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Iraq: Post-Hussein Regime Poised To Eliminate Legacy Of Ba'ath Ruling Ideology, But How?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United States on 15 April held the first of a series of regional meetings to discuss possible strategies for Iraq's political development. Opposition leaders present in Nasiriyah adopted a joint declaration calling for the institution of a federative, democratic Iraq and the dissolution of Iraq's former ruling Ba'ath Party. Purging Ba'athists from Iraq is on the agenda of all of Iraq's opposition groups, but there is no consensus on how to put the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime firmly in the past.

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Although the meeting in Nasiriyah this week fell short of formally referring to the "de-Ba'athification" of Iraqi society, how to deal with the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime is likely to be one of the most difficult problems awaiting the country's future leaders.

Charles Forrest is the chief executive officer of INDICT, a U.S.-funded, London-based group that has been campaigning since 1996 for the creation of an international war crimes tribunal on Iraq, similar to those that exist for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Forrest tells RFE/RL that, in his view, de-Ba'athification is a necessary evil.

"I think the Ba'ath Party really exercised a terrible influence over all aspects of Iraqi society, and the elimination of the legacy of the Ba'ath Party is absolutely essential," Forrest says.

Some of Saddam's former opponents are calling for radical measures to rid Iraq of any traces of its dictatorial past.

Ahmad Chalabi is co-founder of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a U.S.-backed umbrella organization that has its headquarters in London. For Chalabi, ending Ba'athist control over all aspects of politics and civil society is a prerequisite to a democratic Iraq joining the international community.

"Iraq needs a comprehensive program of de-Ba'athification even more extensive than the de-Nazification effort in Germany after World War Two. You cannot cut off the viper's head and leave the body festering," Chalabi wrote on 20 February in "The Wall Street Journal."

Chalabi returned to Baghdad on 17 April after 45 years in exile at the head of his U.S.-trained Iraqi Free Forces.

Other opposition leaders, while calling for decisive action against the "Ba'ath mentality" that has permeated Iraqi society for the past 35 years, implicitly caution against possible excesses.

On 2 March, Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), wrote in the "Los Angeles Times": "A vigorous truth and reconciliation process must be instituted to begin to heal the wounds and instill a meaningful sense of justice among the people." Linked to the INC, the PUK is one of the two Kurdish factions that have been controlling northern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War.

Although they might disagree on how de-Ba'athification must be implemented, all Iraqi opposition groups believe party officials suspected of serious human rights violations must be brought to justice.

The New York-based, nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch (HRW)estimates that up to 290,000 people disappeared in Iraq under Ba'athist rule, most likely abducted by Iraqi security forces. This figure does not include the tens of thousands of Shi'a Muslims and Kurds killed by the Iraqi armed forces since 1968.

HRW's London spokeswoman, Urmi Shah, says her organization believes it is up to the Iraqis themselves to decide whether de-Baathification is needed: "We don't take a position on whether there should be a de-Ba'athification or not. What we are calling for is for certain sections of the leadership who have been involved in great human rights violations to be brought to justice. In terms of forming a new government, it is for the people of Iraq to decide. If that means that they choose to have some members who were part of the Ba'ath Party, so be it."

Formally known as the Ba'ath Arab Socialist Party, the Ba'ath, or Renaissance, Party was founded in the 1940s in newly independent Syria in a bid to raise the profile of the Arab nation after centuries of foreign domination. The Ba'ath ideology -- based on a mixture of non-Marxist socialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism -- gained momentum after the creation of Israel in 1948 and rapidly spread across the Arab world. Yet only in Syria and Iraq did Ba'athists succeed in ascending to power.

The Iraqi branch of the Ba'ath Party was set up in the 1950s under Fuad al-Ribaki, a young Shi'a engineer from Nasiriyah.

In February 1963, the Ba'ath Party toppled the regime of Prime Minister Abdel Karim Qasim and briefly seized power in Baghdad. The Ba'athists' fierce anticommunist stance, epitomized by a violent campaign of purges against the Iraqi Communist Party, led some Western experts to conclude that the United States had played a role in helping them seize power.

The short-lived Ba'ath rule ended in late 1963 when a group of pan-Arab army officers, many of whom identified themselves with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, took control of Iraq. The Ba'ath Party violently recovered power in 1968 under Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr, another army officer who was to remain in office for the next 11 years.

After Saddam Hussein became president in 1979, he turned Iraq's ruling party into an instrument of personal power, beginning an unprecedented reign of terror. The Ba'athists established total control over Iraq's state, society, economy and armed forces, relying on a network of local branches and cells and eliminating all traces of dissent.

