May 25, 2003 | The Weekly Standard

Throwing Out the Baath Water

By Amb. Richard Carlson

The other day, General Tommy Franks made a pleasing announcement: The ruling Baath Socialist party of Iraq was dead, its carcass hung upside down on a fence. After more than 30 years of torture, repression, and self-dealing, the party that had controlled every element of life in Iraq was officially banned.

Some socialists. Like British Labour member of parliament George Galloway, for whom Saddam was a secret Santa, the Baathists prattled on about helping the poor but only helped themselves, building palaces, porn collections, and private zoos, while doling out government jobs on every level without regard to merit.

But are the Baathists really gone, no longer governmental players? Not yet. They numbered about 1.5 million out of a population of 24 million, and there is reason to fear that they–like Rasputin, after being shot, bludgeoned, stuffed with cyanide, and thrown in the icy river–will continue to pop back up, refusing to die.

Late Friday, Iraqis received assurance from U.S. authorities in Baghdad that between 15,000 and 30,000 Arab Socialist Baath party members will be banned from government at any level, and that all Baathists will face scrutiny for past crimes. Basma Fakri of Women for a Free Iraq, which helped galvanize U.S. public opinion in support of the liberation of Iraq, was thrilled by the news. She said, “Not everyone in the Bush administration was equally committed to de-Baathification, or to the president's vision of a free, democratic Iraq. We needed a clear, public policy. We owe this to [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz, who have never faltered.”

Exactly what will be done with Baathists, beyond the attempt to exclude them from top leadership roles, is not yet clear. Nuremberg-like trials will be held for the worst of the offenders, but how far down the list should prosecutors go? Experiences with the fall of totalitarian governments from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, Romania, and South Africa offer varying methods of punishing wrongdoers and seeking truth and reconciliation–from the gallows to an Oprah-esque hug. Says one Defense official who asked not to be named, “We have a database in Washington for vetting [former members of the Baath party]. But the best database is the Iraqi people. They know who repressed them.”

Kanan Makiya, author of a definitive work on Baathist Iraq, “Republic of Fear,” argues in the New Republic Online that the “most insidious presence” of the Baath party is in schools and universities, unions and women's groups, not in government ministries, with the exceptions of Interior, Education, and Defense, where their number and influence were prime. Makiya says that “seniority in the Baath party does not always translate into a position of power in the government, and conversely, not all officials who are guilty of crimes are high up in the Baath party hierarchy.” Party membership was required of all police officers, mailmen, and schoolteachers.

The first order of business is the staffing of Iraq's ministries. The Pentagon has hired and given some training to a hundred or more Iraqi exiles, many from America, to work in reconstruction efforts both in ministries in Baghdad and in their own home provinces. The Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council is now on the ground in Baghdad, organized and run by an Iraqi American from Michigan named Emad Dhia. The council is working to select qualified Iraqis for important bureaucratic posts. It aims to keep out the bad Baathists, while allowing those party members with benign or tenuous involvement with the past regime to be rehired. Estimates are that up to 50,000 Baath party members are among the fascist hard core, involved in repression and human rights abuses.

Timothy Carney, a former U.S. ambassador to Sudan (where the local Baath Socialist party was a running dog of Saddam's), is now in Baghdad and responsible for restarting the Industry Ministry. He was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that Iraqis, not Americans, must finally be the ones to push Baathists away from government jobs. The “ultimate triage is going to be with the future Iraqi authority,” he said. For now, a number of mid to higher level Baathists of the reviled variety have remained in power or slipped back into the executive washroom.

Carney played a role in appointing former deputy minister Ahmed Rashid Gailini to lead the Ministry of Industry, until Iraqi colleagues raised such a clamor about the man's Baath connections that Carney removed him and put Gailini's leadership to a vote of subordinate managers. Gailini lost in a landslide to another man, Mohammed Abdul Mujib, a finance expert from another ministry and a less offensive Baathist.

The leader of the Health Ministry, until he was forced to quit last week, was Dr. Ali Shnan al-Janabi, a Baathist and former deputy at the ministry. Janabi had been asked to resign from the party in a public gesture imposed on him and others by a U.S. official, Stephen Browning. The resignation was promptly derided as meaningless by Janabi's medical colleagues, who still consider him corrupt and an active fascist. Browning is new to the human rights business. He is a civilian employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from San Francisco, seconded to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. After Janabi's appointment was publicly criticized, Browning demanded that Janabi denounce the Baath party. When he refused, Janabi was given the boot, though Browning described him as “a respected man” and thanked him for his services.

Many other ministries have retained Baathists in leadership roles, prompting ad hoc protests in front of ministry buildings by employees who consider every Baathist corrupt. “They're all crooks,” said an accountant at the Trade Ministry, as reported by Peter Slevin and Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post. “They should not be allowed to work,” said the same man, who was with a group of co-workers demanding that they be paid their salaries and a bonus promised for last year.

