April 23, 2004

U.S. Details Easing of Ban on Former Baath Party Members

By IAN FISHER

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 23 — L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the occupation authority, delivered a stark television address today in which he warned that "Iraq faces a choice" and that the American plan to bring stability and democracy here might not succeed unless ordinary Iraqis came quickly to its defense.

"If you do not defend your beloved country, it will not be saved," he said.

Mr. Bremer's 20-minute speech represented his first substantial comments to Iraqis since the worst violence of the yearlong occupation broke out late last month with the deaths of some 100 American soldiers, attacks on supply convoys, the kidnappings and killings of foreigners and the announced withdrawal of 2,000 troops from three allied countries.

Abandoning the celebratory tone with which he hailed the first anniversary of the American invasion a month ago, Mr. Bremer offered a list of specific programs intended to turn the tide of Iraqi popular opinion, which appears to have veered sharply against the Americans as the security situation has deteriorated.

Mr. Bremer said he would approve an immediate injection of $500 million to build local projects, like roads and schools, that employ Iraqis. He said he would authorize a study on how best to memorialize the hundreds of thousands of victims of Saddam Hussein.

At the same time, he reached out to officials of the old regime — and offered a faster way to rebuild the Iraqi army, disbanded by Mr. Bremer a year ago — by reinstating many of the "honorable men" who had served as senior officers in Mr. Hussein's army.

But he began with a blunt warning of the stakes of the weeks leading up to the June 30 handover of some sovereignty back to Iraqis — and an admission that American military power alone might not be enough.

"You can take the path that leads to a new Iraq, a peaceful, democratic Iraq," he said. "Or you could take the path which leads to the dark Iraq of the past where violence and fear rule, where power comes from a gun, and where only the powerful and ruthless are secure."

"These antidemocratic forces will not disappear by themselves, but working together we can defeat them," he added, referring to anti-American insurgents behind the recent wave of violence. "We in the coalition will do our part to restore security. But you must do your part too."

The Baathist rehabilitation plan is a major rollback of a policy aimed at purging the Iraqi government of members of Saddam Hussein's former governing party. The change represents a sharp split with the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The Americans are breaking in particular with Ahmad Chalabi, a former exile, who is now the council member in charge of the purges.

Mr. Chalabi denounced the move to rehabilitate some Baathists. "This is like allowing Nazis into the German government immediately after World War II," he told a Reuters correspondent. "This policy will create major problems in the transition to democracy, endanger any government put together by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and cause it to fall after June 30."

In his address today, broadcast on Al Iraqiya television, an American-financed undertaking, Mr. Bremer said he still supported the policy of eradicating the Baath Party, but that its implementation needed to be amended. Military officers who served in Mr. Hussein's army and had clean records would be allowed to join the new army, Mr. Bremer said.

The softened policy on de-Baathification will allow the quick return to the government payroll of former Baath Party members "who were Baathists in name only," said Dan Senor, an occupation spokesman. Many Iraqis — teachers, engineers, bureaucrats and others — say they became members only to advance their careers.

As part of the policy change, senior army officers, including generals and full colonels, will be allowed to return, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for the occupation forces, said.

"It just is a natural consequence that sooner or later there was going to come a time when we would need senior officers," he said.

The Iraqi Defense Ministry has recently said that it is appointing several top former officers to lead the new Iraqi Army, a crucial element for any stability.

The de-Baathification policy was one of the first sweeping changes — which included the dissolution of the old Iraqi Army — made by Mr. Bremer when he took office as the top civilian administrator last May. The policy drew sharp criticism from politicians, military officers and others in Washington and Iraq, who said it shut out the skilled technocrats and intellectuals.

Mr. Senor said that the criteria for screening out former Baathists — like a relatively high rank in the party — would remain the same, but that the process of hearing appeals and allowing exceptions would change.

The shift comes as a blow to Mr. Chalabi, who built close ties to the Pentagon during his exile. He heads a Governing Council committee that revises and carries out the policy. In mid-January, he announced new restrictions that barred top-level Baathists from any chance of re-entering the government.

Occupation authority officials praised the new change in policy as a step toward "reconciliation."

Last month, Mr. Bremer said he had warned Mr. Chalabi that his de-Baathification efforts were going too far. "I've told him that they've got to stop this overzealous approach if we're going to allow this to continue," Mr. Bremer said to reporters.

Mr. Bremer estimated that of the two million former members of the Baath Party, about 15,000 to 20,000 were affected by his the restrictions he ordered last May. But more were pushed out of their jobs in "spontaneous" purges throughout the provinces, he said.

In January, Mr. Chalabi said at least 28,000 former Baathists had already been purged and at least that many more would be dismissed.

In Karbala today, Shiite Muslim rebels loyal to the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr fought with a Polish-led contingent of foreign troops, killing a Bulgarian soldier, military officials said.

Mr. Sadr, speaking during prayers today in Kufa, threatened to unleash suicide attacks if American troops attacked him and his militia in the holy city of Najaf. A senior American military officer said 2,500 American soldiers would stay in a cordon around Najaf, though units would rotate in and out.

An unabated uprising by Mr. Sadr in the center and south of the country and by Sunni Muslims in the west has sowed violence across the country.

In Falluja, still under a nominal cease-fire to allow guerrilla fighters to disarm, the paltry turnover of rusty, unusable mortars and rocket tubes has enraged Marine officers who have uncovered vast caches of weapons and ammunition in the area over the past few weeks. General Kimmitt said the insurgents had only days to stave off another incursion by delivering something other than "rubbish or trash or junk."

Mr. Senor, the occupation spokesman, said leaders in Falluja had told American officials that many of the fighters "are on various drugs" and that "it is part of what they're using to keep them up to engage in this violence at all hours."

The town leaders stressed that this was "a serious problem," Mr. Senor said.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Baghdad and Kirk Semple reported from New York.