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A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of De-Baathification in Iraq

[A demonstration in Basra on 26 January 2013. Image by Abdulkareem Alamiry via] [A demonstration in Basra on 26 January 2013. Image by Abdulkareem Alamiry via]

[The following report was issued by the International Center for Transitional Justice on 4 March 2013.]

A Bitter Legacy: Lessons of De-Baathification in Iraq

Executive Summary

The dramatic collapse of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has raised many important policy and justice questions. One key question is how to deal with former regimes’ security and government apparatuses. The National Democratic Party in Egypt and the Constitutional Rally party in Tunisia were disbanded by the courts. As of late 2012, people in these countries are calling for more to be done—including cleansing remaining members of the old guard from the government and the state.

Iraq’s de-Baathification process is the most current example of large-scale, politically based dismissals in the MENA region. Yet factual information about de-Baathification is scarce, with good reason. From its inception in 2003, de-Baathification was a deeply flawed process. Ineffective and incoherent, it polarized Iraqi politics and contributed to severe instability in the Iraqi military and government—not just in the first flush of regime change, but extending as far as the parliamentary elections of 2010, some seven years later.

This report summarizes the structure and impact of de-Baathification from 2003 to 2011. It gives unique insight into de-Baathification’s goals, framework, impact, and problems. It includes a focused look at de-Baathification in Iraq’s Ministry of Finance from 2003 to 2006 and summarizes seven key lessons for policy makers in other countries.

The report is based on significant field research done between 2003 and 2009, plus research done outside of Iraq in 2011 and 2012. Research included unprecedented access to staff and materials at the Higher National de-Ba’athification Commission (HNDC). The study’s authors have gone to great lengths to obtain and verify the information published in this report. Iraq’s intense political and physical conflict, however, means that many frustrating gaps exist. Nonetheless, this is a uniquely detailed resource for all those who wish to understand what happened with de-Baathification and why.

What are the lessons of Iraq’s unhappy experiment? Based on our research and the experiences of modern vetting programs, ICTJ believes the lessons of de-Baathification are:

  1. Design a vetting program, not a purge. De-Baathification dismissed people based on rank, not behavior, and this created serious problems. Establish clear criteria to use when vetting, and be certain that your vetting procedure meets basic due process standards. If it does not, you risk creating an incoherent, ineffective, and unnecessarily controversial program.
  2. Know your target. Without accurate data, your program risks being impractical and ineffective. It could also create severe capacity problems. If you don’t have such data, pursue a more limited initiative while you gather the information you need.
  3. Set clear, realistic objectives. A vetting program is a tool that uses certain criteria to assess a person’s suitability to be a government employee. The program cannot by itself reform the public sector or deliver justice to victims. Be mindful of any capacity problems and, where possible, take steps to mitigate them.
  4. Don’t create a monster. The framework, powers, and oversight of any vetting program should be defined clearly, and it should be carried out for a limited period of time. Be sure the leadership broadly represents the makeup of your country’s population and is insulated from electoral politics.
  5. Consult and educate. Do not create a program without consulting the people who it  is meant to serve. Their ideas and knowledge may dif er from your preconceptions or may vary strongly among dif erent groups.
  6. Look to the future. Design a program with criteria that can help protect against future abuse: think about promotion, recruitment, and other procedures, not just dismissals. If practical, use your experience in the program to develop ideas for future reforms.
  7. Observe basic standards of fairness. This is strongly related to the first lesson. Fairness is not just a legal issue—it protects a vetting program from political manipulation and increases public confidence. Vetting programs are always controversial. By adhering to administrative due process standards (which are simpler than judicial standards), you can minimize needless controversy and focus on your program goals.

As of 2012, de-Baathification’s political heat had lessened, the result of both new political alliances and the death of a leading de-Baathification advocate. Reforms initiated in 2008 had yet to fully take hold. After nine years of controversy and bitterness, the de-Baathification story has not yet finished; we are likely to witness new chapters unfold. One of the only consolations of Iraq’s experience is that it may enable policy makers in other MENA countries to make wiser, better choices. We hope that is the case.

[Click here to download the full report.] 

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