Perils of Re-Baathification

Posted: May 07, 2004 12:00 AM

With violence flaring in Iraq, the United States is shifting much of its focus to former top Saddam loyalists?in order to bring them back. 

And that has many in Washington worried that Iraq could become even more insecure in the short-term.

Although spun by the State Department and even the White House as a move to bring back ?innocent? former Baathists, such as ?teachers,? the re-Baathification of Iraq is poised to become much more widespread.  Most troubling is that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has already reinstated senior officials in both security and military forces.

The idea that many ?innocents? were impacted by Bremer?s de-Baathification last spring is pure myth.  Of two million Baathists, only 15,000 ? 20,000, those in the top for levels, were purged. 

To climb into the top ranks of the Baath Party, one had to actively support the regime, meaning no one affected by Bremer?s order was a party member for the mere purpose of holding a job.  But there?s more on the line here than just sending the wrong message to ordinary Iraqis; the country?s security is at stake.

As U.S. soldiers continue fighting insurgents in Fallujah, the CPA has allowed back dozens of senior police officers?one informed estimate places the figure at nearly 60?in nearby Ramadi, some of whom may be called on to provide assistance to coalition forces.

The irony of bringing back Saddam loyalists when our main struggle?aside from the nuisance created by Shiite cleric al-Sadr in the south?is against their fellow Sunnis attempting to thwart democratic rule is apparently lost on the CPA.

Things look even worse for the new Iraqi military.  Already, former full colonels and even generals have been placed in high-ranking positions.  And the man running that process, Gen. David Petraeus, has a troubling track record.

Gen. Petraeus, who was the commander of the 101st Airborne, did everything he could after the war to curb de-Baathification in Mosul, Iraq?s second-largest city and a Sunni stronghold north of the infamous Sunni triangle.

When some 900 ?teachers? in the Mosul area were marked by the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council as members of the top four levels of the Baath Party, Gen. Petraeus intervened.  According to various press accounts, the General pressured the public school system to keep the former top Baathists on the payroll.  His wish was granted.

Gen. Petraeus, who lived in one of Saddam?s palaces north of the city, persuaded the University of Mosul to review the cases of ousted professors. Roughly two-thirds got their jobs back.

For those former top Baathists who were not as fortunate, Gen. Petraeus established a jobs program, geared in particular to helping former officials from the military and the security forces, according to two administration officials.

As President Bush was promising Iraqis their first-ever taste of a democratic free society, Mosul remained under the authority of the Baathist old guard.  Mosul?s top Iraqi official, until recently, was Gov. Ghanem al-Basso, a former high-ranking Baathist, and the city council was stacked with Baathists.  (Al-Basso was fired last month for his Baathist past, but only after Gen. Petraeus had moved on.)

It?s not so much that Gen. Petraeus has a soft spot for Saddam loyalists; as he has explained to many reporters, his actions were motivated by a desire to dampen animosity toward America and de-fang any resistance movement.

His strategy, however, appears to have failed.

U.S. officials have notified folks in Washington, including in a CIA report, that the most-organized and best-structured resistance in Iraq is in Mosul, according to an administration official familiar with the report.  Not that that should be too surprising, though.  It wasn?t long ago that news coverage was dominated by violence in Mosul, not Fallujah.

Gen. Petraeus has given no indication that he plans to change course at all in his handling of former high-ranking Saddam loyalists, evidence in Mosul and elsewhere notwithstanding.

Speaking to reporters last week, CPA spokesman Dan Senor said, ?There is no room in the new Iraq for the Baathist ideology and for the most senior members of the former regime that had a hand in some of the worst Baathist crimes and brutality.?

If only that were true.