The Logic of de-Ba’athification of Iraq: Reconstruction or Destruction?

The Logic of de-Ba’athification of Iraq: Reconstruction or Destruction?[1]


How do states deal with the legacies of former regimes and their functionaries as they move from periods of armed conflict or repressive authoritarian rule to democracy? Despite flourishing research on lustration mechanisms in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe, few studies have examined the de-Ba’athification of Iraq with a focus on its early stages. Previous research neglected nuanced explanations of the causes and consequences of de-Ba’athification, and many labelled it sectarian in a simplistic fashion. This paper investigates the logic of de-Ba’athification in Iraq by examining its origins, implementation, and effects from its inception in 2003 to 2013. Relying on a critical analysis of available primary and secondary sources, I argue that political leaders used de-Ba’athification for often contradictory and selective purposes, showing that it was not simply a type of “revenge politics”, but a rational policy used to reach specific political goals and interests. My research findings suggest that the de-Ba’athification process catalysed assertive sectarianism and facilitated consolidation of competitive authoritarianism in post-2003 Iraq.

I. Introduction

Iraq’s confrontation with the Ba’ath Party’s institutional and societal legacy is one of the most convoluted cases of transitional justice. The Ba’ath Party ruled Iraq from 1968 until the US-led invasion of 2003. Its leadership and upper echelons came exclusively from the Sunni minority and specifically the city of Tikrit, although Shi’ites and Kurds were also members of the party. The Party established a secular Arab nationalist regime based on the principles of unity, freedom, and socialism. Saddam Hussein rose to power after forcing his cousin and Iraqi president, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, out office in 1979. Hussein consolidated his authoritarian regime that operated on a system of violence, state repression, and rewards for supporters. The horrors of the Ba’ath Party are infamous, stretching from the genocidal Anfal campaign against Kurds in 1988 to the continuous repression of the Shi’ites and a prolonged war against Iran and invasion of Kuwait. Thus, a key question after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was how the US administration and the new Iraqi regime would deal with the Ba’ath Party and its functionaries. In particular, they confronted a pressing dilemma: should former Ba’ath functionaries be excluded from the new government and state structures or incorporated in it?

Following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, the US introduced a controversial lustration policy, namely de-Ba’athification. Lustration derives from the Latin word for purification in Greek. Central and Eastern European post-communist states used this concept to deal with the communist regime’s bureaucratic past. In Iraq, the de-Ba’athification’s objectives were to democratize state institutions, establish trustworthy and stable administration, and solidify irreversible political changes. Yet, the drastic social and political effects of de-Ba’athification of Iraq led many to conclude that this policy was based on witch-hunting. Although this holds some truth, it is simplistic and fails to indicate the complexities of the de-Ba’athification. Furthermore, it remains unclear why and how the US implemented it and Iraqi authorities maintained such a policy. More puzzling especially due to the dearth of academic research are the implications of de-Ba’athification and the linkages between transitional justice, institutionalization of democracy, and security in post-2003 Iraq. Few studies, if not any, have examined the role of de- Ba’athification on the destabilization of Iraq, specifically the onset of Iraqi civil war, rule of law, and Prime Minister Maliki’s consolidation of his authoritarian rule (Terrill, 2012; Meierhenrich, 2006). Thus, this study investigates the logic of de-Ba’athification and contributes to the literature by shedding light on the dynamics and effects of de-Ba’athification on the political structure and sectarianisation of post-2003 Iraq.

Through an extensive literature review and empirical investigation, I argue that political leaders used de-Ba’athification for often contradictory and selective purposes, showing that it was not simply a type of “revenge politics”, but a rational policy used to promote specific goals that became catalysers of assertive sectarianism. First, this paper examines theories of lustration and dilemmas of transitional justice in transition countries. Then, this study briefly analyses the Ba’ath Party’s administrative structure and ideology and primarily examines the de-Ba’athification of Iraq by exploring its origins, implementation, and effects. Finally, I explicate my empirical findings and implications of de-Ba’athification.

II. Lustration: A Paradoxical Transitional Justice Mechanism

How do states deal with functionaries from the previous non-democratic regime as they transition from periods of armed conflict or authoritarian rule to democracy? The presence or lack of transitional personnel systems and purification policies might negatively impact democratization and stability, due to such policies’ symbolic meaning and issues of (dis)continuity. These dilemmas have significantly influenced, to varying degrees, the transition process in the post-communist Central and Eastern European nations including, Poland and Hungary in which the impact of lustration is still felt. Furthermore, the purging and vetting of former functionaries might be paradoxical since many people were forced to work for the ousted authoritarian state or part [2].

Hilary Appel defines lustration as a “process of screening and vetting that determines the extent and nature of former functionaries’ collaboration with the former regime” (Appel, 2005). This definition, however, is limited as it only delineates lustration’s administrative nature and neglects its role as a means of institutional purification. Scholars contend that lustration is a process of purifying state organizations from their misdeeds under repressive regimes and transforming these organizations’ political culture (Boed, 1999; Cepl, 1997; Stan, 2002; Meierhenrich, 2006). On the other hand, new research demonstrates that lustration has a dual nature: administrative as well as societal ritual cleansing (David, 2011). Administrative lustration has clear organizational and security objectives in terms of screening and vetting former regime functionaries to ensure institutional reform. Nonetheless, ritual cleansing is a process of societal purification that symbolizes a departure from the former regime, advances societal democratization, and transforms political culture.

