Local humor reflects society. Within Iraq’s Shia community, there is a popular joke: Saddam dies and enters a special prison in hell for worst 100 offenders of all time. Residents are assigned cells according to relative degree of evil: Cell # 100 is for the absolute worst. One day at lunch, prisoners see Saddam has joined them. “Who are you, and what cell are you in?” one asks. “I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am in cell 97,” Saddam replies. “Wow! You must have been evil,” the other prisoner responds. “I’m in cell 35, and all I did was kill Imam Hussein.”
Imam Hussein is Hussein bin Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and a revered figure among Shia Muslims. The martyrdom of Hussein is central to Shia theology and practice. Hussein was cut down on the battlefield of Karbala in 683 A.D., his head sent back to the caliph Yezid in Damascus. That Iraqi Shia would suggest that Saddam Hussein–a man whose Baath party was responsible for the death or displacement of several hundred thousand of them–might be more evil than Hussein’s murderer is significant.
One of L. Paul Bremer’s first actions as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority was to order the de-Baathification of the Iraqi government. The May 15, 2003, order was popular: It fulfilled the Iraqi desire for moral clarity and firmness of direction. Until Bremer’s arrival, mixed messages confused Iraqis. Coalition figures spoke of freedom, but many Iraqis remained scarred by their abandonment to Saddam’s death squads in the aftermath of the 1991 uprising. The initial failure of the CPA to remove the four huge busts of Saddam from atop the Republican Palace fueled conspiracy theorists, who pointed to the busts as proof that the U.S. was going to once again abandon Iraqis to the Baath party. Several career diplomats reestablished warm relations with Baathist contacts they had known while serving in Baghdad in the 1980s. Frequent meetings between Bremer predecessor Jay Garner and Saad al-Janabi, a close associate of Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law Hussein Kamal, also fueled Iraqi speculation that the U.S. was not willing to adhere to its promises.
The Baath party was no ordinary political organization. Founded in 1944 by Michel Aflaq, Baathism was based upon contemporary Italian fascism and German Nazism. The party is ethnically chauvinist, blatantly advocating discrimination against Iraq’s sizeable non-Arab communities. Baathism was the ideological basis for the Anfal ethnic-cleansing campaign, in which senior Iraqi army officers directed the slaughter of over 100,000 Iraqi Kurdish civilians. Under the Baath party, Shia were second-class citizens.
In Iraq, the structure of the Baath party was hierarchical. There may have been two million Baath party members, but de-Baathification applied only to the top 70,000 individuals out of a total population of 24 million. De-Baathification did not target the innocent; no educator could reach one of the top four tiers without actively reporting on peers and students. Teachers’ pay slips show the result: Some received Iraqi government gifts inflating their salary by up to 700 percent over that of their peers.
Proponents of re-Baathification–most of whom are not Iraqi–argue that CPA Order Number One deprived Iraq of technocrats and experienced educators. This is a myth. Under Saddam Hussein, government technocrats received promotions not on their merit, but rather on their political loyalty to the dictatorial regime. Skilled technocrats who happened to be Shia, Kurdish, or Turkmen were disqualified from most top-level ministry positions. De-Baathification did not ban top-tier Baathists from employment; they remained free to work in the private sector. No one is entitled to a government job.
De-Baathification likewise did not hamper the Iraqi education system. Upon liberation, there was a glut of unemployed schoolteachers, many of whom had never compromised themselves with Baathist membership. Now these newly hired educators will be thrown onto the street, as Saddam’s henchmen reclaim jobs. Iraqis will pay the price for years to come, as corrupt Baathist teachers exact revenge upon students, failing–as they did before–those who do not regurgitate Baathist interpretations or pay hefty bribes.
The reverberations of the Coalition’s decision to rehabilitate Saddam’s support network will be long lasting and will lead to the deaths of Coalition soldiers. “Death to the Baath Party” banners hang throughout southern Iraq. Anti-Baath passion runs high among the vast majority of the Iraqi people. Eighty percent of the Iraqi population is not Sunni Arab, and the majority of the Sunni Arabs also welcomed liberation from 35 years of Baathist dictatorship. Many Iraqis see the U.S. as abandoning them yet again. We risk losing the silent majority. Iraqi Shia, most of whom viewed America as a liberator, will curse us for abandoning them to their oppressors. The sense of betrayal runs deep: Shia remember how the British government disenfranchised them following World War I. After decades of oppression, Iraq’s Shia want assurance. Democracy provides it; rehabilitating Baathism does not. We risk driving Iraq’s 14 million Shia into the arms of the Iranian government, which will claim to be their protector.
The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has based its decision not on consultations with Iraqis, but rather on discussions with regional rulers and military officers in other countries in its sphere of operations. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain all have significant Shia populations (in Bahrain, they’re the majority), but also Sunni leaders who fear full enfranchisement and democracy. Many career diplomats seconded to the CPA are openly hostile to President Bush’s emphasis on democracy, and instead seek to establish a “benign autocracy” more acceptable to regional states like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
Rather than ease the pressure upon Coalition troops, Bremer’s flip-flop will increase it. The CPA should not allow violence to win concessions. Nor will de-Baathification appease Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, many of whom also suffered under the Baath party. Had antagonism over the firings of Baathists been the cause of violence in Fallujah, then the Coalition would also see concurrent uprisings in Tikrit, Samarra, and Baquba. Short-term appeasement will not bring peace. It never does.
–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.