DeBaathification is one of the lasting legacies of the American occupation of Iraq. Passed in May 2003 by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) the effort to rid the country of the Baath Party quickly took on a life of its own that continues with the current Iraqi government. DeBaathification was not a vetting process meant to weed out the good and the bad. Rather it set out to ban the top ranks of the party, but then quickly expanded to any Baathist in a politicized, open ended effort that lacked due process, and coherent guidelines. While it had many supporters in both the U.S. and Iraq, there were just as many detractors. It ended up dividing the country, and hindered the development of a new Iraqi government and democracy.
The Baath was one of the most successful authoritarian parties in modern history. By the end of 2002, it had just under 4 million members. From 1986 to 2002 it increased 140% as Saddam Hussein attempted to maintain control of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War, and then the sanctions period following the Gulf War by reaching out to young people and women. Out of an estimated 25 million people in 2002, Baathists were 16.5% of the population. That was much higher than the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Party members who had actual power were only about 4% of Iraq, while the party elite was around 2.4% of the populace. Towards the top of the party were Secretary Generals, amin sir, who set policies and had power over the military. Branch members, udhu fir, led party sections, could order arrests, use weapons, and had some authority over the security forces. A section member, udhu shu’ba, led cells, and supervised and could work with local security forces. A division member, uhdu firqa, implemented orders, and could oversee the security forces and local administrators. Below that were the lower level party members consisting of active members, udhu amil, apprenticed members, udhu mutadarib, candidates, murashih, advanced supporters, nasir mutaqadin, supporters, nasir, and sympathizers, muayid, all of which belonged to party cells. By 2002 there were 69 party branches across the country, 612 sections, 3,787 divisions, 32,852 cells run by 76 Secretary Generals, 1,027 branch members, 6,128 section members, 45,537 division members, 223,662 active members, 254,081 apprenticed members, 27,242 candidates, 1,113,211 supporters, and 2,328,080 sympathizers. DeBaathification was originally supposed to only affect the top four party levels, approximately 52,700 people, that it was assumed had participated in crimes. It was later applied to far more than that with many exceptions. DeBaathification was not a vetting process to see which Baathists could remain in office, and which could not, but was rather more like a purge of anyone the authorities felt needed to be removed or retired.
The Bush administration liked to compare Saddam’s Iraq to Nazi Germany, but was divided on what to do with the Baath Party. The State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency wanted to get rid of Saddam and a couple of other leaders only, while the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney called for a broad purge of Baathists. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was in the middle. Early in 2003 the Defense Department and Cheney won the debate. Ahmad Chalabi had the ear of both of them, and pushed the idea that Saddam was like Hitler and needed a deNazification process. That comparison didn’t quite hold up. DeNazification did not hold all senior Nazis accountable or stop them from returning to office. It was more of a vetting process meant to keep the German government running after World War II. More importantly, it didn’t seem that the administration even studied how deNazification worked to help plan the deBaathification it would soon order.
How to deal with the Baath Party on the ground in Iraq also created divisions. After the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, General Tommy Frank’s Freedom Message to Iraqis bared the Baath Party. Afterward, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA) under Jay Garner followed a mild deBaathification approach. It only disqualified the 55 top party members on the deck of cards wanted list, and anyone implicated in crimes. Otherwise, it allowed hundreds of Baathists to return to work. That quickly changed when Paul Bremer arrived in Iraq in May and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was announced. Bremer received a draft deBaathification law from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith who wanted it implemented immediately. Four days after Bremer landed in Baghdad he issued CPA Order 1 banning the Baath Party. The top four party ranks, Secretary General, branch member, section member, and division members were barred from working in the government. That was quickly expanded to the three highest levels of administration in each office, and criminals. That meant that any Baathist could be included no matter what the rank. That immediately created opposition from people like Garner, and the CIA station chief in Baghdad Charlie Sidell. They went to Bremer warning him that such a broad deBaathification effort would create tens of thousands of opponents to the CPA. They pushed for only the top two tiers of the party to be excluded. Bremer replied that he was under orders from Washington. He also believed in getting rid of the Baathists, and thought it would be a strong statement about the dramatic transformation the U.S. was hoping to bring to the country. The CPA head went on to promote deBaathification as being just like deNazification to help justify it. (1) After the order came out others came out against it as well. That included General David Petraeus who was then the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division in Mosul, and General Ricardo Sanchez, the commanding general of Coalition forces in Iraq. The former was afraid that getting rid of Baathists would cause people to turn against the Americans and deprive the government of needed officials, while the latter thought that the CPA never paid attention to how to implement the order or its effects. By the end of his time in Iraq, Bremer also understood that deBaathification had backfired, cutting into the bureaucracy much deeper than he thought, and banning far more than he had envisioned. The executive director of the deBaathification Commission Ali al-Lami later told the Washington Post that 150,000 people were banned from May to September 2003. The Pentagon and Bremer wanted to make their mark on Iraq. They considered the Baath a totalitarian party that needed to be rooted out of Iraqi society. The various officials who came out against it were not able to change the policy, but eventually Bremer saw the error of his ways. The problem was that by then, the process was out of his control.