Although there are three approaches to the study of lustration, I employ David’s administrative and ritualistic purification theory to analyse the de-Ba’athification.[3]   This theory encapsulates lustration’s dual nature and explains why different countries employ divergent lustration methodologies. Roman David argues that the public’s perception of the former regime and tainted officials determines timing and type of lustration systems (David, 2011). David’s comparative research on the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary reveals that at least three types of lustration can be identified; exclusive, inclusive and reconciliatory. Exclusive lustration establishes discontinuity with the former regime through dismissals whereas inclusive and reconciliatory systems demonstrate continuity with previous regimes through the mediums of exposure and confession, respectively. Although David overemphasizes perception and departs from rationalist theories that might be helpful in explaining ruling elites’ motivations, I build upon his theory due to its accuracy, hypotheses that travel across regions and usefulness in discussing complex lustration programs. In contrast to rationalist and human rights based approaches, David’s theory allows researchers to discuss de-Ba’athification of Iraq accurately and make more nuanced arguments through using multiple specific variables. These variables are necessary to explain the convoluted nature of de-Ba’athification in a holistic fashion.

III. The de-Ba’athification of Iraq

In Iraq, lustration took the name of de-Ba’athification.[4] Paul Bremer, the US Viceroy in Iraq, disestablished and banned the Ba’ath Party and its structures, eliminated the top four upper levels of the Ba’ath Party with his first order as the leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).[5] General Order No.1 also dictated that Ba’ath members could not occupy any office in the top three levels of any government institution. Bremer’s second order disbanded the Iraqi army, demobilizing 400,000 well-trained conscripts, but failed to collect their arms and offer them a path for the future, formally erasing the Iraqi state’s institutional capacity, memory and skilled labour force.[6] Higher National De-Ba’athification Commission (HNDC) data shows that General Order 1 and 2 dismissed more than 600,000 Iraqis by 2004 (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). Why and how did the CPA and Iraqi policymakers implement such a lustration program?

Existing academic literature does not offer sufficient analysis of de- Ba’athification. Most academic publications examine the first and/or second phases of the program from a human rights perspective, but they overlook the fact that de-Ba’athification has been a transitional policy that was shaped by transitional politics and significantly influenced such politics (Stover, Megally, and Mufti, 2005; Stover et al., 2008; Saghieh, 2007; Meierhenrich, 2006). Furthermore, some studies focus on the US decision-making process and CPA’s constitutional design in relation to de-Ba’thification rather than tackling with the de-Ba’athification process, its dynamics and impact (Pfiffner, 2010; Meierhenrich, 2008). Although these two aspects are important, they only fill a gap rather than investigating this complicated and controversial program. Finally, reports on the de- Ba’athification of Iraq provide important empirical data and examine mistakes of the US government and successive Iraqi governments (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013; Terrill, 2012). However, these studies treat de-Ba’athification as a personnel system and fail to acknowledge its broader political and symbolic meaning, as well as the dilemmas of transitional justice in Iraq.

i. The Ba’athification of Iraq

In 1947, Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din Bitar and Zaki al-Arsuzi established the Ba’ath Party on the principles of “Unity, Liberty, Socialism” in Syria and Iraq. Despite the split between the two branches in 1966, the Iraqi Ba’ath Party developed sophisticated party and security structures that would eventually lead Saddam Hussein to power in 1979. Since its establishment, the Ba’ath Party implemented Arabization policies on Kurds and imposed Sunnification policies on Shi’ites although Shi’ites constituted the majority of the population. Shi’ites and Kurds were also employed in the Party and state organizations, but the Ba’ath’s upper echelons were predominantly Sunni.[7] Sunni Arabs and Hussein’s tribe members controlled key security apparatuses showing that the Ba’ath and Hussein considered only a few as truly loyal (Batatu, 1978;Tripp, 2000).

The Iraqi state rested upon three pillars, the Party, the military and bureaucracy, of which the Party was the most important. Although we do not exactly know the relationship between these three entities, Baram (1989) argues that Ba’ath controlled other entities through parallel state structures by establishing party branches within the state and which were directly reporting to Saddam Hussein. Thus, the Ba’ath Party effectively established mechanisms of absolute control becoming the single institute that was central to the everyday survival of the Iraqi people. This absolute power allowed the Party to penetrate into the lives of the Iraqis and facilitate a cult of leadership, but the Party’s salient role came at the expense of state capacity. Hussein maintained his tight grip over the country by recruiting as many Iraqis as possible, regardless of their ethnic or religious identities using a “carrot-and-stick” strategy (Sassoon, 2012). Rewards for party members ranged from public employment, bonuses and pensions to being a “Friend of Saddam Hussein”, a special business card allowing ordinary Iraqis to spend time with the President. Becoming a party member required extensive training and proven loyalty and many remained at the supporter and sympathizer levels. The reward system was particularly instrumental during the Iran-Iraq war as it allowed Ba’ath to build a culture of martyrdom by labelling fallen soldiers as martyrs as well as financially supporting their families. Nevertheless, those who declined to become members were punished through denial of abovementioned rewards such as access to higher education institutions and military academies and were followed very closely by the security services.

