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US revs up reversal of Iraq's Baath purge

Members of Saddam Hussein's party were ousted from Iraq's ministries and military in 2003. Now the US wants to reintegrate many disenfranchised former Baathists.

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After the invasion, they were Iraqi pariahs, seen by Americans as remaining too loyal to Saddam Hussein to be trusted.

Members of the ruling Baath party, many of them Sunni Arabs, were purged from the country's ministries and military in an aggressive de-Baathification program initiated by then US administrator Paul Bremer and, later, misconstrued by the new Shiite political elite to serve their ambitions.

But now the Americans are trying to reverse much of the impact of the de-Baathification policies. Analysts and the US itself say that that approach – along with disbanding the former army – polarized Iraqi society and helped fuel the violent Sunni-led insurgency.

Reintegrating many former Baath Party members, as a way to weaken support for the insurgency, has become one of Washington's top priorities and a cornerstone of its new strategy here.

In fact, US zeal for reversing de-Baathification has been so intense that a source close to the process told the Monitor that Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi was summoned to Washington in mid-March to discuss the issue. Upon his return to Baghdad, the source says, he met with former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to draft a bill to reform anti-Baath policies.

Before leaving Iraq, Mr. Khalilzad lobbied hard for the bill, the Iraqi source says, wanting President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sign it ahead of a recent Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, a gesture of goodwill to Sunnis in Iraq and to those in the region critical of the Shiite government's perceived treatment of their Iraqi coreligionists.

"The prime minister was fuming because of the pressure, and how such an issue was being used by the White House for its argument with Congress on funding for the war," said the source, who added that Mr. Maliki's only solace was that his Shiite allies in parliament, who include partisans of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, would realize "how pro-Baath the bill is and would change it."

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