“We have no obligation to make the country work better than it did before 1991. That will be up to the Iraqis,” said a Defense Department official who requested anonymity. “There are probably 50,000 Baathists who should never be put back in power or authority. But we will make mistakes. We have already.” One of those errors is at the Iraq Oil Ministry, where the United States has appointed Thamer Ghadhban, a ranking Baathist, to run things.

Professor Halal Taki was dean of the Institute of Informatics and director of the National Computer Center in Baghdad. He was imprisoned by the Baathists and recently emerged to form Free Iraqi Professors, which wants academic appointments to be made on merit. He said, in an e-mail to a friend in the United States, “Our efforts [with the American adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education] to keep Baathists from taking over the education ministry machinery were denied.” In the same message, he said, “The Baathists are now poised to take control of education while Anti-Saddam Free Iraqis are at a disadvantage, and that process is continuing despite the removal of Barbara Bodine and others.”

Bodine is the ex-“mayor of Baghdad,” a post she held for about a month until she was fired last week. Bodine had been presented as a hero by the media 12 years ago when she was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, and she and the ambassador, low on food and water, hung on in Iraqi-occupied Kuwait for some four months. Later, however, as ambassador to Yemen, Bodine was criticized for interfering with the FBI probe into the bombing of the USS Cole, and her presence in Iraq was therefore controversial from the outset. The part she played in the hiring of Baath party members to run the government of liberated Iraq was probably a factor in her removal. “Imagine the allies letting the dust settle in Berlin in 1945 and allowing Nazis to throw away their swastikas and swagger sticks so they can have their jobs back,” said a retired CIA operations officer in Washington.

American Robin Rafael is another of the key players in selecting the new leadership for Iraq. She recently okayed Saddam's personal physician, Mohammed al-Rawi, to be installed as president of Baghdad University, allowing the Baathists to retain control over the school. Ahmed Makki Saaed, a powerful party member whose wife is Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, the microbiologist whose work on biological weapons for Saddam caused her to be known as “Mrs. Anthrax,” is also still in place at Baghdad University as head of its computer programs.

“This is going on all over Iraq in jobs both large and small,” said Danielle Pletka, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer who is a vice president at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “This is what happened in postwar Japan. You had well-intentioned Americans who wanted to make the trains run on time, and they turned to the only people who knew where the switches were. We should have planned this years ago, but the people who should have done that–State and CIA–didn't because they didn't want the war.”

Robin Rafael is a career foreign service officer. She was criticized after the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1996, when she backed greater accommodation with the Taliban. The problem, of course, is not so much Rafael or any individual as it is the attitude at the State Department and elsewhere in the U.S. government, including the U.S. Central Command, that banks too much on “stability” and pragmatism and too little on principle.

Now, that may change. Paul Bremer landed in Baghdad on May 12 to assume control of reconstruction efforts, and General Jay Garner, Barbara Bodine, and Margaret Tutwiler, who handled communications for Garner's team, are on their way home. Garner was seen by many as disorganized and unprepared for his role, though he had a staff of 200. Tutwiler was not heard from after she arrived in Iraq. A public affairs specialist in the first Bush administration, she refused to talk with the press in Baghdad, according to reporters.

Bremer's appointment by President Bush to replace Garner was seen by Washington reporters as a victory for the State Department over the Pentagon. State wanted a civilian, and the DOD wanted a military man in charge. But that story is off the mark. It was really a victory for the tough-minded Donald Rumsfeld, who wanted Bremer, and for the Bush White House, which needs a man like Bremer in charge.

Bremer is a former Foreign Service officer and career ambassador (to the Netherlands) who retired as Ronald Reagan's chief of counterterrorism. He has a reputation as a tough, energetic, and disciplined manager. “He's a workaholic and indefatigable,” says a former associate. Like President Bush, Bremer is a Yalie with a Harvard MBA. He speaks four languages and is smart. He is also a social and political conservative. His appointment occurred because of dissatisfaction in the administration with both the slow pace of reconstruction and the wrongheaded actions of some of those in charge.

Danielle Pletka of AEI thinks that President Bush “should stand up and articulate, as the first principle of governance for the new Iraq, that association with the previous government is disqualifying for a new government job.” She doesn't have service personnel in mind. “We can make the distinction between a mailman and the minister of health,” she said.

President Bush has an ambitious vision for Iraq: a free and peaceful democracy, a genuine American ally, and a leader in the Middle East in a way that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Jordan have never been. Building that vision to last will require skillful architects and careful carpentry. Whatever staffing shifts and shuffles it demands will be worth the trouble.

Richard W. Carlson is vice chairman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.