capable.”

Americans are working with former Baathists in many other places.

In the northern city of Mosul this week, a longtime party member was chosen mayor in an indirect election overseen by the U.S. military. Key experts helping to repair Baghdad’s electrical system are former party members. Even the deputy director of the Baghdad Zoo is a former party member. And the United States recently named former high-ranking party member Ali Shnan Janabi as the country’s health minister.

Iraq has been plunged into a health-care crisis since the war, particularly poor, already undernourished children now exposed to contaminated water. Janabi’s professional skills far outweighed his former party status, U.S. administrators said.

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Steven Browning, the civil administration’s representative to the ministry, said Janabi “is not associated with criminal activities or human rights abuses or weapons of mass destruction. So we are happy to work with him.”

But prominent physicians from Baghdad were incensed and complained to the Iraqi National Congress. “He’s a disaster,” Sethna said of the new health minister. “It is a disgrace. He was a senior Baathist, and he’s not respected by the people of the ministry.”

The Baath Party had a web-like structure that spread throughout Iraq, with its minions in every agency, every city, every town, village, community and street.

Nearly every schoolteacher, police officer, government worker and supervisor was required to be affiliated with the party. Millions of Iraqis considered themselves Baathists.

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Sethna argued that a whole class of people were thrown out of their jobs and oppressed because they refused to join the party. That is the group Americans should be reaching out to, he said.

“Americans can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys,” he said. “They often mistake the bad guys for the good guys.”

The civil administration says it has developed a process to decide who can return to work -- and who will be barred from public service. A senior official with the civil administration said it involves a flow chart of the party structure and the individual’s position on that chart. But until recently, the process had not been implemented.

It may prove to be an easy call when it comes to high-ranking Baathists, those who ran the organization’s intelligence operations and served as the shock troops of the regime. But what of people such as Mohammed, a friendly, round-bellied fellow who said he had to join the party if he wanted to be a police officer?

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“If we did not join the party,” Mohammed said, “we could not work.”


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