The Ba’ath’s survival, however, cannot be attributed only to its absolute control and hierarchical party structure, but should be understood as a combination of coercion, propaganda, ideology, war making and party membership. The Party developed a sophisticated hierarchical structure, establishing branches in every corner of Iraq. The branches were the face of the Party reaching out to people, employing them and collecting information about them. Obviously, the Party wanted to understand the morale and thinking of the society to maintain its control and obviate any potential uprising or rebellion in which it actually failed as the Kurds and the Shi’ite al Da’wa Party continuously challenged the regime.

In contrast to quotidian arguments, consent creation through coercion was not the only medium of gaining hearts and minds and building support in Ba’athist Iraq. The regime utilized war-making and nationalist indoctrination as fundamental tools for building popular support and mobilizing population. Dina Khoury finds that mass Ba’athification of Iraqi society was achieved during the Iran-Iraq war as the Iraqi people considered it an unavoidable defensive war (Khoury, 2013). The regime was quick to link the nation’s defence to the Ba’ath Party and its leadership normalizing war as a policy. Thus, the Ba’ath Party became central to the survival of ordinary Iraqis by perpetuating regime-population ties at the local level through financial, political and moral means although its power to infiltrate into their private life remained relatively limited. This is so because of the authoritarian Ba’ath’s previous exploitations of communal fault lines as well as Iraqis resistance to government policies that ended up being quite different than the original blueprints.

ii. Origins of the de-Ba’athification

The origins of de-Ba’athification can be examined by looking at three distinct, but interrelated factors. The Ba’ath’s totalitarianism denotes assumptions and misconceptions related to regime type. Policymakers’ perceptions about Ba’athism and Ba’ath refer to how Ba’ath’s past influenced the introduction of lustration laws in Iraq. Lastly, the concept of the purity of state is related to philosophy and the design of trustworthy and inclusive state institutions and constitutions.

Iraqi exiles, scholars and US policymakers believed that Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was totalitarian due to continuous state repression and crimes against humanity. Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi scholar in exile, theorized and popularized the idea that the medium of Saddam Hussein’s rule was fear created through coercion and state repression, not leaving room for dissent or opposition (Makiya, 1989). He contends that the Ba’ath regime was totalitarian in a similar fashion to Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Soviet Russia. While the Ba’ath regime had some similarities with Nazism and Stalinism in terms of state repression, it neither had a policy to transform Iraq and its economy into a central command nor was able to exert full control over Iraqis every day and private life (Sassoon, 2012).

These two factors help to make a distinction between tyrannies and totalitarian regimes, particularly because the latter isolates and leaves not even room for private space. As Hannah Arendt eloquently explains tyrannies isolate in public space and severe political relations, but the sphere of private life remains intact where people could think, create and interact with others. Totalitarian regimes, however, destroy both private and public life by not leaving any space and using measures that eliminate human interaction (e.g. forced labour) (Arendt, 2004: 461-476). Moreover, the Ba’ath Party neither had world domination as a goal nor was ever able to turn the Party into a mass-movement. The Party’s authority and power were contested as the Kurds continuously rebelled in the North while some Shi’ite groups explicitly operated against the Party in the South. Thus, the Ba’ath Party’s political power as well as capacity were contested which required a fine analysis of dynamic regime type and state-society relations.

The advocates of Ba’ath’s totalitarianism also ignore the fact that the Ba’ath was not only a security state, but also provided services and employment. Research reveals that coercive power is not the only means of state legitimacy; it is the state’s ability to penetrate into citizens’ everyday life and become central to their survival strategies (Migdal, 1988). In this vein, the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s illustrates that the Ba’ath Party increasingly transformed into a social, bureaucratic organization that provided public goods and services to Iraqis, became their main sources of employment, and was shaped by people at the local level. It is therefore more useful to think of the Ba’ath Party as a dynamic organization with multiple faces that were not only shaped by the Central Command, but also negotiated with ordinary Iraqis.

Nevertheless, the Ba’ath Party projected itself as all-powerful and created a mighty leadership cult at the expense of state capacity. However, this could not prevent the outbreak of the 1991 Shi’ite uprisings, the Shi’ite al Da’wa Party’s continuous resistance and the Kurds’ decades of struggle. In other words, the problems of nation and state building in Iraq reveal that the Ba’ath Party’s capacity was limited and it could not impede dissent and control opposition, thus undermining the claim that Ba’ath was totalitarian in a Nazist fashion.[8]

However, as previously explained, Makiya’s perspective became popular in an attempt to justify the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 largely due to Ahmad Chalabi’s role as the chair of the Iraqi National Congress and his allies in the Bush administration. Ahmad Chalabi and Donald Rumsfeld made analogies between the Nazi regime and the Ba’ath regime hinting at de- Ba’athification of Iraq. On February 19, 2003, Ahmad Chalabi penned an influential article for the Wall Street Journal in which he clearly stated:

The Ba’athist ideology is rooted in the racist doctrines of 1930s fascism and Saddam has used the Ba’ath to create a one-party totalitarian state. For Iraq to re-join the international community under a democratic system, Iraq needs a comprehensive program of de-Ba’athification even more extensive than the denazification effort in Germany after World War II (Chalabi, 2003).

