BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 12 - Seeking to speed the return of senior officials of the former ruling Baath Party into the government, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has tried to dismantle a powerful independent commission that was established after the American invasion to keep such people from power.
It is the most aggressive move yet by Dr. Allawi, a former Baathist who fell out of favor with Saddam Hussein, to bring former ranking party members into his fold. Dr. Allawi says the readmissions will dampen an increasingly lethal insurgency by co-opting disenfranchised Sunni Muslim Baathists. The expertise of high officials from the old Iraqi security forces is also urgently needed to help combat the guerrillas, he contends.
And with general elections scheduled for January, Dr. Allawi and American officials are scrambling for ways to bring reluctant Sunnis into the political process.
Dr. Allawi's push reflects, in part, his long power struggle with Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile who is chairman of the commission and favors a thorough purging of senior Baathists. But it is also part of a deeper battle for the soul of the Iraqi government and will determine who holds some of the highest offices.
Dr. Allawi's efforts to limit the purging process could widen the divide between the country's majority Shiite Muslim population and the Sunni minority, which ruled the region for centuries.
Because most of the top Baathists were Sunnis, Dr. Allawi's moves have already drawn sharp opposition from Shiite political leaders, though he is himself a Shiite. Jawad al-Maliki, deputy head of the Dawa Islamic Party, one of the most powerful Shiite parties, said Dr. Allawi's orders were "outside the law" and that the commission had every right to "remove all trace of the Baathists."
Recent arrests of Iraqi security officials by the American military point to another danger: former Baathists who are readmitted to the government without enough precautions can aid the insurgency from within.
Last month, the American military arrested Brig. Gen. Talib Abid Ghayib al-Lahibi, who had been assigned to command three Iraqi National Guard battalions in restive Diyala Province. The military said the general, an infantry commander under Mr. Hussein, had "associations with known insurgents."
In August, marines arrested the police chief of Anbar Province, which includes the jihadist stronghold of Falluja, and began investigating him for suspected ties to the insurgency. The police chief, Jaadan Muhammad Alwan, was a high-ranking Baathist during the Hussein years.
"It's a challenge when you have so many individuals," a senior American commander said. "You've got some individuals who are capable, but some of the individuals have a bad background."
There are also concerns that former Baathists may be unwilling to stand too strongly against insurgents. In May, the marines handed control of Falluja over to an ad-hoc militia, the Falluja Brigade, commanded by Hussein-era military officers and senior Baathists, but it quickly withered under pressure from the insurgency. It disbanded over the summer, with many members actually joining the guerrillas.
Dr. Allawi's effort began in earnest early last month, when the head of his cabinet issued an order to disband the commission in charge of purges and set up a more lenient judicial system in its place. A council of judges ruled that the commission was enshrined in the interim constitution. But Dr. Allawi's cabinet has since asked government ministries not to deal directly with the commission, according to documents obtained by The New York Times.
Last month, Dr. Allawi's cabinet demanded that the commission leave its office building inside the fortified government headquarters along the Tigris River, said a general director of the commission, Ali Faisal al-Lami.
The government also issued new badges for entrance into the Green Zone but gave only 50 to the commission, enough for just a fifth of the commission's work force, he said. The rest of the employees are now working at home or in offices outside the fortified compound.
The new system proposed by Dr. Allawi would readmit former senior Baathists unless criminal charges are brought against them and they are found guilty in a court, according to a memo sent to all ministries last month by his cabinet head, Zuhair Hamody.
The readmission of noncriminal senior Baathists has the approval of the American government. The former top American administrator here, L. Paul Bremer III, purged all high-ranking Baathists from public positions in May 2003, but reversed that decision last spring when it became clear that experienced people were needed to help stand up the nascent government.
The commission members contend that Dr. Allawi's system could lay the foundation for an effective reconstitution of the Baath Party, as well as allow former officials suspected of human rights abuses or other crimes back into the government.
Mr. Lami said that Dr. Allawi's government had appointed former senior Baathists to top positions in the security forces over the commission's objections. Mr. Lami also said that the commission had asked ministries to dismiss certain government workers found to have questionable backgrounds but that the ministries had stalled. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and border patrol, has fired only 500 of 900 employees the commission deemed suspect, he said.
"They are repeating the mistakes of the former regime," he said of the Allawi government. "They will create a gap between themselves and the people."
But Sunni politicians in particular have staunchly defended the rights of many Baathists to return to their jobs, saying that many Iraqis joined the party simply for career advancement. Tens of thousands of teachers and medical workers, for example, who felt pressure to join but were not ardent supporters of Saddam Hussein are widely seen as innocent victims of the purges. Mr. Bremer's policy reversal last spring was intended to allow many of them to return to their jobs.
"Distinguishing between the criminals and those who were forced to join the Baath Party is very important," Dr. Allawi said before the 100-member National Assembly last Tuesday, after one member pointedly asked why former senior Baathists were returning to power. "This goes to the issue of national unity in Iraq."
One of the main functions of Mr. Chalabi's council, the Supreme Commission for De-Baathification, has been to review appeals from dismissed or suspected officials and clear their names if their records do not show participation in heinous crimes or upper party ranking. Some 8,000 former Baathists have gotten their jobs back through this process, said Mr. Lami, who is also a deputy in the Hezbollah Party, a Shiite political group.
At the same time, the commission seeks to confirm the dismissals of individuals from the higher party ranks or who, as commission members put it, "have blood on their hands."
But Mr. Lami said officials from the prime minister's office or from the Iraqi National Accord, a political party led by Dr. Allawi that is largely made up of former Baathists, have increasingly subverted the commission's dismissal decisions, especially in key security positions.
Over the summer, the Interior Ministry appointed Rasheed Flayeh to the post of director-general of the secret police force, over the commission's objections that, as head of security in the southern city of Nasiriya in 1991, he had taken part in the brutal suppression of a Shiite uprising.
But an Interior Ministry spokesman, Sabah Kadhum, said he had been told that Mr. Flayeh did not play any such role in Nasiriya.
The foundation for the prime minister's recent moves to dismantle Mr. Chalabi's commission was laid in a final order issued in June by Mr. Bremer. That order said the commission would be disbanded when the interim Iraqi government established a new organization to oversee the purging of Baathists.
Though Dr. Allawi has been pushing to install a court system in place of the commission, other politicians, especially Shiite leaders, are rallying to keep it. Mr. Maliki, the Dawa Party official and deputy head of the interim National Assembly, said the assembly intended to grill Dr. Allawi's office about the attempts to disband the commission. "We're going to follow up on this because it's illegal," he said.
Edward Wong reported from Baghdad for this article and Erik Eckholm from New York.