Sorting The Bad From The Not So Bad

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From his prison cell, Hilal Aboud al-Bayati used to dream of U.S. troops overthrowing Saddam Hussein's regime. A member of Iraq's Academy of Sciences and father of its national computer center, he was arrested in March 2000 at his University of Baghdad office and, in a secret trial, convicted of espionage. "All we discussed in prison was when the Americans were coming," says al-Bayati, who spent nearly three years behind bars with thousands of other political prisoners.

Today U.S. troops guard the entrance to Baghdad University, but al-Bayati, who gained his freedom in October 2002 in a general amnesty granted by Saddam and has returned to the school, says he is trapped in the past. His tormentors are still in power on the wooded campus. And, to his horror, the U.S. occupiers who are trying to reopen the university are working closely with officials there who colluded with the old regime. "Americans are dealing with the wrong people," says al-Bayati. "They were tools of Saddam Hussein who sat on our chests for 35 years."

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It is a valid concern. But U.S. officials say they have to accept some compromises as they scramble to get the nation functioning again. Electricity supplies remain sporadic, garbage is mounting, and schools are only a third full. The streets are so dangerous and police so scarce that Iraqi mothers are afraid to let their daughters leave the house. Iraqis want things fixed fast, and their patience is wearing thin. Getting institutions functioning and bureaucrats back to work are necessary first steps. But what is to be done with the old bosses who were in tight with a cruel regime? Under Saddam, most high-and mid-level government officials joined the ruling Baath Party to advance their careers, as did many lower-level officials, including every police officer, letter carrier and teacher. Excluding all 1.5 million party members from the new government would mean shutting out virtually every public servant, precisely the people who know how to get things running again. "You cannot use this phrase," says Tim Carney, a former U.S. diplomat who is helping Iraq restart its industries, "but you don't want to throw out the baby with the Baath water."

For now, the U.S. occupation authority, headed by retired Lieut. General Jay Garner, is asking all Iraqi civil servants, whoever they are, to return to their desks. Said Garner in a press conference last week: "As in any totalitarian regime, there were many people who needed to join the Baath Party in order to get ahead in their careers. We don't have a problem with most of them. But we do have a problem with those who were part of the thug mechanism under Saddam." Once the U.S. identifies those in the second group, it will "get rid of them," Garner promised. Within that category, there has already been some self-selection. "The real thugs won't dare go back to work — we will throw them out," says Sala Korshed, 61, who manages the janitors and maintenance workers in the central office of state-run Rasheed Bank.

But Garner has doled out several high-level appointments to members of the Old Guard. The moves have infuriated coworkers and heightened fears among some that the defeated regime is not truly finished. Expediency is a factor. With the school year coming to a close, the Americans opted to maintain continuity at universities so students could finish their degrees and enter the job market on schedule. As a result, says Professor al-Bayati, everywhere he looks he sees colleagues who were integral figures in the old order. University president Mohammed al-Rawi, who was also Saddam's personal physician, kept his job. Al-Bayati says al-Rawi did nothing to defend him when he was framed as a spy after quitting the party in 1991 to protest Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. Al-Bayati's replacement as head of the university's computer program, Ahmed Makki Saaed, has retained his position too. Saaed, who al-Bayati says regularly denounced him as a spy for the U.S., is married to the recently nabbed Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a microbiologist whose alleged involvement in bioweapons research earned her the nickname "Mrs. Anthrax."

Al-Bayati is incensed: "Coalition forces paid a big price to get rid of Saddam. If these people are left in office, they are capable of killing liberty again." He and other professors have gathered 300 signatures petitioning the U.S. to purge regime hard-liners from the education system. Last Friday U.S. officials met with a non-Baathist academic group assembled by al-Bayati. But al-Bayati still has concerns.

Similar controversies are brewing on other fronts. Last week a group of Baghdad health-care workers gathered in front of the Palestine Hotel, home to many foreign journalists, to protest the Americans' appointment of Ali Shnan al-Janabi as Health Minister. The workers opposed al-Janabi because he is a branch member of the Baath Party and is suspected of taking money and gifts from the regime. At the State Oil Marketing Organization, a former director says he is refusing to return to work under the U.S.-appointed head of the Oil Ministry, Thamer Ghadhban, because of the man's Baathist past.

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