Page last updated at 11:53 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Saddam shadow darkens Iraq elections

By Gabriel Gatehouse
BBC News, Baghdad

Man with picture of a relative killed by the Baath regime
The Baath Party oppressed Iraq's Shias and Kurds for decades

The legacy of Saddam Hussein continues to divide Iraq. Preparations for the country's parliamentary election have been thrown into chaos by a row over a decision to ban hundreds of candidates because of alleged links to the former president's now outlawed Baath Party.

At a recent demonstration in Baghdad, there was a palpable sense of anger among the crowd.

"We'll stamp out the Baathists," they chanted. "No to the return of killers to the parliament."

"Many of these people lost their parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters," said Yussef Mahmoud, a young doctor. "Many lost their money, their houses or their land. I am the same."

Some were holding up large framed portraits - black-and-white photographs of friends or family members who lost their lives under Saddam Hussein.

The way they see it is as simple as this - people who once served one of the most repressive regimes in the world cannot now be allowed back into politics.

Ahmed Chalabi
Imagine a member of the Nazi Party standing for elections in West Germany in 1952, seven years after the war. What would have happened?
Ahmed Chalabi
Election vetting committee

"The Baath Party in Iraq, we equate it with the Nazi Party in Germany," says Ahmed Chalabi.

The Baath Party has been outlawed in Iraq. Mr Chalabi sits on a committee charged with purging former Baathists from public life.

In January, he published a list of hundreds of candidates he says should be barred from standing for parliament.

"Imagine a member of the Nazi Party standing for elections in West Germany in 1952, seven years after the war. What would have happened? Would anyone have asked if they had committed a crime or not? He was barred because he was a member of the Nazi Party."

The Baath Party was not so much a political institution as an instrument of state control. For more than 20 years, Saddam Hussein used it to bend Iraq to his own will.

The party's tentacles extended into the military, the civil service, into the very fabric of society. If you wanted to get ahead, you had to join the party.

Baathist clampdown

All of that changed with the invasion in 2003. The US-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein and then proceeded to dismantle the entire Baathist infrastructure.

Ex-Baathist Abu Amer
I did nothing wrong. I committed no crimes. Why deprive the innocent majority of a living?
Abu Amer
Former Baathist

But there are people here who feel the process went too far and the disbanding of the police, the army, and the civil service was at least in part responsible for the chaos and bloodshed that followed.

And that is fuelling sectarian divisions and a sense of injustice.

About 100km (65 miles) west of Baghdad, near the town of Ramadi, in Anbar province, Abu Amer is working his small farm amid a flock of sheep.

"I have this piece of land, but it's dry. Look at it - there's no water for irrigation," he says.

Abu Amer is not his real name, and he was not always a farmer. For 30 years, he was a schoolteacher, and a member of the Baath Party.

After the invasion he was stripped of his job and now ekes out a meagre living in constant fear of reprisals.

"I did nothing wrong. I committed no crimes. I only worked for the benefit of others, so why did they sack me and leave me to fend for myself?"

'Revenge motive'

Mr Amer believes any Baathist who committed a crime should be tried in the courts.

Baathist monument at al-Liqa intersection in Baghdad is dismantled
Baathist monument in Baghdad is dismantled

"But why deprive the innocent majority of a living?" he says. "I wish the old regime were still in place. Anything is better than this. Whatever you do, you come up against de-Baathification."

The most high-profile politician on Mr Chalabi's list of banned candidates is Saleh al-Mutlaq.

Although the list straddles the sectarian divide, Mr al-Mutlaq sees the ban as an attempt to keep the Sunnis from power.

"They can exclude 100, 1,000, 10,000, but they cannot exclude millions of Iraqis."

He believes the bans are motivated by revenge for the years during which Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, ruled over the Shia majority.

In Baghdad, workmen have been tearing down one of the few remaining monuments to the Baath Party in the capital - a giant structure of concrete and steel, rapidly being reduced to rubble.

But purging Iraq of Saddam Hussein's legacy will be a much longer and more painful process, as he continues to cast his divisive shadow over these elections and beyond.

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