Ahmad Chalabi quickly took over deBaathification, and ran with it. In July 2003, the CPA created the Iraqi Governing Council. The next month, when Chalabi was the rotating president of the Council it created the deBaathification Commission. Then in September, Chalabi became its chairman, and appointed Mithal al-Alusi as its director. Alusi was a former Baathists himself who went into exile in the 1970s. The staff that was hired mostly came from the Shiite religious parties, while Chalabi centralized control over the commission. He immediately expanded its scope by adding more party levels, including people who had been kicked out of the party before 2003, banned those belonging to “oppressive institutions” or involved in stealing or corruption, and created deBaathification offices in each ministry. He then cancelled all previous reinstatements, and took over the appeals process, even though there were no rules for how that would work. In early 2004 the Commission issued regulations about its powers. It said it would oversee all information about the Baath, all personnel in the ministries, control all exemptions, said that only certain party members had the right to appeal, and if they did, they would lose their pension if they were rejected. This new approach led to a dispute with the CPA, but by then the Americans had no real influence over the matter. In April 2004, Bremer attempted to add due process procedures, and later rescinded the order authorizing the Commission, but they had little actual effect. At the same time, the Dawa Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan supported deBaathification, which was more than enough to keep the process moving forward. At the same time, the Shiite religious parties saved some Shiite Baathists, and re-employed them making them dependent upon those same organizations. This was part of a larger process where a little over 100,000 former Baathists were brought back into the government to help with administration. Under Chalabi deBaathification became an open ended and politicized process. Any Baathist was open to investigation even if they had left the party before the 2003 invasion. The ruling parties could pick out people they wanted, and exempt from the process. This was when Bremer saw the errors of the policy, but it was too late. The Iraqis were now in control, and they were not going to let go.
In June 2005 when Iyad Allawi was made interim prime minister, he immediately came into conflict with Chalabi and the deBaathification Commission. The new premier wanted to limit deBaathification to only a small group of party leaders, as he was a former Baathist himself, and did not see the party in the same light. Chalabi refused to change his policy. This feud was not just about politics, but became a personal one between Allawi and Chalabi. The Commission went to the Shura Council, a part of the Justice Ministry, and got a favorable ruling to continue with its work. At the same time, the Council said that there could be new limits placed on deBaathification. Afterward, the cabinet said that all contacts with the Commission had to go through it. Shortly after that, Mithal al-Alusi faced criminal charges, and was removed from his position. The government then got rid of three more members of the Commission, cut its funding, and attempted to evict it from its offices in Baghdad. It also drafted a new law to replace the Commission. Unfortunately for Allawi he was not in office long enough to carry through with his plans. Allawi’s Iraqi National List was based upon former Baathists like himself and ex-military men. He therefore had the exact opposite opinion of Chalabi and the deBaathification Commission, which was to go after any former regime member they wanted to. He could not win this war however as he made way for a new government in 2005.