Chalabi did not only make it clear that the Ba’ath Party and the Ba’athists were agents of totalitarianism, but also falsely claimed that the Ba’ath ideology was racist in a similar fashion to that of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It was no coincidence that once Chalabi’s flawed discourse gained followers, his proposal for a comprehensive lustration program also found its way into US policy. The CPA General Order No.1 referred to the Ba’ath not only as repressive, but also a source of grave “depravations”, blaming the Ba’ath of moral corruption and as having an evil nature. Iraq needed to be purified from Ba’ath and its Ba’athists. This purification goal, however, could undermine the reconstruction of Iraq; it had inflammatory symbolism and could kindle sectarianism in an environment that denied inclusion to Sunnis in political processes.

The second factor was the Iraqi and US policymakers’ perceptions of the Ba’ath Party and Ba’athists who were considered a threat to Iraqis and the reconstruction of Iraq. Indeed, CPA General Order No.1 explicitly stated that the continuation of Ba’ath Party networks and officials as well as party structures threatened Iraqi society and Coalition forces. It is clear that Shi’ite, Kurdish and US policymakers perceived Ba’athists and the Party as a grave security concern and equated them with the Nazis. Thus, a rigid perception of Ba’ath was instrumental in making the decision to de-Ba’athify Iraq in a comprehensive fashion. Dehumanization of former Ba’athists by the Shi’ites and Kurds and Ba’athists’ rediscovery and reinterpretation of Ba’athist principles were simultaneous processes that heralded the transformation of everyday and relatively latent sectarianism into salient and assertive sectarianism.

Finally, the notion of the purity of the state also influenced the institutional design of the new Iraq. The idea of purification was twofold; washing and cleaning, as well as establishing a democratic state based on trust.[9] Collective purification might be achieved during transition since it provides an opportunity to wash and to cleanse the dirty state apparatus and its tainted remnants through personnel system change. The Ba’ath Party’s continuous repression, which symbolized dirt and posed a security threat, was a compelling reason for Shi’ites and Kurds to undertake de-Ba’athification.[10] Meanwhile the US emphasized the importance of bringing democracy to Iraq based on liberal democratic principles, especially trust and accountability (Meierhenrich, 2008). Yet, the purity of the state as an institutional design was flawed because de-Ba’athification, as demonstrated below, was based on dismissals and exclusion of Sunnis, contradicting the notion of liberal democracy.

iii. Implementation of de-Ba’athification

The impact of the origins of de-Ba’athification translated into an expansive scope and exclusionary philosophy in terms of implementation. Exclusive lustration argues for the dismissal of former functionaries on the grounds of freeing state institutions and society from the weight of the past. Yet, exclusion, as a ritual and backward looking measure, is not an effective transformative tool because it perpetuates the rigid perception of the tainted (David, 2011). Furthermore, although exclusive lustration in the long-run might increase trust in government and eventually transforms culture, it likely prolongs democratic transitions by weakening state capacity and legitimacy, as well as creating a political power vacuum and social instability. More profoundly, massive dismissals allow new policymakers to rewrite history and remove bureaucratic memory. The de-Ba’athification of Iraq began on May 16, 2003, but it is still ongoing despite three distinct phases of lustration: massive dismissals, politics of stagnation and reinstatement, and lustration as political competition.[11]

Under the first period, 2003-2005, Ba’ath functionaries were indiscriminately dismissed and state capacity was eradicated. The CPA General Order No.1 dismissed Iraqis on the basis of their party membership and ranks and prohibited the top four levels of Ba’ath officials and top level administration officials who were members of the Ba’ath Party at any level. Order No.1 made an erroneous assumption that if a person held a top-level position within the Party, he must have committed gross human rights violations. This assumption led the CPA and Iraqi officials to judge Ba’athists on the basis of collective guilt rather than innocence and individual responsibility, even though evidence was limited as Ba’ath Party archives were looted and sold across Iraq (Dodge, 2013).

Data shows that 45,115 Ba’athists from senior levels were eligible for de- Ba’athification and 41,324 (69%) were dismissed with CPA’s first order. 14 % of the remaining eligible Ba’athists was dismissed between June 2004 and October 2005 while the other 17 % percent was not targeted as of October 2005 (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). This means that the most educated, skilled and politically connected Iraqis were purged in order to disable structures that carried out mass human rights violations. Such people were well linked to Iraq’s security establishment which shows that the CPA considered former Ba’ath functionaries, as individuals, a security threat that might undermine its mission to construct a democratic Iraq free of Ba’ath’s ideology.

In particular, it was expected that these objectives would be easier to accomplish once Ba’athists were  dislodged from positions of power, which resonates in Huntington’s argument that chosen transitional justice measures are a result of negotiations between old power-holders and new elites. Thus, the CPA assumed that Ba’athists would not change and did not attempt to even negotiate transitional justice mechanisms with them or the Iraqi people. This was particularly important since it contradicted lustration theory’s rationale to change the hearts and minds of people and it lacked adequate popular support. Summarizing, the de- Ba’athification lacked legitimacy and augmented rigid ethno-religious perceptions rather than positively transforming existing cleavages.

