U.S. to allow ex-Baathists official posts

Unclear if move will help end guerrilla uprisings

Policy was `poorly implemented'

Suicide bombers ready, hard-line cleric warns

April 24, 2004|By James Rupert | James Rupert,NEWSDAY

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Eleven months after it swept all high-ranking members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from Iraq's government and military, the United States said yesterday that it will let many of them return to official jobs.

Washington's retreat from one of its central policies in Iraq came as it struggles to end guerrilla uprisings supported by aggrieved ex-Baathists, but it was unclear how much the move will help.

The announcement came yesterday as U.S. forces continued to surround Fallujah and the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, to the south. Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr warned in a sermon that his supporters would be ready to use suicide bombs against U.S. forces if they attacked Najaf.

"Some of the mujahedeen brothers have told me they want to carry out martyrdom attacks, but I am postponing this," al-Sadr told thousands of worshipers during his Friday prayer sermon at the main mosque in Kufa, near Najaf.

"When we are forced to do so and when our city and holy sites are attacked, we will all be time bombs in the face of the enemy," he said.

While for months the bulk of guerrilla resistance to the occupation was Sunni, al-Sadr's Shiite supporters rose up this month after the occupation authority issued an order for al-Sadr's arrest.

Al-Sadr has been holed up in his office in Najaf. But for the past two weeks he has moved freely from Najaf to Kufa and back to deliver noon Friday prayers - a sign that U.S. troops may be holding off on capturing him even on the roads between the two cities, which are several miles apart.

In Karbala, al-Sadr's militia attacked a convoy led by Polish troops yesterday, killing a Bulgarian soldier, military officials said. A roadside bomb killed a U.S. soldier in a 1st Infantry Division convoy north of Baghdad near the town of Samarra yesterday, the U.S. military said.

In Baghdad, the American administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, announced the loosening of the American policy on Baathists on Iraq's U.S.-backed television network, saying that the blanket dismissal of Baathists "has been poorly implemented."

He had announced the dismissal of the Baathists and dissolution of the Baathist-controlled Iraqi military May 16 in one of his first acts in office.

`Without any loyalty'

That dismissal ignited protest by Iraqis in the summer. Under Hussein, they noted, any Iraqi professional - even teachers and doctors - was required to join the Baath Party to achieve a high-level career. The anger was deepest among Sunni Muslim Arabs, who formed the bulk of Hussein's ruling elite.

"With these blanket actions, the United States dismissed 1.4 million people, sent them home just like that, without any assurances for their futures," Baghdad University political scientist Saad Jawad said in an interview in the fall. "But more than three-quarters of the Baath members had joined without any loyalty to the party's ideology or any role in its crimes."

Jawad was a rare dissident in academia under Hussein.

Since the summer, U.S. troops have fought mainly Sunni Arab guerrilla forces, and American officers say key roles in the guerrilla campaign have been played by men cashiered from the Baathist army.

The fighting has been worst in the city of Fallujah, which U.S. Marines have besieged this month in the bloodiest fighting since Washington declared in May that major combat had ended. And the occupation authority has had trouble rebuilding even the most essential government services. In many areas, U.S.-trained police forces collapsed in the face of this month's uprisings.

Bremer said yesterday that he had found merit in the complaints by Iraqis that the "de-Baathification policy has been applied unevenly and unjustly." He said former Baath Party members who can show they joined for career, not ideological, reasons may apply for official posts, although he gave few details. Iraq's U.S.-appointed defense minister will meet former senior officers of Hussein's army to discuss how ex-Baathist officers might be recruited into the new Iraqi military being built by the United States.

Arrests

Meanwhile, police in Basra arrested five Iraqis believed linked to al-Qaida and suspected in Wednesday's deadly bombings. The five men were captured with nearly 25 tons of TNT, and police were looking for another car bomb they suspected was somewhere in the city, said Basra's police intelligence chief, Khalaf al-Badran.

There was no immediate confirmation of the report by coalition officials.

The death toll from those attacks rose to 74, including at least 16 children killed when their school buses were incinerated in the blasts.

Call for weapons

Also yesterday, U.S. commanders repeated warnings that a renewed Marine assault on the central city of Fallujah could come soon unless guerrillas in the city abide by a call to surrender heavy weapons in their arsenals.

For the past two days, only a handful of weapons have been turned in - most of them "junk," according to Marines, including rusted mortar shells and dud rockets.

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said even fewer weapons were handed over yesterday than the day before, and they were "generally of the same low quality."

Kimmitt would not say if there was a deadline for weapons to be surrendered, but added, "Our patience is not eternal. ... We're talking days."

Handing over heavy weapons would be tantamount to surrendering for the city's guerrillas. They have gone to great lengths to hide their arsenals.

"Unless they're really intimidated and think they're going to lose a future fight - which the Sunni insurgents are not - or unless they think they're going to be part of a future political solution - which they don't - they're going to resist," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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