Ba'athists Slip Quietly Back Into Control
The Guardian UK
Monday 21 April 2003
They have quietly removed the pictures of Saddam Hussein from their sitting rooms, and reconfigured their memories to transform lives of privilege into tales of suffering. Less than two weeks after the collapse of the regime, thousands of members of the Arab Ba'ath Socialist party, the all too willing instrument of Saddam, are resuming their roles as the men and women who run Iraq.
Two thousand policemen - all cardholding party members - have put on the olive green, or the grey-and-white uniforms of traffic wardens, and returned to the streets of Baghdad at America's invitation.
Dozens of minders from the information ministry, who spied on foreign journalists for the security agencies, have returned to the Palestine Hotel where most reporters stay, offering their services as translators to unwitting new arrivals.
Seasoned bureaucrats at the oil ministry - including the brother of General Amer Saadi, the chemical weapons expert now in American custody - have been offered their jobs back by the US military. Feelers have also gone out to Saddam's health minister, despite past American charges that Iraqi hospitals stole medicine from the sick.
It has become increasingly apparent that Washington cannot restore governance to Baghdad without resorting to the party which for decades controlled every aspect of life under the regime.
It has equally become apparent that the Ba'ath party - whose neighbourhood spy cells were as feared as the state intelligence apparatus - will survive in some form, either through the appeal of its founding ideals, or through the rank opportunism of its millions of members.
"The coming bureaucracy will be overwhelmed by Ba'athists. They had loyalty to Saddam Hussein, and now they have loyalty to foreign invaders," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University who broke with the Ba'ath in 1961, and is trying to organise a new political grouping.
The Ba'athist project of reinvention gathered pace at the weekend when the Iraqi Writers' Union - who received salaries for poems for Saddam - held a meeting at which they claimed to have been secret opponents of the regime for years.
At the same time, remnants of the regime see no reason to abandon a party that has been around since 1947.
"The Arab Ba'ath Socialist party was not Saddam Hussein's idea. Like Marxism, it was not founded by Lenin and Stalin. It is an idea. That is why the Arab masses sup ported Iraq, not because of Saddam Hussein, but because of ideas," said a senior culture bureaucrat.
The resurrection of the Ba'ath is, in part, acknowledgment of the daunting reality of governing a country as complex and battered as Iraq. Under Saddam membership was mandatory for teachers, police, the army, and senior posts in hospitals, universities, banks and the civil service.
Local party bosses, or mukhtars, dispensed marriage licences, pressganged locals into militias, and organised parades in honour of Saddam. They also winnowed out potential neighbourhood traitors, destroying the lives of the millions who fell foul of the regime.
That elite - dominated by the Sunni minority which has governed Iraq since the Ottoman empire - remains the major source of local talent for the new US administration.
Now, though the party cadre has been orphaned by the flight of Saddam and the upper echelons, local party bosses and bureaucrats who joined up strictly for career advancement see no reason to step aside. "I haven't hurt anyone, and the people love me," said Haji Talat, the boss of Adhamiya, with direct charge for 4,000 households.
The northern neighbourhood was the most solidly Ba'athist of Baghdad - so secure that Saddam did a walkabout there just three days before the US tanks rolled in.
Mr Talat has taken down his photo of Saddam but he is not willing to relinquish his control. "I had to go along with the regime because otherwise they would turn me into cinnamon. But the people know me. The bad mukhtars might go now, but the good ones will stay," he said.
Such attitudes prevail even in poorer neighbourhoods, such as the Jamila suburb of Baghdad, where there was more resentment of the Ba'ath. "In our circumstances, it is necessary to work with the Americans to keep order, but later we might not agree," said Rahim Ahmoud, a mukhtar of eight years.
The prospects for the survival of the Ba'ath have been enhanced by the chaos of these early days of the US military occupation. There is also no serious challenge to its iron grip.
The party, with its secular principles - though trampled on by Saddam's cynical use of religion - also represents a bulwark against a nascent Islamist movement among Iraq's disenfranchised Shia majority.
For middle class Iraqis, the declarations for religious self-rule now emanating from mosques in Baghdad and southern cities are deeply troubling. The new assertiveness by the Shia clergy probably does not sit very well with the Americans either. So that leaves the Ba'ath.
"The Ba'ath party was the right hand to Saddam," said Hind Mahmoud, a computer programmer at one of the nationalist banks sacked by the looters. For people like Ms Mahmoud, faith in the party, and in its future role in Iraq, remains undimmed: "No one can take the place of the Ba'ath party. The Ba'ath party has experience - doctors and managers and scientists. It works in everything."
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