The United States has launched a drive to purge Iraq of any traces of the Baath party, which Saddam Hussein used to dominate and terrorize his country. VOA's Michael Drudge reports from Baghdad on the difficulties that lie ahead for what is called the de-Baathification program.

Saddam Hussein joined the Arab Baath Socialist Party in Baghdad in 1956, when he was just 19-years-old.

The party had been founded in Syria nine years earlier, and it advocated a philosophy of Arab unity, independence and socialism. The Baathists took control of Iraq in 1963 through a military coup.

For Saddam Hussein, the Baath party provided his path to power. He worked tirelessly during the 1970s to move up through the ranks, eventually becoming president of Iraq in 1979.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Baath party extended its tentacles to all levels of society, and it controlled Iraq through an elaborate system of patronage and terror. With Saddam Hussein's ouster, the United States has banned the party as part of a campaign to purge Iraq of the last vestiges of Baathism.

The American administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, says the 30,000 highest ranking Baathists will hold no jobs in the American-run provisional administration. "We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office. We have hunted down and will continue to deal with those members of the old regime who are sabotaging the country and the coalition's efforts," he said.

But Mr. Bremer also admits the coalition may still have to rely on the skills of lower-ranking Baathists to help get Iraq back on its feet. "We have a very difficult problem. We are trying very hard to work with the Iraqis to restore essential services in health, education, water, electricity. We are working as hard as we can with the people in those ministries who are available and who are technically competent," he said. "In some cases we have found people who have offered to work with us have turned out to be members of the Baath party, and those people have been put out of office when we found that out. This will be a difficult problem."

The case of Dr. Ali Shnan is a good example of the challenges the coalition faces.

Earlier this month he was appointed as the senior Iraqi administrator at the Health Ministry, where he had been the number three official during the Saddam Hussein regime.

His appointment by the Americans triggered angry protests by young doctors. They said he was part of the Baathist system that withheld care to people suspected of anti-Saddam sentiments.

Dr. Shnan denied involvement with those policies, telling reporters he only carried out his duties like any other employee in the health system. He spoke at a news conference organized by the American adviser to the Health Ministry, Stephen Browning, who had expected Dr. Shnan to publicly denounce the Baath party.

Instead, Dr. Shnan said a purge of Baathists would be unrealistic. "It would be wrong to hint that Baathists don't have the right for representation within Iraq. And that is because the registered Baathists in Iraq was about 11 million members," he said.

Dr. Shnan said he joined the party to get a good job, and he would quit the party to keep it. "In the old regime it was just an expectation to be a member of the Baath party if you wanted a job. The coalition forces have replaced the Baath party, and we are people that know how to follow and serve our people," he said.

The next day, Mr. Browning demanded and received, Dr. Shnan's resignation. "I requested his resignation because I said that you know for me, in my position, given the atrocities of the Baath party, I am not comfortable working with anyone who does not publicly disavow the Baath party," he said.

Mr. Browning says Dr. Shnan told him he is simply too afraid to come out in public and speak against the Baath party. "He is afraid that ultimately the Baath party may come back to power or that there is an underground Baathist movement which would hurt him or members of his family," he said.

Other Iraqis say they also are afraid of retributions for their past associations with Baathism.

One businessman told VOA he joined the party as a low-ranking member to avoid harassment from the Saddam Hussein regime. Now, he says, he would like to go to work for the provisional administration. But he worries that his party membership will come back to haunt him.

The irony, he says, is that once he was afraid not to be a Baath party member. And now he's afraid because he was one.