May 9th - Neo-Baathism
12 May 2004
Demonstration in response to the announcement that former members of the Baath Party are to get their old jobs back.
“The US fought the people of Falluja because it said they were Saddamis. Now they are letting the real Saddamis have their old jobs back. For a year we have been told there are no jobs, but suddenly there are 6000 jobs for Baathis.” Saleh was one of a few thousand men at a demonstration that went from Kahromana Square to Firdos Square against the re-employment of all but the highest-ranking former Baathists.

“The Governing Council decided this without consulting the people. Now the Baathis will be representing us. They started killing people before. They never did good things before. It is impossible. There are not enough jobs. They have to give the chance to new people.” Taalib was a politician in the Daawa Party, forced out by the Baathists.

Mehdi was employed by the Ministry of Information, fired along with 50 other workers because he did not join the Baath Party. “Now they are bringing the Baathis back we will face the same problem.” The same is true for teachers. Hassan graduated in 1991 and applied for a job as a teacher but was refused because he was not a Baath Party member.

“The employees who humiliated us are now Ministry of Education employees. After the war they said all the politicians and teachers and others would get our old jobs back but none of us did,” Hassan said.

The decision is only a public announcement and a larger scale advancement of a policy which has gone on since the US took over in Iraq. Adil went to apply for a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it reopened after the war and found the same Baathi still there on reception, refusing to let him in, telling him no, there were no jobs there for him.

Neo-Baathism, the process of slipping the old party back into power, was predictable. When the US and UK talked about De-Baathification they hinted at a massive operation but appeared to plan for much less. The regime figureheads were to be changed, its loyalties, but not its power base. The people were expecting more, especially the ones who lost people to the Baathists.

Adil’s daughter was pushed down the stairs when the Baathis raided his house to look for his brother and the head injury is still causing her problems. He was carrying a set of papers, black and white pictures of men murdered. One cousin died during torture. One was in a high position and was killed by them. His brothers were killed. In all thirteen of his relatives were killed for being Daawa Party members. He was not a member but was nonetheless sacked from his job as an engineer in the Electricity Ministry because of his brothers’ affiliations.

Likewise Hadi found himself pointed at in the street as a child: “There’s the boy whose brother was in the Daawa Party.” His brother was arrested in 1981, an engineer, and his body was brought to the family ten months later. For twenty years Hadi was pointed at. “Now they are trying to bring it back,” he said. Worse, Fadhil’s wife was arrested and spent seven years in jail while he was in exile in Iran, where he spent 25 years altogether. He said he came from Iran and got her out of jail with bribes.

“Why put the criminals back into power?” Jassim demanded. “You have to give rights first to the victims and their families.”

The difficulty is, as with all such regimes, that the majority of the qualified, experienced people, the people who know the workings of the ministries, were members of the Baath Party. As the men explained, you could lose your job for refusing to join the Party, teacher, engineer, journalist. Even students, even children, especially those in orphanages, faced coercion to join the Party.

Yasser was adamant that all of them, every person who joined the Party, were criminals, no matter if they only joined to get or keep a job. Not one of them, for him, ought to be given a job now. Who would teach the children, when all the teachers had to be Party members? People from the Daawa Party and other parties, he said. But they’re not qualified. It didn’t matter: better to have an unqualified person teaching the children than a qualified criminal, better anyone than a Baathi.

There’s something in that, of course. The choice in the end is a difficult one. In some former communist countries everyone who had been a member of the party was sacked. The teachers and so on were young graduates, inexperienced but quick to learn and although the transition was painful, it created a clean break from the past. The young graduates do not pick up the bad practices and corruption that have become second nature to the old ones; the old policies are not maintained by default or by habit.

But where is the justice for people who might argue that they sacrificed their personal beliefs in order to be of use, to teach children or to keep public services going by working in the ministries, putting their education and skills to use and seeing Party membership as a necessary evil, a means to a socially useful end? Should a line be drawn by age: those who were less than eighteen or less than twenty-one might be seen as redeemable?

If they are not sacked, where is the justice for the ones whose jobs were taken away all those years ago. I make no claim to have an answer. The promise of De-Baathification was held out, the promise of exorcism, and it would have caused hardship to some people who did not seem to deserve it and it would have brought healing and restoration, maybe retribution, to some people who lost those same jobs years ago.

Of course, the former Baathis who are now re-employed were not there to tell me their stories. The men there were all like Abdelhassan, sacked from the Ministry of Housing for not joining the party, fighting for ten years to get his job back and now watching it going back to the former Baathi. The men there were saying nothing had changed.