The decision to de-Ba’athify Iraq eradicated the Iraqi state’s already weakened authority, capacity and legitimacy given the decade long western sanctions against Iraq. The Iraqi state became incapable of providing security and delivering services while widespread opposition to de-Ba’athification crystallized as Ba’athists formed and joined insurgency groups late 2003. The Fedayeen Saddam, Al ‘Awdah, and The General Command of the Armed Forces, Resistance and Liberation in Iraq, all prominent insurgent groups, were formed by Ba’athists recruiting other Ba’athists first from the disbanded Iraqi military and security forces, and then attracting already dismissed or to be dismissed lower ranked Sunni party members (Hashim, 2006). Thus, such insurgent groups found significant popular and logistical support among the Sunnis particularly in late 2003 as de-Ba’athification gained momentum.

The de-Ba’athification’s exclusive scope was expanded even further once the CPA handed over power to HNDC in September 2003 as part of its strategy to bring Iraqis to power and increase the legitimacy of the reconstruction process. Led by Ahmad Chalabi and then his deputy chairman, Nuri al-Maliki, HNDC pursued an aggressive purge policy by establishing de-Ba’athification commissions within each ministry that immediately dismissed all active party ranks in some key ministries, excluding cell members, the lowest active party members. Yet, the HNDC strategically targeted and dismissed Ba’athists even at the lowest level in the Ministry of Education (17,500) (the former bastion of Ba’ath propaganda), Ministry of Higher Education (4,631), and Ministry of Health (2,367), but only dismissed senior-level Ba’athists in the Ministry of Science and Technology (120) and Ministry of Agriculture (999).[12] This picture reveals a selective logic based on an interest to take control of institutions that were deemed critical for the survival of Ba’ath and the nationalist edifice that was based on secular Sunni nationalist principles. Hence, de-Ba’athification became instrumental in the realization of Shi’ite and Kurdish groups’ imagination of a new state structure that would reflect their own interests. This shift from CPA’s security concerns to communal and political interests incarnated the Sunnis’ loss of power that would finally be sealed and legalized in the 2005 constitution.

The HNDC’s decisions, however, collectivized guilt by disregarding the principle of innocence and individual responsibility, and punished former Ba’athists on the basis of party affiliation. These problems demonstrate that de-Ba’athification was not designed to protect human rights since no diligent screening and vetting took place and due process criteria were established. In turn, the Ba’athists’ resentment and grievances helped the Sunni community construct a victimization discourse that intertwined with insurgent mobilization by rejecting the newly imposed order. This victimization discourse developed through complex myth-symbols and memories of the Ba’ath and did not only point to the lack of legitimacy of the new Iraqi state, but also countered Shi’ites’ and Kurds’ victimization narratives (Haddad, 2011; Hashim, 2006). Thanks to these early practices of the CPA and the HNDC, former Ba’athists who were complicit in the Party’s brutal repression, remained proud members and fought against the understaffed US forces and Shi’ite militias. The need to curb the HNDC’s authorities was obvious to Paul Bremer given the deteriorating security in late 2004, but his efforts bore little fruits, if not any (Dobbins et al., 2009; Bremer, 2006, 2007). This shows that the HNDC was difficult to control and followed its own destructive path. The first phase of de-Ba’athification was counterproductive in terms of security and instrumental on the onset of the civil war largely because it eradicated state capacity and legitimacy and transformed banal sectarianism into assertive sectarianism.

The most distinctive patterns of the second phase, 2005-2008, were continuity of contradictory politics and policies. 2005 marked a milestone for Iraq since a new power-sharing constitution was ratified, a transitional government was formed and the first fair and free elections were held. What was the relationship between these developments and de-Ba’athification? These three important developments paved the way for Sunnis’ loss of Staatsvolk (constitutive people) status to Shi’ites as they legally, socially, and politically incarnated the exclusion of Sunnis (Haddad, 2011). Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 prohibited the Ba’ath and its symbols and disqualified former Ba’athists from taking any senior-level government positions. This article gave the HNDC unlimited power as de-Ba’athification became constitutional and no authority other than the Supreme Court could intervene in its internal functioning. More profoundly, this article perpetuated the evil portrayal of Ba’ath and its supporters and sympathizers in the founding text of the new Iraqi state and democracy. In other words, there was no place for Ba’athists in the new, primarily Shi’ite-ruled, Iraq This ideological message about the former Ba’athists affected their social standing as well as shaped the past and created a new history based on the victor’s peace.

The Sunnis’ identity disenfranchisement was further exacerbated by the Shi’ites ascendance to Iraqi bureaucracy, which was facilitated by de-Ba’athification. The governing coalition party al-Da’wa under Ibrahim al-Jafaari’s leadership replaced former Ba’athists with Shi’ites and allowed Shi’ite militias to infiltrate to security forces (International Crisis Group, 2008, 2006). The HNDC’s political motivations served the Shi’ites, in general, but specifically, the Badrists militias, Al-Da’wa Party and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi that competed to gain control of security forces and key state institutions. Consequently, Shi’ite militia groups, the understaffed US forces, and Ba’athist insurgent groups confronted each other for the ownership of the Iraqi state paving the way for destruction. In a highly militarized society that experienced three wars in 20 years, the purge of Sunnis in categorical terms was instrumental in evoking Iraq’s political, religious and identity based fault lines.

