IT IS a political party that presided over some of the most heinous war crimes of the modern age including the gassing of more than 5,000 innocent Kurds, institutionalised torture, murder and rape.
Now the party that acted as the wheels of the repressive regime that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is being invited into the fold, as the US has allowed the former dictator’s Ba’ath party to join the country’s new assembly.
When a national conference of Iraq’s "great and the good" meets later this month to map out the country’s democratic future there will be party members among them who until recently were treated as pariahs by the US-led invasion forces.
In a remarkable U-turn the new Iraqi provisional government will allow the Ba’ath party to take their seats in the 1,000-member assembly.
According to Fouad Masoum, the head of the conference commission, former members of the Ba’ath party will be allowed provided they "don’t have the blood of Iraqis on their hands".
The rebirth of the Ba’ath party, which was anathema to the US-led invasion force, has been remarkably speedy.
During the allied invasion the coalition forces targeted meetings of Ba’ath party members, killing hundreds of them on the basis that all were criminals.
Now the party is making a comeback with the help of the new interim government and the blessing of the coalition forces.
However, the new Iraqi government’s softer stance towards Ba’athists is being accompanied by sweeping new emergency powers to declare martial law, impose curfews and freeze the assets of suspected insurgents.
The new laws, unveiled last week by Allawi, have already been denounced by Shiite and Sunni clerics, as "the opposite of democracy". But with a reported three-month ceasefire declared by Osama bin Laden due to end on Wednesday, there is anxiety within the new Iraqi government that al-Qaeda, which has continued its acts of violence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia despite the ceasefire, may try to mark the occasion with one of its "spectaculars".
The emergency laws are also being accompanied by an amnesty offer, although this will not apply to anyone "responsible for killing or raping Iraqis", a reference to Islamic militants and foreign fighters.
Iraq’s transitional administrative law stipulates that such a conference must be held before the end of July. It will choose 100 members of an interim council that will have the right to question interim Prime Minister Alya Allawi and members of his Cabinet, to oppose Cabinet decisions and endorse the national budget.
Allawi, himself a former Ba’ath party official who worked from abroad against Saddam, is trying to strike a balance. The Iraqi government wants to make a distinction between insurgents who fought to rid their country of a foreign occupier and militants who want to sow religious discord and chaos.
After Saddam was deposed, one of the first orders signed by the new US administrator Paul Bremer was to "de-Ba’athify" Iraq. The decision resulted in 60,000 Iraqis being sacked from government jobs, among them 10,000 much needed school teachers and medical staff.
Those sacked included thousands of qualified Iraqis who had no choice under Saddam but to enrol in the Ba’ath party to secure a livelihood. Now not only were they unable to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction effort, many were turned against the coalition.
Even worse, was the disastrous decision to send home all 400,000 members of the Iraqi armed forces on the grounds that they had been the essential tool of maintaining the Ba’athist supremacy.
Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessments, said this was "obviously not a recipe for stability" adding that it led to the looting and violence which still continue.
The first sign of a U-turn came in April when the CPA decided to clear thousands of party members to take up their teaching jobs again, and even began to use armed Ba’athists to fight insurgents in some parts of the country.
Before he left Baghdad on the day of the hand over Bremer ordered the reinstatement of many Ba’athists in their jobs.
Allawi plans to go further and invite back to active service entire units from Saddam’s army to fight the insurgency and capture terrorists.
"We understand how security works here," said Imad al-Shibib, a senior adviser to Allawi. "We’re going to get the country on the right course."
Last month Iraq’s National de-Ba’athification Committee said that it had "accepted the request for certain sections of the Ba’ath party to be reintegrated into public office and in business and the state".
It announced that it had reinstated 12,000 Ba’athists who had appealed against being sacked.
The De-Ba’athification Committee was set up by Ahmad Chalabi, the influential Iraqi exile who became the Pentagon’s favourite. The softer stance on former Ba’ath party members follows Chalabi’s downfall amid a swirl of allegations that he had handed American espionage secrets to Iran.
Chalabi has already denounced the move, comparing it to bringing back the Nazis after the Second World War.
But Allawi is known to be a sharp critic of de-Ba’athification. In his first direct address to the Iraqi people he said: "We must affirm the need to try criminals in courts to be punished for the injustice they committed and to allow the Ba’athists who did not violate the law to live in dignity and as part of the community."
The same line was followed by Iraq’s new ambassador to Washington, Rend al-Rahim Francke, who said on her arrival that members of the Ba’ath party should be welcomed even though "they may not be perfect democrats".
She added: "I do not mean a sell-out to the Ba’athists or to hard-liners in any way, but it is simply that in this stage more people have to feel that they have a stake in the new Iraq."
Last week the Saudi newspaper Asharq al Awsat commented: "It seems that the most prominent achievement of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Iraq has been to liberate the Ba’ath party from Saddam Hussein more than to liberate Iraq itself from Saddam Hussein."