Bill could reinstate Saddam backers a day after sentence

Thousands of Baath Party members could get their jobs back if concession goes through.

saddam protest 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
saddam protest 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
A day after Saddam Hussein was sentenced to hang, the country's Shi'ite-dominated government declared a major concession Monday to his Sunni Muslim backers that could see thousands of purged Baath Party members reinstated in their jobs. The US military announced the deaths of five more American troops, two in a helicopter crash north of Baghdad and three in fighting west of the capital. The deaths raised to 18 the number of US forces killed in the first six days of November. The High Tribunal's verdict against Saddam and seven co-defendants was praised in by the Bush administration as a sign of growing political and judicial maturity in Iraq, where American forces are struggling in the 43rd month of the war to crush insurgent and militia violence and to leave behind a democratic government. Tuesday's US midterm elections have been seen by many as a referendum on President George W. Bush's conduct of the war and the Saddam verdict and the opening to Sunnis were seen as a welcome break from the focus on rampaging sectarian murders and the fast-rising American death toll. There were reports in both Washington and Baghdad, however, that US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was preparing to leave the post. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, during a Baghdad visit on Friday, told Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Khalilzad would leave about the first of the year and be replaced by Ryan Crocker, a senior career diplomat who is currently ambassador to Pakistan, according to two top aides to the Iraqi leader. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Khalilzad and al-Maliki had been engaged in a public feud since last month when the US envoy announced a timeline for the Iraqi government to make progress in quelling violence and the passage of legislation that would encourage Sunni Muslims to join the political process. Khalilzad said al-Maliki had agreed to the timeline concept, but the Iraqi leader hotly denied that. In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said Khalilzad could leave as soon as the end of this year. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because neither the White House nor Khalilzad had announced any personnel changes. Iraqi officials, meanwhile said they would lift the curfew and reopen the international airport as of Tuesday morning because a feared explosion of violence failed to materialize after Saddam's guilty verdict and death sentence. Pedestrians were allowed back on the street at 4 p.m. Monday so they could buy provisions after the total curfew that went into effect Saturday night, the eve of the Saddam verdict. Relentless sectarian killing continued, however, despite extraordinary security precautions. Fifty-nine bodies were discovered Sunday and Monday across Iraq, police officials said. Through the day Monday, explosions echoed across the capital and witnesses said at least five mortar shells landed in northern Baghdad's predominantly Sunni Azamiyah district, although there were no reports of damage or casualties. After nightfall, four more mortar rounds crashed to earth near the al-Ashra al-Mubashara Sunni mosque in western Baghdad, shattering windows throughout the neighborhood. The political concession to Iraq's Sunni Muslims was detailed by the government organization that had been charged with removing Saddam loyalists from state institutions. Under a draft law, which the Shi'ite-dominated parliament must approve, the organization planned to amend its rules to enable thousands of former members of Saddam's Baath Party to win back their jobs. "We decided to make the announcement after the Saddam verdict so that the de-Baathification commission would not be accused of bias," Ali al-Lami, the commission's executive director, told AP. The amendments grow out of a 24-point national reconciliation plan Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced in June, shortly after taking office. Al-Maliki hopes to entice disaffected Sunnis away from the insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and was responsible for the vast majority of US casualties. The prime minister, however, has balked at US requests to set up an amnesty plan. Under the former de-Baathification protocols, 10,302 senior party members had been listed for dismissal. The draft law, however, includes the names of just 1,500 Baath Party members, al-Lami said. Those not reinstated would receive pensions, he said. The commission was established in January 2004 and had already purged 7,688 party members from government positions. Members of Saddam's elite security agencies as well as members of the paramilitary Saddam Fedayeen controlled by the former president's late son, Odai, were not under the jurisdiction of the de-Baathification commission but had been purged by the prime minister's office, al-Lami said. Many Sunni Arabs claim that that the de-Baathification process was aimed at their sect rather than the Baath Party. Until Saddam was ousted, the Sunni minority had ruled Iraq for decades. Al-Lami denied the claim and said the de-Baathification process had cost more Shi'ite Baath Party members their jobs in the south of the country than Sunnis in their central heartland. The United States dissolved and banned the Baath party in May 2003, a month after toppling Saddam, but later softened its stance, inviting former high-level officers from the disbanded military to join the security forces. The former top US administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, also allowed thousands of teachers who were Baathists to return to work. He conceived of the de-Baathification effort but later found it had gutted key ministries and the military with no replacement personnel among the Iraqi work force and educated elite. The United States had joined recently with Sunnis in calling for the Shi'ite-dominated government to end the to end the process that had exacerbated the already deep fissures among the country's religious and ethnic groups. "Such a move will be in the interest of Iraq because a Baathist, like any Iraqi citizen, has the right to get back his job," said Ammar Wajih, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni group. "This decision could move the country toward stability and could be a way to open bridges between the resistance and the Americans," Wajih said, referring to advances the Americans have pursued with insurgent groups in a bid to end the fighting. About 1.5 million of Iraq's 27 million people belonged to the Baath party - formally known as the Baath Arab Socialist Party - when Saddam was ousted. Most said they joined for professional, not ideological, reasons. Career advancement, university enrollment and specialized medical care depended on party membership. However, those who advanced in the party were expected to spy on fellow Iraqis and to join militias that were accused of helping suppress Shi'ite and Kurdish revolts after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.