Tags: envoy | US | mistakes | Iraq

U.S. Envoy Slams American 'Mistakes' in Iraq

Monday, 01 February 2010 11:12 AM

BAGHDAD - The US ambassador to Baghdad said on Monday the original process used to erase the influence of people linked to Saddam Hussein was misguided and has cast a shadow over Iraq's March 7 general election.

Christopher Hill told AFP in an interview that de-Baathification, which saw tens of thousands of Saddam-era employees sacked and forbidden from re-entering politics and public life after the American-led invasion in 2003, was flawed.

"I don't think there is any person alive who would say that mistakes were not made early on," said Hill, referring to the controversial steps taken by Paul Bremer, the Washington diplomat who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established after the dictator's ouster.

Bremer's de-Baathification order was passed on May 16, 2003, the same day the CPA was formed.

It remains a problem almost seven years later, ahead of next month's election, the war-torn country's second post-Saddam national ballot, Hill said.

"We knew de-Baathification was going to be an issue. The process engages very deep emotions among Iraqis... and is very much an ongoing concern," he said five weeks ahead of polling day.

The CPA's actions failed to acknowledge that many Iraqi teachers, health workers, police and other civil servants joined the Baath party because membership was mandatory to obtain promotion in the public sector.

The purge was blamed for breeding chaos and instability, which the CPA and US military failed to control after the invasion.

Hill, who has been in Baghdad since April 2009, also criticised the process that led to Ahmed Chalabi, a Shiite politician who provided since discredited intelligence used by George W. Bush and his allies to justify the invasion, being put in charge of the CPA's de-Baathification council.

"Some of the decisions made at that time by people who are not Iraqis, such as the decision to name the members of the de-Baathification commission, were probably not the wisest of decisions," said Hill.

The de-Baathification council was replaced in 2008 by an integrity and accountability committee, which has the same purpose.

It is now headed by Ali al-Allami -- a key Chalabi ally, who was held in a US jail having been accused of links to extremist groups in Iran, and whom Hill also criticised.

"We weren't giving the guy a vacation," Hill said of Allami's year-long detention. "He was there for a reason."

Allami's committee has banned 500 candidates accused of links to Saddam's Sunni Arab former elite from taking part in next month's election. The decision could see Sunnis -- who boycotted the last general election in December 2005 -- excluded from the political arena once again.

Hill, however, said he was confident a judicial panel asked to investigate the individuals barred from the election could resolve the issue, and he acknowledged that de-Baathification still had a place in Iraqi society.

"The problem is whether they have a sufficiently transparent, open mechanism for dealing with it," he said. "And I think the jury is still out on that."

The row and subsequent stalemate over the blacklist has also triggered suggestions that US influence in Baghdad is on the slide ahead of a pullout of American combat troops in August and a complete military withdrawal in 2011.

Hill said this was not the case.

"If anything our leverage has increased," he said. "It is easier to express yourself to the Iraqis as a respectful foreign diplomat than as an occupier."

The ambassador noted that international oil majors signed massive production contracts in Iraq last year, securing billions of dollars for Baghdad, despite the lack of a hydrocarbon law, much touted but never delivered under former president Bush's administration.

"If leverage was so robust in the past why did key objectives like the hydrocarbon law never get done? It was a major objective, discussed constantly at very senior levels of the US government," but it never materialised.

The role of Iran in Iraqi politics also remains a significant concern for Washington, Hill said.

"It would seem to me that Iranian engagement in Iraq of late has been unhappily rather negative. I don't think Iran, whatever they do on a daily basis through various malevolent means, really offers Iraq much of a future."

The March general election is seen as crucial to maintaining the US military's timeline for withdrawal.

There are currently 107,000 American soldiers in Iraq, but this will fall to 50,000 when combat troops leave in August. General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, has said the scheduled drawdown remains flexible between now and the summer.

Hill, echoing Odierno's concerns about post-election violence, cautioned all of the country's political parties to respect the outcome.

"No one is planning on losing the elections but those who do lose need to understand that they have a tremendous responsibility, in some respects as great as those who win," he said.

"Iraqi politicians all need to understand they have a responsibility to try to keep tempers low."

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Monday, 01 February 2010 11:12 AM
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