The De-baathification Of Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 1

In October of 1974, Panteleimon Ponomarenko , the former head of the Soviet Union’s Central Staff for Guerrilla Movements during the Second World War, gave a lecture at a secret school in the settlement of Novoe Nagornoe in the Pushkin district, forty miles outside of Moscow. Members of Palestinian terror groups and Iraqi Baathists listened attentively and took notes. On one occasion only did they interrupt the lecture–when Ponomarenko began to speak in detail about ways of hiding weapons in the forest. The leader of the Iraqi students helpfully reminded the Soviet expert that there were in fact no forests in Iraq or Palestine. Not missing a beat, Ponomarenko simply began to substitute “desert” where his time-worn text would have read “forest.” At the end of the lecture the students thanked Mr. Ponomarenko and told him that his experience was very valuable for their “revolutionary” work.

Over a twenty-year period that began in the early 1970s, this secret school prepared thousands of Arab “revolutionaries,” including many from the Iraqi and Syrian Baath parties. Soviet tutors dispatched from such top party bodies as the KGB and other Soviet secret agencies would instruct these Baathists on topics that included Stalin’s methods of mass indoctrination, Lenin’s theories of state terrorism and totalitarian control, and Soviet methods of party building and cooperation between party cells and secret services. Iraqi Baathists were especially good students. In Iraq in the early 1980’s, when I would meet alumni of the school, they would tell me that the Baath party had managed to create in Iraq a Soviet model for totalitarian control of society. How this system worked, and how it continues to help Baathists maintain influence among militants is vitally important for understanding the situation in Iraq today.


There is a critical dynamic related to Iraq that is often ignored by Western observers. The top leader of the Baath party had enormous power, but this power was in fact limited by the mutual interests of an inner circle, a social group that entrusted this power to the leader. This means that Saddam might do whatever he wanted, but only so long as he did not jeopardize or neglect the interests of the inner circle as a whole body. Today this means that eliminating Saddam, or his sons, or his closest assistants does not eliminate the power and influence of the inner circle. Indeed, the inner circle may exercise its power even in the absence of any visible Baath party structures.

Party committees of a higher level prefer not to issue written orders to lower level committees. Similarly, local party committees prefer to send their orders to a cell’s secretaries verbally. The avoidance of records describing its activities is one of the major security rules of the Baath party. It is especially important when, as is currently the case, political circumstances compel the Baath party to go underground. Under such conditions, no direct written orders from upper to lower committees are needed to set in motion actions by a local committee and its members. A speech from Saddam broadcast on television, an underground audio tape, or even a leaflet containing Saddam’s message is sufficient to serve as a direct order for action. Until Iraq is de-Baathified, therefore, this system will continue to pose a significant threat to U.S. forces and to the new Iraqi government.


The de-Baathification of Iraq does not mean punishing all members of the Baath party. In a totalitarian state like Iraq, individuals had to join the ruling party in order to survive and to get a job. Instead, de-Baathification involves identifying the members of the inner circle and their connections to former secret police, Republican Guards and paramilitary troops. The most effective way to do this is to circulate a broad questionnaire among a portion of the Iraqi population. This is the exact method that was used by the U.S. Army in Germany after World War II to de-Nazify that country.

“One of the largest issues posed by de-Nazification was the question ‘Who is a Nazi?’ Even the Nazis knew that they had within their party those who had joined purely for the benefits that a card-carrying member enjoyed.”[1] Without knowing the real situation inside Germany during the Nazi period, it was very difficult for the Allies to answer the above question and to make the accurate determinations about specific individuals. That is why the Americans finally gave the responsibility of de-Nazification over to the Germans. Now, the American administration and the new Iraqi authorities must creatively use this experience. They need to compose a questionnaire and to organize its completion by all men, aged 18 to 60, who were active during Baath party rule. It is crucial to involve Iraqi officials in this process, because they know the situation better and can communicate with those questioned.

