Wednesday, December 10, 2003

HILLAH, Iraq — The strongly pro-American governor in one of Iraq’s key regions, Babylon, has been fired on the orders of the Iraqi Governing Council for suspected ties to the Ba’ath Party.

The move means the loss of an administrator who was working closely with the U.S.-led coalition — which confirmed him in the post — and who is credited with bringing stability to the central Iraqi province.

The decision to fire Gov. Islander Witwit was taken by the council’s De-Ba’athification Committee, led by Ahmed Chalabi, whose Iraqi National Congress has been strident in seeking to rid the country of all influence of the former regime’s beneficiaries. Mr. Witwit is the most senior official to have been ousted by the committee.

“Mr. Witwit was a branch member of the Ba’ath Party,” said Mr. Chalabi’s spokesman, Entifadh Qanbar. He described the committee’s decision as “a big success,” and added: “This is only the beginning of the road. We have many other strategies aimed at cleaning out Iraq of these Ba’athist elements.”

On becoming the chief coalition administrator, L. Paul Bremer issued an order banning the top four categories of Ba’ath Party members from any form of public office or employment in the public sector.

The order affected an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 people but left untouched more than 1 million low-ranking members.

Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, it was difficult or close to impossible to receive promotion or enter many types of employment without joining the party.

Mr. Witwit denies he was a Ba’athist, and in a recent interview showed a grisly photograph of what he said was his dead brother, whose head had been mutilated by Saddam’s forces.

Western security sources, who declined to be identified, expressed concern last night that the firing would jeopardize months of stability and security in the province.

“A secure environment is now a major concern,” said one source.

Coalition officials last week praised Mr. Witwit’s achievements since he was installed as governor — he says to popular acclaim — in early April, just as U.S. forces captured the city of Hillah.

The officials said he had been working closely with the coalition and the local community to develop a police force that has reduced crime, staged successful arms raids and arrested several suspected insurgents.

The security situation in Hillah, composed almost exclusively of Shi’ite Muslims, was said to be far better than in Baghdad, about 60 miles north.

Mr. Witwit also displayed a populist touch, joining police on night patrols. During a visit last week he had his office door propped open with a brick — a practice he said was meant to make citizens feel welcome to come in and talk.

“We love our governor,” read some of the banners at a demonstration by about 300 residents inside the governor’s headquarters Saturday.

Two days earlier, a similar number of opponents marched on the local coalition headquarters with banners demanding his dismissal.

Mr. Witwit said 17 members of his extended family were killed in anti-Shi’ite purges by Saddam’s regime and other political repression. Other family members were tortured, he said.

In the interview, he described the Americans as liberators and pledged to work for a democratic Iraq.

But he always has had detractors within the 24-member Governing Council, including one who recently accused the governor of appointing members of his family to key positions.

Denying this, Mr. Witwit produced what he said was a list of all his appointments, saying the only member of his extended family on the list was an education specialist now in his 70s.

Security sources now worry about a confrontation between Mr. Witwit’s supporters in Hillah and the Governing Council.

Under the regulations drawn up by Mr. Bremer, anyone declared to be in the top four categories of the Ba’ath Party automatically loses any government position. Mr. Bremer has discretion to waive the rule on a case-by-case basis, but there is no appeals procedure.

Specialists in the politics of the area said Mr. Witwit may have held nominal Ba’ath Party membership but that he was also a member of an underground anti-Saddam movement.

It was this activism that led to his appointment after Saddam’s forces fled the province, they said.

Hillah is close to the two most holy Shi’ite cities, Najaf and Karbala. The Coalition Provisional Authority also has headquarters for six major provinces situated in the city’s former Hotel Babylon.

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