February 15, 2010 / 8:03 AM / 10 years ago

Anti-Saddam purge both woos and worries Iraq voters

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Government rhetoric against Saddam Hussein’s Baath party will woo some Iraqi Shi’ite voters ahead of an election, but many people feel uneasy about a return to the sectarian politics that has spilled so much blood.

A mural painting of a portrait of Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein with his face damaged is seen in the southern Iraqi city of Basra October 18, 2005. REUTERS/Stringer

In the sprawling Shi’ite slum of Sadr City in northern Baghdad, a panel’s move to ban scores of candidates for alleged Baathist links is the talk of the town in teahouses where men smoke Arabic water pipes and argue over sugary glasses of tea.

Many feel the candidate ban and vows by Shi’ite parties including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa to purge the civil service of Baathists is sweet revenge for Saddam’s brutal rule and oppression of the Shi’ite majority and minority Kurds.

“I would rather elect the devil than a Baathist,” said factory owner Ahmed Hanoon, 40, whose older brother was killed by Saddam’s government during a Shi’ite uprising. “They showed no mercy to the people and made us afraid of each other.”

Abdul Karim Hussain, 50, a Sadr City shop owner, said the decision to exclude alleged Baath party sympathizers from the March 7 parliamentary vote was the right one because the party destroyed Iraq through wars and killed thousands of Iraqis.

“The return of Baathists to power would be disappointing because they will take revenge and their revenge will be very severe,” Hussain said.

In the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf, laborer Hussain Kadhim, 38, said he was stunned at how “brazen” Baath loyalists were.

“They used to kill for no reason and now they want to be legislators. Baathists should be removed, we don’t want the Baathists to have their knives at our throats again,” he said.

Yet many Iraqi Shi’ites are also concerned that campaign rhetoric against Baathists could spark sectarian tensions and tip the country back into violence between Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam and majority Shi’ites.

SECURITY GAINS FRAGILE

While major attacks by Sunni insurgents like al Qaeda continue, the broader sectarian slaughter that killed thousands after the 2003 U.S. invasion has given way to a fragile peace.

The Iraqi Baath party, originally founded in Syria to promote pan-Arab nationalism, included Shi’ites but was mainly led by Sunnis. The candidate ban, in particular, is viewed by Sunnis as an attempt to deny them a fair share of power.

Some Shi’ite voters also view the government’s rhetoric against Baathists as an obvious attempt to divert attention from rampant corruption, shoddy public services and continuing attacks that have undermined confidence in the police and army.

“It is a despicable decision. They are doing this because they failed to provide security and services and have become obsessed with stealing. They know that the Iraqi people will not vote for them again,” said federal employee Bilal Ouda, 44.

“After this decision I do not think Iraq will stabilize and we will not see national reconciliation.”

Some said they would not be surprised if Iraq under Shi’ite leadership ended up aping Saddam-style discriminatory politics.

“Shi’ite parties will not hand over power to another side because it is a dream of theirs that has become reality,” said Ammar Abdel Nabi, 21, a Sadr City student.

“They will do anything, whether legal or illegal, to win the election because they consider it their right to rule the country as the majority. This will return Iraq to the law of the jungle, to fighting and survival of the strongest.”

Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul

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