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Saddam Moves to Save Power Base

Baathist party survival based on bureaucratic reforms, restoring confidence, critics say

AS Iraq's ruling Baathist Party marks its 23rd year in power, President Saddam Hussein has initiated a broad restructuring of his political organization, which has been weakened by Iraq's military defeat and the bloody Kurdish and Shiite rebellions that followed.The reform drive is aimed at saving the main power base of the regime, restoring popular confidence in the party, and ensuring a strong party organization, Iraqi analysts and Baathist officials say. If Saddam has to yield to growing pressures for pluralism, these sources say, he wants to make sure the Baath party can maintain its rule. Party members and analysts differ on whether the reforms can save the Baathist organization. Some argue that the party has turned into an inflated, increasingly unpopular bureaucracy that is run by the security apparatus. Others acknowledge that many members are disillusioned, but say they have not lost faith in its principles. "The party will survive. We have to remember that it was not a party that was formed by the state.... It has a long history of popular nationalist struggle," says Alias Farah, a Lebanese-born Baathist party philosopher. Dr. Farah concedes, however, that the party's survival as a strong political organization hinges on the success of these reforms. The "restructuring process," as it is called here, involves elections of party leaders at all levels - the first such votes since 1979 - organizational reforms, liberalization of the decision-making process, and a reassessment of the party's foreign and domestic policies. Baathists and nonmembers at first viewed these elections with cynicism, so the initial results were unexpected: Some of Saddam's own ministers lost their posts, forfeiting their chances at higher party positions. Baathist officials say Hamid Yousef Hammadi, the information minister, and Nizar Hamdoun, the under secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were among those who lost in the internal elections.

Preoccupied officials The failure of some major government officials in the elections mainly reflects the growing gap between grassroots party members and senior government officials, analysts say. "Many government officials became too absorbed in government and consequently lost touch with the base," says Shafik Samerai, chairman of the political science department at the University of Baghdad. But Dr. Samerai, who himself won the election of the university party organization, says that mostly unpopular, inactive members are losing their posts. "The prevailing trend so far has been the democratic trend," says Samerai, a party member since 1955. He and other party veterans expect the elections to bring about major changes in the upper hierarchy of the Baath party, but others question how high up the changes will reach. Some party members, when questioned, expressed strong doubts that the most prominent old guards - Saddam and his closest aides - will be touched. "They remain the pillars of the party and for all their shortcomings, party members still respect their past struggle and their diligence," says one veteran party member speaking on condition of anonymity. Saddam and his aides, according to their supporters and opponents alike, are known for being workaholics, but many members now blame them for the authoritarian, individualistic style of leading the party. Critics of Saddam's way of running the party remain unable to voice their opinions in party meetings for fear of retaliation by the powerful security apparatus. But in an apparent effort to encourage an internal debate and to regain the commitment of party members, Saddam has allowed - for the first time - members to resign without the usual security-force harrassment and interrogation. The leadership now seeks to keep members from leaving the party through persuasion rather than coercion, according to Baathist sources. The debate about the need for party reform has gone on for years, but it was the failure of party leaders in the south and the north to cope with the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions last March that prompted more substantive change. "Many [party leaders] failed to take the initiative. They simply waited for orders from Baghdad instead of acting," Samerai notes, the party member and University of Baghdad professor. The government has said that rebels executed thousands of Baathist officials - sometimes with their families and sometimes with grisly methods - especially in the south. Political analysts say this retaliation against local Baathists has shocked the party and underscored the widening, hostile gap between the people and the party. Yet the widespread killings of Baathist officials, including some artists and intellectuals, has renewed and strengthened the bond between party members and the regime.

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Fates linked to party "A Baathist identity card was enough to get a person killed whether he was Shiite, Kurd, or Sunni. This has alarmed party members [into thinking] that their fate is linked, maybe [more] than ever, with the continuation of the regime," says Saed Naji Jawad, chairman of the international relations department at the University of Baghdad. But Saddam is said to be aware that this realization is not enough to ensure the allegiance of party members. Because Iraq's is a one-party system, membership isn't necessarily a sign of commitment to Baathist ideals. According to official figures, party membership is more than 1 1/2 million, out of a population of 18 million. But in the last decade, membership has become a prerequisite for promotion and sometimes for admission to a university. In short, it is a passport to social, political, and even financial upward-mobility. Now even senior officials admit that this expansion of the party has engendered the spread of nepotism, corruption, and the prevalence of opportunists in key party posts. Perhaps the worst consequence is the alienation of the younger generation - between 18 and 40 years old - who lack the zeal of the early Baathist pioneers, say Baathist officials. The country's continuing state of war since 1980 has deepened their alienation, according to officials and academics. As a result, tens of thousands of young people have only known the hardships, horror, and tragedies of war. They have had no time for intellectual, political, or philosophical debates. "I ... wanted my life," says Ali, a 34-year-old who spent 11 years in the army. "I did not have the chance to build a career or a future, let alone to think about political ideas. I am very tired." He has had to forget about his university degree in agriculture to work as a waiter in an upper-class restaurant. He would not give his last name.

Elections not enough According to Saedi Mehdi Saleh, the speaker of National Assembly, the party will now give special attention to the youth. "We shall have a special program for the young people" he said in a recent interview with the World Wide Television Network. But young people say in interviews that elections are not enough as long as constraints on political freedoms continue. They are disappointed that so far there has been no free debate at the party's grassroots level to reassess government and party policies - including last year's invasion of Kuwait. "We have no role - the most the young party members can expect so far is to execute orders without discussion. Otherwise many young people are just using the party to attain positions in the government," says a young university researcher who would not speak for attribution.

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