FOR at least the last two years, national reconciliation has been
the buzz phrase in all discussions on Iraq's future as it struggles to
convince its friends to continue supporting it while fighting to defeat
its internal and external enemies.
Last Saturday, the
parliament took a major step toward meeting that challenge by creating
a framework for national reconciliation: It unanimously voted to remove
the blanket ban on public employment of members of the banned Ba'ath
As some of us noted before Saddam Hussein's 2003 fall,
banning the Ba'ath as such was a mistake - for, in a sense, the Ba'ath
had also been a victim of Saddam's savage rule.
modeled on European fascist parties, was never a democratic movement.
Yet, before Saddam turned it into an empty shell to be filled with his
personality cult, it had been a genuine political movement,
representing a significant segment of Iraqi opinion.
started as a predominantly Shiite party seeking to downplay
sectarianism by promoting pan-Arab ideas. Saddam turned it into a
sectarian party, first dominated by the Arab Sunni minority and
eventually by his Tikriti clan.
The wisest course would've
been to let those Ba'athists who had been purged, imprisoned and exiled
under Saddam to reclaim their party and rebuild it with full respect
for Iraq's new democratic and pluralist political system. Those
Ba'athists who committed crimes were known to all and could've been
blacklisted and tried as individuals.
The blanket ban suddenly
transformed some 1.4 million civil servants, including tens of
thousands of teachers and medical doctors and some half a million
military personnel, into pariahs simply because they'd been nominal
Ba'ath members. Yet most had joined simply to protect their careers
under a brutal regime.
The ban led to the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces and the
crippling of the bureaucracy in a county that had lived under a
Soviet-style centralized system for decades. The pariahs and their
families accounted for almost 6 million people in a nation of 25
million. Worse still, almost half were Arab Sunnis, who now felt that
there was no future for them in an Iraq dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
Many pariahs opted to become refugees in Jordan, Syria and
elsewhere. But many more decided to stay and fight by joining insurgent
groups - Sunni and Shiite. Many of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army
fighters were Shiites who'd once served in Saddam's Presidential Guard.
In the predominantly Arab Sunni provinces, purged Ba'athist military
led the insurgency until Gen. David Petraeus decided to hire rather
than fight them.
To his credit, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
has been fighting hard to get the ban lifted. He started by bringing
hundreds of ex-Ba'athist officers into the new Iraqi army and police on
an individual basis. He also helped thousands of school and university
teachers, technicians and MDs resume their interrupted public-sector
But a law in due form was required to remove the
stigma attached to past Ba'ath membership. The new act will let
hundreds of thousands return to public-sector work and restore the
pensions of hundreds of thousands more.
Maliki's policy has divided the remnants of the Ba'ath into three
groups. One group, under longtime Saddam sidekick Izzat al-Duri, is
trying to ally with the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It has abandoned
the Ba'ath's secular tradition by subscribing to al Qaeda's dream of
turning Iraq into an Islamist "emirate." No dialogue is possible with
that group. Al-Duri is wanted by the Iraqi justice for a long list of
crimes and can under no circumstances be regarded as a bona fide
The second group is built around Saddam's eldest
daughter, Raghd, in exile in Jordan. It has access to part of the dead
dictator's fortune abroad, enabling it to buy some sympathy and support
among ex-Ba'athists in Iraq. Its outright rejection of the new
constitution and its revanchist posture excludes it from the democratic
The third group, possibly the largest, consists of
former insurgents who've realized that Saddam is dead and that the
clock can't be turned back. Led by Mahmoud Yunus Ahmad, it has
attracted many Ba'athists not involved in Saddam's crimes. It has
designated al Qaeda as an "enemy of the Iraqi nation," rejected
Islamism and emphasized the party's original secular, nationalist
Even in its reformed version, the Ba'ath remains an
unsavory dish for anyone who wants a genuinely democratic Iraq. But the
new Iraq can find a place for this new Ba'ath, especially now that its
leaders have appealed to Maliki for dialogue. The new Ba'ath may also
woo many more Arab Sunnis away from Islamist parties.
sure, Maliki can't accept the new Ba'ath faction's conditions for
dialogue: treating it as an equal partner in negotiations and accepting
its so-called resistance project as a basis for talks. Still, with the
most viable of the three Ba'athist factions clearly looking for a way
to surrender without losing face, there's no harm in accepting its
surrender without humiliating its leaders.
The two Ba'athist
factions still in denial about the reality of new Iraq will in time
likely enter the trash can of history. But the third may well continue
to appeal to a stratum of Iraqi society for a while longer and, thus,
must be allowed to join the new system. The coming municipal elections
would provide a good chance for allowing that Ba'ath faction to submit
itself to the judgment of Iraqi voters.