Iraq Debates Readmitting Baathists to Government

The Iraqi parliament is expected to discuss a proposal to allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to reclaim jobs or pensions they lost when the dictator was ousted. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved the bill, but its passage by the lawmakers is by no means guaranteed.

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In Iraq, de-Baathification is about to become a big topic in parliament. A draft law is coming up that would allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to reclaim the jobs or pensions they lost when he was ousted.

The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved the bill but its passage by the lawmakers is by no means guaranteed.

From Baghdad, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wuda Abdul Razak Al-Latiya(ph) sits in her small dark house accompanied by an elderly aunt. The TV is always turned on here. It is, she says, what she does to pass the time now. An educator with 34 years of experience, she's been unemployed since September 2003 after the American occupation authority made what she called one of its biggest mistakes.

Ms. WUDA ABDUL RAZAK AL-LATIYA: (Through translator) The de-Baathification law issued by the government made us sit at home. They brought our names up at the Education Ministry because we're Baathists, and they fired us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The law was ostensibly designed to give Iraq a fresh start by keeping members of the old regime's political party out of jobs where they could wield influence. Baath Party members we're also denied pensions. But it resulted in gutted ministries and help fuel the insurgency.

Wuda Abdul Razak al-Latiya says bitterly that reckless people of great experience because of it.

Ms. AL-LATIYA: (Through translator) You know, it was mandatory to be a Baathist if you were a teacher. Otherwise, you couldn't get a job. Now many Baath members are doing nothing. They also have no pension even though they had 30 years experience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another problem with the law, says former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, is that it's been used as a political tool to silence opposition. And he said he's calling for an investigation by parliament of the special commission, which has been the ultimate authority on issues surrounding de-Baathification.

Mr. AYAD ALLAWI (Former Iraq Prime Minister): Frankly speaking, it's one of the dark aspects of the politics of Iraq. It has caused mass immigration from the country, it has deprived the institutions (unintelligible) manpower -technocrats have left. So we have now skeleton institutions, if any. And this is all because of the evils of this de-Baathification program that have been applied in Iraq in a very political way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The new law proposed by the present Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and President Jalal Talabani seeks to regress that. It offers former Baathists immunity from prosecution after a three-month period, during which claims can be made against them.

Only those found guilty of crimes will be excluded from future office. All former members of the party will be entitled to a pension. It still has to be debated in parliament. But it's already meeting resistance from the commission.

In a statement, the commission decried the draft law because it, quote, "turns a blind eye to the feelings of millions of the victims of the Baath Party." In an interview with NPR, the executive secretary of the commission, Ali al-Lami, alleged the new proposal would allow Baath Party members would blood on their hands into office again.

Mr. ALI AL-LAMI (Executive Secretary, de-Baathification Commission): (Through translator) This law gives rights to the Baathists that they could not have imagined at this time of the former regime. How can the committee look into the cases in three months only? This will mean that all the charges against Baathists will be dropped. It's like an invitation to them to carry our more and more violence while getting more and more privileges.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Al-Lami says he believes the draft law won't gain parliamentary approval.

Mr. AL-LAMI: (Through translator) By proposing the law, their intention was to put an end to de-Baathification. But it was presented hastily without looking into the legal ramifications and I think that the majority of parliament will reject it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States now wants to see the de-Baathification process amended as soon as possible. In his final address before leaving, former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that American patience is running out.

Al-Lami has accused the former ambassador of meddling by promoting the new law. For now, parliament has not put the draft law on the schedule for discussion, so it's not clear when the debate will begin.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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