Iraq's Baath Party Members Still Political Targets

As post-election political jockeying drags on in Iraq, Iraqi and U.S. officials are signaling that a controversial commission that has been trying to disqualify Sunni politicians may be reined in. The panel targets those with alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party. Commission leaders deny being muzzled and say their work is far from finished.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

We turn, now, to Iraq, where a government commission disqualified dozens of candidates from the recent election, because they allegedly had connections to Saddam Hussein's now outlawed Ba'ath Party.

The panel is commonly known as the De-Baathification Commission. Both Iraqi and U.S. officials are now signaling that the commission may be scaled back. But commission leaders say their work is far from finished.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad.

PETER KENYON: The effort to purge the post-invasion Iraqi government of Saddam loyalists has broad support among Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority. But many Sunnis, along with U.S. officials and some Iraqi Shiites argue that those who joined the Ba'ath Party simply to get government jobs shouldn't be punished along with those who participated in the killing Shiite, Kurds and other Iraqis.

The commission targeted 52 candidates in the run-up to the March 7th elections, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leader member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya slate. When Mutlaq's brother replaced him on the list, he too was targeted. Later, the commission went after an additional nine candidates and again only Iraqiya was in danger of losing seats.

Critics argue that the De-Baathification effort was becoming politicized.

Iraq's Presidency Council issued a statement saying that regardless of De-Baathification decisions, political blocs ought to keep all their votes, and therefore all the seats voters awarded them.

The American Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, told reporters in the sprawling U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that it's seen the panel, which has been renamed the Accountability and Justice Commission, might be through.

Ambassador CHRISTOPHER HILL (U.S. Ambassador, Iraq): I think we have genuine expectation that the Accountability and Justice Commission has concluded its work, and that we will not see further moves on that.

KENYON: The American comments were echoed in private by Iraqi officials. Analyst Joost Hiltermann, with the International crisis group, wrote that: The Accountability and Justice Commission, which has disqualified candidates under the rubric of De-Baathification, seems to have reached the limits of its influence for now.

All of which elicits only a patient smile from Ali Faisal al-Lami, the director of the De-Baathification panel. Relaxing on a couch inside a compound controlled by former Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi, Lami says he doesn't see how the Americans have the right to interfere in the work of an independent Iraqi commission. He adds that the commission is still pursuing a legal ruling on the candidates it has already challenged.

Mr. ALI FAISAL AL-LAMI (Executive Director, Accountability and Justice Commission): (Through Translator) Our proposed disqualifications were sent to the higher Electoral Commission, but the commission refused to act. Therefore, we took the cases to the judiciary for a decision to be implemented.

KENYON: But Lami confirms that the two cases already announced are the only active ones involving parliamentary candidates. When asked where the commission is turning its attention these days, Lami returns to two favorite targets - the powerful Ministries of Interior and Defense.

Mr. AL-LAMI: (Through Translator) Every day we are working to purge the state's security institutions of unsuitable people in the Defense and Interior Ministries.

KENYON: Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that the De-Baathification issue may yet rise again. But they're hopeful that it will remain quiet long enough for politicians to put together a stable government and refocus on the massive challenge of rebuilding Iraq.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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