Saturday, May 24, 2003
Shiites Reportedly Hunting Baathists
By HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press Writer
May 24, 2003, 3:24 PM EDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The Shiite Muslim cleric sat cross-legged on the floor. With chilling calm, he explained the criteria -- how to decide which of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party officials are permitted to live, and which of them will die.
Only officials attempting to return to positions they held under Saddam should be killed -- and only after a fair warning, said Sheik Ali al-Gharawi, one of several community leaders in a poverty-ridden Baghdad district known as al-Thawra, where an estimated 2 million Shiites live.
"People come to me and say they want to kill such and such Baathist. I tell them to threaten them first," al-Gharawi said, his voice flat. "If they don't heed the threat, then they must live with the consequences."
Encouraged by the security vacuum in the wake of Saddam's overthrow last month, some Iraqis -- particularly members of the long-oppressed Shiite majority -- are reported by residents of al-Thawra to be hunting down and killing former Baath officials.
In al-Thawra, which was officially called Saddam City until last month but renamed al-Sadr City in honor of a top Shiite cleric killed by the government in 1999, residents say between five and 10 Baathists have been killed so far.
"Tribal and clan leaders are trying to stop them," said Sha'a Jassim, a 42-year-old resident of al-Thawra. "It's not a trend. There are just a few isolated cases."
Information Radio, the voice of the U.S.-led coalition heard in Baghdad, also has repeatedly exhorted Iraqis not to take the law into their own hands. But the steady spread of menacing graffiti -- and, in one case, the public posting of "wanted" lists in a Baghdad neighborhood -- suggests more to come.
"We demand punishment for those who planted fear in the heart of the innocent," says a typed sign posted outside the al-Hikmah mosque.
"Baathists: There is nowhere to escape," says graffiti on a main thoroughfare.
"The cursed Saddam and his cowardly Baathist scum have fallen," declares another.
The Baath monopolized political power in Iraq from 1968 until Saddam's ouster. Under its rule, party membership became a prerequisite for advancement in government jobs, the armed forces, even academia.
Party activists doubled as informants, spying on fellow Iraqis and reporting suspicious activity or hints of dissent. Such reports were used by Saddam's security agencies as a basis for arrest, imprisoning and state-sponsored killing.
That angered a generation of Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 24 million people but were politically sidelined and persecuted under Saddam, a member of Iraq's Sunni minority.
On Saturday, several elderly Shiite men lounged together on cushions near a mosque and offered these conclusions: The killings do not appear to be the work of a systematic political movement. Instead, they are motivated by rage -- about the loss of a friend or family member at the hands of Saddam's thugs.
The men discussed the issue freely with a visiting reporter, but all except one refused to give their names.
In veiled terms, they tacitly condoned the killings.
"The people who are being killed, these are people who have been pinpointed as responsible for an execution or a disappearance," said an elderly man in a traditional Arab robe and head cover, raising his voice in emphasis.
The best-known Baathist killed since Saddam's ouster was Dawood al-Qais, a singer who became famous with songs praising Saddam that were aired repeatedly on state television. He was shot dead at point-blank range outside his Baghdad home earlier this month.
Al-Gharawi justifies the killing of Baathists with a verse from the Quran that encourages Muslims to punish killers. Those who take it upon themselves to murder Baathists, he explained, do so in secrecy to avoid vendettas.
His conditional endorsement of such killings runs counter to the refusal by Sheik Ali al-Sistani -- a Shiite religious leader known for his moderate views -- to condone them. A statement issued by al-Sistani's office in Najaf quotes him as saying that retaliation should be left to Islamic courts.
Saddam's army killed tens of thousands of Shiites when they rose up against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War. Politically sidelined since the birth of modern Iraq some 80 years ago, Shiites insist they now want representation proportionate to their numbers.
American occupying forces have made clear that they, too, want hard-core Baathists excluded from Iraq's future.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the top commander in the U.S.-led war on Iraq, dissolved the Baath Party this month, and an American ban on senior Baathists taking government jobs followed.
But since most bureaucrats were required to pledge allegiance to the party to be employed, the United States wants to make sure it does not wipe out the entire civil service.
On Saturday, Information Radio encouraged Iraqis who it said had been forced to join the party to return to work.
"There is no need to be frightened or confused by the coalition," it said. "Your skills are vital to the reconstruction of Iraq."
Copyright (c) 2003, The Associated Press
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