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Two Iraqi Men's Stories Provide Closer Look Into Iraq's Baath Party - 2003-05-06

One of the challenges in post-war Iraq will be to break down the pervasive influence, both physical and psychological, of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party. Its core membership amounted to roughly five percent of Iraq's population of 25 million and membership had its privileges: it meant access to good jobs, good schools and power.

Saad was only 14 when he joined the Baath Party back in 1963. He said he was influenced by a high school teacher he greatly admired. He also respected the party's support for Arab nationalism.

He rose in the ranks and held what he calls a sensitive position. He will not say what he did but a friend said he worked as a bodyguard for one of Saddam Hussein's daughters.

But over the years he grew disenchanted with the party and how Saddam controlled it. Speaking through a translator, he talks of bribes, torture, and killings, but offers no details.

"They forced him to do something he didn't want to do. So he refused and he retired from the Baath Party. If he accepted, he would be like them and this is against my will and my principles. If I refuse directly I would be hung many, many years after torturing in jail," he said.

Saad said he retired from the party little by little to avoid drawing too much attention to himself. He left the party completely in 1994.

Even to this day, nearly ten years later, he says he is still afraid of them. He is reluctant to give his full name for his own protection. "Fear is existence. And I am still afraid of everything. Also, I cannot speak frankly about what happened to me," he said.

At first, he said, he admired the strength of Saddam and the party. But that changed as the years went by. "Saddam changed the Baath Party principle from love, freedom, kindness to their ways, soldiers intelligence service. He changed everything. It's not the same principles of the Baath Party like Syria," he said.

Membership in the Baath Party in Iraq, he said, was the ticket to success. It opened the door to a good education, a good job and political and financial influence. Nobody could hold a position of power without being a Baath Party member.

Saad said he would like to see the Baath Party reorganized, but he knows it would be almost impossible now because its reputation has been destroyed.

Still, some members are trying to do just that, said Ahmed el-Neimi. He too joined the Baath Party at an early age and remains a member, though the party now has no power. He said he still meets with some of his colleagues.

The 35-year-old joined the party in 1982. He said his last job was supervising security and intelligence work in a prominent Baghdad neighborhood. He was has kept detailed files on everyone under his watch -information about them, their families, friends, work and other activities.

"I was in charge of 4,000 people who work in the Baath Party and my documents (are) about them and their lives and work," Mr. Ahmed said.

He used to walk around town with a pistol strapped to his waist. I was a dangerous man, he said.

Ahmed said he joined the party at first because he knew it was the only way to get ahead in Iraqi society. He applied for work in the intelligence service.

He said he respected Saddam, but then he learned that Saddam's people had killed two of his uncles after accusing them of spying for Israel and America.

Ahmed said he decided to stay in the party and rise to a position of power to seek his revenge, even though he did not believe he could do much. "I was working alone because I don't trust anyone else and I know exactly if Saddam knows someone who works against him he will get rid of him. He even doesn't trust his own finger," he explained.

Ahmed said he has kept the files on his party colleagues and other information about them for a reason. He said the documentation is insurance on his own life.

He fears Saddam and his Baath Party loyalists will try to re-organize and encourage a revolt against the coalition forces. He believes they could persuade many Iraqis to follow them if the U.S.-led coalition does not quickly provide stability, security and jobs to show Iraqis that life is better without Saddam.