The first stage of this procedure must be aimed at identifying the secretaries of local cells. In the second stage, those secretaries must be made to identify their supervisors from local party committees–that is, members of the inner circle. The third stage of this questionnaire should be the interrogation of the members of the inner circle and the ferreting out of their connections with former secret police, Republican Guards and paramilitary troops. These are the forces now waging a guerilla war against coalition forces and members of the new Iraqi leadership. The American administration in Iraq and the Iraqi interim government must without question ban the Baath party and dismiss former secret police, Republican Guards and paramilitary troops. In a sense, this has already happened. In mid-May a senior official from the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance claimed that between 15,000 and 30,000 Baath Party officials would be banned entirely from any future Iraqi government.[2]


But what should the American administration and new Iraqi authorities do with those Baath party members who are uncovered? To begin with, Iraqi courts must determine the specific crimes of every defendant. But because many institutional archives have already been destroyed or looted, it will be difficult to arrange fair trials. Furthermore, it will be possible to imprison only those found to have committed the most odious crimes. In any case, being a member of a ruling regime should not be a crime in itself. If there is no evidence of active participation in anti-coalition activities, the accused person should not be convicted and should be released. Being free, however, such individuals could still emerge as obstacles to a democratic Iraq.

A more pragmatic and realistic way of dealing with the inner circle and its supporters would be to involve them in the new structures of the Iraqi government and to use their knowledge, leadership experience and traditional connections to help create a new democratic regime in Iraq. Even the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance agrees that, otherwise, “de-Baathification will entail some inefficiencies in the running of the government.”[3] The Allied administration in Germany likewise felt, from the beginning of its occupation there, that neglecting the existing Nazi administrative machinery would lead to inefficiencies in running the new German administration. That is why a handbook prepared in 1944 by the Allied command stated in the second paragraph that the “administrative machinery of certain dissolved Nazi organizations may be used when necessary.” Very soon, “necessary” became the rule rather than the exception.[4] After World War II in Germany there was no “general purge…or far-reaching replacement of old by new elites.”[5]

Apart from their traditional links and connections in contemporary Iraq, members of the inner circle accumulated huge sums of money inside the country and in foreign banks. If those in the inner circle are left outside of official institutions of political power, they may use this capital to finance underground resistance to the American administration and new Iraqi authorities. But if such people are included in the government, they may choose instead to invest their money in a new, free economy. They may also, however, resurface in economic and political institutions as a legitimated– albeit possibly anti-American–force, one that could prove harmful to long-term American interests in the country and in the region.

Yet another factor suggests the need for cooperation between members of the old inner circle and the American administration and new Iraqi authorities. The leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq expects to use the Shiite majority to achieve power in Iraq in a legally recognized way.[6] Having members of the inner circle legally involved in the governing structures of a new Iraq could help to prevent the implementation of such Islamist plans.

It is possible that not all members of the inner circle will be willing to cooperate with the new power in Iraq. Representatives of the U.S. administration and new Iraqi authorities will need to use all their diplomatic skills and political experience to negotiate and persuade them. It is absolutely clear that such discussions should be undertaken without publicity, and that full security guarantees should be provided to those who agree to cooperate. This writer, at least, believes that members of an inner circle who for generations were accustomed to power in Iraq will not ignore the opportunity to resume a role in ruling their country. They will accept the new authorities in exchange for limited, but legal, access to power.

There is a parallel here with the former Soviet bloc countries. Members of the communist party elites in these countries were willing to abandon their ideology and are currently quite comfortable in ruling positions within their now democratic countries. Indeed, some former secret police chiefs have even become the personal friends of American presidents. Maybe this will work also in Iraq. It is at least worth trying. It may save not only American money, but American and Iraqi lives.

1. “Save a People. Kill A Culture.”

2. “U.S. to ban Baath Party officials,” MSNBC NEWS SERVICES, May 16, 2003.

3. Ibid.

4. “Occupying Iraq: The Lessons of History,” Alexander Casella,

5. Jeremy’s History Page, GERMANY IN 1945 AND ALLIED AIMS,

6. Mikhail Falkov, “Realnaya Alternativa Saddamu,”