Maj. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi, a former official in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, became the commander of the Iraqi National Police despite a 2003 law barring the party from government.
But now, under new legislation promoted as way to return former Baathists to public life, the 56-year-old and thousands like him could be forced out of jobs they have been allowed to hold, according to Iraqi lawmakers and the government agency that oversees ex-Baathists.
"This new law is very confusing," Awadi said. "I don't really know what it means for me."
He is not alone. More than a dozen Iraqi lawmakers, U.S. officials and former Baathists here and in exile expressed concern in interviews that the law could set off a new purge of ex-Baathists, the opposite of U.S. hopes for the legislation.
Approved by parliament this month under pressure from U.S. officials, the law was heralded by President Bush and Iraqi leaders as a way to soothe the deep anger of many ex-Baathists -- primarily Sunnis but also many Shiites such as Awadi -- toward the Shiite-led government.
Yet U.S. officials and even legislators who voted for the measure, which still requires approval by Iraq's presidency council, acknowledge that its impact is hard to assess from its text and will depend on how it is implemented. Some say the law's primary aim is not to return ex-Baathists to work, but to recognize and compensate those harmed by the party. Of the law's eight stated justifications, none mentions reinstating ex-Baathists to their jobs.
"The law is about as clear as mud," said one U.S. senior diplomat.
The confusion has been compounded because the information on former party members comes from the de-Baathification commission headed by Ahmed Chalabi, the former deputy prime minister who as an Iraqi exile sought to convince U.S. officials that Hussein's government had weapons of mass destruction. In light of the absence of such weapons, many Iraqi and U.S. officials are suspicious of his commission's statistics.
In an interview at his lavish home in the Mansour district, Chalabi said the new legislation would drive out some of the former Baathists his commission had allowed to return to government. The new measure, he said, is much harsher than the existing policy and a draft of the law that the United States had encouraged parliament to pass.
"Put this under the category of: Be careful what you wish for," Chalabi said.
'This law is bait'
The new law was supposed to ease the homeward passage of former Baathists such as Muhammed Kareem.
After 35 years as a civil servant in the Oil Ministry, Kareem fled his home in Basra after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Four fellow Baathists from the ministry in Basra had turned up dead. Searching for him, militiamen had ransacked Kareem's house.
Kareem, 53, and his family moved to Amman, Jordan, where they live in a sparsely furnished basement apartment. He has one abiding wish: to return to Iraq. But sitting at his kitchen table last week, flipping through a draft of the law, he was despondent.
"This is a bomb on the road of reconciliation," said Kareem, a former director general in the ministry. "This law does not bring anything new. This does not serve national reconciliation that all Iraqis are hoping for. On the contrary, it envisions hostility, hatred, discrimination and sectarian strife."
Kareem, along with other Baathists who were purged from their jobs after the invasion, argues that the law typifies the animosity that Iraq's Shiite-led government has for the bureaucrats of Hussein's regime. They say the climate is nowhere near safe enough for them to identify themselves to the government as former Baathists.
Kareem, who was a senior Baath Party member, said the new law does grant him the right to a pension, which would greatly benefit his family. He has not had a steady salary in five years, and has been living off the charity of friends and relatives, but said he would not attempt to claim the pension.
"This law is bait," he said. "I have to go back to Basra and apply for the pension through several measures. If I get killed, nobody will know who did it."
Kareem and other former Baathists advocate nullifying the law and the concept of de-Baathification in general. They say it discriminates against their political party at a time when other parties have also been associated with militias, death squads and major crimes. Trying to abolish an ideology and outlaw a political party seems to him both impossible and undemocratic.
"Aren't I the son of an Iraqi? Aren't I an Iraqi myself? Don't I have the right to live in Iraq?" he added. "This law is a punishment not only to the Baathists but to his sons and grandsons. So where is the justice in it?"
The Shiite-Sunni divide
The very first decree of the U.S.-led occupation government was to disband the Baath Party and purge its members from the government. Issued May 16, 2003, Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 1 also banned the top four ranks of the Baath Party from public-sector jobs.
U.S. officials believed the order would remove about 20,000 Baathists, or 1 percent of the 2 million people in Iraq said to be party members, according to L. Paul Bremer, then the occupation administrator.
