Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Baathists?

Saddam Hussein is long dead. It’s time for Iraq to let ex-Baathists into government.

Former Baathist politician Saleh al-Mutlaq

Saleh al-Mutlaq had been a member of Iraq’s Baath Party since it first attempted to seize power in 1963, when he was 14 years old. Though the Baathists were quickly expelled that year, they returned in force in 1968, and Mutlaq rose in prominence in the party. In less than a decade, he became involved in a research foundation directly connected to Saddam Hussein, who was then Iraq’s vice president but was largely calling the shots. It was then, at age 30, that Mutlaq arrived at a moral crisis.

It was 1977, and the Iraqi leadership had just provoked a violent uprising among Shiites in the south. Police forces had attacked pilgrims heading to the holy city of Karbala. Riots ensued, and Saddam ordered the execution of eight Shiite men. reports that five men were executed, while most sources say eight. Some accounts may confuse the figure with a 1974 incident in which five men were reportedly executed“>  Mutlaq, a Sunni, argued that the men should receive a fair trial; this led to his expulsion from the party.

Three decades later, Mutlaq is again in the crosshairs of controversy in Iraq over his career in a party that would become synonymous with Saddam’s brutality. Shortly before the high-stakes general election in March, a commission charged with rooting out remnants of the Baath Party disqualified Mutlaq from running for parliament. His brother Ibrahim ran in his place, only to be disqualified after he won a seat.

It’s a testament to Saddam’s shrewd talent for dictatorship that, seven years after his capture and three and a half years after his death, he can still cause so much trouble in Iraq. Almost three months after the election, de-Baathification continues to sunder Iraqi politics. But these days, the party doesn’t really have much to do with Saddam. As close observers of Iraqi politics will tell you, the policy is a thinly veiled effort by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other prominent Shiite politicians, including Ahmad Chalabi, to stay in power. (Chalabi co-chairs the commission in charge of de-Baathification.) The lion’s share of candidates with Baathist connections ran on the secular Iraqiya ticket, headed by Ayad Allawi, which won a narrow plurality of seats in the initial tally—a major setback for Maliki. Invoking Saddam is both a politically expedient way to tarnish Iraqiya candidates and a legal way to kick them out of government. The Obama administration supports the de-Baathification commission.

It’s difficult for any of us who didn’t live under Saddam’s rule to imagine how bloody and creative his brutality was, and it would be naive to suggest the country should just forget about the Baathists and move on. But the Baath Party should at least be decoupled from his legacy. As one commentator recently wrote in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat, the party “has come to symbolize a certain sectarian and social affiliation, regardless of the sect of those who were affiliated with or worked under the former regime.” During Saddam’s rule, a large percentage of public-sector employees were default party members. After the 2003 invasion, the categorical exorcism of Baathists from the provisional government disrupted many essential services, ranging from trash removal to education. “The policy coming out of Baghdad was that Baathists don’t get paid,” says Col. Jim Hickey, who led a brigade in the 4th Infantry Division shortly after the invasion and was instrumental in tracking down Saddam. “In and around Tikrit and the Salah Ah Din province, it seemed like everyone was a Baathist of some sort. … I think the de-Baathification policy made it an issue as we worked to maintain the payroll for a lot of these public workers.”

Hickey, meanwhile, was also dealing with a surge of violence from Saddam loyalists who were actively interested in reconstituting Saddam’s rule. These were the sort of people who most certainly should not be allowed to participate in Iraq politics. Fortunately for everyone, most of them are in custody or long dead. The highest-ranking Saddam loyalist to evade capture is Izzat al-Douri, a sort of bogeyman figure who represents the last vestiges of the old regime. Compared with the sectarian violence and influence of al-Qaida in Iraq, he’s barely a footnote.

Sadly, reviving Big Bad Baathist accusations against Sunni politicians—and invoking Saddam in the process—is precisely the opposite of what Iraq needs to move on from Saddam’s bloody legacy. As Reidar Visser, who writes one of the smartest blogs on Iraqi politics, recently wrote, “[T]he main impact of the de-Baathification purge was a sectarian repolarisation of Iraqi politics, rather than a change of the results as such. It is the general atmosphere of Iraqi politics that has suffered, and the coalition-forming process in particular.”

Saleh al-Mutlaq is a good example of someone who probably should have a hand in the Iraqi political process, even though he was unquestionably a party member in his youth. After his expulsion from the Baath Party, a source who knows Mutlaq told me, he taught at the University of Baghdad for a while and eventually started a private agricultural business in southern Iraq. It became so successful that Saddam visited, seized the land, and then changed his mind and gave it back. By the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, the business operated greenhouses and could grow vegetables in winter.

Over time, Mutlaq became more involved in clandestine resistance efforts, though details are difficult to verify. (Many people claim to have been involved in anti-Saddam efforts at the time.) While he clearly opposed Saddam for years before the fall of the regime, he is neither a defender nor an unreserved critic of the Baath Party. In January, he told the New YorkTimes, “I was proud of so many of the party’s achievements in education, agriculture and industry.” Such statements are political poison in Iraq, but they do not mean that the person who makes them is pining for the second coming of Saddam. Saddam revivalists undoubtedly still exist in Iraq, but the struggling country’s politics have long since left them behind.

Mutlaq’s case certainly isn’t clear-cut, given his onetime ties to Saddam. But he is of an older generation of politicians whose time in power is waning, and it is vitally important that younger ex-Baathists with weaker connections to the old regime be involved in civil society. Iraq desperately needs people with technical expertise and experience in government. Many such people were members of Saddam’s party, and there must be some mechanism for allowing them back into the government. Without question, it is better that this process play out in the political arena rather than on the streets. Opening the gates to ex-Baathists with no clear connection to Saddam would help keep it that way.

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