The need to reform the de-Ba’athification program was obvious as the country fast approached a civil war in late 2005 and early 2006. The Sunni outreach project by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the unfolding civil war intertwined with Nuri al-Maliki’s agenda to consolidate his power immediately after replacing the infamously sectarian Shi’ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari. Maliki publicly committed to reform the de-Ba’athification law transforming it into Accountability and Justice Law (AJL), a law that remained in limbo for a year passing only through technical requirements rather than parliament approval. Maliki also attempted to improve existing due process mechanisms as he struggled to prove himself to the US administration, bring the continuing civil war to an end, and consolidate his base. More than 80,000 former security and military personnel were reinstated in 2008, which was a U-turn in the de-Ba’athification of Iraq. Many of these personnel, however, fought against the US and Iraqi state security forces during the Iraqi civil war creating suspicions as to whether such people would serve the interests of Ba’athists insurgent groups. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government was motivated to demobilize insurgents and integrate them to existing security structures that were incapable of dealing with insurgent groups. This contradictory logic prioritizes security while justice and political accommodation remain secondary, which may help resolve Iraq’s political problems in the long-run.

Despite security and military reinstatements, the HNDC followed a policy of selective reinstatement in civil service, preventing Sunnis from returning to their positions and encouraging them to retire by offering pensions (Stover et al., 2008). The HNDC simply did not process files of thousands of people who were found eligible for reinstatement. Many did not even know whether their applications for reinstatement were accepted and only found out through friends working in relevant ministries (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). The logic of putting justice on hold was motivated in placing Shi’ite agents to fill positions that would maintain a certain Shi’ite group’s supremacy in Iraqi bureaucracy and prevent former Ba’athists, who were associated with the insurgency at this time, from making a comeback.

The last period, 2008-2013, has brought many nominal improvements but, in practice, the de-Ba’athification has become a tool of political competition. Equally important, de-Ba’athification was instrumental in Prime Minister Maliki’s consolidation of authoritarian power, which could well destabilize the country in the near future. The Accountability and Justice Law first clarified the HNDC’s authority, limiting its power, and then the Supreme Court changed its name to Accountability and Justice Commission (AJC). Despite introducing fair guidelines for due process, reinstatement and retirement pensions, a new court to deal with reinstatements and exemptions, some of these mechanisms never translated into reality thanks to Ahmad Chalabi’s staunch opposition to the new regulations.

Ali al-Lami, however, called former Ba’athists to apply for reinstatement or retirement with pension. Although more than 41,000 reinstatement applications were received, a bureaucratic struggle ensued between the HNDC, the Parliament and the cabinet as HNDC was reluctant to reinstate former Ba’athists (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). Prevention of reinstatement indicated that the HNDC did not want to follow fair procedures and comply with fundamental human rights. More importantly, by not reinstating former Ba’ath functionaries, they forced many to retire, thus creating a gap in the Iraqi bureaucracy which was filled by Shi’ite groups competing for such positions. This was a deliberate effort to complete the consolidation of Shi’ite power, albeit serving factional interests, in the Iraqi state.

The AJC’s focus has shifted from dismissals to use of disqualifications as part of political competition between and within Sunni and Shi’ite political actors. In the 2010 general elections, in which Chalabi and his deputy, Ali al-Lami, were candidates from a rival Shi’ite party to Maliki’s al-Da’wa Party, the AJC barred 301 candidates because of their alleged roles in Ba’athist Iraq (Visser, 2010).The majority of disqualified candidates came either from relatively secular Shi’ite parties that sought non-sectarian agendas or Sunni political parties, with a geographic background from predominantly Sunni governorates. Even after the appealing and reinstatement processes, the non-sectarian and secular nationalist Iraqiyya bloc, and the Shi’ite Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani’s secular nationalist Unity of Iraq coalition accounted for one third of all the exclusions. This shows that the AJC did not target Sunnis exclusively at this stage, but was rather selective and strategic to attack political rivals even from Shi’ite political parties.

The AJC personally attacked Prime Minister Maliki, publicly revealing that he employed 367 top-level security and intelligence officers, former Ba’athists, who supposedly committed gross human rights violations against Iraqi civilians in the 1980s and 1990s (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). This demonstrates Prime Minister Maliki was pragmatic enough to compromise with some of the former Ba’athists. Both Chalabi and al-Lami were soon replaced by Maliki allies and al-Lami was assassinated in late 2011 by unknown thugs (Craig, 2011). This, in effect, means that Shi’ite factions’ de-Ba’athification conflicts may be over, thus leaving Maliki in full control of the AJC.