The parties that wanted to rid the country of the Baath Party were the ones that took power in the 2005 elections. After the January 2005 vote, the United Alliance led by the Shiite religious parties won the most seats in parliament, and eventually got Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa Party elected prime minister. Chalabi was named his deputy. Shortly afterward, the new government was ordered to cooperate with the deBaathification Commission. Its work was later included in the 2005 constitution, it banned candidates in the 2005 elections, and influenced the trial of Saddam Hussein. Article 7 and 135 prohibited the Baath Party, and said that all government offices were subject to deBaathification. Before the December 2005 balloting, the Commission tried to bar 170 candidates even though both Chalabi and the new director Ali al-Lami were candidates. The Election Commission objected, claiming that it was given multiple lists of banned politicians with different names on them just before the voting with little evidence against them. The Election Commission only ended up banning 40 candidates. Finally, the deBaathification Commission tried to insert itself into the trial of Saddam. First, it objected to many of the judges and staff on the tribunal being former Baathists. Three times it stopped personnel from participating for their ties to the former regime, and eventually got 19 employees of the tribunal to quit including the administrative director. The U.S. stepped in and stopped any of the judges from being dismissed, but the Commission did succeed in getting the president Judge Said al-Hammashi being transferred. Giving into this pressure, the tribunal eventually created its own deBaathification committee in 2006, and agreed to get rid of more of its staff. After Saddam was sentenced to death, the Commission told four judges they could transfer or face deBaathification. Given the make-up of the new government, and the support it gave to deBaathification it was no surprise that the commission would expand its power and try to influence the new political system. Although not always successful it did play a role in the voting process and Saddam’s trial, and most importantly was given constitutional legitimacy. The Commission therefore could continue its work as long as it wanted. For the Shiite religious and Kurdish parties, they supported the process, because they still feared the return of the Baath Party, and believed that many party members deserved to be excluded and prosecuted for their crimes.
When the civil war took off into high gear in 2006, the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came under increasing pressure from Washington to reform the deBaathification process in an effort to appease Sunnis. In June 2006, Maliki said he would revise the process in an attempt at reconciliation, but nothing came of it. In March and August 2007 he tried again, but was shot down by the Shiite and Kurdish parties. Chalabi even offered to loosen the deBaathification rules, and claimed that 2,300 high-ranking Baathists would get their jobs back or pensions in 2007. Eventually these different ideas coalesced into the Accountability and Justice Law, which was passed in January 2008 despite much opposition. It basically continued the same process, but simplified it, and offered more opportunities for some Baathists to receive pensions. The new Accountability and Justice Commission immediately became a point of contention. First, Chalabi and Lami argued that the new law allowed the old deBaathification members to maintain their positions in the new commission. Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi believed that an entirely new leadership should be appointed. Not only that, but Lami called for all former Baathists in the government to apply for reinstatement or retirement under the new law, and received 41,000 applications as a result. This started another argument over the approval process in the cabinet and parliament. That controversy finally ended when the Americans arrested Lami in September for alleged connections to Iranian backed Special Groups. He was not released until July 2009 as part of a political deal. Without Lami, the new commission stalled, and the cabinet was successful in stopping some of its work. When Lami returned to office, he went to the Supreme Court and Shura Council, and successful got the old deBaathification Commission to become the new Accountability and Justice Commission. Ironically, by the time the Accountability and Justice Law was passed, the civil war was coming to an end, and there was not as much pressure to appease the Sunnis so that they would give up fighting. Instead, the new Accountability Commission caused a battle over who would control it. Chalabi and Lami were eventually able to win that match, and stay in power.
