WASHINGTON – Iraqi leaders trying to rebuild the country's government are struggling over whether to enlist some of Iraq's most experienced intelligence operatives.
The problem is that the officers' training comes from working at the fear-inspiring agencies once run by Saddam Hussein's ruling party.
Factions involved in the painstaking process of building the democratic government are voicing their reluctance to let former members of the Baath Party (search) into the fledgling intelligence and security services.
"There is a fear among some Iraqis that I talk to that ex-Baathists are burrowing into these organizations with the express purpose of waiting for the opportune moment, such as when the U.S. leaves, to use these security organizations to make a big move," said Kenneth Katzman (search), a Middle East expert with the Congressional Research Service (search), which provides analysis to U.S. lawmakers.
He said he believes the fears are well founded.
After forming a new intelligence service last year, outgoing interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi decided to recall some of Saddam's former intelligence operatives, including individuals working in Iran, Syria and Russia, to help staff the new service.
American intelligence veterans say the U.S. supported the move, seen as an effort to bring trained people into the government and give them jobs.
Current and former U.S. officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the CIA has been intimately involved in helping establish the organization by assisting with basic building blocks such as how to assemble intelligence information in databases and keep the material secure. The agency declined to comment for this story.
For months, however, larger issues have loomed. Shiite and Kurdish groups, persecuted during Saddam's regime but now in power, have been anxious about efforts to include former Baathists in government positions, which is one of the trickiest political questions facing the loose coalition that's forming the new government.
The Baathist-run intelligence agencies were blamed for some of the former regime's worst brutality. Yet anyone who wanted a government job had to be a member of the Baath Party, making it hard now to sort out true-believers from those who were trying to earn a living.
U.S. officials, on the alert for a sudden — or even gradual — purge, are watching closely for any number of changes in the intelligence service, including whether ex-Baathists or Iraqis deemed too close to the United States are put out of work.
While it remains unclear who will assume power in Iraq and what action they'll take, some are already sending strong signals that they will not tolerate Saddam holdovers.
"We will depend on the good elements that have no link to the former regime. They should have loyalty to Iraq and its people," said Abass Al-Bayati of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most votes in the Jan. 30 elections.
Haitham Al-Hussaini, an official from the Shiite political party the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said reform steps will be handled by "the well-known parties and figures."
"We will reconsider the Iraqi intelligence and security services to find out those who were working in the former services and have no loyalty," Al-Hussaini said.
U.S. decision-makers don't want a fracturing of security efforts because it likely would prove embarrassing and make it harder for the United States to reduce its presence in Iraq. On a trip there this month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) warned against house cleaning of the leadership of security organizations.
"My personal hope and the hope of the United States is that those judgments will reflect a desire to have highly competent people who are not going to politicize security forces," Rumsfeld said.
But the potential confrontation puts the United States in a difficult spot: American officials want new Iraqi institutions, including the intelligence service, to be stable and employ individuals from a variety of political backgrounds. Yet they also want to ensure the new government is not penetrated by former elements loyal to Saddam who may use their position for harm.
"If the U.S. were to substantially pull out — and let's say there were a coup — it would be a big black mark on the U.S. record in Iraq," Katzman said.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Middle Eastern specialist with the CIA, said he believes it's likely there will be a "cleansing" of the intelligence service, which is considered compromised. The new government, he said, will pay close attention to ties between any current or potential intelligence service members and the Sunni-led insurgency.
"There will not be former senior Baathists or others who were involved directly in the oppression of the Shiites and Kurds under Saddam Hussein. I don't think there is any chance in the world that the new government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds, would allow this," said Gerecht, now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank.