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Iraq: Reconciling with the Ba'ath By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Thursday, January 17, 2008

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 Party.

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.

The Ba'ath, 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.

It had 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 careers.

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 politician.

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 process.

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 ideology.

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.

To be 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.

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