BAGHDAD, Iraq – The top U.S. administrator in Iraq announced on Friday an easing of the ban on members of Saddam Hussein's disbanded party, a move that will allow thousands of former Baathists to return to their positions in the military and government bureaucracy.
Most Iraqi leaders welcomed the change, saying the strong purge had been a mistake from the start and fueled the anti-U.S. insurgency. The policy change, however, could face opposition, particularly among Kurds (search) and Shiites (search) who were brutally suppressed by Saddam and welcomed the purge of his followers.
Eradicating the Baath Party (search) was a good policy, but its implementation needs overhauling, L. Paul Bremer (search), the top administrator, announced in an address on U.S.-run Al-Iraqiya television.
He said more military officers who served in Saddam's army but have clean records would be allowed to join the new army being constructed from scratch by the U.S.-led coalition.
Bremer's speech was aired with an Arabic voiceover. A transcript of his remarks in English was not immediately available.
On Thursday, the Bush administration said it intended to permit thousands of Iraqis who swore allegiance to Saddam's political machine to take themselves off the U.S. blacklist.
Only alleged criminals, expected to face trials, will remain automatically excluded along with the top four levels of Saddam's Baath party and the three most senior levels of ministries of the fallen leader's government, an official of the U.S.-led coalition had said in a telephone interview Thursday from Baghdad.
But other Iraqis who have been banned, including 14,000 discharged school teachers, will get their jobs back if they can make the case that they were party members in name only, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In addition, the process of appealing disqualifications will be speeded up so Iraqis can get rulings more quickly, the official said.
Also, Iraqis who served in Saddam's army, including generals and other senior officers, are needed for the new Iraqi army and will be absorbed at quickly — provided they are found not to have engaged in criminal activity, the official said.
Gen. John Abizaid (search), the head of Central Command, disclosed last week that the military was reaching out to former senior Iraqi army officers to help shore up the struggling Iraqi security services
The policy of excluding Baathists was popular with some Iraqis, but Bremer also was receiving complaints that the appeals process was too slow and that too many people remained disqualified even for teaching jobs, the official said.
The new change comes during the bloodiest month since the U.S. occupation began, with U.S. forces fighting Sunni Muslim insurgents in the center of the country and Shiite militiamen in the south.
The U.S.-led coalition disbanded the 350,000-member Iraqi army and outlawed the Baath Party shortly after Saddam was overthrown.
The decision was at first popular. But it led to widespread unemployment, especially among the Sunni minority that formed the core of Saddam's regime, some of whom joined the ranks of the anti-U.S. insurgency, Iraqis and U.S. commanders say.
The heavy-handed push of Baathists out of government positions also cost the country needed expertise at a time when it is trying to rebuild. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search) criticized the de-Baathification program last week, saying, "It is difficult to understand that thousands upon thousands ... of professionals sorely needed in the country have been dismissed."
In Fallujah, an overwhelmingly Sunni city that has been the site of some of the worst fighting, a top Marine commander said that some of the insurgents are unemployed army officers driven to fight out of frustration.
Col. John Coleman, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said his soldiers are trying to differentiate between hardcore rebels who will fight to the death and former officers who might be persuaded to lay down their arms.
Marine commanders warned Thursday that guerrillas in Fallujah have only days to hand over their heavy weapons or face a possible attack.
Early Thursday, Marines launched an assault against the village of Karma, just outside of Fallujah, in a second attempt to force out guerrillas there.
"The enemy is taking casualties; we are not," Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis said.
Last week, fierce fighting in the village left 100 insurgents dead, according to Marine commanders.
During Thursday's meeting with the council, Bremer pointed to the Education and Health Ministries as instances where former Baathists could make a contribution, an aide of Shiite Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji said.
Al-Khafaji did not oppose the relaxing of the purge, saying there is a difference between "Saddamists, who were serving Saddam, and the Baathists who were not Saddamists. Those [Baathists] could be brought back," said the aide, Sheik Fateh Kashef al-Ghataa.
Othman welcomed the changes in de-Baathification, but said they were "a bit late."
Dismissing the Baath "created unemployment and a lot of people went into the streets with guns and became enemies," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.
He said that U.S. administrators "see now that they were not right with the quick options."
But the idea of allowing people who benefited from Saddam's regime back into positions of influence is likely to face some opposition.
"A few eyebrows were raised" at the council meeting with Bremer, said a Kurdish official who attended the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some are concerned that the Baathists are getting back in the system."
Council member Ahmad Chalabi, a close ally of the Pentagon and a longtime Saddam opponent, has led the De-Baathification Commission (search) in charge of pushing former party members out of government and hearing appeals from those who want to keep their jobs. The commission has been so aggressive that even some U.S. officials have complained that it was getting rid of people with needed expertise.
Saddam's Baathist party was in power for some 34 years and controlled almost all sectors of society. Teachers, civil servants and army officers were often required to join the party. Some 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people are believed to have been party members.
In the southern city of Basra, the death toll from a series of homicide bombings Wednesday that target police stations rose to 74 dead and at least 160 wounded, said Dominic d'Angelo, coalition spokesman in southern Iraq.
It was not immediate clear if the toll rose due to a more precise counting or if some of the wounded had died.