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Former Ba'ath Party Officials Attend Re-Education Class - 2004-09-15


In Iraq, some former members of the Saddam Hussein government are going to school: they are taking a special "DeBa'athification" course as part of the process of returning to their jobs. The course is aimed at removing the last vestiges of the Saddam Hussein regime from the new Iraq.

It is the opening lecture at a special course taught in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, and the instructor, Ali al-Furaiji, asks his students some provocative questions.

He says, "Anyone who defends the Ba'ath Party should ask, 'what did the Ba'ath Party do for you? What did Saddam Hussein do for you? Did the Ba'ath Party create Saddam Hussein or did Saddam Hussein create the Ba'ath Party?'"

Mr. al-Furaiji answers the last question himself. The Ba'ath Party created Saddam Hussein he says, and made him into a god.

This is Iraq's "DeBa'athification" course - run by a number of Iraqi political parties including the Iraqi National Congress. The program was originally approved by the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, after the U.S.-led coalition forced Saddam Hussein from power last year. The idea is to "undo" the belief system fostered by the Saddam Hussein regime in its own civil service, through discussions on Iraq's history, human rights and development.

Saddam Hussein faces a war crimes tribunal for abuses committed during his 35 years in power. Human rights groups say his crimes include a genocidal campaign against Iraq's Kurdish population - which includes the use of chemical weapons against them, massacres of opposition members after the 1991 Gulf War, and the destruction and repression of the Marsh Arab population in Iraq's south.

Throughout his rule, there were an estimated 28,000 Ba'ath Party officials holding 12 different party ranks. Officials from the four most senior levels of the party - roughly half the party roster - were retired with pensions. There are roughly 1,400 cases under appeal, while between 12,000 and 13,000 former party members were eventually allowed to return to their jobs.

Still, the class does not appear to be a case of the newly-empowered taking out their frustrations on former mid-ranking officials. Rather, Mr. al-Furaiji appeals to his students' sense of patriotism.

Saddam Hussein's oppressive government kept Iraq poor, he says, through constant fighting with Iran, Kuwait and within Iraq itself.

He says "let's look to the experience of other nations - not Germany, Japan or America - but our neighbors. Iran fought Saddam Hussein for eight years but it is now stable with a strong economy." He says Iraq's resources make it one of the wealthiest countries in the world - but it is one of the poorest states.

Mr. al-Furaiji concludes with an appeal to his students to change Iraq from what he calls a "country of death" into a peaceful nation.

He says, "Your role is very important. You should have a role, we should work together and we should forget what happened."

On this day, many of the roughly 100 students in attendance are from the education sector - the school principals, administrators, and officials from the Ministry of Education. They were level eight functionaries - the most senior Ba'ath party officials allowed to remain at their jobs, because they have skills that Iraq needs.

The class can get emotional. Part of the curriculum includes showing the students photos of mass graves, many of the people victims of Saddam Hussein's massacres of the Kurdish population after the Gulf War.

Mr. al-Furaiji says in a previous session, he showed his students a photo of a Kurdish woman holding her child who had been killed by chemical weapons. He says, one of the students stood up and said, "It makes me sick to think I was a member of the Ba'ath party.'"

Mr. al-Furaiji says it is accepted that many officials joined the Ba'ath Party merely because it was necessary for career advancement. The rehabilitation course, as he calls it, is not mandatory, but it is highly recommended. Former party members are asked to monitor local newspapers for lists of names called to the course - and then attend three-hour classes, twice a week, for a month.

On the first day of this session, students seem unsure of what to expect, but none say they are opposed to being there.

This woman says Iraqis didn't know anything about the abuses of human rights during the Saddam Hussein regime. After the government fell, she says, they heard about the mass graves, the destruction of the marshes and the massacres in the north - and they are disgusted by it.

This man, a school administrator, says he joined the Ba'ath Party in order to get a promotion. Since the government fell, he says his family has received death threats.

He says, a lot of former party officials want to demonstrate that they want to cooperate with the new government and join the process of rebuilding Iraq.

Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi says the DeBaathification process involves more than just the class. Efforts are also under way he says to revise school curriculums and to remove any remaining vestiges of party propaganda in Iraq's media. Mr. Chalabi says the program is vital to helping Iraq heal the wounds of its past.

There are some moves now to try to dilute the DeBa'athification process - but this is very dangerous,? Mr. Chalabi said. ?I'm told that as people are becoming aware of intentions to change the De-Ba'athification program there have been many acts of violence especially in the south against [former] Ba'athists.

In this course, there are no exams. Mr. al-Furaiji determines through the discussions whether each student has passed or failed. A successful student receives a letter to submit to a ministry or office, showing that he or she graduated. For some, that may be a key step toward joining the new Iraq.

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