In an interview, Bremer said the decree was meant to retain the core of the bureaucracy and allow those who joined the party out of necessity during Hussein's rule to keep their jobs. Because it was difficult for non-Iraqis to discern who was or was not a true believer, Bremer said, he hastened to turn the implementation over to the Iraqis on the appointed Governing Council. "And there I made my mistake," Bremer said.
He blamed the Iraqi politicians who oversaw the de-Baathification process in mid-2003 for going beyond the intention of the order and purging thousands of additional people, including about 11,000 teachers.
The Iraqis tell a different story. According to Ali Faisal al-Lami, executive director of the de-Baathification commission, Bremer's order pushed 140,000 Iraqis out of their jobs. In addition to banning all members of the top four ranks of the party, it also forced out the senior government managers who belonged to the next two levels of the party.
When the de-Baathification commission started work in January 2004, it decided that Bremer's original order had gone too far, Lami said. He said the commission immediately allowed all ex-Baathists from the two lower levels to return to government, a group that included 102,000 people.
That left 38,000 ex-Baathists who were banned from government and whose status the commission would consider, Lami said. Most of them, about 32,000, belonged to the fourth level and held a rank of division member, or firqah, Lami said. The commission allowed all division members to apply to return to government and, over the four-year history of the commission, about half were reinstated, Chalabi and Lami said.
Only 170 applications from division members were rejected, Chalabi said.
But many Sunnis and Western diplomats question those statistics and accuse Chalabi, a secular Shiite, of treating fellow Shiites more favorably than Sunnis.
"They gave exceptions only for one side," said Khalaf al-Elayan, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that represents many ex-Baathists. "If you were a Shia Baathist, you could return. If you were a Sunni Baathist, you could not."
Western diplomats agreed. "Chalabi has implemented the law in an extremely partisan fashion," said one diplomat, who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending Iraqi officials.
Awadi, the police commander and a Shiite, said he took up his post two years ago at the request of the Interior Ministry, which told him that he had been granted a waiver by the de-Baathification commission.
The commission says he was a division member, based on his confidential case file. Awadi said he was a lower-level member.
Chalabi said that his commission has applied the law equally to Sunni and Shiites and that the agency does not maintain statistics on the sect of applicants. "We saved the lives of many Sunnis by helping them to come back to government," he said.
Abu Saif, a Sunni ex-Baathist division member who spoke on condition that only his nickname be used, said he applied to the commission 15 months ago to return to his job as a brigadier general at the Defense Ministry. The 55-year-old resident of the capital's Dora district lost his job after Bremer's original order and has been unemployed for most of the years since.
Abu Saif said he has yet to receive any response from the commission. "I think they are filled with corruption and sectarianism," he said. He plans to reapply under the new law and hopes he can return to his $17,000-a-year job. Still, he is wary.
"I can't give my opinion about the law right now until the government implements it," he said. "We will wait. . . . We will see."
Exclusion from key ministries
U.S. officials strongly encouraged the approval of a law dealing with former Baathists and circulated a draft bill to politicians, according to Falah Hassan Shanshal, chairman of the parliament's De-Baathification Committee, and other lawmakers.
But unlike the draft, the legislation approved by parliament Jan. 12 would restrict division members from working in a host of government agencies, including the Defense, Interior, Foreign and Finance ministries. Since scores of division members -- at least 7,000, according to the de-Baathification commission -- occupy jobs in those ministries, that means the new law could purge them from their current positions.
"The new law is much harsher than what the Americans wanted," Chalabi said.
U.S. officials say they believe the law is likely to result in more ex-Baathists returning to government and hope none will be removed. But they recognize that the outcome depends on implementation, which will be overseen largely by a seven-member commission nominated by the Iraqi cabinet and confirmed by parliament.
"Will they name people who are liberal and nonpartisan, or is it going to be perceived as in the control of the people who have an agenda to purge Sunni Arab influence?" said a senior U.S. official. "That's the first thing people will look at."
Shanshal, head of parliament's De-Baathification Committee, said he wasn't sure how many former party members would be affected by the law, and whether more ex-Baathists would be forced out of government. But he said he did not understand why Americans are so focused on that question.
"Why is the United States not asking about the victims of the Baath Party?" said Shanshal, a member of the Shiite party led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "I don't understand why you are so interested in the executioners and forget about the victims of Saddam and his bloody regime."
Partlow reported from Amman and Baghdad. Special correspondents Yasmine Mousa in Amman and Zaid Sabah, K.I. Ibrahim, Saad al-Izzi and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.