The Accountability Commission would soon make its mark in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Like in 2005, Chalabi and Lami were once again running for office, which would make their decisions all the more controversial. In January 2010 the commission went after former Baathists, intelligence and security officials, and those they claimed promoted the Baath Party just before the vote. In total, it wanted to ban 511 candidates including some sitting parliamentarians, 15 parties, and 376 military and police officers. That included Salah al-Mutlaq the head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the director of military intelligence, the commander of the Federal Police, and many members of secular and Sunni parties. After a long drawn out battle more than 170 candidates appealed their cases, and 26 won. The Election Commission also refused to disqualify 52 others. After the balloting, the Accountability Commission went after some of the winners. When negotiations started for putting together the new ruling coalition, the ban on the lawmakers was dropped. That eventually allowed Mutlaq to become a deputy premier. At the same time, Lami became the head of the commission as Chalabi was elected to the legislature. In May 2011, Lami was assassinated, and the commission lost much of its power without its dynamic leader. The next month, Maliki dismissed Chalabi from the commission, and replaced him with Human Rights Minister Mohammed Soudani from the Dawa Party. In September, the prime minister dismissed two Chalabi allies from the commission and replaced them with his own followers. This political struggle meant that the 7 commissioners were not appointed until July 2012. Falah Shanshal of the Sadr trend was elected its head with Omar al-Qadhi of the Kurdish Coalition his deputy. That didn’t stop Maliki from trying to replace Shanshal in February 2013. That same month, Maliki issued orders through the cabinet to cancel all the decisions of the Accountability and Justice Commission while it was under Shanshal’s leadership. It wasn’t until July that parliament confirmed Shanshal in his position in a deal between the Sadrists, Supreme Council, and Mutahidun. DeBaathification was always open to political manipulation by Chalabi and the ruling parties. Its bold attacks upon candidates in the 2010 elections showed that it could be used as a powerful tool in shaping new governments. That led Maliki to attempt to take over the Accountability Commission, which was eventually spoiled by his rivals that did not want the premier to extend his influence into the deBaathification process.
Today, there is renewed talk of reforming the anti-Baathist legislation. In the spring of 2013, the cabinet agreed to amend the Accountability and Justice Commission by allowing division members to no longer face disqualification as part of a reconciliation deal between Maliki and Mutlaq aimed at the protests, which started in Sunni provinces at the end of 2012. The Sadrists, Fadhila, and Badr parties all expressed reservations about changing the law. Even a member of Maliki’s own State of Law came out against any amendments saying that the Baathists should be given no concessions. The Iraqi National Movement (INM) initially supported the changes, because it backed the protest movement, but now may not be willing to back it, because Maliki could claim it as a victory. The Shiite parties have always been the strongest supporters of deBaathification, and see no reason to appease the demonstrations, especially because they have taken on a sectarian tone, and some have joined the insurgency. They along with the INM and others are also thinking about the 2014 parliamentary elections, and see Maliki as their main rival. They do not want to give him any successes, which could help him out with voters. That means this talk of amending the Accountability and Justice law will likely go nowhere.
DeBaathification has had a profound impact upon Iraq. Thousands of Baathists were banned from office, crippling much of the bureaucracy. The process was not evenly felt across the government however. Many former regime members were able to get jobs in the security forces for example. The Foreign Affairs Ministry gave lots of exemptions as well, because of its need for specialized skills in international relations. The Education Ministry on the other hand lost over 18,000 of its staff, four more times than any other ministry. In comparison, the Higher Education Ministry only lost 4,361, the Agriculture Ministry 999, the Health Ministry 236, and the Science Ministry only 120. The politicization of the process allowed many public servants to get their jobs back for ties to the ruling parties. Since 2006 deBaathification has mostly been concerned with retirements and reinstatements. The basic problem with banning the Baath Party was that it was based upon mass guilt for the crimes of Saddam. That didn’t take into account the role of Baathists in running the government, and how many were culpable of actual illegal activities. People were initially dismissed with no chance to question their case beforehand. The deBaathification Commission then took up appeals, but had no rules for how that would work. There was no due process until 2010 when the Accountability Commission set up a court that heard complaints. Even then, parties were able to cut deals to get their followers exempted. Most importantly, it caused grave mistrust amongst Sunnis who believed that they were being singled out for sectarian reasons even though plenty of others were party members as well. This was one factor leading to the growth of the insurgency. The acts of the deBaathification and later Accountability Commissions in the country’s elections have also discredited the process in the eyes of many.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq could have benefited from a reconciliation process. That could have attempted to bring the population together by airing the crimes of the former regime, while at the same time moving forward. The new ruling elite however did not want anything to do with the Baath Party as a whole, and the White House wanted deep institutional changes. That led to deBaathification, which was a politicized purge. Its failure is seen in the fact that the Shiite religious parties still fear the return of the Baathists to power, while the Accountability Commission has become a prize to be controlled by the Iraq parties. It also did not help with building the new government and democracy. Instead it led to resentment amongst many Sunnis, and the insurgency. Since it is an open ended process, getting rid of Baathists will continue for years, banning candidates in elections and forcing members of the bureaucracy to retire.
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