Official Ba'ath figures say 10 percent of Iraq's 20 million citizens were party members, split among 10,000 cells. Exiled sources estimate party membership at somewhere around 2.5 million, including a core of 40,000 active militants, and the number of Ba'ath sympathizers at between 4 million and 6 million.

Iraqi-born Habib Ishow is a Middle East expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research. He, too, believes de-Ba'athification is a necessity. But he says purges should be limited to the upper echelons of the former ruling party.

"Concretely speaking, party leaders should be arrested and tried. But for the others --- junior cadres and employees who worked in the state administration and who necessarily had to adhere to the party -- we should turn the page. One cannot prosecute all Iraqis who have worked in the state administration or in state-run enterprises. One has to reach a middle-of-the-road decision, keeping in mind that under this system, no one could possibly work in the state administration or in a state-run enterprise without being a party member or, at least, a sympathizer," Ishow says.

Charles Forrest of INDICT, however, says all Ba'athists should be thoroughly screened and barred from any positions of authority under the new regime. He bases his opinion on the assumption that "although being a Ba'ath Party member in itself should not be considered a crime, it does indicate that the person is potentially someone who has committed violations of international law."

"In the first place, there need to be trials of people who have committed serious violations of international law and Iraqi law -- people who are responsible for murder and torture, genocide and other crimes against humanity. But then there also has to be a process of identifying people who may not have committed serious crimes but who are complicit in the reign of terror of the Ba'ath Party. Those people need to be sent to a type of truth-and-reconciliation process, where they can admit to their crimes and accept some kind of administrative punishment, which will possibly keep them from working in jobs where they have any authority over other people," Forrest says.

Citing the fascist-like character of Saddam's regime, some advocates of de-Ba'athification believe Iraq's future leaders should draw their inspiration from post-World War II Germany.

An INC draft report written in September reportedly refers directly to denazification as a possible model for Iraq.

In its quest for advice, the emigre opposition group has turned to Western scholars who specialize in post-World War II Germany. One of them was Rebecca Boehling, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in the United States.

Boehling tells RFE/RL she cautioned the INC against "too schematic" an approach toward de-Ba'athification, pointing to the risk of relying solely on formal affiliations to determine the potential guilt of former party members or, conversely, ignoring people who may have committed grave crimes simply because they never formally joined the Ba'ath Party.

"[The INC people who contacted me] then sent me back a long blueprint of their plans for the postwar regime, which I then commented on, again stressing that if it is too schematic, the same dilemma will happen that happened to the Americans [in postwar Germany], in that we tried to encompass so many people [in the denazification process] that we had to abandon the program earlier with amnesties [and so on]. And in doing so, the first people who had actually been denazified were often those with the least incrimination, partly [because we wanted] to get them back into the economy. As a result, those with more [incrimination] were the ones that profited by amnesties. So often, short-term goals would conflict with long-term ones," Boehling says.

Boehling refers here to U.S. plans to integrate Germany into a capitalist bulwark against communism. Priority then given to the looming Cold War resulted in some Germans with more incriminating Nazi pasts receiving less severe punishments or being quickly restored to positions of influence.

In the case of Iraq, there are other, more immediate, dangers.

Postwar chaos and intercommunal tensions have brought a divided Iraqi society to the brink of fracture and boosted resentment against coalition forces and those opposition leaders widely perceived as representing U.S. interests.

Drawing a lesson from what happened in the early 1990s, when West Germans confronted the legacy of the communist Stasi political police and attempted to "de-Stasify" Eastern Germany, Boehling believes any move on the part of INC leader Chalabi to implement de-Ba'athification on his own might backfire and stir further resentment.

"I think that having exiles, particularly exiles who have been exiled for so long, be directly in charge is in some ways complicating the picture, even more than if an occupying, total foreign group were doing that -- [here] of course the Americans or the British. So in a way, I think that Iraqi exiles, particularly [someone like] Chalabi, would be perceived as Westerner[s] in the worst case in the sense that [Chalabi] is someone who left Iraq as a young man, has seen it always from the outside, of course has had contacts but has really been an outsider and now he is coming in. [People would say:] 'He doesn't know what it was really like. He doesn't know what we went through, and who is he to tell us?'" Boehling says.

Experts generally believe the best possible option would be for a leadership representing all components of Iraqi society to implement de-Ba'athification under the guidance of the United Nations.

As for the form this process should take, Boehling says she is not sure which model would be better for Iraq. She says she recommended to the INC that it look at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped the government of national unity in South Africa investigate human rights abuses committed under the apartheid regime.

But should Iraq's new leaders take their inspiration from postwar Germany, Boehling warns, they must keep in mind that denazification, as it was designed in Yalta and Potsdam by the Allies, was part of a program that also included democratization, demilitarization, and decartelization.