Sitting beneath a blackboard in the sports department of Baghdad University, Abdul Karim al-Khafaji spoke boldly of a new Iraq, a nation built on forgiveness and reconciliation. On the tiers of seats before him sat a reluctant audience: around 100 middle-aged men and women, all senior members of the Baath Party and all forced out of their jobs after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.
They were halfway through a monthlong "reeducation" course organized for senior members of the party by Iraq's Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification. Once they have attended the eight lectures and signed papers renouncing the party, they will be given a letter of recommendation and some will have the chance to return to their jobs. Most of those present at this first course were senior schoolteachers or officials in the Education Ministry.
"We ask you to put your hands together with our hands," Khafaji told his audience. "We are not here to fight you or cut off your source of income. Our purpose to is build Iraq by cooperation between every single Iraqi who wants to help. You are educational people; we cannot just dismiss you."
Several in the crowd nodded silently in assent, encouraged by his words. Then another official, Yassin Khudair, began to speak -- in a lecture, he said, about "rewriting history."
"We have to write a clean history," he said. "Not like before. What happened is that the former regime faked all the history. They marginalized facts; there were a lot of mistakes."
He talked of attacks on the Kurds, the repression of the Shiites, the invasion of Kuwait, the war against Iran, and even went as far back as a coup in 1941, which he said the former regime described favorably as a "revolution." That was wrong, he said. "It was a Nazi coup." It was this point in particular that left his audience stunned; several were furious.
History tells a slightly more nuanced story. The coup of 1941 was led by Rashid Ali al-Gailani, the then prime minister, against the British-backed royal regent, Abd al-Ilah. Gailani had indeed become increasingly associated with the Axis powers and at one stage some weapons and aircraft were sent by Germany and Italy to Mosul, in northern Iraq, but this was the limit of any Nazi support for the coup leaders. Within two months the coup was over and the British military had retaken power in the capital.
Saddam's government had painted the event as a proud moment of Arab nationalism in an Iraq slowly breaking free from colonial and monarchical rule.
"This is the first time I have heard these people were Nazis," shouted one man in the audience. "My father died believing the 1941 revolution was led by nationalists. Is this not right?"
"I know you don't agree, but if you look in the history books or go to Europe you will find the real facts," Khudair replied.
"How can you describe nationalism as Nazism? How can you prove it to us?" shouted another man from the audience, Muthanna Ibrahim. "You are criticizing the former regime for rewriting history but you are doing the same. I hope you are not being too hasty."
"I insist. These people had tangible links with the Nazis. Their ideology was a Nazi ideology. These are the facts."
The debate ended without any resolution. But many in the audience later made clear that their belief in the Baath Party, and the Arab nationalist ideology on which it was founded, had not wavered. Many of them are scared by the idea of de-Baathification, a tame translation for the Arabic word ijtitath, which means "uprooting" and carries connotations of elimination. Many Baathists have been assassinated since the war, though there has not been the widespread bloodletting that some predicted.
The question of what to do with Iraq's Baath Party dogged the U.S. occupation authorities and the Iraqi government that replaced them. Soon after the war a comprehensive de-Baathification policy was announced under which around 30,000 senior Baath members in the government and the military would be permanently excluded from their jobs.
It was an ideological pillar of the occupation, championed by Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon-favored exile. But within a year, as Chalabi's influence began to wane, Paul Bremer, America's proconsul, decided the policy was seriously flawed; he began to make overtures to some Baathists, particularly teachers and senior army officers.
Since July, Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister who was himself once a Baath member, has tried again to bring many Baathists back into government. Yet a genuine reconciliation within Iraqi society still seems years off; hatred and frustration simmer too close to the surface.
"I find this very difficult," said Ibrahim, 61, one of those who questioned the account of the 1941 coup. "This course is an attack, an ideological attack. They want to remove from our memory what we believed in for more than 40 years. In Iraq there were 5 million Baathists. Are all these people wrong?" After the war, Ibrahim returned to his job as an advisor in the education department in eastern Baghdad, but 10 days later he was sacked. He said he has not been offered work since.
Mohammad Hassan Hamid, 40, joined the Baath Party at age 12 and went on to become a senior member and a school headmaster. When the new school term began in September last year he was sacked. Now he has been promised a teaching job in another school if he completes the course, but he will never be allowed to become a headmaster again.
"We were a one-party state for more than 35 years. It was a stream, and if you sailed against the current you could get killed," he said. "I believed in the Baath. It was something brilliant: socialism, development, power out of unity. Now I fear forgiveness is not possible. The problem is not from our side, but from their side. No one is respecting our rights."