BAGHDAD — A few days ago, a group of students from Baghdad’s Hurriyyah (Freedom) neighborhood complained to their parents about Ismail Shahade Meshadai, much-hated school principal at the Nahr el-Khalid high school. An activist in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, Meshadai, along with his wife (a teacher), has not only been terrorizing the neighborhood for some years, but was also known to regularly report to Iraqi mukhabarat on “suspect” students and families. Still, the principal did not make it to the top of anybody’s agenda until last week, soon after schools reopened. When a teacher removed a picture of Saddam, the principal burst into the classroom to spit on her before the kids. “He is our president and he will forever remain our president,” he roared, and warned that, “one day very soon,” Saddam would be back.
Abdalkarim Abd-Ali, a parent, explains: “We all got together and told the kids ‘All of you together are stronger than him. If you want to change your principal, go tell him to leave.’ They went back to the school to confront him. They had stones in their pockets. Many in the neighborhood and parents went, too. The students entered his office and said, ‘We don’t want a Baathist thug here anymore. Leave our school.’ He started shouting and saying he was appointed by the ministry of education. We said, ‘That was Saddam’s ministry. It no longer exists.’ Everyone was shouting for him to leave. He took out a machine gun, but we had already told a few guys in the ‘hood with the guns to come along just in case. He finally understood he wouldn’t win, picked up his things, and started running. As he was running down the road, the kids were throwing stones behind him. What a great sight it was. Then, one by one, all the teachers, who for years have been under his thumb, came downstairs and started kissing us and crying with joy. They said they have been so afraid to speak out. The neighborhood got together yesterday and elected a new principal from among the teachers.”
Vigilante justice? Well, yes. But in the absence of a clear policy from Iraq’s new administrators — the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) — to drive out Saddam’s Baathist establishment, Iraqis across the country are taking matters into their own hands. Over the last week, Baghdad University faculty, hospital doctors, museum workers, and many Iraqis returning to work have organized protests or similar initiatives against the returning Baathists. Many of these top-level bureaucrats got their jobs not because Iraq has been run as a meritocracy for the past 30 years, but precisely because under Saddam, the country was run as a classic totalitarian dictatorship, in which seniority depended on allegiance to the party and eagerness to forward its mechanisms of repression and surveillance. While the party itself had nearly two million members — just under ten percent of Iraq’s population — “the real bad guys,” as a Pentagon official called them, numbered around 30,000. “The bad guys” are comprised of thugs, friends of Saddam, and those who got ahead in their careers by crushing their colleagues in Saddam’s republic of fear.
Ideologically speaking, the Arab Baath Socialist party blends secular pan-Arabism, anti-Western trends of the last few decades, and garden-variety socialism — plus a touch of Stalinism and Nazism. No one in Iraq, even the card-carrying members, thinks Baath was anything other than an apparatchik of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. So naturally, “de-Baathification” is the buzzword here in Baghdad, as U.S. officials and Iraqis discuss ways of exorcising Saddam’s ghost from the Iraqi society and state.
And therein lies the trouble for Iraq’s new rulers. There has been for some time a deep disagreement — between State, the CIA, and the British Foreign Service on one side, and Pentagon civilians and Iraqi exiles on the other — about how deep a de-Baathification Iraq needs. In the initial phases of the war planning, the State Department, ever eager to “preserve Iraq’s institutions,” set out a policy which roughly ran like this: Exclude the top-tier Iraqi leadership — the deck of cards — because they are deeply bound up with the regime and its crimes against humanity. With the top dogs gone, it was thought, Iraqi could make a transition to democracy once the Interim Authority had been established. The notion of cleansing the bureaucracy of all its Baathist government officials was simply not practical: Since Baath had millions of members — many of whom, the argument went, hated Saddam and were in the party for jobs — the U.S. would never be able to re-establish basic functions and order. As many officials have liked to say in private discussions in the last few weeks: “After all, the Nazis made the trains run on time.” (There were also “Mussolini” and “bad guys” versions of the same adage.)
I asked Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader with close ties to the Pentagon who has now relocated to Baghdad, why he has been lobbying, with the support of people like Paul Wolfowitz, for a more thorough de-Nazification campaign at the onset of a new Interim Authority here. After all, isn’t it more important to restore basic services and get people back to work than to drive out Saddam’s fraudulent ideologues?
“This looks like a logical argument, but the Iraqi people strongly reject the presence of senior Baathists,” said Chalabi. “On the face of things it could provide continuity, but in reality people who work at various jobs want to be free of the Baath there.” The Iraqi National Congress leader sees the presence of senior Baathists in official positions as a potentially destabilizing force in Iraqi politics — one that could fuel Islamic fundamentalism among Iraqis who feel disappointed at the U.S. government’s ability to eliminate the Baath.
“Iraq now is a country that has no government. What people thought was the pillar of the Iraqi state, namely the armed forces, has collapsed,” Chalabi continued over a discussion at his new headquarters in Baghdad — what was formerly Uday Hussein’s hunting club.
“The Iraqi state has collapsed. The various departments of Iraqi government are operating on their own, looking for reference points. The concept of governance in Iraq that was pushed by some people in Washington, namely that American pressure would generate a coup, has shown itself invalid. But the political planning continues to be on the basis of this theory, and that’s when ORHA began to install the same people in positions of authority and government service, who for the most part were senior members of the Baath.”
The news of the departure of Jay Garner and several of his key aides from ORHA’s leadership last week has raised the expectations of large-scale de-Baathification advocates. Though committed to the idea, Garner, they thought, did not put up enough of a fight against State and the British where it came to speeding up the detoxification of Iraq’s ruling system.
With new leadership at ORHA this month, it seems Washington’s feuds are now being transferred to Iraq’s ministries. It remains to Paul Bremer, Iraq’s new civilian administrator, to get the trains run on time and the Nazis out.
In his first press conference in Baghdad last week, Paul Bremer delivered what is likely the strongest de-Baathification message so far: “Shortly I will issue an order on measures to extirpate Baathists and Baathism from Iraq forever,” L. Paul Bremer told reporters in Baghdad. “We will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office.”
— Asla Aydintasbas, a writer for the Turkish daily Sabah, is an adjunct fellow at the Western Policy Center.