Sunday, May 2, 2004

With violence flaring in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni Triangle,the United States is shifting much of its focus to top former loyalists to ex-dictator Saddam Hussein — in order to bring them back. That has many in Washington worried that Iraq could become even more insecure in the short term.

Although spun by the State Department and even the White House as a move to bring back “innocent” former Ba’athists, such as teachers, the re-Ba’athification of Iraq is poised to become much more widespread. Most troubling is that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has already reinstated senior officials in both security and military forces.

The idea that many “innocent” Ba’athists were affected by CPA chief L. Paul Bremer’s order last spring ousting Ba’athists is pure myth.Oftwomillion Ba’athists, only 15,000 to 20,000 — those in the top four levels — were purged.

To climb into the top ranks of the Ba’ath Party, one had to actively support the regime, meaning that no one affected by Mr. Bremer’s order was a party member for the mere purpose of holding a job. But there’s more on the line here than just sending the wrong message to ordinary Iraqis; the country’s security is at stake.

As U.S. soldiers continue fighting insurgents in Fallujah, the CPA has allowed back dozens of senior police officers — one informed estimate places the figure at nearly 60 — in nearby Ramadi, some of whom may be called on to provide assistance to coalition forces.

The irony of bringing back Saddam loyalists when our main struggle (aside from the nuisance created by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the south) is against their fellow Sunnis attempting to thwart democratic rule is apparently lost on the CPA.

Things look even worse for the new Iraqi military. Already,formerfull colonels and even generals have been placed in high-ranking positions. And the man running that process, Gen. David Petraeus, has previous experience helping out Saddam loyalists.

Gen. Petraeus, who was the commander of the 101st Airborne, did everything he could after the war to curb de-Ba’athification in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and a Sunni stronghold north of the infamous Sunni Triangle. When some 900 “teachers” in the Mosul area were marked by the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council as members of the top four layers of the Ba’ath Party, Gen. Petraeus intervened. According to various press accounts, the general pressured the public school system to keep the former top Ba’athists on the payroll. His wish was granted.

Although such a move might appear merciful toward people who were simply trying to avoid punishment at the hands of Saddam, those teachers who rose high up in the Ba’athist ranks had their jobs — and the corresponding grossly inflated salaries — based not on their ability to teach, but because of their reporting to Saddam’s minders on students and fellow teachers.

Gen. Petraeus, who lived in one of Saddam’s palaces north of the city, persuaded the University of Mosul to review the cases of ousted professors. Roughly two-thirds got their jobs back. For those former top Ba’athists who were not as fortunate, Gen. Petraeus established a jobs program geared in particular to helping former officials from the military and the security forces, according to two administration officials.

As President Bush was promising Iraqis their first-ever taste of a democratic society, Mosul remained under the authority of the Ba’athistoldguard. Mosul’s top Iraqi official, until recently, was Gov. Ghanem al-Basso, a former high-ranking Ba’athist, and the city council was stacked with Ba’athists. (Mr. al-Basso was fired last month for his Ba’athist past, but only after Gen. Petraeus had left the area.)

It’s not that Gen. Petraeus has a soft spot for Saddam loyalists; as he has explained to many reporters, his actions were motivated by a desire to dampen animosity toward America and defang any resistance movement.

His strategy, however, appears to have failed. U.S. officials have notified folks in Washington (including in a CIA report) that the most-organized and best-structured resistance in Iraq is in Mosul, according to an administration official familiar with the report. Not that that should be too surprising, though. It wasn’t long ago that news coverage was dominated by violence in Mosul, not Fallujah.

Gen. Petraeus has given no indication that he plans to change course at all in his handling of former high-ranking Saddam loyalists, evidence in Mosul and elsewhere notwithstanding.

Official estimates are that 10 percent of current Iraqi security forces are working against us — and that’s among those who were not purged — so the question of trust becomes more important than ever. Speaking to reporters last week, CPA spokesman Dan Senor said, “There is no room in the new Iraq for the Ba’athist ideology and for the most senior members of the former regime that had a hand in some of the worst Ba’athist crimes and brutality.”

If only that were true.

Joel Mowbray writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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