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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Between 15,000 and 30,000 Baath Party officials will be banned entirely from any future Iraqi government, a senior U.S. official said Friday. He said the move will eliminate Saddam Hussein's party and "put a stake in its heart."
The official from the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the move would help Iraq move on from the legacy of Saddam's regime.
"The Baath Party in Iraq is finished," the official said. "We mean to be sure that by this process, we will put a stake in its heart."
Reconstruction officials in Iraq are trying to get the country's ministries and civil service working again, and are struggling to make sure they purge Saddam sympathizers without gutting the entire bureaucracy.
As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam. But only about 25,000 to 50,000 were full-fledged members _ the sort of elite targeted by U.S. officials. Many civil servants could obtain jobs only after making affiliations with the Baath Party.
The official said exceptions would be made in the winnowing process and also said that all but 2,000 of the thousands in question had melted away and were not angling for roles in the new government.
"We are indeed serious. This is an indication of how serious we are," the official said. "It will come out right."
The reconstruction team's purging efforts, which the official said would begin Saturday, come nearly a week after U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the war's commander, told Iraqis that the Baath Party was dissolved.
The ORHA official said Iraq's American overseers would comb through the deposed regime's records, interview suspected Baathists' co-workers and seek testimony to make sure that the government is free of the party's influence.
The official acknowledged the problems such an approach would entail but said they were worth it.
"The de-Baathification will entail some inefficiencies in the running of the government," the official said. "That's the price we're willing to pay in order to extirpate Baathism from Iraqi society."
Any public displays supporting Saddam have also been banned by the U.S. occupying force, the official said, adding that rewards would be offered for the whereabouts of senior party officials.
Many of the upper-level figures in Saddam's regime _ the most-wanted, including the Iraqi leader himself _ are already being pursued after being depicted on a deck of cards designed to familiarize U.S. forces with their faces.
Iraq's Baath Party, dominated by Sunni Muslims in a country that has a Shiite majority, took power briefly in the early 1960s, then ruled Iraq continuously from 1968 until last month _ most of that time under Saddam.
The Baath Party was founded in neighboring Syria in 1943 and spread across the Arab world, promoting Arab superiority and Arab unity with a violent, Soviet-style party structure.
Neighboring Syria is ruled by a rival Baath faction headed by President Bashar Assad.
(Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)