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Iraqis struggle over Baath purge

A US campaign to eliminate Baath Party influence in Iraq is being criticized for inflexibility.

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When it comes to assessing the US campaign to cleanse Iraq of Saddam Hussein loyalists, one need look no further than an assistant's desk at Baghdad University.

Piled two feet high are petitions from students and faculty alike, appealing to US officials for favorite professors to be exempt from a decree that fires all ranking Baath Party members.

This heavy pile is bursting the sides of a thick plastic shopping bag; the handles have ripped under the weight. And these are just a few of the hundreds of petitions that have been submitted - from universities only - that illustrate the difficulties of scrubbing Iraq clean of the old regime.

While the surge of guerrilla attacks against coalition forces grab headlines - including the death of six British military policemen in southern Iraq on Tuesday - real change in Iraq is being engineered here, at government institutions.

The result so far is a tension among Iraqis about a Draconian decree, that paints the problem of de-Baathification in black and white - while in fact, many Iraqis say, it should be shades of gray.

"It's not a witch hunt. It's a very careful process - as careful as we can make it in this demanding situation," says Andrew Erdmann, a US State Department policymaker who is the top American appointed to the higher education ministry of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

He is swamped with issues emerging at university campuses across Iraq, and trying to focus on meeting emergency needs to complete an extended school year by the end of July. That means fans, air conditioners - US troops delivered a consignment to the Technical College Wednesday - and even printing examination booklets.

Jubilant scenes as students sit for class portraits, Mr. Erdmann says, are "tangible symbols that students feel that their life is progressing, that there is something beyond."

But de-Baathification is complicating the picture. According to his own proclamation on May 16, only the American chief of the occupation authority in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, can approve individual exemptions. The decree purges the top four ranks of the Baath Party. Party apparatchiks with critical skills, who "demonstrated" that they were not committed to the Baath Party under Mr. Hussein would be most likely candidates.

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