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Iraq: Political Parties Support De-Ba'athification, But Fear Regime's Return

Iraq's U.S. civilian administration is barring former administration, army and secret-service officials from current state employment as part of its proposed de-Ba'athification process. U.S. authorities say the move is meant to assure the Iraqi people that Saddam Hussein's regime will not return to power. Iraq's emerging political parties say they support de-Ba'athification, but still have fears they have not seen the end of Hussein's regime.

Baghdad, 28 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this month, the head of the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, announced a plan to cleanse the country's state structures of members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Ba'ath Party.

"I will issue an order on measures to extirpate Ba'athists and Ba'athism from Iraq forever," Bremer said. "We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office. We have hunted down and will continue to deal with those members of the old regime who are sabotaging the country and the coalition's efforts."

Ba'ath Party membership was once obligatory for any Iraqi aiming to hold a public post. But senior party members are now barred from state employment and all political activities. A number of Ba'ath officials may ultimately face trial for crimes against humanity.

Members of the political parties that have emerged in the wake of U.S.-led war in Iraq all suffered persecution at the hands of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athists, and say they welcome Bremer's call for de-Ba'athification. But many say they are still worried that Hussein's power structure is still largely intact.

Hamid al-Bayati is a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an influential Shi'a group. He said: "The Ba'ath Party went underground. They are armed, they are organized. They have a lot of money which they withdrew from the banks before the fall of Saddam's regime."

Al-Bayati said "deep" de-Ba'athification is important to assure Iraqis that the Ba'ath Party will not stage a comeback. He added that party membership is not a crime in and of itself -- the regime pressed hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqis into joining the party. But he said Iraqi politics for the time being must remain free from the influence of senior Ba'athists, even those not guilty of crimes against society.

The Iraqi Communist Party is also a strong supporter of de-Ba'athification. Adel Khaled, a member of the party's Central Committee, likened senior Ba'athists to "a group of gangsters" and said Bremer's proposal is "a very good step."

Shmael Benyamin is a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, an umbrella group that says it represents more than a million Iraqi Christian Assyrians. He said the country's political parties are united in the desire to see Ba'athists removed from power. "Especially in this period, in this stage of this transition period, it's important for the Ba'athists to be out of ruling [power], out of any power in our country," he said.

Many observers have equated de-Ba'athification with de-Nazification in Germany following World War II. But it remains to be seen whether the U.S. authorities can eliminate the deep-seated network of the party without further contributing to the chaos that has marked the weeks since the fall of Baghdad.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said de-Ba'athification may prove difficult but will pay off in the long term. "De-Ba'athification may cause inefficiencies. Indeed, it very likely will cause inefficiencies. But it is necessary to removing the pervasive fear from the Iraqi society," he said.

Ashour, who asked that his real name not be used, is a Baghdad resident and a former Ba'ath Party member. Still in his 20s, Ashour grew up under the Hussein regime and said fearfully that he and many other Iraqis are not convinced the Iraqi leader is truly gone. "I want to see the body of Saddam and see that he's dead. In that moment, I will believe that we are free and [I will feel] no fear [anymore]. Only when I see the body of Saddam," he said.

Ashour, an art student, joined the party in 1998. He said Ba'ath activists first visited him at home, saying party membership would guarantee him a good career and salary. When he refused, they confronted him at school, threatening the welfare of his family if he refused again. Ashour joined the Ba'ath Party. He said all of his friends were forced to do the same.