BAGHDAD, Iraq – The United States declared Saddam Hussein's Baath Party dead Sunday, with the war's commander telling Iraqis that the instrument of their deposed dictator's power was dissolved and promising to purge its influence from the country it dominated for 35 years.
Gen. Tommy Franks' message, delivered in Arabic by an announcer on the coalition's Information Radio, broadcast a clear message over the AM radio waves across postwar Iraq: Any activity by Baath Party holdouts who oppose U.S. occupation will not be tolerated.
"The Arab Baath Socialist Party is dissolved," Franks said, but high difficulties remain in genuinely eliminating it.
American administrators are struggling to balance the need for a fresh start with an unwelcome reality -- that thousands of Iraq's civil servants had Baath affiliations.
Franks' order came a month after American troops invaded Baghdad and drove out Saddam's regime, which used intrigue and terror to make sure the minority Sunni Muslim-dominated party extended its reach and control into all corners of Iraqi society.
The statement told Iraqi citizens to collect and turn in any materials they had relating to the party and its operations. It called them "an important part of Iraqi government documents."
Unseating the Baath, which advocated Arab unity but became a personal tool of Saddam and his lieutenants, was considered a top priority of American military planners in the run-up to the Iraq war, which began March 20 and largely ended by mid-April.
Banning was the next logical step -- one that has followed American military victories in the past. Allied occupiers banned the Nazi Party in Germany after World War II, and the Fascist Party also was banned in Italy. But lower-level party figures were rehabilitated if they renounced the old regimes and were cleared of specific criminal wrongdoing by tribunals.
The general's order Sunday was in some ways academic, given that the Baath regime is no more and the U.S. military and its civilian administrative counterpart occupy the country.
But some upper-level government and party leaders, including Saddam, remain unaccounted for. The United States says it has made hunting them down a high priority.
For Iraqis who lived under Saddam's brutality for entire lifetimes, the news was unthinkable mere months ago -- a coda to the convulsions of history they have spent recent weeks watching from front-row seats.
"The people are liberated from fear, from their chains. We were living in a big prison," said Amir Sadi, 25, of Baghdad. "The Baath Party was like a gang. It wasn't a political party."
Whatever it was, it was everywhere.
In the weeks since fighting ebbed, the U.S. occupying force's administration has moved to appoint its own overseers to government ministries and bring people back to work with an eye toward excluding Baathists who worked closely with the Saddam regime.
However, membership or affiliation with the party was required for many government and professional jobs, and American officials have acknowledged that purging one-time Baathists from the ranks of Iraq's civil service entirely may be neither possible nor desirable.
That could prove contentious. The acting health minister was the subject of a demonstration by doctors last week because of his political past and Baath links, and more such protests are likely.
Franks' statement also said that "apparatus of Iraqi security, intelligence and military intelligence belonging to Saddam Hussein are deprived of their authority and power."
The general emphasized, though, that freedom of expression -- including political expression -- would be ensured under coalition occupation.
"All parties and political groups can take part in the political life in Iraq, except those who urge violence or practice it," he said.
The Baath Party lurched to power briefly in Iraq in 1963 before staging its takeover in 1968. Saddam, who reportedly got his start in the party as a clandestine killer, was a Baath force starting in the late 1960s but did not formally grab control until 1979.
As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party. But only about 25,000 to 50,000 were full-fledged members -- the sort of elite targeted by U.S. officials.
The Baath Party was founded in neighboring Syria in 1943 and spread across the Arab world, promoting Arab superiority and Arab unity with a violent, Soviet-style party structure. Syria is ruled by a rival Baath faction headed by President Bashar Assad.
The Baath's specter still looms in Iraq. In recent days, anti-Saddam graffiti on walls in the Jadiriyah neighborhood have been defaced, with all the words painted over except one: "Saddam." That makes Iraqis wonder: Are its forces in hiding, waiting for their moment?
"We are not free to express our opinions," said Hamid Haidar, a driver, informed of the Baath's demise. "We are tired and in a miserable state."