Since 2011, Maliki consolidated his authoritarian power using the de-Ba’athification as a tool for political bargaining to eliminate his rivals and create a network of loyalists within the military, security services and judiciary regardless of group identity (Dodge, 2013). Some of Maliki’s allies are Sunni strongmen who are exempted from de-Ba’athification although, allegedly, they played important roles in state repression against Kurds and Shi’ites during Saddam Hussein’s regime (Inside Iraqi Politics, 2013). This dangerous policy is a result of Maliki’s control of the AJC whose decisions cannot be implemented without Maliki’s prior approval. Likewise the AJC disqualified another 150 candidates in provincial elections in March 2013, blackmailing Maliki’s main rival, Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqiya list. The use of de-Ba’athification as a political competition tool demonstrates that the de-Ba’athification has now arrived at another stage under Maliki’s full control, but continues to destabilize Iraqi politics.

iv. Political and Social Effects of de-Ba’athification

The political and social effects of de-Ba’athification can be categorized under two topics: diminishing state capacity and transforming sectarianism. Both effects have been disastrous for Iraq and have cast doubt on the expected positive impact of the de-Ba’athification. Although thousands of Ba’athists has been cleansed from state institutions, the Iraqi state has become dysfunctional and inefficient due to state capacity problems that were a result of de-Ba’athification. Neither former Ba’athists have transformed nor a democratic political culture emerged as former Ba’athists remained proud of their past.

The CPA’s General Order No.1 and 2 diminished the Iraqi state’s already weak capacity to a minimum through disbanding the Iraqi army and comprehensively purging skilled personnel. Thus, the Iraqi state that fought two wars and was under sanctions throughout 1990s lost both its ability to enforce its authority and its legitimacy once these orders went in effect. This vacuum of power was exacerbated with the fact that the US experienced a critical shortage of combat troops to enforce security and prevent people from joining insurgency groups (Dodge, 2013). Thus, the Iraqi state disappeared while alienating Sunnis from political power and rewriting Iraq’s history and bureaucratic memory. Take the example of the educational sector. 40,000 teachers were purged immediately in 2003, erasing institutional structures as well as destroying the human capital necessary to maintain such institutions (Sissons and Al-Saeidi, 2013). The educational reforms such as introduction of new textbooks replaced the Ba’ath’s Arab nationalist curriculum with United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-approved reinterpretation of Iraqi and Islamic history. Thus, the de-Ba’athification of Iraq enabled Shi’ites and Kurds to gain ownership of the Iraqi state and rewrite the history of Iraq, but Iraq’s problematic structure was eradicated in a destructive way.

Through this inflammatory symbolism, de-Ba’athification led to identity disenfranchisement. Assertive sectarian identity has penetrated everyday life shaping social institutions and codes of post-2003 Iraq (Haddad, 2011). Furthermore, the US occupation and rule in Iraq had no legitimacy and thus the de-Ba’athification of Iraq was perceived as illegitimate by most Sunnis (Stover, Megally, and Mufti, 2005). Indeed, some Sunni groups such as the Naqshbandi Army have been proud of being labelled as Ba’athist as it symbolically showed their opposition to the US occupation and Shi’ite rule in Iraq (Hashim, 2006). In other words, the de-Ba’athification failed to transform and democratize the political culture of Iraq, provide justice, and plant seeds of trust in the government.

Lustration is not only expected to provide recognition to victims of repressive regimes, but also build horizontal and vertical trust. On the one hand, de-Ba’athification has deepened intergroup and societal distrust, which was not only a product, but also a consequence of sectarianism. De-Ba’athification restructured both intergroup and community-institution relations to the larger Iraqi political framework. The symptoms of such design flaws are still felt across Iraq while vertical distrust, on the other hand, remains high due to prevalent corruption, lack of rule of law and transparency. The political misuse of de-Ba’athification remains at the heart of Iraqi politics as Maliki continues to use it as a political blackmail to consolidate his authoritarian power and create a network of loyalists. The social and political effects of de-Ba’athification have haunted Iraq in the last decade and the continuation of the program is likely to negatively affect the democratization of Iraq and transformation of political culture. The weak Iraqi state that is emerging from the ashes of the US occupation and Iraqi civil war has had little capacity to function as a modern state that has the sole authority to use collective violence, deliver services and legitimately represent citizens.

IV. Conclusion

My analysis demonstrates that de-Ba’athification has been pivotal in Iraq’s instability and metamorphosed from a largely exclusive lustration program into a political tool that is now strategically used to blackmail Maliki’s rivals. It showed that the de-Ba’athification of Iraq has enabled Shi’ites and Kurds to ascend to power and control the Iraqi state apparatus. Nevertheless, de-Ba’athification has contributed little, if not any, to the democratization of Iraq, institutionalization of rule of law, and transformation of its political culture. The de-Ba’athification created new, but unjust norms, and did not necessarily correct institutional defects that, in turn, resulted in lack of trustworthiness of institutions. Furthermore, although the cleansing of many ruthless Ba’athists from power can be considered as incarnation of institutional discontinuity with the Ba’ath regime, the consequences of de-Ba’athification have been costly to Iraq as this policy has transformed banal sectarianism into assertive sectarianism

Finally, the current rise of the Islamic State in Iraq is linked to de-Ba’athification of Iraq. The Naqshbandi Army, established in 2006 and run by former Ba’athists such as Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, provided local legitimacy to the Islamic State and helped conquest Mosul. These groups reached their common goal of bringing Maliki’s government down. Yet, this alliance may not hold in the long-term given the contradictions between Naqshbandi Army’s objectives (inclusion and more power in different levels of the Iraqi governance system) and the Islamic State’s aims (establishment of Caliphate in Iraqi and Syrian territories). Iraq’s designated Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has an important chance to undermine this alliance through crafting an agreement that will include key Sunni figures in the new government and take concrete steps to review previous Iraqi governments’ de-Ba’athification policies. A nuanced review and establishment of just, accountable and transparent mechanisms may facilitate this process but also would mean re-Ba’athification of Iraq. Political and social effects of de-Ba’athification (re-Ba’athification if such a scenario materializes), however, are likely to remain salient in the coming years.

