Washington Starts Hiring Iraqi Stooges As Front For Hand Over Of "Sovereignty"
U.S., Seeking to Stabilize Iraq, Casts Baathists in Lead Roles
By JOHN F. BURNS and IAN FISHER
Published: May 3, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 2 ? To American officers who chose him, Gen. Amer Bakr al-Hashimi had one overriding qualification for his recent appointment as commander of Iraq's new army: Among 11,000 generals under Saddam Hussein, he was one of a handful who had refused to join Mr. Hussein's Baath party.
But during a meeting with other former Iraqi generals this past week, when General Hashimi was asked by a reporter what he thought of having served under Mr. Hussein, he responded: "I feel proud."
The fact that the man named by the Americans to head the new army would not distance himself from Mr. Hussein indicates how far things have moved in the past month. Confronted by uprisings in Falluja and Najaf, and a surge of anti-American violence elsewhere, the American occupation authority has cast about urgently for new ways of stabilizing the country before matters spin out of control, the nightmare of many senior American officials here.
Along the way, L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the occupation authority, has revised policies that had seemed all but immutable as long as Iraq was bumping along, unsteadily but still surely, toward the transfer of sovereignty on June 30.
Like a storm-tossed ship's master calling all hands, he has reached out to members of the old government, holding out the prospect of return to thousands of former officials and Baath Party members.
On Friday, the change in tone was on dramatic public display when another former general in Mr. Hussein's army, Jasim Muhammad Saleh, strode through the streets of Falluja in his old Iraqi uniform as the head of a new force of 1,000 former Iraqi soldiers assigned to quell the anti-American insurgency there.
While troublesome questions have since been raised about General Saleh's past links with Mr. Hussein's fearsome Iraqi Republican Guard that could lead to his removal, the force he is leading will still take over for the marines, who would prefer Iraqis to confront Iraqis and thus avoid stirring deeper anger against the occupation.
The purpose of this change, American officials say, is twofold. First, it is meant to help restabilize the country by inviting some of its most educated and qualified professionals to reclaim their old jobs, and ultimately help rebuild Iraq. It is also intended to reverse the precipitous erosion of American popularity here, by gaining the backing of a constituency ? stalwarts of Mr. Hussein's old bureaucracy ? who have been embittered by their outcast status since the American-led invasion last year.
But the shift risks alienating Iraq's majority population of Shiite Muslims, oppressed by Mr. Hussein's Sunni-dominated government and now widely more supportive than Sunnis of American efforts here. Some moderate Shiites have tentatively endorsed the changes in the name of stability and reconciliation. But in a Friday sermon in the Shiite southern city of Basra, one cleric freighted his criticism with a threat ? not easily ignored in a country that has seen scores of revenge killings of former Baathists.
"This is a warning to all Baathists not to be tricked by the decision of Bremer and his support for you to return to the streets or to your jobs," said the cleric, Abdulsattar al-Bahadli, a follower of the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
Mr. Sadr, now America's most wanted man in Iraq, watchful for any issue on which to build popular passions against the Americans, delivered his own sermon on Friday saying that Mr. Bremer's changes were aimed at "humiliating the Iraqis."
Mr. Bremer and his aides deny any policy reversal, saying the strict "de-Baathification" rules for weeding out the guiltiest of Mr. Hussein's subordinates remain firmly in place.
They cite the choice of General Hashimi as army commander ? whatever he may say of Mr. Hussein now ? as a prime example. When he first met American officers, as a candidate for appointment to Baghdad's City Council last year, the officers told him they did not believe that a major-general in the old army could have escaped becoming a Baath Party member.
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