De-Bathification Went too Far

News Abroad

Mssrs. Phares and Rabil are professors of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Phares is also an MSNBC analyst. Dr. Rabil was project manager of Iraq Research and Documentation Project, Washington DC. He is the author of EMBATTLED NEIGHBORS: SYRIA, ISRAEL AND LEBANON.

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The U.S. administrator of Iraq Paul J. Bremer’s de-Ba’thification order of May 16, 2003, stipulated that Ba’th party members holding the senior ranks of Adu Qutr (regional command member), Adu Fir’ (branch member), and Adu Shu’ba (section member) are banned from public sector employment. The order added that employees holding the top three level management positions in all state institutions will be removed from their employment if they are found to be Ba’th members. Significantly, membership included those holding the junior ranks of Adu Amil (active member) and Adu (member). Thousands suddenly found themselves not only unemployed but also alienated.

Simultaneously with this order, the army was disbanded, making in effect approximately 400,000 soldiers jobless (though a number of conscripts were happy to leave the army). Although Bremer reserved the right to keep Ba’thists in their jobs and provided a compensation plan for ex-soldiers, his two orders, together, have had far-reaching effects on Iraq’s reconstruction efforts. Although the recent decision by Bremer to revise the de-Ba’thification process is belatedly welcome, it should not appear as reversing the process. At the same time, this revision, to be successful, must be guided by the fact that the Ba’th party and the Ba’thification of Iraq society under Saddam Hussein had been exploited to advance the criminality of the Saddam regime. That is “Saddamization.”

De-Bathification of Iraq after decades of oppression is undoubtedly needed to create a free society. But the logic behind this process has been predicated on mistaken assumptions about Iraq’s realities. In fact, Saddam fossilized the Ba’th party and “Saddamized” Iraq’s society by creating a repressive system, based on collaboration and complicity in human rights violations. In addition, the process has been undercut by political figures whose very political survival depended on fending off rivals and potential opposition. Eventually, de-Ba’thification has become all but a blanket order based on guilt by association that alienated many Iraqis and undermined the coalition provisional authority’s efforts to reconstruct Iraq.

In much the same way as Syria’s former ruler, Hafiz al-Assad, Saddam Hussein usurped the power of the Ba’th party and turned it into an organization of mobilization, indoctrination and control, especially of domestic threats. In fact, Hussein robbed the Ba’th party of its ideological significance. The three tenets of the party—freedom, socialism, and unity—had become a façade for a reign of terror. Significantly, Saddam brutally forged a symbiosis between tribal traditions, Ba’th ideology, and his personality cult. More specifically, he fused his personality cult with the Ba’th doctrine so as to become not only the indispensable leader but also the “messiah” leader who finally appeared to save Iraq and the Arab nation. According to Ba’thi literature, “Saddam Hussein is not a traditional leader, he is a defender, thinker and a human being possessing leadership qualities unavailable to others…hallowed by inspiration and ingenuity.” In short, Ba’thification of society really meant Saddamization of society.

At the center of this “Saddamization” was Hussein’s attempt to fragment and atomize Iraq’s society by imposing a comprehensive and methodical repressive system, based on oppression by procedures, on Iraqis and by seeking to turn them into accomplices of the regime and executioners of its policy. This policy systematically targeted civil society in general and its nucleus, the family, in particular. In other words, if you were not affiliated with the regime, including the Ba’th, or an informer for it, you would face physical and subsistence hardship. Thanks to this policy there existed no civil or societal structure outside those of the regime and the Ba’th party. In this way, the regime made sure, as expressed in Ba’th dogma, that the party remained the vanguard and basis of society, making Saddam the lynchpin upon which Iraq’s existence hinges. Correspondingly, the Ba’th was none other than a medium through which Saddam’s cult of personality was nurtured.

People of all walks of life, rich or poor, irrespective of communal or religious affiliation, suffered the indignation and the physical and mental torture of this policy. A case in point illustrates that an old, illiterate, indigent man who sought to eke a living selling Kerosene on his mule could not ply his humble trade unless he became an informer. The hundreds of cases we researched never fail to betray the ignominy and brutality of the regime at one and the same time.

A word of caution is relevant here. Many Iraqis refused to become accomplices or Ba’th party members and consequently suffered severe physical and financial punishments. Nevertheless, Saddamization of society proceeded unabatedly in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, thrusting into a crescendo in the wake of the first Gulf war and March 1991 uprising. Generally speaking, Saddamization affected five segments of Iraq’s population: The tribes and clans of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam, that constituted the primordial “Asabiyya” (solidarity) knot of the regime; Islamists who sought wider public space for their activities, especially after Saddam launched “al-Hamla al-Imaniyya” (the faith campaign) in the early 1990s to buttress his political legitimacy as a pious Muslim; technocrats who saw in Ba’th membership an instrument for social mobility; Ba’thists who early on joined the party out of ideological conviction; and security and army members who sought either regime privileges and power or state professional careers and employment security.

The extent and scope of Saddamization among these five groups differed variedly. The core of the first group has been very much “Saddamized” and most likely will remain loyal to the legacy of Saddam until a new leader among them emerges. The second group has never cared about Saddam and will pursue politics that enhance their Islamist agenda. The third group has been mainly career-oriented and its main interest is its welfare and profession. The early Ba’thists are in limbo. They will cooperate with whomever will try to protect some of their privileges under a national pretext. Members of the final group have opposing impulses and orientations. Security (and intelligence) members are beyond redemption. They comprised the willing executioners of Saddam’s policies. They committed almost all of the regime’s crimes and violations of human rights without remorse or wrestling with moral questions. On the other hand, the army had not been a bastion of support for Saddam, who undermined its esprit de corps. While some of its most senior members had been promoted on account of their professed loyalty to Saddam, the majority of officers had been military professionals and its rank and file had been simply indigent recruits. Notwithstanding those loyalists, the army was demoralized. Let’s not forget, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq the army did not fight for Saddam.

De-Ba’thification brought significant members of these groups together, save the Sunni community, whose members suffered the most under this process. In addition, political decisions by Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, and head of the de-Bathification committee, further exacerbated the alienation and resentment of these groups. Lacking popular support, and possessing millions of Iraqi official documents that implicate many Iraqis, Chalabi found in de-Bathification an instrument to buttress his power by becoming an arbiter of who is allowed to participate in the evolving political structure of Iraq. Even, Bremer admitted that Chalabi’s de-Ba’thification committee has gone too far.

Bremer is right to revise this process and allow vetted Ba’th party members to participate in the political process. However, the vetting process must maintain guidelines that will keep most senior Ba’th members and almost all intelligence and security members from public employment, if only because they were Saddam’s willing executioners of his brutal policies. Indeed, De-Ba’thification should be really about de-Saddamization, that is painstakingly uprooting the systemic criminality Saddam nourished in society and banishing those members that are beyond rehabilitation.

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