Ali Zeynel Gökpınar, MA, Brandeis University

Please cite this publication as follows:

Gökpınar A. Z. (October, 2014), “The Logic of de-Ba’athification of Iraq: Reconstruction or Destruction?”, Vol. III, Issue 10, pp.15-36, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (


[1] I would like to thank Albert Trithart whose comments were critical to the publication of this paper. Sophia Dawkins’ intellectual and individual support is much appreciated. Two anonymous reviewers provided invaluable input to this paper. The usual caveat applies.

[2] The fundamental difference between purges and vetting is that vetting designates criteria to review individual abusive behaviour whereas purges target people on the basis of party membership or affiliation. Research also shows that vetting procedures do not result in the dismissal of a large number of people (De Grieff, 2007).

[3] The realist approach examines why political elites pursue lustration politics and how transition regimes deal with dilemmas of transitional justice (Welsh, 1996; Huntington, 1991; Moran, 1994). This theory argues that lustration is an outcome of political bargaining processes before or during a transition. The realist theory also constructs strategies of transitional justice through the duality of truth versus justice. Huntington coined the term “torturer problem” to highlight paradoxes of seeking punishment and prosecution while attempting to establish the rule of law and a fair democracy. Others argued that continuity in bureaucracy in transition regimes might undermine the public’s trust in government (Kritz, 1995; Horne and Levi, 2004; Moran, 1994).

The human rights approach, advocated by Human Rights Watch and International Amnesty, criticizes the use of lustration citing its discriminatory nature and assignment of collective guilt as well as its use of revenge politics. This approach concludes that lustration undermines the fundamental principles of democracy (Rosenberg, 1995; Human Rights Watch, 1993; Laber, 1992). Yet this moral critique is weak as it is based on the assumption that lustration is a mechanism to seek revenge for the former regime’s repression and human rights violations. Because of the inherent dilemmas and controversies in lustration, former regime functionaries think it is unfair while the population might believe vetting is not enough.

[4] For the purposes of this study, lustration specifically refers to laws and processes of de- Ba’athification of Iraq. Some might argue that lustration can only be used in the context of vetting, but this depends on the definition of lustration being used as well as country contexts (Andreu-Guzman, 2007). In Iraq, a broader definition is necessary to capture the gist of de-Ba’athification and the implementation straddled between vetting and purging although due process mechanisms, in theory, existed.

[5] The US decision making process regarding CPA’s first and second orders seems arbitrary and remained unresolved among the Bush administration’s top officials. Pfifner (2010) shows that these decisions were most probably taken by Donald Rumsfeld, and interpreted and implemented in an expansive fashion by US Viceroy Paul Bremer.

[6] There is no clean statistical data with regards to de-Ba’athification. Philips argues that 120,000 people out of 2 million Ba’ath members were immediately purged while Bremer cites intelligence reports that the purge affected only 20,000 party members (Philips, 2006; Bremer, 2006). These two accounts are based on early phases of de-Ba’athification and are politicized. The most up-to-date and reliable statistics are released by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), which accessed this data from the Iraqi government. Throughout my paper, I use ICTJ’s statistics.

[7] Hanna Batatu argues that the Shi’ites’ ratio in the Ba’ath Party’s upper echelons was radically reduced from 1960s to 1970s. By 1973, only 7 % of the top-level administration was Shi’ite (Batatu, 1978, p.1080).  In terms of lower ranks, however, Dina Khoury shows that even in the holy Shi’ite cities Najaf and Karbala, on average, 70% of the population was supporters by 1998-99. The average percentage of martyrs and “Friend of Saddam”, which were indicators of Shi’ites’ participation in Saddam Hussein’s wars against Iran and Kuwait, was 12% in the same period (Khoury, 2013, pp. 256-58).

[8] Newly disclosed archive materials show that, ironically, the US aided Saddam Hussein during Iraq-Iran War and was fully aware that he would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin gas (Harris and Aid, 2013).

[9] Robert Parker argues that purification in early Greek city-states meant removing dirt allowing a fresh start for individuals and society (Parker, 1983).

[10] Although the Ba’ath Party had many Shi’ite and Kurdish members, supporters and sympathizers, the term Ba’athist has increasingly been used as a synonym for Sunnis. Despite the fact that Kurdish and Shi’ite Ba’ath functionaries might have helped Ba’ath in its repression against their own communities, it is difficult to find data regarding the state of such people during de-Ba’athification.

[11] No research problematizes the timing and duration of de-Ba’athification. Although its inception in 2003 might partly be explained with Ahmad Chalabi’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s motivations, it is unclear why the CPA and Iraqi policymakers did not establish a due date.

[12] The Defence, War and Interior ministries were de-Ba’athified with CPA’s first order since the majority of senior-level Ba’athists served in these ministries. The Foreign Affairs Ministry, however, was exempted from de-Ba’athification to coordinate reconstruction efforts with the CPA, the US Department of State and Defense.


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